Three years ago, September Gray quietly opened her eponymous gallery in the Old Fourth Ward neighborhood of Atlanta. Hers is one of the city’s premier art galleries showing African American art, and a move to the Tula Arts Center in Buckhead could bring even greater success.
Gray received an art history degree from DePaul University in Chicago, but decided that she didn’t want to jump into a curatorial role right away. She began her career as an art consultant, and soon began organizing pop-up shows, eventually moving to Atlanta. The artists she worked with and met through those events encouraged Gray to open a gallery, but she was wary of turning her passion for art into a full-time career. But when the owner of a hair salon in a building on John Wesley Dobbs decided to close up shop, Gray took the opportunity to launch her first gallery.
Located in a street-level space in a mixed-use building, near Condesa Coffee, the gallery’s commercial storefront windows gave passersby full view of the art inside, but foot traffic wasn’t heavy enough, and it is difficult to turn passersby into buyers. Though located near the bustling intersection of Boulevard and Freedom Parkway, the gallery’s less traveled street didn’t offer a lot of drive-by traffic either.
Gray’s new location is an interior space of the Tula Art Center, but one with more foot traffic nonetheless. Gray wants to be more visible to people actively looking to buy and collect art. The new gallery is in the building that houses the Museum of Contemporary Art of Georgia, along with other gallery spaces and art studios. The gallery is scheduled to be open by appointment only, but Gray anticipates more foot traffic and visits from dedicated collectors. The space may not have a street presence, but large windows make distant viewing possible. More and better parking is an added amenity.
“You get to see what people gravitate towards— everybody gravitates to a different artist,” says Gray about selling art. “You never know what they’re going to like— I really enjoy that part.” She enjoys helping collectors select works that look best in their homes, and will sometimes bring different artworks to a collector’s home two or three times before a decision is made. “That’s the fun part I love,” she says. “I’m very passionate about African American fine art. There aren’t enough people who are. I get to determine who I can help and create that niche and make sure the work is being shown and that people acknowledge it as fine art.”
Gray and her husband are avid art collectors. They own art by most of the artists she shows in the gallery. One such artist is Kevin Cole, an established sculptor who is represented by Gray in Atlanta and Chicago. They met in 2011, when Cole was working in Chicago, and within a year Gray had sold almost $18,000’s worth of his artwork. He fondly recalls the days when the National Black Arts Festival offered more exhibition opportunities and brought African Americans from around the country to partake in Atlanta’s arts scene. He believes Gray’s relocation to Buckhead is a “wise move because of its proximity to MOCA GA. It’s a high-profile place,” he says.
For the last exhibition in the Old Fourth Ward, optimistically titled “The Vernissage,” the French word for an exhibition opening, Gray selected works by her artists that reflect the mission of the gallery, which is “to present art and ideas to reflect a visual consciousness of the time that we live in.” Glass collages by Lillian Blades suggest memory and loss, while Cole’s paintings of neckties are a reference to his grandfather’s stories of black men being lynched by their neckties for going to vote.
“My audience is an art-appreciative audience who wants to be engaged and educated about art. They’re coming in for an experience, not just to look or say I’m hanging out at this gallery,” says Gray. “People begin to talk freely, and it’s not a stance of good or bad or difference. They talk about global issues … Even if they don’t buy it or can’t afford to buy it, they can appreciate the work that goes into it.”
Gray’s move from the Old Fourth Ward to Buckhead is bittersweet. Although she wishes she could keep both locations open—and did for a few months during the transition—the Atlanta art market is soft. Gray hopes to keep the momentum and the dialogue going in the new location. Up next is Alfred Conteh’s “Two Fronts: Surface & Reason,” which will be on view January 27 through March 3.
Shantay Robinson earned her MFA in Writing from the Savannah College of Art and Design. She has written artist profiles for AFROPUNK and Urban Lux Magazine, and was a participant in the first cycle of BURNAWAY’s Art Writers Mentorship Program.