The Gallery Where Stevie Wonder Was a Regular


This summer, Linda Goode Bryant, the pioneering art dealer, received the 2020 Berresford Prize from the nonprofit United States Artists, which is awarded annually to “a cultural practitioner who has contributed significantly to the advancement, well-being and care of artists in society.” In 1974 Bryant founded the gallery Just Above Midtown on 57th Street, which became one of New York City’s first dedicated art spaces for Black artists. Bryant now runs the urban farming initiative Project EATS, based in New York. This conversation, between Bryant and Senga Nengudi, one of the artists who got her start at JAM, took place over Zoom, and touches on JAM’s history and its legacy.

Linda Goode Bryant: So, where did we get started? We got started at JAM. Actually, we got started before that, but I don’t know if we need to get into it. Before we even met, we were connected.

Senga Nengudi: That’s true. From the beginning, there was so much conversation.

LGB: There was so much conversation. I actually believe that you belong to a tribe. And that often weaves itself in life.

SN: Absolutely.

LGB: There’s the birth family. But then, that family that you discover through life is just your tribe. I’m never surprised by those connections.

SN: We were talking the other day about how to describe your role working with artists and we talked about the “artful conductor.” That you have all of these instruments and you’re at the command center utilizing everybody in the best way possible, so they can be seen in their brilliance. And you are the one in the center, the ultimate brilliant one allowing all of this light around you. And allowing everyone to do their best, not only for themselves but for others. And that’s really key. That it’s about others. You’re allowing platforms for others to help others.

LGB: It’s funny because I actually feel in the amazing relationships that get developed through our interactions with one another — it’s more like a stew to me, so there’s nobody in the center. It’s just one big stew. And occasionally, the carrots are kicking. And the tomatoes are going: “Hey. Wait a minute. I got this idea.” And the next thing you know, all this stuff is simmered together. And the stew itself is the most nutritional meal you could have. All this creativity and imagination and the different ways we can make things and do things and share things that bring us closer together in our own relationships with one another.

The making of art is uniquely human, and it enhances who we are and how we relate to one another. It makes us more empathetic and understanding of the world around us. It helps us relate to people who we don’t see as similar to ourselves. All of us who make this thing that’s called art, no matter what form it is, understand this. Just Above Midtown was an art piece.

SN: I think it’s really great that you used the stew as an example because art is nourishing. Art feeds. That’s why there’s so many people expressing themselves during this time, because art is nourishing. It’s centering. I like to say one plus one equals three. By that I mean, you have two bodies coming together: the person who is viewing the art and the person who is doing the art. And then, this other, third thing happens, which is a new idea, a new dialogue, and that’s really important.

LGB: Yes.

SN: I also really want to mention Just Above Midtown and how you, Linda, are a history book. You have worked with all these people, and you all were mutually inspired. Actors, artists and business people who you showed a new way of utilizing their funds. And most people don’t know all of the people you’ve worked with in your life that are only in history books now, like Romare Bearden, Miles Davis and so on.

LGB: When you and I have our weekly Sunday conversations I’ll say something like: “Oh yeah. I remember such and such person.” And you’ll say: “Linda, will you write this down? You got to write down the encounters and the time that you spent with these folks!”

In the case of Romare, he took me under his wing when he realized I was determined to start JAM. He told me I would need $50,000 to start a gallery and I said, “Well, I don’t have $50,000.” But I borrowed the money from someone and I signed the lease for this space. And I called up Romare and I said: “Romie, Romie! I got a lease! I got a lease! Can I come down? Can I show you? Can I show you?” And I ran up all those stairs on Canal Street. He was on the top floor, as I recall. Five flights. And he opened the door with that cat in his arms and said: “Take a breath. Sit down.” He looked at the lease and said, “You’re really going to do this thing.”

And he said something to me that it took me until my 50s to hear. And it was in my 60s that I actually ingested it. And I think now, at 70, I’m just now able to process it within my being. And what he said to me was: “Linda, this is what I want you to know. Don’t worry if people love you. All you want them to do is respect you. You don’t want love because love is fickle. Respect is forever. It’s enduring.”

SN: Wow, yeah.

LGB: And I couldn’t hear him. I was like: “Why is he popping my balloon? I have the lease. I run up all these stairs. I fly from 57th Street to Canal Street on the subway. Are you kidding me? You’re popping my bubble here.” At the time, I really couldn’t hear that. And then, as life progressed, I’m just now embracing the notion of respect because I’ve never really — I’m doing what I’m doing because I really believe in what I’m doing.

Art can be anything. I think all of us are artists. And some of us choose to pursue it as a focus of our life because we have nothing. We can’t do anything else. It’s the compulsion of what we do.

SN: Yes.

LGB: JAM was a family. It was a family that manifests. It was the stew that manifests as a family. We were definitely family.

SN: Who else did you work with?

LGB: Someone had a contact for Roberta Flack in the early days of JAM and she was collecting this artist in Jamaica, Kapo. Eventually that led to her underwriting a show of Kapo’s work at JAM. That experience introduced me to everybody that was in the music world at that time.

SN: How did they find you?

LGB: The gallery was well positioned because right next door to us on that fifth floor at 50 West 57th Street was an Italian tailor named Mario. All the basketball stars who were Mario’s clients would come into the gallery when they went to see Mario. Miles Davis recorded in that building and he went to Mario too. And then we got all this press talking about this Black gallery on 57th Street that the art world couldn’t understand. So then other people start finding us.

Stevie Wonder would come into the gallery when he was in New York City and we would just talk and have great conversations with one another back then.

SN: Wow.

LGB: And he bought art even though he couldn’t see it. He bought a wonderful David Hammons piece.

SN: Did you describe it to him?

LGB: No, he touched it. He felt it.

SN: I was thinking back to when you were saying that Romare Bearden was telling you how determined you were. I like to call you the Determinator. That is your title. There has been this line throughout everything you do. You see a void that needs to be filled. Whether it’s addressing gentrification in Ohio with your filmmaking or Project EATS when you saw that there was a huge problem in the community related to not only getting food to people but having nourishing education. I think the line started with JAM and has been throughout everything you’ve done since then.

LGB: If we go back to the stew metaphor, I think one of the wonderful things about JAM was that we all had that seasoning, being together, and that strengthened it.

SN: Mm-hmm.

LGB: And so it was in collaboration. It was us together. That strengthened my determination as I’m sure it strengthened the determination of all others, is what I’m trying to say. There was something about what we created in that space, who we were and how that manifested in that space, that made that space possible. It was all about the way that we supported and cared for one another, even when we disagreed.

SN: I think that you’re not giving yourself enough credit.

LGB: Probably not. I really like to be quiet.

SN: I still think you are the conductor, the glue, or something like that. You are the artful conductor because you have a number of skill sets that are helpful. I am an artist. I do what I do. But you also have the skill of business. In fact, you created those workshops at JAM — The Business of Being an Artist. That side of it was woefully lacking for many of us artists.

LGB: I went and got a business degree because a man who had ties to potential patrons told me that he thought it was ludicrous I started a gallery. Some curators told me that too. Anyway, one day this man came into the gallery and said: “This isn’t going to last. You don’t know what you’re doing. What do you know about balance sheets and financial statements?” And blah, blah, blah. So I said: “You need to get out of here. I mean I can’t believe you would come in here, and tell me what I don’t know.” But it stayed with me. And it made me realize business is mother wit. They want to fancy it up, put a degree behind it, and charge a lot of money for that degree. That’s well and good for them but the fact of the matter is business is common sense. So I guess, I will always hold dear to the belief that the essential quality of all life, no matter what form it takes, from amoeba to animal to human beings and beyond, is the ability to use what you have to create what you need.

SN: That’s your theme song.

LGB: I have an M.B.A. but that’s technical stuff and not the essence of trying to run a business. So for me, what has kept me going, even in the moments when I felt I was alone in what I was trying to do, has been family. That family that was JAM created the foundation of the families that have come since JAM. And it’s difficult now to create that. Not just because of Covid, but also because of modernization. Science and technology, as with everything else, has its pluses and minuses. I think the minuses of so much of digital technology, and the way we connect, and the way we perceive ourselves as community can pull us very far apart, despite its intentions to bring us together. And so, I’m really grateful for family.

SN: I think I need to add another element of who Linda is, which is ever enthusiastic, ever curious.

LGB: Oh yeah.

SN: Ever in a state of “what if?”

LGB: That’s true.

SN: And it serves as a magnet to other people who want to join the band, so to speak. It convinces them that certain things can be done. That they have a place in what’s going on. They can dream with you for this higher vision.

LGB: When those dreams are there, you can actually make it tangible. It doesn’t guarantee you’re going to be successful by any number of definitions of success. To me, the success is that you pursue it. Just go for it and let’s see.

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