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Hannah
Traore

The art world's next big thing is a gallerist.
Words by Kyla Marshell. Photography by Emma Trim. Styling by Jèss Monterde.

  • Arts & Culture
  • Issue 44

The art world's next big thing is a gallerist.
Words by Kyla Marshell. Photography by Emma Trim. Styling by Jèss Monterde.

On first approach, Hannah Traore Gallery feels like any other downtown New York arts space. Sunlight pours in through the big glass doors; the air is still; white bouclé-covered settees anchor the room, looking, at first, like art themselves.

But on the walls—the true real estate—is something different: color. Hues, the gallery’s first show, features artists working with a rainbow’s worth of different shades: glittery yellow, electric turquoise and iridescent multicolor patterns. One wall is painted green, another is two-tone—yellow and candy cane red. All works in Hues are also by artists of color. It is not a gimmick or a one-off; here, marginalized artists exist at the center.

Traore, 27, grew up in Toronto, the daughter of a white Canadian mother, a fiber artist and collector, and a Malian immigrant father. Art was celebrated in their household; she and her siblings were encouraged to explore their creative interests.1 To hear the story of how she went from curatorial intern at MoMA in 2018 to gallery owner in just a few years is to wonder what steps you missed. But the short answer is: She took a big swing. Like many people, Traore had a reckoning during the COVID-19 pandemic. After getting laid off from her job at New York’s Fotografiska in April 2020, she revisited her dream of opening her own gallery. As a student at Skidmore College in upstate New York, she’d curated ambitious shows, even featuring Mickalene Thomas and Kehinde Wiley in an exhibit she created for her senior thesis.2

The unexpected slate of free time gave her the push she needed. “I just wanted to do what I wanted to do,” she says. “At a certain point I realized, Why am I suppressing all these ideas? I should be acting on them.” During our conversation, the gallery’s two spacious rooms are empty save for Traore and her assistant, but so much has already happened here—a launch, panel discussions and several long nights. Traore estimates she worked 100-hour weeks in the run-up to launch. 

The way Traore speaks about her vision for the space is confident without being boastful; unselfconsciously excited about what’s to come. Her central idea, she explains, was to create a space where she could highlight the work of artists from historically underrepresented groups—including people of color, women and queer artists. 

In the art industry, as in many others, prodigy and youth are valued—but more so in artists themselves. Curating, itself a kind of gatekeeping, has its own gatekeepers, with an expectation of dues-paying that Traore somewhat skirted. “I definitely had a good amount of work experience—the proper work experience—to do what I’m doing, but it’s still a shock to people,” she says. “I see being young as an asset because I’m not as chained down to rules as someone else who has been in the industry for a longer time might be.”

She started by having a series of informational interviews with people from around her industry and, through their counsel, built a team—business consultants, art lawyers, PR agents and mentors, whom she mentions often and by name. They included the New Museum’s deputy director Isolde Brielmaier and Toronto art collector Kenneth Montague. “I felt comfortable going on this journey because I knew I had this support,” she says. “And I trusted that the support would keep growing.”

And she trusted herself. There is clearly an internal drive propelling her forward, something she says comes from her family. “Knowing that my siblings and my parents believed in me made me believe in me.” She also felt inclined to prove herself to the doubters of yore, like the arts-disparaging mom of a childhood friend she ran into the last time she was at home. “She made a comment [to my mom] like, ‘How embarrassing that all your kids are in the arts.’ That’s a sentiment that a lot of people have. Doing something that’s half art, half business felt like proving to them that I can have a career in the arts that’s successful.”

“I trusted that the support would
keep growing.”

Since opening the gallery in January 2022, much of Traore’s time has been filled by press: photo shoots and interviews with her about her story. On the one hand, there’s an element of this she enjoys. Fashion—in particular, her penchant for bright colors—is important to her. It’s part of the reason her first show, the one with which she’s introducing this gallery to the world, is called Hues. 

But on the other hand, this gallery space is not about her—it’s about the artists. What matters to Traore is that they have a place to show their work without the pressure to foreground their identity. Over the last several years of a global racial reckoning, there have been many instances of increased representation in the art world, as well as its inevitable byproduct: performative allyship. Or as she puts it, galleries that want to include artists of color for “street cred.”

She shared the example of an artist she’s working with, James Perkins, whose work includes paintings and installations of striking, large blocks of color. “You would never know that he’s a Black artist by seeing his work. He’s said to me he feels the reason his work hasn’t gotten the push it needs is because of that,” Traore says. “But I don’t have to prove anything. I don’t have to show a Black artist to prove that I’m not racist—I’m Black.” 

( 1 ) Traore’s exposure to art as a child included art camps and museums as well as home crafts with her three siblings, darkroom photography and pottery.

( 2 ) Traore’s undergraduate thesis explored the work of Malian photographer Malick Sidibé. In 2017, she organized an exhibition that included Sidibé’s work and that of artists he influenced, including Kehinde Wiley.

As she’s been curating for her own space, she says she’s been able to offer her artists, who include Hassan Hajjaj, Murjoni Merriweather, Dan Lam and Wendy Red Star, something that some other gallerists are not always able to provide: understanding. 

Beyond the joy of not tokenizing or being tokenized (she rejoiced talking about Brielmaier, her first-ever Black boss: “what a difference it made”), being a gallerist who implicitly understands her artists also offers a competitive edge. Curation extends beyond putting pictures up on the wall. In many cases, she’s collaborating with artists as they make the work, offering perspective and guidance. One such piece in Hues is “dhund (translation: fog)” by Pakistani sculptor Misha Japanwala. It’s a bright blue casting of the artist’s shoulders and breasts. In not having an agenda, Traore said, she can “give the artist more autonomy in the work.” I had never considered that curators participate in the creation of their artists’ work. But in this case, for an artist for whom showing her breasts is a real subversion in her culture, trusting the curator—how she’ll display, contextualize and represent the work—is vital. After our meeting, Traore wrote to clarify a comment she’d made about the piece with a quote from the artist herself—another instance of advocacy in action.

Traore also wants to challenge what a gallery is and what can be in it. “A lot of the time in the art world we like to make sure that our artists are only artists,” she says. “And I think that’s ridiculous, because people are complicated and have talents in many different fields.” Upcoming exhibitions include the first gallery show for Camila Falquez, traditionally a commercial photographer, and a hybrid show where a sculptor will also be showing her fashion collection. This boundary-crossing is already in evidence. As well as showing art by Hassan Hajjaj in the current exhibition, the gallery currently welcomes visitors to relax on chairs that he designed. 

Being the boss does mean making certain concessions, one of which is limited time to explore her own art practice. She was an art minor in college, with an interest in pottery and photography. “It’s definitely taken a back seat since I started working on the gallery, and since college,” she says. “One thing I have done in my house is bookbinding, which I really love. If I’m stressed and I make time for myself to make art, that stress goes way down.”

After all the help she received, Traore is keen to become a mentor and a role model in her own right. “I would love to be someone who people look to, because there were a lot of amazing Black women who I looked to,” she says. Though she can rattle off a dozen or so Black women gallerists in New York City, in an ideal world, that number would be higher, that influence more established. For all the aspiring young gallerists, she has three key tips: “Ask for as much advice as possible. Do what you can—you don’t have to open a huge space on the Lower East Side. And trust yourself.” 

It’s that trust—true belief in the work she’s doing—that unites her many ideas and the art throughout the space. Every few moments, she mentions yet another show she’s mounting—the year is already blocked out, filled to the rafters with possibility. “I absolutely love that when someone comes to me and says, ‘We want to do this,’ I don’t have to ask anybody. It’s between me and me.” 

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This story is from Kinfolk Issue Forty-Four

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