Photograph by Eley Photo
“I’m truly what they call a unicorn,” says Najee Dorsey, the child of an Arkansas factory worker and contractor, as he surveys Black Art in America, the 4,000-square-foot art gallery–artists studio–gift shop and 8,000-square-foot sculpture garden (tended by garden manager Miss Glenda) that he has created at a former church in East Point. Outside, against an electric-blue backdrop, is a mural by Fabian Williams. Inside, the rotating schedule of exhibitions has included a print show featuring 50 artists, such as Faith Ringgold and Chloe Alexander; a solo show of work by multidisciplinary artist Traci Mims; and, opening in January, an exhibition called Small Works, Big Gems, dedicated to diminutive artworks.
The gallery is intended, says CEO and founder Dorsey, as “a space to document, preserve, and promote African American visual culture.” Dorsey, who is also a self-taught artist represented by Arnika Dawkins Gallery (his photo montage tribute to writer James Baldwin can be seen at Edgewood Avenue’s Marcus Bar and Grille), has made that focus his life’s goal—ever since he opened a gallery in the corner of an Arkansas beauty salon in 1998. In 2010, he launched his magazine, Black Art in America, online and sometimes in print. More recently, he’s launched a foundation and his gallery, and all these projects operate under the BAIA name and mission.
BAIA has four full-time employees, including Faron Manuel, who left a job as Andrew W. Mellon curatorial fellowships program director at the High Museum to work as director of the foundation. The privately funded organization champions Black art with outreach programs for the local community. In just one initiative, BAIA gives out art books and supplies to area schools to spread BAIA’s gospel that art can be empowering and transformative.
Dorsey’s combined business enterprises bring in $900,000 to $1 million annually, including income from sales of the charming figures Dorsey has created that depict Black people—children, mothers, and farmers—in the garden. The garden art has always provided a steady revenue stream. But during Covid it exploded, garnering $300,000 in sales in 2020 alone. The figures share a sensibility with the gallery, of visualizing Black people as creators, as agents in the world.
But the contemporary art world can be notoriously suspicious when it comes to the visible commingling of art and commerce. Even with a 30-year track record, Dorsey is well aware of the conundrum his multipronged industry represents in mixing up fine art and a brisk business in decorative pieces.
“At one point, the ‘criticism’ for us was that we were populist, as if that was a bad thing,” he shrugs. Dorsey points out that the success of the garden art “opens up space for us to showcase the fine art, but we also have space for everyone. So, anyone can come here and find something to connect with.”
“I don’t think that we’ve necessarily been embraced by the elites,” notes Dorsey. Though his gallery is just a 20-minute drive from Midtown, he says, “we have yet to have a curator from the High come through.”
But Dorsey’s unconventional, by-any-means-necessary tactics—making sure Black artists get the attention they deserve—have not gone unnoticed.
Shows at BAIA have been covered by Forbes, the gallery is featured in the Art in America gallery guide, and 500 people showed up to BAIA’s inaugural exhibition in 2023. In December, Dorsey took some of his BAIA artists to the critically acclaimed Scope Art Show in Miami Beach. He is an avid collector of work by artists he represents, including rising stars like Atlantan Gerald Lovell and Khalif Tahir Thompson. Dorsey and his wife, Seteria, donated 15 works by luminaries such as Kerry James Marshall and David C. Driskell to the Columbus Museum in 2020—recognizing the Georgia museum’s support for Dorsey and other Black artists.
Dorsey has seen collectors flying into Atlanta to check out its nationally known artists and institutions, including BAIA. “This is the next wave for what this cultural growth and ecosystem should and can be built on. People will travel nationally and internationally, and Atlanta art can become a beacon for culture and commerce.”
This article appears in our January 2024 issue.
The post Najee Dorsey creates a home for Black artists appeared first on Atlanta Magazine.
Black Art in America, a 4,000-square-foot art gallery–artists studio–gift shop and 8,000-square-foot sculpture garden in East Point, is intended, says CEO and founder Najee Dorsey, as “a space to document, preserve, and promote African American visual culture.” Dorsey, who is also a self-taught artist represented by Arnika Dawkins Gallery, has made that focus his life’s goal—ever since he opened a gallery in the corner of an Arkansas beauty salon in 1998.
The post Najee Dorsey creates a home for Black artists appeared first on Atlanta Magazine. Atlanta Magazine