A Gallery Grows in Westchester

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BY SERGIE WILLOUGHBY

?Not Alone,? by twin artists Jerry and Terry Lynn. Two educators have turned their deep admiration for Black art into a thriving business that promotes and popularizes the work of Black artists, who are long overdue for the kind of prosperity that their non-Black counterparts have enjoyed for decades. The educators are twin sisters Karen Mackey Witherspoon, vice president of Government and Community Affairs at The City College of New York ? City University of New York, and Sharon Mackey-McGee, executive director of Continuing Education, also at CCNY. Fifteen years ago, they opened their home-based Mackey Twins Art Gallery, which offers exhibitions in Mount Vernon, New York, a suburb north of New York City.?

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The twins say they are committed to developing communities of collectors by exposing all races to artists of color; educating the public on the responsibility of supporting artists; and creating options for ownership of original artwork. At a glance, they?ve achieved that and more. During a December visit to Mackey Witherspoon?s Mount Vernon home for a weekend fine art show dubbed ?For the Love of Art II,? the Mackey Twins showcased 84 paintings. Walking into the airy, sunlit residence stirred memories of the highly respected National Black Fine Art Show, which debuted at The Puck Building on the Lower East Side of New York City in 1997. Mackey Witherspoon?s walls were covered with vibrant scenes of the Black experience in America, from a baptism taking place down by a river in the South and a family picnic in a field in the Gullah community of South Carolina, to a jazz trio?s jam session in Harlem. Visitors were treated to music by a live jazz band; hors d?oeuvres; a sommelier who offered ?a fine wine experience?; and a knowledgeable host to answer questions about the featured artists and their work, including prices and payment options. A highlight of the evening was the appearance of renowned artist James Denmark, who discussed his artistry and his experiences as a Black artist in the 1960s and 1970s. Denmark is known for the collage medium and watercolors.?

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The event was impressive; it was, indeed, a testimony to the determination of two women who are on a mission to ensure that the work of Black artists will be around for generations to come. In a recent interview with The Network Journal, the Mackey Twins discussed the business of their art gallery.

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TNJ: Why the decision to launch an art gallery?

Mackey Witherspoon: Years ago, we realized artists of color did not have a lot of quality platforms to showcase their art, and we felt that original artwork and special prints should be in their own environment. We wanted to facilitate that, and help people understand that, as a people, we should feel a responsibility and a commitment to support our artists.

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TNJ: How did you both develop an interest in art?

Mackey-McGee: While visiting art galleries after work back when we were English teachers, we would purchase prints of our favorite artists. Prints were all we could afford. On a salary of only $25,000 a year, we felt we would never be able to collect original art. But we were drawn to it; we felt a yearning. Then, we ran into a guy we knew who was a gallery owner. He was one of the few people we were comfortable talking to about art. With the art world being very elite, we didn?t feel comfortable talking to just anybody; but this guy was very approachable. We discussed our frustrations of wanting to collect but not making enough money to do so. He assured us that, yes, we could become collectors. He said, ?Pick out what you want and go on a payment plan.? ? ?

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TNJ: What are the challenges of running an art gallery?

Mackey Witherspoon: Fiscal challenges, mostly. To do this right, you have to be able to frame or re-frame work as needed. Also, you walk a tightrope to sell paintings without appearing overzealous; you have to be sensitive to the artists and the work they create. Another challenge is trying to get people to understand that work by people of color is devalued by a larger society. We are not here to sell paintings as cheaply as possible and deal in ?warehouse marketing,? which wastes the value of Black art; the key is to raise the value of work made by artists of color. Time is another issue. We constantly juggle our art business and our demanding jobs, but we make sure not to spend too much time away from the art.

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TNJ: For each show, do you set a goal for the number of paintings you wish to sell??

Mackey Witherspoon: The goal every time is to sell 90 percent of the art on display, although that only happened twice. We realize we have to work harder and do more outreach to add to our base of supporters. One goal is to create communities of collectors to expand our audience. We have an extraordinarily loyal base that has been buying from us for years, and our collectors even bring people to the table. We also have to provide more venues for our existing and prospective customers to hear from the artists.?

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At one show featuring most of the artists we represent, from Leroy Campbell to Ruth Miller to Stacey Brown, we had a panel discussion attended by 600-plus people who were so impressed and in tune. They were spellbound. There was so much applause and people did not want to leave. Held at the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, it was a tremendous environment. The artists loved the platform and the interest people showed in their work. There is nothing greater than hearing artists talk about the motivation for their work. We have also displayed artwork by the artists we represent at the Harlem Fine Arts Show, a Central Park Arts Black History Month event and the Westchester Black Arts Show. ? ? ? ?

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TNJ: How do you find artists to represent??

Mackey-McGee: Most of our artists have approached us, and not a month goes by where we don?t get three to five phone calls from artists asking us to consider representing them. Most times, we say ?no,? because we have to give our existing artists the proper amount of attention. We also make it a point to only represent artists whose work we love. We?re not in it just for a sale; if we?re talking about someone, more than likely, that person?s work is a part of our own private collection.?

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TNJ: Among the artists you represent, do you have favorites?

Mackey Witherspoon: We love all of the artists we represent for different reasons. They?re a very special group. For example, James Denmark is an awesome collagist and one of the Black master artists. At 80, he?s still creating new work and other mediums. There?s also Studio Museum in Harlem co-founder Betty Blayton, whose work is very ethereal and different. She is also known for abstract work. Betty and James both knew Romare Bearden, Jacob Lawrence, Faith Ringgold and other masters who were all a part of the same artistic circles. Langston Hughes was a part of the group as well. It is amazing to listen to their incredible stories about their struggles and the conversations they had amongst each other in that world of color where they congregated.?

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TNJ: Do you run the gallery yourselves or are there more people involved?

Mackey-McGee: It?s a family affair. Our godchildren, sons, nephews and husbands are very involved and, like us, they want visitors to experience an extremely comfortable yet classy environment: wine, music, and a place to sit, breathe and feel the artwork. Our motto is ?Fine art deserves a fine atmosphere,? and that?s what we try to create. We don?t want an elite setting. We want people to feel comfortable saying, ?I don?t know a thing about art.? ?

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