By Abby Schultz
In early October, the curator, art advisor, artist advocate, and sometime muse, Destinee Ross-Sutton posted on her Instagram feed a portrait of rapper Lil Nas X by the Ghanaian artist Otis Kwame Kye Quaicoe that had just fetched US$137,500 at a Phillips auction in New York.
The final price, with fees, for Quaicoe’s Old Town Boy, 2018—a vividly painted open-shirted image of Lil Nas X posing country-style, thumbs in his belt loops, against a bright orange backdrop—was more than four times a presale low estimate.
The object of Ross-Sutton’s post, however, was Yuval Hanina, director of Hanina Fine Arts in London, who reportedly had bought the work from the artist in 2019. At the time Hanina “ensured Quaicoe it was for his personal collection for his new house,” she wrote.
Calling out “flippers”—collectors who buy works by rising artists only to quickly sell them for a huge profit as their secondary market soars—is trademark Ross-Sutton, who has become a go-to mediator, supporter, and protector of Black artists.
At only age 25, the Harlem, N.Y.-born Ross-Sutton, who has had her portrait painted by artist stars Kehinde Wiley and Amoako Boafo, and whose long, colorful braids inspired a painting by Derrick Adams, represents several artists. She also advises collectors—including television actor Hill Harper in Detroit—on buying works by artists from Africa and the African diaspora. In April, she curated “Black Voices/Black Microcosm,” an acclaimed exhibition of about 30 Black artists at Stockholm’s CFHill Art Space.
Christie’s learned of Ross-Sutton and her advocate streak when Celine Cunha, a postwar and contemporary art specialist, reached out to Eniwaye Oluwaseyi, a Nigerian artist, to ask if he would participate in an exhibition the auction house was planning. Unsure of what Christie’s had in mind, Oluwaseyi directed Cunha to Ross-Sutton, confident she would “know the right questions to ask,” Oluwaseyi says.
Ross-Sutton ended up curating that selling exhibition, titled “Say It Loud, (I’m Black and I’m Proud),” which awarded 100% of sale proceeds to the artists, and included a baseline contract requiring buyers not to auction their purchased work for at least five years.
The sold-out show was a success, although something of a “feeding frenzy,” including “flippers looking for their prey, not knowing that I handled the sales and already know most of them ;),” as Ross-Sutton said in an email. In characteristic confidence she added, “My sales agreements are becoming quite the talk.”
That a 25-year-old could hold such sway in the art world is testament to demand for work by Black artists today, and to Ross-Sutton’s fearless conviction that she can protect the legacies of these artists as she lifts many of them into public consciousness.
Ross-Sutton, who grew up as one of eight children, is driven by her love of art—nurtured at the progressive schools she attended as a child—and by a desire “to do some good in the world.”
Although she studied journalism at Kingsborough Community College in Brooklyn, she began to focus on the arts after a photography class showed her the “power art can have.” As a volunteer at the city’s Museum of Contemporary African Diasporan Art, she found herself offering ideas for how to shape the exhibitions. “I was lucky enough to be heard,” she recalls.
That experience also taught her a lot about how Black artists navigate the art world. “People will try to pay low prices for any artist,” she says. “But it is different with Black artists because of this history of exploitation of Black labor.”
In May 2018, Ross-Sutton co-curated a pop-up show at Frieze New York, exploring how women, especially women of color, are portrayed in the arts. She spent the next year traveling to art fairs, which she chronicled on her Instagram feed.
It was those posts that caught the eye of Michael Elmenbeck, the creative director and head of exhibitions at CFHill in Stockholm. Elmenbeck had been searching for the “perfect partner and curator” to bring a show of Black art to Scandinavia, when he began noticing many artists he was drawn to referenced Ross-Sutton.
“I realized this young person who is a combination of curator, art lover, muse, art advisor, seems to be a positive source of energy for a lot of people,” he says. So he messaged her via Instagram.
Ross-Sutton answered in two seconds. “She lives with her telephone next to her and she never seems to sleep,” Elmenbeck says. Once Ross-Sutton was assured that Elmenbeck was serious—and sought to place works with established collectors new to these artists—she signed on.
When the show was being put together early this year, few of the artists were well known. “Half a year later, 50% of these artists [are] super in demand,” Elmenbeck says.
Less than a year later, Ross-Sutton opened a virtual gallery on VorticXR, is doing pop-up physical exhibitions in different cities and countries, and launched a U.S.-based exhibition titled “Black Voices: Friend of Mind” with works by 30 Black artists on the theme of respite and self-indulgence.
That she is young and moving mountains isn’t shocking to those who work with her. As the Ghanaian artist Oluwaseyi puts it: “Age does not limit our greatness or our voices.”