Welcome to Office Hours, where members of the Argent community share personal career stories and, in the process, dispense invaluable advice, rare insight, and inspiration through lived experiences.
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Founder, Hannah Traore Gallery
A year ago—nearly to the date—the doors of the Hannah Traore Gallery opened on Orchard Street in New York and, through it, the goal that founder Hannah Traore first dreamed up in college was realized. Following post-grad roles at the Museum of Modern Art and Fotografiska, Traore’s set out to build a gallery space of her own and her namesake business has established her as one of the city’s youngest gallerists (even landing a prestige spot on Forbes’ 30 Under 30 list). It’s also been especially impactful through its mission of “advocating and celebrating artists who have been historically marginalized from the mainstream narrative.”
In the past year alone, Traore has held exhibitions for Renee Cox, James Perkins, and debuted first-time U.S. solo exhibitions for Camila Falquez and Moya Garrison-Msingwana. Now at the start of year two, Traore joined Argent for Office Hours to reflect on how she got her business off the ground (during a global pandemic no less), how her first year looked nothing like she thought it would, and why community is the most important theme that runs through her story, from her earliest mentors to the visitors at her galley who have discovered a place where they can be seen.
WHAT FIRST BROUGHT YOU TO WORK IN THE ART WORLD?
“I decided that I wanted to work in the art world sophomore year of college. I took an art history class and I fell in love. For the first time since primary school I started doing well in school and getting good grades and awards and it was because I loved what I was studying so much. I didn’t really quite know what I wanted to do until I curated an exhibition my senior year at the museum on the Skidmore campus, The Tang Teaching Museum, and that really showed me that I loved curation and putting on exhibitions. I realized I wanted to open my own space but I didn’t know what that meant or think about it too much.”
WHAT WERE SOME OF YOUR EARLY CAREER EXPERIENCES LIKE?
“Working in New York in the art world, I honestly had some really great experiences but when you’re at the bottom of the food chain no one cares what you have to say, no one trusts you, no one trusts your eye, no one trusts your vision, and—especially when you’re in a big institution, like MoMA—no one cares about your vision anyway. It’s not about you. Not that my gallery is about me either. It’s about my artists, but it is my vision.
"I also came to know how much it meant to me to have a Black boss for the first time and I wanted to be that for my artists. Even if I can’t relate to all my artists fully in our identities, I can relate to their understanding of otherness.”
HOW DID YOU LEARN TO ESTABLISH YOUR VOICE AS A CURATOR, ESPECIALLY WITHIN A MAJOR ARTS INSTITUTION?
“Obviously, post-graduation I was at MoMA with these incredible curators and colleagues who have been in the game for so long, and I’m not saying that my voice was more important than theirs, but it is frustrating when you have an idea and nobody cares. I think in those times my best advice is just to buckle in and learn. I think sometimes people forget that—especially at the beginning of your career—you should be picking jobs that you’ll learn the most from. You also have to remember that you’re working really hard and giving so much to a company or institution and you need to be thinking about what they’re giving you. And what they’re giving you is an education.”
HOW DID YOU DECIDE TO EVENTUALLY MAKE THE LEAP TO OPEN YOUR OWN GALLERY?
“It’s so hard to pinpoint the exact moment. I had been talking about it but I hadn’t fully realized the idea until I actually got kicked out of the country for six weeks in 2019. I’m Canadian and I was trying to get in with a visa for a new job and they just said no. I literally stayed in Toronto for six weeks and it was scary because I didn’t know how long it would be. At the time, my parents and my sisters said, ‘If you don’t get the visa then just open a gallery instead.’ And so I got that into my mind…and then I got the visa.
“Three months later the pandemic hit and I lost that new job anyway and that’s when I said ‘I’m going to start.’ I had some time to think and the opportunity to realize that actually this idea—to open a gallery not bogged down by the binaries and rules of the traditional art world—was concrete and that I had made a lot of beautiful connections in the art world and it was possible. I started calling all my mentors, asking for their advice, seeing what they thought about my idea, doing my research, and trying to take business classes online because I had never taken a business class in my life. And then I was lucky enough to hire two business consultants because I would not have been able to do it without them.”
“I’m actually building the community I set out to build and I make people feel comfortable in the space, because so many galleries don’t make people who look like me feel comfortable in that space. That means a lot.”
WHAT DID YOU FEEL MOST PREPARED FOR IN STARTING THE PROCESS? AND HOW DID YOU TACKLE THE THINGS YOU WEREN’T?
“I felt most prepared in my relationships with artists and actually curating the shows. I trust my eye and style, and I trust myself in terms of treating the artists well. That’s the reason I opened a gallery in the first place: the actual art.
"The two things that I knew to be the hardest, and I found the hardest, are sales—before, I worked in a museum and didn’t have this roster of collectors, and it’s building but it’s hard—and also being a boss. Those are all skills you need to develop and learn and I just don’t really have them but I’m trying to be good. I’m empathetic and I’m nice, but I don’t like telling someone what to do, to be honest. But, if I look at who I was as a manager and a salesperson a year ago compared to now, I’ve learned a ridiculous amount that I’m proud of. I lean on my friends for advice. There are always going to be things you don’t like to do but that doesn’t mean that you don’t have to do them.”
WHAT’S BEEN YOUR PROUDEST MOMENT IN THE PAST YEAR OF THE HANNAH TRAORE GALLERY?
"I went to The Met Cloisters with my parents and there was this guy there who gave me a weird look. He comes up to us and is like, ‘Oh my God, you’re Hannah Traore! Me and my friend love your gallery.’ But the reason it made me so proud is the reason why they loved it and how they felt like the gallery was for them. He was saying that I made this space for our community and that made me so, so happy because that’s exactly what I wanted to do. And I get feedback from my artists about how they feel so genuinely seen because of who I am and who they are. I also hear that I’m actually building the community I set out to build and I make people feel comfortable in the space, because so many galleries don’t make people who look like me feel comfortable in that space. That meant a lot.”
HAVE YOU HAD ANY EXPERIENCES WHERE OTHER PEOPLE NOW COME TO YOU TO DISCUSS THEIR GOALS OF CREATING SPACES THAT ALSO AMPLIFY MARGINALIZED VOICES?
“Definitely. People reach out asking to have coffee so they can bend my ear and I always say yes because I appreciated it so much when people said yes to coffee with me. Every single one of those coffees was so helpful. And also, I just want more of this. The more the merrier.”
WHAT DO YOU FIND MOST EXCITING IN THE ART WORLD TODAY?
“What’s most exciting is the amount of people like me who have similar visions to mine who are actually being heard and seen. They’re so many women of color who are opening their own spaces or being put into positions of power.”
WHAT WOULD YOU TELL SOMEONE WHO’S YOUNG OR NEW TO THE ART WORLD AND WANTS TO BUILD SOMETHING OF THEIR OWN? WHAT SHOULD THEY DO TO PREPARE?
“I think building a community is super important because I couldn't have done it if I hadn’t already had one in New York. So, network, go to all the openings and introduce yourself to people, insert yourself. And I also feel like there’s no right way to do it. I think if you want to open a gallery and you want to start showing work, then do it in your apartment. It doesn’t have to be in a brick-and-mortar space on Orchard Street. I remember one of my artists, Camila Falquez, a photographer, was speaking to a classful of students of photography and she said a similar thing—that you can take a sheet in your apartment and make it into a studio to shoot your portraits. You can really work with what you have, so don’t be discouraged by a lack of, in your opinion, resources.
“And also reach out. When I was planning the gallery, the amount of people I reached out to just to have a 30-minute Zoom with and ask questions…not only did I make a lot of beautiful connections through that, I also learned so much that was so crucial.”
WHAT HAVE YOU LEARNED IN YEAR ONE OF OWNING A GALLERY? AND WHAT DOES YEAR TWO LOOK LIKE FOR YOU?
“Honestly, I learned in year one that it’s going to look completely different than whatever I say to you right now. Instead of trying to plan what it’s going to look like, I just try to go with the flow and take what comes and make good decisions at the time and then move forward from there. Because my year looked so different than what I thought it was going to look like, in the best ways. So, just go with the flow, continue to work on the things that I struggle with, and continue to hone in on the skills I’m good at.”