Art Curator Destinee Ross-Sutton Is Giving a Voice to Rising Black Artists
In an ever evolving art industry, Destinee Ross-Sutton is a force to be reckoned with, and at 24, the up-and-coming curator is only just getting started. Born and raised in Harlem, New York, Ross is an art advisor and curator who focuses primarily on contemporary art from Africa and the diaspora.
Ross-Sutton sold-out show entitled BLACK VOICES/BLACK MICROCOSM that took place at CFHILL Art Space in Stockholm, Sweden during the month of April. Gathering over 30 artists from all over the world, the show explored and celebrated the intersectional meaning of humanity and Blackness. Through the development of the exhibit, Ross-Sutton intends to redefine the traditional canon of art by letting new voices shine through and speak on their own terms. An online viewing experience is currently available on CFHill’s website, and a virtual roundtable led by Ross-Sutton with several of the featured artists can be found here.
The product of an art-centered upbringing, Ross-Sutton began to seriously consider a career in the art industry after striking up a thought-provoking conversation with a professor in college. She has since co-curated several international exhibitions for the Museum of Contemporary Diasporan Arts (MoCADA) in Brooklyn and also advises private institutions and collectors, with her expertise focused on, but not limited to, contemporary African American and African art.
Ross-Sutton’s innate draw to artists and the work they do is evident, and she describes herself as, above all, a connector of artists and people that will generate a great dialogue. Yet, as the role of curator continues to evolve, Ross-Sutton has added additional skills to her resume. She operates as a central researcher, storyteller, representative, and agent through which other artists can express themselves. She is a welcoming gatekeeper who is opening the floodgates for the world to be exposed to a new wave of rising Black artists.
Destinee Ross-Sutton spoke with The Folklore about growing up in the arts, her pull to the industry, and why she's not afraid of being known as ‘Destinee the Disruptor’.
Destinee Ross-Sutton with Ghanaian artist Amoako Boafo in his studio in Vienna, Austria with a portrait of Ross-Sutton by Boafo.
Tell us a little about yourself and what led you to go into the art industry.
I am born and raised in Harlem, fourth generation. My education was always very unusual, I would say. I always have to explain to people what it is, in a way. You know certain schools, such as a Montessori or Waldorf school, and they’re very holistic, hands on, and extremely artistic in how they educate the child. And so, art and music, dance, all of these forms of art and culture have been incorporated into my childhood for a very long time. Art has always been behind the undercurrent of most of my education. I went to college for journalism, that was my major, and I started to return back to art when I got more into photojournalism. That was sort of part of that curriculum, teaching us how to operate cameras. And I just got more and more into it, and so the classes that I chose got more and more artistic.
I was having a discussion with my professor of mine during class, in a digital photography class, and it was essentially about certain artists and how they operate, and based on how they operate, who the art belongs to. And that one conversation really got me looking into more of the art world, seeing if there are more people like this and what other people are doing out there. So that was really what got me back into the art world. I volunteered at a museum in Brooklyn for a few years. Then I started meeting and befriending artists, and really felt the need to join these people who were so passionate and strong about what they were doing, how they were connecting to people, and how they were showing the art world in such amazing ways.
Share with us how your exhibit in April came to be and why it is such a remarkable accomplishment.
CFHILL, the space in Sweden, reached out in early December just after Miami Art Basel. They’d been following me for about a year, and they decided to reach out and asked if I wanted to do a show with them. So we started talking back and forth about what it would be, and both of us really got excited about whatever concepts we could pull together and what artists we could get to collaborate. It’s such an amazing space, right in the middle of Stockholm. It’s a beautiful old building. Their program is great, they work with some amazing international curators, and we really just worked hard to connect with these artists and get them excited about this show and the concept. That really paid off, and being able to get these artists to contribute their work and help add their voices to this dialogue was really such an exciting accomplishment.
Portrait of Destinee Ross-Sutton by Amoako Boafo
Every piece in this exhibition is so striking and unique, but you seem to put an emphasis on portraiture overall. Why a focus on portraiture for this exhibit?
I wouldn’t say it was entirely conscious. There is currently a lot of emphasis on portraiture in the art world in general, especially when it comes to Black art. I see it typically as a way of us taking that opportunity to portray and experience our own beauty. Sometimes there is this negative connotation to our image and so it’s an effort to counteract that in a way. But that’s not necessarily the focus. We’re focusing on ourselves and being able to portray and see ourselves is such an important thing to us. It wasn’t necessarily the number one intention, but a lot of the artists focus on portraiture and it felt natural and what fit into the show.
What is your process for finding artists whose work speaks to you?
Instagram is a very, very useful tool for connecting with artists. Basically, I look at some many different artists and so many different images every day. Sometimes it gets a little overwhelming, but sometimes it really pays off. Because you see something and for me, it’s this feeling that it resonates with me. Sometimes I get this feeling in my chest like it’s connecting to my heart in a way, and I see that there’s a lot of passion and meaning behind this work. I always want to know more, and so it definitely helps if the artist has an Instagram so I can reach out and we can just have a good conversation, which is so helpful. Not only now, where travel is essentially impossible, but people are in South Africa or Lagos or travel isn’t one hundred percent possible, and being able to just talk on the phone or chat on Instagram is incredibly helpful. As for the work, typically it’s just this feeling. What are they referencing? How does this make me feel? I have to sort of balance the heart and the mind. My heart might love it, but my mind might not, or vice versa, and so it’s really just a combination of a few different elements.
A work by artist Patrick Quarm at CFHILL
What do you see as the role of a curator?
As curator, I feel that my duty is to find good work from passionate artists and help connect them to the viewer and in some cases, to other artists. In a way I feel like I’m helping them by “handing them the mic” or giving them the floor, so to speak. I also just really want to encourage dialogue and connection between the artists’ work and the viewer or other artists, which is incredibly important to me. Being able to have these different conversations between these artists is such a beautiful thing.
How do you find that the 20th century Black Arts Movement has impacted the work of artists you collaborate with now? Does it inform your work as a curator?
How I see it, people are listening, people are learning, they’re wanting more info, they’re wondering why they paint this way or behave this way. So we’re beginning to look back and learn more about ourselves. Despite too many efforts to hide or erase certain parts of history, we’re finding them and we’re learning from them. We’re making connections, like “Oh, that’s why I paint that figure like that, because of that reference.” It’s an amazing thing to me really because it’s like having a conversation between the past and the present. I think being able to learn and take things from our history and apply it to the future is so important. In the right context that is really such an amazing thing. For me, I like to reference literature a lot, especially when it comes to creating certain concepts. Coming up with certain ideas, I will give elements from books I read growing up or things I’m reading now, whether it’s Toni Morrison or Zora Neale Hurston. I like to take those elements from the past and incorporate them into the present.
As a curator, how do you create a dialogue while giving the viewer freedom to have their own experience?
I always think back to my first classes in journalism. In Journalism 101, typically we will go through the guidelines of writing in AP style. There’s a lot of guidelines and rules and things that you have to follow, and it almost feels restrictive, but once you realize that you have the freedom to work within those parameters, there’s really a lot that we can do. That’s sort of the element that I like to bring. I have a guideline, like “Here is a curatorial theme that I want to present to you. Can you work within this?” Typically there is a lot of room for creativity within these limits, for lack of a better term. So that really is the main reference that I pull from. There might be a theme, but you can’t see it as something that limits you. You have to see it as, “How can I explore within this area?”
Destinee Ross-Sutton with her portrait by Kehinde Wiley
How does your job in the art world influence your sense of style?
I wear a lot of black. A lot. That’s just something I’m comfortable with. As of the past couple of years, I have worn colored braids. I’ll sort of cycle through a different color and I have a lot of fun playing within that. I am still developing my sense of style, and personally, I don’t think it’s the best, but it’s very useful. I can have a lot of black clothing and still look very chic and sleek, but be comfortable at the same time.
As an up-and-coming curator, there is so much on the horizon for you. Tell us what's next.
Apart from continuing my work as main curator of a privately funded art foundation focusing on contemporary art by Black artists, which will finally open next summer, and providing advisory services for my clients, I am collaborating with one of the top auction houses on a selling exhibition to promote black artists. The exhibition is scheduled for the end of July and the auction house will not take any percentage from the proceeds. I am also in the process of preparing the premiere US edition of my Black Voices exhibition concept, scheduled for the end of the summer. I am partnering with a major global platform in the arts. I am taking on a new curatorial project to build a top collection with a specific theme with all Black artists for a prominent US collector over the next 6 months. Once completed it will include a proper catalogue and a physical exhibition.
I just got approached by a museum to become a board member and to collaborate on building their collection and exhibitions focusing on artists of color. It is located in a region of the world where there are a lot of people of color, but there haven’t been any institutions of an international character focusing on contemporary art by people of color artists from the region and the greater African diaspora. We are currently in talks and I’m excited to see where we take this.
I will be expanding my artist management part of my business and open my own gallery this summer with international partnerships, as the old model of galleries asking artists to sign with them exclusively is obsolete – especially if they are only based in one geographical location. Unless one is, say, Hauser & Wirth, who have locations worldwide, one has to partner with other art spaces and galleries if you want to build an international career for an artist. It’s all about partnering now and especially with the artists. Too many galleries have made artists believe that the artist works for them, when in fact it’s more the other way around. If it’s not teamwork and a partnership why would any artist choose to be with a gallery?
Follow Destinee Ross-Sutton on Instagram for updates on her many projects @desti.knee.
Words by Olivia Starr