NEW ORLEANS — FOR TWO DECADES, the Central Business District in New Orleans has been home to Stella Jones Gallery. It’s the namesake of a doctor, who turned her passion for collecting African American art into a business that has built longstanding relationships with artists, collectors, and the community.
There are a fledgling number of black-owned art galleries in the United States that specialize in African American fine art. In recent years, more have sprouted up focusing on black contemporary art, but few among the old guard have survived the challenging business. Stella Jones is going strong. A mother of four who conquered two careers, she braved Hurricane Katrina and endured the passing, three years ago, of her husband and partner in the gallery, Harry Jones. She forged ahead with the help of of Beryl Johns, who has been a vital part of the gallery operation from almost the beginning.
To mark the gallery’s 20th anniversary, a special exhibition of 70 works was mounted pairing “legacy” artists—such as Elizabeth Catlett, Richard Hunt, Lois Maliou Jones, Jacob Lawrence, Richard Mayhew, and Faith Ringgold—with contemporary artists, many of them from New Orleans. Continuing the celebration, the gallery is presenting a Samella Lewis exhibition and hosting a conversation between the pioneering artist and Jones on Oct. 1. New Orleans-born Lewis, 92, is an art historian and educator who lives and works in Los Angeles. Lewis encouraged Jones to open the gallery in 1996. “She has sort of been our guiding light,” Jones says.
I visited New Orleans last month and spoke to Jones about the milestone anniversary, her relationships with artists, the gallery business and her various experiences over the years. Jones says she is not a big talker, but it turns out she is a great storyteller.
CULTURE TYPE: I understand you started planning this 20th anniversary exhibition about a year ago?
STELLA JONES: No
Oh. When did you start planning it?
The day I opened the gallery.
Your 20-year exhibition you started planning the day you opened the gallery? Okay. Tell me about that.
Well, this is where I saw myself the day I opened because there were so many naysayers. I knew I could do it. When I told people I was leaving medicine and I was going to open a gallery —and it was going to be a niche gallery because I was only going to represent artists of the diaspora—they said, “It’s not going to work,” and “How do you know you can do it? You have no experience in art.” And I said, “I know I can do it because I am doing it. I trust myself.” And when I opened my doors for the opening, I thought about 20 years from that date. And so here I am. I planned this every step of the way, with the artists I represented, and everything. Getting artists that would ensure my longevity.
“I planned this every step of the way, with the artists I represented, and everything. Getting artists that would ensure my longevity.” — Stella Jones
You have certainly proved the naysayers wrong. How did you come up with the concept of the anniversary exhibition, pairing what you call legacy artists with emerging artists?
A lot of my legacy artists, I am beginning to represent estates. The body and the soul is not here and people are looking for more contemporary work. And my brand 20 years ago was not contemporary artists because a lot of my collectors had not had the opportunity to get the WPAs and the Harlem Renaissance artists, so that’s what I did, and now I need a new focus. I have younger collectors and the artists are younger. And I had never shown, well my concentration had never been, New Orleans artists and so most of the contemporary artists, are New Orleanians.
When did you start that transition to focus on contemporary artists and young artists from New Orleans?
Probably two or three years ago.
And that decision was based on what you were hearing from your collectors and you sensing the market?
Well, it was me trying to do justice to everybody. Since I have a brand now, I wanted to bring some of them in, too.
ESTABLISHING THE GALLERY
Let’s talk about the beginning. You were an obstetrician/gynecologist. Your husband was in real estate appraisals and you started the gallery because you had been collecting art and decided to pursue a business. Before that, what made you start to collect art? What was your yearning to collect art? How did that part start?
You know my big deal was when I came to New Orleans, I came here and I didn’t have any family, any friends, anybody, because I was matched with Charity Hospital. I left two little girls behind with my mom and husband…
They were in Houston?
Yes. In Houston and I put them in a school where I felt like they would be taken care of and for both of them, they were the only (she touches the skin on her hand) in their class.
The only black kids?
Right. Uh-huh. And they got to the point where they wanted their hair to hang down and you know just the sensitive questions about race, because they never saw it at that school. We began to put those faces on the wall at home. They could see who they are, because kids need that. I got to a point where I stopped taking my kids to museums that didn’t show their faces.
You must have stopped for a while, because only recently have some museums started to show black faces in a meaningful way.
I did. I wanted them to see their culture and all the neighborhood kids would come in and they would be in amazement.
At your house, looking around?
What were your resources at that time? How did you know where to find this art?
My greatest resource was Samella Lewis and she was also one of the impetuses for me starting this gallery. She is such a wonderful, wonderful person. I don’t think she has ever gotten all the accolades that she deserves. You’ve heard of her?
“My greatest resource was Samella Lewis and she was also one of the impetuses for me starting this gallery. She is such a wonderful, wonderful person. I don’t think she has ever gotten all the accolades that she deserves.” — Stella Jones
Yes, I have.
You know she was the first black woman to get a Ph.D. in art history in America.
I didn’t know that. That’s important.
I know she started the journal at Hampton University [now the International Review of African American Art] and lives and works in Los Angeles now. How did you know her?
I had just started an interest group with the Links incorporated here in New Orleans and they wanted to do something in African American art and I had a friend who was connected to her from my going to Brazil. So I called him and asked him if he knew her. She drove for this occasion. She drove all the way from Miami to New Orleans with art for the Links for that evening.
She was in Miami at the time?
She was in Miami at the time and we’ve stayed connected every since.
TWO DECADES OF ART
How long were you collecting art before you opened the gallery?
I opened the gallery in 1996 and I probably started collecting… you know I had things on my wall when I was in Houston, but it wasn’t a real sense of I am a collector. I just wanted my place to be beautiful. But then when I met Samella, and I guess that must have been late 70s, she said, “You have to put some direction to what you are doing here.” She really opened my eyes up to all of the possibilities of all of these artists here. And all of the artists that I thought I would never in a lifetime have an opportunity to meet, she said “Oh yeah.” And then I found out that these women were just like me. They were serious about their work and they wanted to talk to people who were serious about what they were talking about when you approach them about their work. I met the likes of Barbara Chase Riboud, Lois Jones, Elizabeth Catlett, and I am emphasizing the women because still I think women don’t get their due when it comes to the arts.
The 20th anniversary exhibition features, from left, works by Richard Dempsey, Ana Hernandez, Horton Humble (top), Wosene Kosrof (bottom), Delita Martin, Lois Mailou Jones, Herbert Gentry, and Martin Payton. A community project, the grocery cart at the center is adorned with ribbons with coins tied inside of them. | Photo by Victoria L. Valentine
Regarding the anniversary exhibition, you gave the artists topics to respond to?
No, not topics. I selected several pieces of art from an artist and they had the opportunity to select an artist and select a work that they wanted to concentrate on. Some of them, I did say would you do this because I just knew they could tackle it. They could do that.
A couple of people had existing art, but in general, all of the emerging artists made new work in response to the legacy artists?
There were only one or two.
This big one over here of the woman sitting, responding to Catlett. Was that existing?
Yeah, it was. I showed him (Steve Prince, a native of New Orleans) the piece and he said I got this. And as you can see, it was spot on for that.
So you had these naysayers…
If I can stop you a minute. If you look at this, this is Wadsworth Jarrell and for most of the legacy artists their work was existing. I said give me a work. The works were presented to the artists, but this is about music and this in no way is about music. This is about the trauma of young black men (“Every Time I Leave the House” by Carl Joe Williams). This young man was killed.
Here in Louisiana?
Yes. This is about violence, trauma to the African American community—the dove of peace, the bright sunshine.
Gwendolyn Aqui Brooks, one of the contemporary artists, you discovered her at Hampton University?
I judged an exhibition at Hampton University and I called her and asked her if she would like to do Mr. [Moe] Brooker because he is one of the few left… and it just so happened that he was a mentor for her. She had met him.
The Hampton student you just happened upon. But otherwise, were these existing emerging artists who you already knew about and had in mind to reach out to for this exhibition?
Okay, let me be truthful. All of these artists I already knew at least two years ago. Most of them more, because…let me say this too, when you say “emerging” I’d rather not use that word for all of them because this guy is a retired professor (Martin Payton), the red sculpture. I paired him with Herbert Gentry (1919-2003) who died about 10 years ago and he would’ve been more than 100 now I think.
You had a lot of naysayers, saying this whole gallery thing isn’t going to work and you’ve talked about how you were inspired by Samella Lewis. What was her response when you told her you wanted to open a gallery here?
She told me do it. And on several occasions she came here to help me look for a space. And I suspect that I might have opened the gallery about a year before I did except that I really, my husband and I, could not find a space that we thought was suitable. There’s a Julia Street arts district that I looked in for quite some time.
And that existed then?
Yeah. That existed then. But it was just something about every space that I looked at that I didn’t feel myself in. I am sort of perceptive and I kind of know what would work, especially when I am involved. And when it comes to people, I am sort of like that too. I can meet an artist and they can have all the work, excellent work, in the world, but if I don’t feel like I can work with them, it doesn’t matter to me. I won’t represent them.
Has that happened over the years?
Yeah, it’s happened several times. It’s just not worth it. It’s like a bad patient. It’s not worth it for you to get yourself involved with that.
A lot has happened in the 20 years since you opened the gallery. The year after, in 1997, the National Black Fine Art Show started at the Puck building in New York. After its run concluded in 2009, the Harlem Fine Arts Show sprouted up.
I did go to the national black art show.
And then in 2007, the Swann auctions of African American art began and then in the past few years there has been an exponential uptick in institutional acquisitions of works by African American artists. Can you talk about the parallels, over the tenure of your gallery, and what’s been happening with African American art in general?
I think I just came into the gallery at a point where African Americans could afford art, and the other thing is I am not New York. I can’t say that what happens there doesn’t affect me. But I have very loyal clients from all over. For the sophisticated collector, they realize that auction prices are not gallery prices, and if an artist says a work is worth $50,000, I do my best to get that $50,000 for them because I feel like if somebody who does not look like me can get $50,000, I can too. That’s what my artists and my clients expect.
“I think I just came into the gallery at a point where African Americans could afford art, and the other thing is I am not New York. I can’t say that what happens there doesn’t affect me. But I have very loyal clients from all over.” — Stella Jones
Stella Jones notes that while Wadsworth Jarrell’s “Nina” 1996 (mixed media on canvas), at left, is about music, its counterpart, “Every Time I Leave the House” 2016 (mixed media on canvas) by Carl Joe Williams is about the trauma of young black men. | Photo by Victoria L. Valentine
How was your experience at the National Black Fine Art Show?
We went to the black art show and it was good for us every year that we went there. We met new clients, most of which we still have. My husband loved that. He loved suiting up and looking like the front page of GQ.
And talking to everybody?
And talking to everybody. But it just wasn’t my thing. What’s her name? I was basically like Tammy Wynette, standing by my man (laughs). We would drive. Can you imagine this? In the dead of winter, January, driving from New Orleans to New York.
With all of your art?
Well, sometimes not all of the art. Sometimes we sent at least some of it. But he loved getting in those trucks. Let me tell you this. In 2006, we had our first grandchild and she had seen us in Penske trucks so much, every time one passed, she said, “Oh, there goes Grand D.” That’s what she called him, her grandfather, Grand D (laughs). So we drove to New York and some of the art we had with us. I’m telling you, I said, “God.” The tolls and the weather going around those mountains in Tennessee, sometimes I would say have we lost it. But we still did it. He loved it. He passed three years ago and I have to tell you, that is one thing I don’t miss.
The shows and the drives?
Yes, yes. Packing out of here and then going there and packing into the show and then packing out and then inventory when you get back here. I tried to convince him, if you build it they’ll come. So that’s my attitude now.
There are a number of mainstream galleries that are focusing on black artists now. What is your relationship with other black-owned galleries? What are your thoughts about how the business and opportunities for black artists are evolving?
We have a good relationship, but we struggle. We struggle and I think that is true with all galleries because art is something that you can’t eat. People are going to pay their bills first. We try to be fair to the artist and the client. We have what’s called creative financing. My grandmother would say you got a layaway. So we have a layaway. I don’t charge people interest. Sometimes an artist wants their money up front and I can understand it. With the young artists, it’s a struggle for them, so I pay it, because I am hoping that the client purchased it in good faith and eventually the gallery is going to get paid. But not all black galleries can do that. Not all white galleries can do that. You know, pay the artist up front.
“We struggle and I think that is true with all galleries because art is something that you can’t eat. People are going to pay their bills first. We try to be fair to the artist and the client. We have what’s called creative financing. My grandmother would say you got a layaway.” — Stella Jones
That’s a good service.
People appreciate it. But then I have some, what you call high rollers and they just come in here and pay for it all. They’ve got the black card, so thick it won’t go through the machine (laughs).
Do have a relationship with other black-owned galleries? We talked about white galleries and New York galleries that have an interest in black artists, do you feel like you need to have a strategy to make sure you are still in the game? Or is what you are doing different, so their efforts don’t affect you?
I feel like black people know. You know. To us, black lives matter. And to them, that come in here, black lives matter. They care about who’s selling black art. There are some that are not going to go anywhere because they are so wrapped up in thinking that the other person is going to do it better, and perhaps so. Perhaps I am not what they are looking for. But I’m looking for the artist that’s looking for me, and the client that’s looking for me.
You try and network and help one another out?
Yeah, and white galleries cooperate with me. I could call almost all of those high profile names, probably except one, in New York and they say, “What do you need?” And all of the Julia Street galleries (in New Orleans). I am the one in the association and when I forget my dues they call me, because they need me as much as I need them. And when they have people who are looking for African American art, if they don’t have it with the one or two that they represent, they send them right here.
What is the one gallery you can’t call?
I am not calling it.
But what happened? Did something happen?
No. No. I mean the relationship is not strained or anything. I just know their rules.
I want to talk about transitions. Tell me about Hurricane Katrina—how it affected you and what you did during that period, leading up to it and after.
We traveled to Houston and my husband was just so adamant.
You didn’t want to go?
I knew I had to go. We had a meteorologist here that everybody in this city was familiar with. He was so old, when they got ready for him they had to send a black car to pick him up. The night he came on, he was the last for the 10 o’clock news and he had those little flip things and he was writing and circling and at the end of his conversation he said, “For all of you who don’t get out of here for this one, lord help you.” The guy has never been wrong. And he didn’t use all of this solar and airplanes and all that. He was just old and he knew. I don’t know if it’s wisdom or whatever but you can ask anybody, they will tell you if he says go, you go.
My husband and I got on the freeway and mind you we were not late. The highway was like a Christmas tree. There were so many lights backed up. You know how far Houston is from here?
No. How far?
Five or six hours. It took us 27 hours to get there.
Wow. How soon before it really hit it did you leave? A few days?
This was Saturday and it came on Monday. But that’s how many people were leaving here. You know it’s not true that we, black people, didn’t try to leave. It was a Friday when people really understood that the hurricane was coming and we’re right here in the midst of the bank community. They let all their employees go at 12 o’clock. But our hotel industry, the service industry, didn’t see fit to let their people go until 4 o’clock with their check. I must have seen 300 people come to this Chase bank and try to get into it. They had nothing but a piece of paper that weekend. So they either left with their friends, or borrowed money, or something, but a lot of them couldn’t leave. There was no money.
“It’s not true that we, black people, didn’t try to leave. It was a Friday when people really understood that the hurricane was coming and we’re right here in the midst of the bank community. They let all their employees go at 12 o’clock. …I must have seen 300 people come to this Chase bank and try to get into it. …They either left with their friends, or borrowed money, or something, but a lot of them couldn’t leave. There was no money.”
— Stella Jones
Did you do anything to secure the gallery and the art?
We took everything out of here because I know from my insurance company that it all has to go.
What did you do with it?
We have a storage.
So you stored everything. Was there damage to the building?
At that time, I had up a Hughie Lee-Smith exhibition and you know who was coming in? Jacob Lawrence. D.C. Moore (the New York gallery) had just packed up a Jacob Lawrence exhibition. In all of our wisdom, we had had a really successful show and we had packed stuff up to send it out. It didn’t arrive to people until like six months later (laughs). They were so concerned about us, they never thought about their art. We just had a couple in here the other day and they were laughing about that, saying we were looking for you and we never thought about all the money we had spent. And the art went all the way to Australia.
It was a demon getting back here. And I was telling that client about the mail system. Like if I had ordered your Emerge, or your Jet, or your Crisis, they just threw all of that away. (Disclosure: I was previously an editor at Emerge and The Crisis magazines.) What they did was they set up little trailers for each zip code out there. It was like Army mail.
Oh, the bulk mail.
Yeah. You would go to your trailer and they would be like “Jones” on “Lake Willow.” You know, “Adams” on “Tupelo.”
RETURNING & RECOVERING
How long did that go on for?
A long time.
How long were you gone for?
We were allowed to come back like 10 days after. But getting back here was the thing. You got this little entrance paper from the mayor’s office and you couldn’t come down Highway 10, I think it’s Highway 90, and there were all of the, what do you call them?
The National Guard?
The National Guard. The National Guard was standing there and you had to show them your paper that you were allowed in. Everyone who was in the car, you had to show them your license. It was really a military state. And when you got back here you almost felt like what did I come back here for, because as soon as you are approaching the city you could see it was gray. Even 10 days, two weeks later. It still had all that stuff coming in the sky. Roll down the window, you could smell it.
“The National Guard was standing there and you had to show them your paper that you were allowed in. Everyone who was in the car, you had to show them your license. It was really a military state.” — Stella Jones
I’ve got pictures you wouldn’t believe. The only thing you could hear around here was the hum of those big things cleaning out the buildings—big tubes coming out of every building, whatever you call those things that take out the mold and all of that.
Was there damage to the gallery?
I had about six inches of water down there in the well of the gallery. It just damaged your soul and you had to know how to get it back.
Was your home damaged?
Almost 10 feet of water.
Did you have to redo everything.
Yeah. I did. Harry and I went back to our guest house. I would say two and a half years [I’ve been in the house now.] I had to repair my soul first.
What did that do to you in terms of your thoughts about the business? Did it give you more determination or did you think maybe this is when we should stop?
I remember one little kid, they asked them to draw things to help them psychologically getting over Katrina. This little kid says, “Katrina didn’t kill the weeds, so I won’t let it kill me.” That was my thoughts exactly. And I heard my grandmother speak to me. She told me put one foot in front of the other. I knew exactly what that meant. I had so much debris in my house I couldn’t even open my door. And it was true for everybody. The salt water had just corroded the locks on the door, so you had to be genius enough to figure out how to get into your house. When and if they were going to let you in it.
My husband at one point, he’s this clothes horse, he was this clothes horse, at one point he said, “I am going to get my clothes.” As soon as we got to that door, there was a Blackhawk helicopter over us that said, “You cannot enter that property. You cannot enter that property.” But we were lucky because there was a group of brothers that was in our neighborhood from Chicago. He said, “Man, if you show me, if you prove this is your house, I will let you go get your stuff. I know how it is when you want your clothes.” So he let him in.
You obviously had a lot to deal with personally and emotionally and with your own home and so how long before you…
I think I had more physically to deal with than I did emotionally, because I had already decided I was going to get over it.
How long before you were back at the gallery and able to do stuff here?
Well, the building probably was semi-operable for three or four weeks, but these people want their money. You have to pay them. I didn’t have too much concern about my house because when my husband got our insurance he made sure it was the right one. Because of his background in real estate, and because of my persistence for six months, we just sat down and we documented everything that we had and so our book looks like this (indicates thick stack) for the insurance company. And they paid us. That’s probably more my strength now than art galleries. I could tell people how to be prepared for a disaster. And the other thing is my insurance company could not believe that I have saved every receipt from everything I had purchased since I had been in New Orleans, if it cost a hundred dollars or more.
Very smart. And that’s what you have to do now. It’s almost what they expect, because scanners are cheap.
So after about three or four weeks you were back at the gallery, trying to get things done. I imagine it was some time before things were regular if you can call it that…
Well, I will tell you another thing. In July, in June, what was it? If I opened in ’96 my 10th anniversary, David Driskell came in. We had an exhibition for him and we did an art auction and I received art from almost every black artist in the United States because our artists here had lost all of their supplies. In one evening we raised $75,000. We were able to give 25 artists $3,000. It was filtered through the arts council and they wrote the checks. Twenty-five local artists benefitted.
I can tell you about another time too. This is not just a local gallery. With Elizabeth Catlett and John Scott, a local artist, my husband and I, and the help of a community coming in to support it, we were able to endow a $150,000 UNCF scholarship. Every year, we now give three scholarships to black students in art.
Is that through a particular school?
Well Xavier, Dillard and Southern University are predominantly black universities here.
It is given through those three schools?
Uhm, hmm. But the fund is administered through the United Negro College Fund. (The 2016 scholarship opens in November.)
When did you start that?
Let’s see, it’s the year that Catlett turned 88, maybe 2003 and we’ve been giving away money every since.
‘WHAT WOULD HARRY DO?’
Another transition. Your husband passed away in 2013. We talked about Hurricane Katrina and how that made you even more determined. With you husband passing away, and you talking about him being the public talker, how did that affect you personally and with the business? Did you think you could continue?
I was left with a hole in my soul, if that makes sense. It’s gradually closing. It was like the size of a basketball. It’s getting smaller and smaller every week. And even Miss Johns because the relationships were so close, sometimes people are helping us and she calls them Mr. Jones and then has to apologize. But, his spirit is here and when we are in trouble, you know like when people say, “What would Jesus do?” We say, “What would Harry do?” (laughs) And it comes across. He’s still here. And I know that this was his passion, too. He’s looking over us and enjoying what we’re doing.
“His spirit is here and when we are in trouble, you know like when people say, “What would Jesus do?” We say, “What would Harry do?” (laughs) …He’s still here. And I know that this was his passion, too. He’s looking over us and enjoying what we’re doing.” — Stella Jones
You know he would want you to keep doing it?
Yeah. My kids are here. They are coming in, because they know Dad would want this. It was hard, because of Miss Johns, and I have to give her her props, too, I was able to stay away almost a year. I mean we were probably just here, as a physical plant, you know, but our clients have supported us.
I am sure he is proud that now you have reached the 20-year mark. Tell me about an artist or two that has motivated you or been one of the signature relationships over the years?
Well, Elizabeth Catlett, you know she became a friend. I would go to her place in Mexico and we would stay. And because I am a physician, she sort of, if someone told her something in Mexico she would call me, a doctor, and ask me, you know, verify this. And Samella Lewis because she has helped us out so much. She has sort of been our guiding light and I can probably say all of the old guard. A few of them had never used a gallery before and with me stepping out and telling them I am a physician and I am going to open an art gallery. The other thing with me is I did go to Southern University and I took some courses in art, not to become a visual artist, like management. And my husband had business skills and I knew that I could rely on that.
Back to the question of artists, I could say all my old folk. I gave them an opportunity to show in a very nice venue in New Orleans and most of them had always wanted to show in the South, but [there was] not a venue. I wanted a gallery in the South and I didn’t have artists. Now I do. CT
This interview has been condensed and edited.
From pioneering artist, art historian and educator Samella Lewis, “Samella Lewis and the African American Experience” was published several years ago, and she has also authored other volumes, including “African American Art and Artists” and the series “Black Artists on Art.”
When the gallery was preparing for its first post-Katrina exhibition, the floor wasn’t installed in time, so they left it bare. Now it is a work of art, with countless doodles and signatures, including one from the late Elizabeth Catlett.