Nicola Vassell made history last summer as the first African-American woman to own her own large-scale, contemporary art gallery, the Nicola Vassell Gallery in New York City. Seeing that art is such an integral part of our culture, I was blown away to learn about Vassell’s work, first as an art curator and dealer and now gallery owner.
But isn’t that what we do? We make space for ourselves. If we don’t have a seat at the table, we make our own table or we open a new spot with our own tables and chairs.
That’s just what local artist, Rose Marr, has done with her art gallery, designed to pay homage to her late mother, folk artist Mary “Mayfair” Matthews.
Marr’s hope is that, through her work with The Mayfair Art Gallery, her mother will posthumously join the ranks of women among notable African-American artists.
TSD: What type of business do you own?
Rose Marr: “I own a home-based art gallery that is dedicated to showcasing the artwork of my deceased mother, Mayfair, a self-taught folk artist.
“The gallery includes my personal collection of other local Black artists in Memphis, including my own artwork created in my home studio. The gallery offers original Mayfair artwork for sale as well as prints of some of her original paintings.”
TSD: How long have you been in the art industry and in business for yourself?
R.M.: “I opened my gallery in the spring of 2020 when I retired early as an educator in Oakland, California and returned to Memphis. I grew up in Memphis but lived in the San Francisco Bay area for 26 years.
“Art has always been an important part of my life, beginning in my early childhood when I would draw portraits of Black celebrities from photographs that I found in Jet and Ebony magazines.
“I maintained my passion for art throughout high school and eventually attended Memphis College of Art and received my Bachelor of Fine Arts. While living in California, I found myself divorced and the single parent of a toddler, needing to make something happen quickly. This circumstance led me to a career as a high school art teacher and later, a high school administrator.”
TSD: How many employees do you have?
R.M.: “I have one employee – me.”
TSD: What was your inspiration for going into art and starting your gallery?
R.M.: “My inspiration for establishing The Mayfair Art Gallery was my earnest desire to honor my mother by creating a space where people could see and experience my mother’s artwork in person.
“In addition to the joy she found in making art, my mother found so much joy in sharing her art with others. When she passed in 2011, she was very obscure, despite the quality and quantity of work she produced late in her life.
“When the opportunity for me to retire and return to Memphis arose, I knew that my focus would be promoting my mother’s life story and her art, to create the legacy she deserved.”
TSD: What challenges have you faced as an artist and business owner, and how have you risen above them?
R.M.: “My home setting/design studio is the perfect place for The Mayfair Art Gallery and keeps my business overhead low. Because my business is in my home, I schedule showings by appointment only.
“The biggest challenge since opening … was the restrictions of social contact brought about due to COVID-19. But in recent weeks, as (virus infection) rates have decreased, I have started inviting guests to the gallery, including a recent gallery reception to celebrate what would have been my mother’s 84th birthday.”
TSD: As a soon-to-be-wife, and now a business owner, how do you balance it all?
R.M.: “Fortunately for me, my fiancé, Carl Scott, is also a practicing artist. Although we did not know each other at the time, we are both graduates of Memphis College of Art; he in 1985 and me in 1992.
“His support with the gallery and my personal art practice is seamless and the perfect complement.
“In addition to being an artist, he is also a professional art framer and does art installations. His connection to the local art community has been a huge benefit to introducing me and the gallery to the Memphis community and beyond.
“Our mutual passion for the arts is the centerpiece of our union. We take frequent day trips to visit museums and galleries in neighboring states. He is definitely the yin to my yang, and I am certain that the timing of our meeting was one of divine intervention.”
TSD: What impact does your business have, or do you hope your business will have in the future? On your family, community, etc.
R.M.: “My hope is that The Mayfair Art Gallery will lead to my mother being acknowledged as one of the greatest folk artists ever, as I know her to be …
“With the anticipated success of establishing my mother’s legacy as a uniquely gifted artist, I believe that my small family will have a greater appreciation for and value of the massive art collection she left behind.
“My mother was born into sharecropping and had a third-grade education. When she became an artist late in life, she viewed it as an opportunity to establish an estate to pass on to her children. In addition, I hope that the gallery will be instrumental in getting my mother recognized internationally and would love to have her artwork exhibited and collected throughout the world.”
TSD: What advice do you have for someone who might be interested in entering your field?
R.M.: “My advice to anyone who wants to start an art gallery business is to just go for it and don’t allow the challenge of securing a facility to become a barrier. This is especially true if one is an artist, has a loved one who is an artist, or one who is a collector of art.
“I believe that any home could incorporate art into its setting and create an art experience that others can enjoy. And with access to social media and the internet, there are unlimited marketing opportunities.”
TSD: What advice do you have for other Black business owner hopefuls?
R.M.: “My advice to other Black business hopefuls is to be of courage and confidence: If you build it, they will come.”
TSD: If you weren’t doing this, what else would you be doing?
R.M.: “Aside from growing The Mayfair Gallery, I will be launching my education consulting business later this year: School Culture Consultancy.
“Working with urban youth in education is another huge passion of mine. My 20-plus years as an educator in the Oakland Unified School District has provided me with an arsenal of best practices to create school cultures where urban students can feel safe and learn. I absolutely loved my role as an urban educator and miss it terribly…”
TSD: What professional accomplishments or major milestone are you most proud of?
R.M.: “I am most proud of being a first-generation college graduate and continuing my education to acquire my Master’s in Educational Leadership and Policy Studies from the University of Memphis…(that) allowed me to establish a rewarding career as an educator and raise my young son as a single mother without a support system while living in Oakland, California.
“My son, Jonathan Hunt, Jr., is now 25 years old and has been in the Air Force approaching four years. He is stationed in Japan, loves his career, and has the opportunity to travel the world. I am also very proud of him.”
TSD: Anything else you would like to add?
R.M.: The Mayfair Art Gallery website is still a work in progress. However, anyone interested in visiting the gallery, located in Cordova, can call me to schedule a showing by appointment at 510-978-1706. Email: [email protected].