Seeing Art in a New Light with Stephanie Baptist

The innovative curator shares more about her approach to exhibiting artwork, her time curating art across the Atlantic in London and her philosophy on nurturing emerging talent.

By Latria Graham

Before the establishment of museums, art was created to be enjoyed by patrons in their homes. Now whitewalled exhibition spaces, often devoid of any context, make it hard to imagine the art as something created to live in spaces inhabited by people.

That’s where Stephanie Baptist’s work comes in. The independent cultural producer and editor from New Jersey founded Medium Tings, a conceptual art incubator in Crown Heights, Brooklyn,in 2017. She wanted to give emerging artists a place to showcase their work while introducing the community around her to contemporary art. On Sundays, her living room, on the second story of a brownstone, becomes an art gallery. There are no security guards to examine visitors’ every move, and the intimate atmosphere facilitates free flowing conversation, giving communities that often don’t intersect during the workweek the chance to interact through the medium of art. Ecru-colored walls offer a hint of warmth, and verdant houseplants punctuate the place, changing the way observers look at and analyze art.

Baptist entered the art world as an aspiring photographer and then spent seven years working as a photography agent in New York City. Her clients did commercial work but also spent time cultivating their fine art aesthetic. Representing those artists led Baptist to spend more time in museums and contemporary art galleries. Her curiosity led her to make a transatlantic change, and she landed in London, where she earned an MA in Arts Administration and Cultural Policy from Goldsmiths University of London. After graduation, she worked as head of exhibitions and public programs for Tiwani Contemporary, an art gallery dedicated to African and diaspora art in London, “There’s a much larger African diaspora community in London,” she explained. “So, their focus is much more from an African art perspective, and I think in the U.S.A. it’s much more an African-American Black art perspective; a lot of the topics and themes run parallel. At times, New York looks at art from a commercial financial perspective, and in London, I felt there was a little bit more room for flexibility or more of a focus on an ability to have a little bit more creativity in terms of the unique individual spaces.”

Even though she wouldn’t launch her own venture for several years, Baptist was already looking at the philosophies of exhibition space and how it is used in contemporary gallery settings. Four years later, she returned to New York City as the program director for En Foco, a non-profit organization that nurtures fine art and documentary photographers of Latino, African and Asian heritage and native peoples of the Americas and the Pacific. Baptist spent years searching for what she considered her dream job, serving as a contributing editor for Another Africa, a London/N.Y. correspondent for Contemporary, while also working as an independent cultural producer for various commercial and art-led projects for brands and design studios. Little did she know she would have to create her own niche, building her organization from the ground up. She created a nurturing space that allowed artists to experiment, made art accessible topeople that don’t often visit galleries, welcomed art enthusiasts and was friendly to first-time art buyers. Baptist realized there were few people of color in the spaces she occupied—in the United States, people of the African diaspora make up only 4 percent of museum staff. Often her industry excludes people of certain races and class, limiting opportunities for dialogue around the work being displayed.

“The art market, or rather the commercial-ness of art, is centered around money,” Baptist says matter-of-factly. “It’s less about the actual product so much as it’s like this cultural capital. I think that I’ve been very interested in building cultural capital from the very beginning.”

Enter her brainchild: Medium Tings. Even the project’s name is multifunctional. Medium refers to the types of art Baptist curates— photography, painting, video and sculpture installations have graced this space. Medium also refers to the size of the art. “The work has to be able to fit into my living room,” Baptist laughs, “or else it won’t work.” Tings is Caribbean slang for “thing” and evokes the Caribbean roots of the community where the project is based, on Eastern Parkway. Every Labor Day, the Caribbean Day Parade comes down the block, the festivities steeped in pride, music blasting, people dancing, celebrating their heritage and commitment to their culture and each other. Stephanie Baptist wanted to bring a bit of that into her living room.

Deciding to open her living space on a Sunday was another intentional choice. “Sundays are meant to be easy, comfortable days that bring people together. People gather together at church. People fellowship at brunch. Sunday was very important just to initiate Medium Tings underneath this kind of umbrella because it was about bringing people together. I chose Sunday afternoons because people could come after church, and viewing the artwork could be a family thing. It’s a way to unwind,” Baptist says.

Opening up your home to strangers might seem like a dangerous idea, particularly in a place like New York City—about eight million call the municipality home. Baptist looked at the project in a different light: “I started thinking about the concept of what makes a person a stranger and how communities are built. I see what I do as building a micro community in a micro space and that has the power to grow into something larger and more impactful. I never had a moment in which I would feel frightened that I was opening up my doors. I sit on the couch with people I didn’t know and didn’t realize we could have a conversation for an hour. I’ve had a wide range of individuals in the space, from the art novice to the art historian. There’s this idea of integration or this idea of breaking down walls. “

Baptist also points out that art viewers have to be open enough to walk into an unknown person’s home—the entire experiment is a trust exercise of sorts. ”The audience was just as open as me, opening up my space. So there was this beautiful kind of exchange. The energy is so vibrant, and I always feel recharged after each one.”

One of the largest impacts Baptist sees in her space is that a lot of art enthusiasts become first-time art buyers. That helps create an economy that can exist in opposition to an environment that doesn’t necessarily open up its doors to allow for young spaces or young creators. When most people hear the phrase “art patron,” they think about museums and people on corporate boards or benefactors who give lots of money and get their name on a plaque. Baptist shows people that they can be art enthusiasts on a smaller scale, allowing buyers to invest in their peers and contemporaries.

Baptist’s process of curating an exhibition evolves organically, and sometimes she chooses which artists to feature based on a subject or theme she has in mind, but often it comes down to intuition. Many of the chosen creators don’t come from the typical art school background or have a curriculum vitae filled with exhibitions and awards. “It’s really important to create platforms and new opportunities for artists of color,” Baptist says. “A lot of them are self-taught artists, and there are also some formally trained, but they’re both valid and deserving of recognition. These professional opportunities, such as giving them a solo gallery, show both as a way to expand their practice but also to begin to understand the market.”

She sees being able to nurture artists and provide guidance as integral but adds that being fully transparent with creators about selling work is just as important. “They’re learning how to talk about their practice; many self-taught artists are not familiar with the vernacular of what we might call ‘art language.’ So I encourage them to start with what they were feeling when they sat down to make a particular art piece and explain that vernacular begins within yourself.”

Baptist is bringing that same sincere energy to Instagram, another vehicle for conversation. Medium Tings is active on the platform and has a devoted following. “I think art has a really powerful way of conveying things without using dialogue. So I think that from that perspective Instagram is very much both a diary but can also be this collection of stories and narratives about where we are today in the world and what’s happening,” she says.

Baptist mentions a number of artists she’s featured— Mohamed Abbagana, Wole Lagunju and Arielle Bobb- Willis to name a few—and how their works are used to create conversation: “When I see a piece that I want to post on Instagram, the work is a conduit to put my words together. Many a times when I look at an art piece, I think about a song. I might think about something I read. So, there’s a direct conversation that I’m having in my mind when I see a piece of art. If it moves me, it’s probably tapping into other things I’m thinking about. When I post it online, it’s more of, ‘Do you want to engage in this conversation with me? Cause this is what I’m thinking about.’ It isn’t just like a. . . . it’s a personal thing, but it’s also very much for everyone.”

Even though the project has an online presence, Baptist insists that there are bigger things in the works for her art exhibition concept. “I’m working on expanding the online offerings,” Baptist says. “I’m trying to make this a larger online boutique. I want to make this a platform and present the opportunity to collaborate with other practitioners—where we could curate a selection of goods to open up the dialogue and make the digital space an international conversation.” While she works on the digital presence of Medium Tings,

Baptist is also on the lookout for a new, larger gallery space. “When you’re renting, you’re at the mercy of landlords. I’m very much in the throes of trying to figure out all of the logistics for relocating to a new space,” Baptist says.

Still, she is grateful for all that the Medium Tings project has given her. “Touching one person is more than enough for me. The idea that hundreds of people have walked into my space is a gift.”

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