Alaina Simone has been championing black artists and art professionals ever 2004, when she got her first job in the art world at 555 Gallery and Studio in Detroit. In 2006, she moved to New York, where she began building a career as a gallerist, consultant and curator. Since then, career highlights have included staging exhibitions of works by artists such as Howardena Pindell and Herbert Gentry, directing the Merton Simpson Gallery of Traditional and Contemporary Art, founding the Verbier 3-D Sculpture Park and Residency in Switzerland, and organizing Take FIVE, a performance and installation exhibition series that was inaugurated in St. Croix in 2016.
Most recently Simone founded a production company, Alaina Simone Productions LLC, which pairs artists with brands and galleries. For example, in 2019, the production company organized an installation by Tahir Carl Karmali and Tariku Shiferaw at David Zwirner Gallery in New York for the Volta art fair.Recommended For You
“I’m from a generation where there weren’t many black-owned galleries, and the few black artists that were getting attention didn’t have spaces to show their work,” she told me. Born in Flint, Michigan, Simone was raised by parents who made a point to imbue her with culture. Her father was a wonderful artist, but didn’t make a living that way — instead, he was a carpenter who built houses.
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Over the years, Simone has made it her mission to elevate black voices in the art world—not only those of artists, but also art world professionals. “I want people to widen the lens a little bit,” she says. “Sometimes what I see represented is the same thing or person over and over. It’s important to add to that breadth of knowledge.”
In particular, she told me, many black women working within the art world have never gotten the attention they deserve. For this piece, I asked her to share their names with me. Below, are the top five black women Simone says you should keep your eye on, because they’re shaping the future of art and culture in America.
Jennifer Francis, Gallerist/Marketing Director
The former director of marketing, communications and visitor services at the Louvre Abu Dhabi, Jennifer Francis was also the executive director of marketing and communications at the Philadelphia Museum of Art and the head of press and marketing at the Royal Academy of Arts in London. She is currently the head of global operations at Flowers Gallery in London.
From Simone: “I met Jennifer Francis in London in 2010 through an artist that I work with, Ben Jones, while she was at the Royal College of Art. She moved to Philadelphia and worked at the Philadelphia Museum of Art for a few years. Jennifer is a master marketer who understands everything from patrons relations to audience development, which incorporates education and exhibition design. She’s a powerhouse and a wealth of knowledge.”
Ashley Harris, Art Consultant
The former marketing director at Sotheby’s, Ashley Harris is currently the executive director of the Independent art fair, which had its most recent iteration in March, right before COVID-19 lockdowns spread across the United States. She is one of the first black women to head a major international art fair.
From Simone: “It’s refreshing to speak to Ashley. She has new perspectives on the market, and she went to Spelman College. My brothers went to Morehouse, and I went to Hampton University. My dad went to Alabama A & M, and my mother went to Tennessee State. I love championing art professionals from historically black colleges and universities.”
Dr. Earnestine Jenkins, Art Historian
A professor of art history at the University of Memphis, where she focuses especially on cultural exchange spurred by the African diaspora, Dr. Earnestine Jenkins recently established a graduate concentration on Arts of Africa and the African Diaspora.
From Simone: “My mother is from Memphis, and I met Dr. Jenkins while visiting my family during Christmas. I researched scholars in Memphis, and called Dr. Jenkins for tea on Beale Street. I was beyond impressed with Dr. Jenkins’ knowledge across the diaspora. She’s busy but normally always available.”
Alitash Kebede, Art Dealer
Known for championing the work of Al Loving, Ed Clark, Emilio Cruz, Herbert Gentry, Richard Mayhew and Nanette Carter, among other artists, Alitash Kebede was the long-time proprietor of a gallery in Los Angeles. Currently, her consultancy business manages collections and appraisal services for corporate and private clients, and organizes exhibitions that travel to museums across the United States and throughout the world.
From Simone: “Alitash Kebede had one of the first auctions at Christie’s that was centered around her collection of artists of the African diaspora in 2008. She opened my eyes to the movement of art on the market. Since 2008, prices for black artists have soared at auction houses. Alitash was one of the first dealers to represent Kehinde Wiley, among many other art stars.”
Dr. Alvia Wardlaw, Art Historian/Lecturer
Dr. Alvia Wardlaw has a long and storied career. After being the first African American to receive a PhD in art history from the University of Texas at Austin, Dr. Wardlaw went on to organize many historic exhibitions including Black Art Ancestral Legacy: the African Impulse in African American Art, which was shown at the Dallas Museum of Art in 1989, and The Quilts of Gee’s Bend, which was shown at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, in 2002. Currently, Dr. Wardlaw is a professor of art history at Texas Southern University, and the curator of the University Museum.
From Simone: “I met Dr. Wardlaw in 2008 when I was working in a Chelsea art gallery. Dr. Wardlaw casually walked into the gallery with Tina Knowles, and gave an impromptu curatorial walkthrough of the current exhibition on display. I loved her “coolness” and how she nonchalantly helped me sell a couple of pieces by Brazilian artist, Heloissa Pomfret, without batting an eye.”