Art dealer, educator and founder of the N'Namdi Center for Contemporary Art discusses picking the right piece and the newest brood of artists.
On a rainy day just after the new year, we beckon art dealer and gallerist George N’Namdi to Republic Tavern in Detroit. He arrives in his signature wide-brimmed pork pie hat and with a request for coffee – sugar, no cream. For nearly 40 years, he’s been at the helm of the N’Namdi Center for Contemporary Art in Midtown. A doctor of psychology, N’Namdi opened the gallery with the express purpose of introducing the community to art and its ability to inspire, edify and delight. Amidst the deep blues and masculine furniture that evoke the energy of an old-school steakhouse, we discourse on the city’s changing landscape, how he shops art and the newest brood of local creators.
BLAC: When looking at buying a new piece, is it an emotional reaction or a pragmatic decision?
N’Namdi: I’d say it’s a combination. When I collect the local artists, I think it’s very important for me to support them, so that’s one that’s pragmatic. Those artists I started with are now major artists, I mean six, seven figures. Sometimes that’s very emotional for me, because I’ve collected a great deal of art and I like to keep it if I could. But I am kind of emotionally attached; I have to have something there.
B: What separates an interesting piece from a truly special piece?
N: Some things are interesting in that they have a certain immediacy to it, OK? But a piece that kind of connects with me both cerebrally and emotionally, so it’s that combination. It’s something that I get from it in an emotional way but also, it’s the intellect. I appreciate art that expands my intellect, so I think that’s very important. I tend not to do pictures – art that people think of like, “Oh, that reminds me of my Aunt Bessie when we used to go to Mississippi.” Those are more pictorial kinds of things. I mean, I can like those but for me, all art has to be able to operate in the abstraction.
B: Is there anything nontraditional that you consider art?
N: I’m a person that thinks of a lot of things as being art. It’s not fine art, but I like going to a restaurant and I do appreciate a beautiful, pretty plate. Fashion, yes, it can be that, but I think I look for things that have originality to it, whatever it is. Years ago, hair stylists – I think particularly hair stylists of the past – were very art-oriented, but they had no opportunity to be artists. My mother was a hair stylist – back in my day they were called beauticians – but I did think of my own art appreciation coming out of that tradition.
B: How do we change the idea that art is only for the elite?
N: First of all, that’s a misconception. For instance, everyone is welcomed to come to the gallery, they can come to museums. Yes, you may not be able to buy a piece, but it doesn’t mean you can’t go look at a piece. I think that’s very, very important. If we begin to have our children and families start going to the museums – but I would say even the gallery, more importantly. You can go to the museums, but I think it’s real important to go the galleries because galleries change a lot. Museums, you really feel like you’ve been there already. But when it comes to looking at art, most galleries are changing every two to three months. Also, you get things that are more contemporary and approachable, then oftentimes the artist may be in the gallery. You can have more of an impact with people. My children have grown up with art and now they’re all in the art business of some sort.
B: Is there a trending topic or style that you’re seeing with young, emerging artists?
N: A lot of them now are doing art that is a lot more political. I always thought the abstraction was probably the most brilliant thing we could do, because the abstraction showed our African-ness in the art because African art is very abstract. The foundation of it is. So, the young people today, they’re doing more representational or themed type of art. They’re doing that and at the same time they’re pushing the envelope.
B: Is there an artist that you think is one to watch?
N: There’s one artist – he’s figurative – his name is Tylonn Sawyer. He just had a sellout this summer at the gallery, then we took him to the Prizm Art Fair in Miami in December and he sold out there, too. So, that’s a young man that we’re really pushing here in Detroit. He’s pushing something. If I’m going to buy your work, I need you to be doing this 20 years from now. Allie McGhee, he’s one of our senior or master artists here who’s gaining more and more of a national reputation. You want to be beyond Detroit. I’m not dismissing Detroit, but you want your influence and your exposure to be much beyond Detroit.
B: Being black in America affords a unique perspective. How do you think that point of view bleeds into the work of up-and-coming black artists?
N: Most of them are doing things that are dealing with our times. There was an art movement called AfriCOBRA (a black artists’ collective formed in Chicago in 1968). It was always very political artworks, but these artists tended to be a little bit more self-taught. Well the people now, their work is political but they’ve been trained. The way I look at art, it has to work even if you don’t know what it is.
B: How has the landscape of art in Detroit most changed over the years?
N: In the late ‘80s and ‘90s, Detroit was hot. It was a hot place for art, and it had more of an East Coast kind of feel. My big thing with today is that it’s maybe just a little too much corporate … I hate to say this, even foundations. That seems great, it is great, but foundations, they give a lot of grants to artists, but my thing is, you haven’t really helped the artist long-term. The way for her to keep going is to help her have opportunities, say, to sell her work. What about coming up with a concept for galleries? Cities that have galleries also have a lot of artists because now you have places for artists to sell their work. So, you get a grant and then after that you can’t sell your work so you’re getting ready to leave anyway.
B: What’s one piece of advice that you’d give to an aspiring gallerist?
N: Understand what you’re getting into. Most of them are going into it very romantic. I try to tell them it’s not simple, it’s a lot of work. You get a space, you paint the walls white and then the worst thing happens: you open up and then you have a great, successful first show. That’s a death nail, because you think it’s easy. And then the next thing you know, “You know I ain’t sold nothing in a year.” I didn’t do it to immediately make money. I had a little bit of real estate, and I lived on that for a while. It’s long term.
B: What are you most proud of?
N: Sending my children to college, paying their tuition and expenses where they did not need a loan. And I did that being self-employed. That was a hell of a feat. For five years, I had two in there at the same time, and it was like “baby”! I’m kind of proud of my contribution to my city and to the arts in general. I think we’ve made a contribution to this area, and I’m happy and proud of my children who are following it, and they’re following it without being coerced.
B: What’s something that’s left on your bucket list?
N: I’m doing projects on creative place-making, one on Grand River and in the Six Mile area. I want to make those a big area for galleries, residential and commercial. And I want to do a book on my art collection and my history in the art business.
B: What do you hope your legacy will be?
N: I’m always thinking about future generations. I have a granddaughter now. Part of it is family legacy; I want to be able to leave something.