Arts Power 50: The Changemakers Shaping the Art World in 2019

The 50 individuals working to strengthen the impact, reach, social responsibility or financial stability of the arts industry in 2019.

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The art industry changes fast. Spurred on by artists who are bringing forward new ideas and radical aesthetics into the discourse, this is an industry where those who promote, represent, exhibit, sell, critique and generally support art have to stay nimble. For this reason, Observer takes a moment each year to consider the power players impacting the arts. This industry is a complicated ecosystem, but we look to the changemakers both behind the scenes and in the spotlight to see who is building the future zeitgeist.

Here, in our second edition of this list, we bring you a group of individuals each working to strengthen the impact, reach, social responsibility or financial stability of a field that is seemingly in a constant state of flux. These are the people you’ll be talking about this year. They are artists and curators, museum directors and gallery owners, auctioneers and government officials, creative thinkers and truly hard workers. Each has been building something new in 2019, from reimaging the most prestigious art fairs to establishing a new norm for how artists are paid. The Arts Power 50 is Observer’s list of the people who are taking action to bring the art world into a new paradigm.

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Shahidul Alam

Shahidul Alam. Courtesy Drik Picture Library

His career spans more than 40 years, but Shahidul Alam’s photographs feel more relevant than ever. The photojournalist and social activist was named a 2018 Time Person of the Year just months after he was arrested in his native Bangladesh for publicly criticizing Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina.

“I practice photography because it works,” he told Observer. “It is social justice that I am interested in. If tomorrow photography ceases to be effective, I’ll have no problem discarding it for some other tool.”

In 1989, Alam co-founded the Drik Picture Library to showcase and advocate for Bangladeshi photographers. The institution organized Chobi Mela, one of the most significant international photo festivals based in Asia, which celebrated its 10th biennial festival in March.

Now, Alam is preparing for his upcoming retrospective at The Rubin Museum, opening November 8, which will include a series based on his period of incarceration.

“I have been working on the theme of disappearance for some time,” he said. “While producing photographic work based on the absence of people is challenging itself, this will look at the experiences of a photographer, where photography is not possible.”

Beyond that, Alam is involved in setting up the Global South Arts and Culture Initiative, which looks to address issues of representation in what he calls the “Majority World,” labeled by others, according to Alam, “the ‘Developing World’ or ‘Least Developed Countries.’” He is focused on “finding ways for Southern cultural practitioners to be seen, represented and promoted.”

–Mary von Aue

Art World Conference: Heather Bhandari and Dexter Wimberly


Dexter Wimberly and Heather Bhandari. Coke Wisdom O’Neal

Slated to launch April 25, Dexter Wimberly and Heather Bhandari’s Art World Conference will be an annual gathering for artists and art professionals, with the goal of facilitating honest conversations about career development, entrepreneurship and self-empowerment to build and sustain careers in the arts.

It will be the first of its kind, and it’s desperately needed. Stories about the shrinking middle class and increasing financial hardships middle-tier galleries and emerging artists endure have become the norm. Even many who have relatively successful careers still struggle to pay the bills.

“We have ambitious plans to bring the conference to several other cities in the U.S. and abroad and will also produce smaller professional development events throughout the year,” Wimberly and Bhandari told Observer. “Ultimately, our goal is to rebalance the power dynamics in the arts by giving artists and arts professionals information they need to make better decisions for their future.”

–Paddy Johnson

Lucas Blalock

Lucas Blalock. Courtesy the artist and Rodolphe Janssen, Brussels

Lucas Blalock is, as he told Observer, “a photographer who acts more like a painter but is keeping on with photography.” What that often entails is a process of shooting on film, scanning the photo and then digitally manipulating it to make something like, for example, an image of a man whose mouth and mustache crawl across his face in several repetitive chunks. Blalock’s photos don’t try to hide their alteration; they embrace it.

In his first solo institutional exhibition at the Institute of Contemporary Art Los Angeles (I.C.A. L.A.), “An Enormous Oar,” curated by Jamillah James, you’ll see surreal portraits, still lifes and domestic scenes from the last five years that have a cumulative effect of making you ever-so-slightly second guess what your eyes are telling you for hours, maybe even days after you’ve left the show.

You can also see Blalock representing digital photo processing in the 2019 Whitney Biennial. And currently under development is a project slated to appear free of charge to the masses: a billboard in New York that he says will have an augmented reality component.

–Juliet Helmke

Canada Gallery: Sarah Braman, Suzanne Butler, Phil Grauer and Wallace Whitney

Sarah Braman, Suzanne Butler, Wallace Whitney, Phil Grauer. Courtesy Canada Gallery

Established in 1999 by artists Sarah Braman, Suzanne Butler, Phil Grauer and Wallace Whitney, Canada Gallery was, as they told Observer, “born out of a kind of necessity.”

“This was the late 1990s,” they said in an email. “So we just banded together to do it ourselves.”

Twenty years later, that has proven a successful business model. Their roster has grown to encompass close to 30 artists, including Katherine Bradford, Katherine Bernhardt and Marc Hundley. The four put their good fortune and ability to stay in business in a sometimes-volatile arts market down to collaboration (“As it turns out, sharing responsibilities and making decisions by committee has helped broaden our influences”) and a certain flexibility.

“Nearly twenty years ago, we moved from Tribeca to Chinatown after the destruction of the World Trade Center. Now we are moving back to Tribeca, forced out of our Broome Street home by Marriott, who bought the building so they could replace it with a ‘lifestyle hotel.’ We keep moving as the city changes around us. Hopefully the fourth time will be the charm,” they said.

More and more galleries are cropping up in Tribeca, it’s true, but once Canada announced the move, the neighborhood’s fate as the next gallery hub seemed solidified.


Amy Cappellazzo

Amy Cappellazzo. Courtesy Sotheby's

Amy Cappellazzo might just be the most talented and charismatic chairman Sotheby’s has ever employed. Credited for turning around the auction house’s 2016 crisis of confidence, Cappellazzo has proven herself a formidable business leader capable of steering even the largest ships out of troubled water.

Equally important, she’s the rare unrepentant warrior for the rich who isn’t a snob and understands how to talk to the public.

“Just because you know the value of a work of art doesn’t mean that you don’t understand what the work means, what its cultural value is, or that you don’t have feelings for it,” she recently told ArtSpace.

The conversation was part of a press push for the 2018 HBO documentary, The Price of Everything, which examines the role of art in our money-driven culture. Cast as the lead villain, Cappellazzo compares museum collections to cemeteries and refers to the sale price of Henri Matisse as “a couple hundo”—slang for a couple hundred million.

The attitude simultaneously grates and ingratiates—the upshot being a tremendous amount of exposure for Sotheby’s along with continued financial gains.


Jim Carrey

Jim Carrey. Getty Images

Jim Carrey is best known as an actor, but over the last two years, he’s gained quite the reputation as a political cartoonist. Though he regularly posts his work on Twitter, he’s not solely confined to the internet. Last October, Maccarone Gallery showed a series of his drawings that expressed Carrey’s disgust with our current president and the Republican party as a whole.

“I don’t know if I’m changing minds on the right, but I know that I’m providing relief to myself and to those who see the inequities of this New York sewer rat,” he told Observer. “I also know that there will come a day in the very near future where those in the Republican party and those who supported Trump because he hated and feared the same people as them or chose to believe moronic [right wing] conspiracy theories, will be cursed by it.”

While he waits for the inevitable reckoning, Carrey’s got plenty going on (including, most recently, a Twitter feud with Mussolini’s granddaughter to attend to). In addition to the upcoming season of Showtime’s Kidding, his art career is gathering steam; in January, Carrey spoke with Jerry Saltz about his drawings to a packed audience at Vulture Festival in Los Angeles. “I’m pretty sure that other opportunities to yack about the ‘Bonehead in Chief’ will arise,” he said of his future artistic plans, before adding that he’s also finishing a novel. “[Trump’s] not my whole life. He’s just a polyp that has to be removed from it.”


Decolonize This Place

Members of Decolonize This Place. Decolonize This Place

Just what, or who, is Decolonize This Place? They are maybe best described as a group of approximately ten people, facilitated by MTL+ Collective, who serve as a conduit for over 30 grassroots organizations dealing with roughly these six issues: black liberation, Palestinian liberation, de-gentrification, global wage worker justice, indigenous struggle and dismantling the patriarchy.

In 2018, they petitioned the Brooklyn Museum to create a decolonization commission to explore issues such as staff diversification and the replacement of real estate tycoon board members with artists. One year prior, the group demanded the removal of a statue of Theodore Roosevelt at the American Museum of Natural History because of its racist underpinnings. Most recently their efforts have been focused on ousting the Whitney Museum Vice Chairman Warren B. Kanders, who owns the giant weapons manufacturer Safariland. Safariland’s tear gas has been launched at women and children seeking asylum at the U.S.-Mexico border, as well as at protestors at the Standing Rock American Indian Reservation and in Baltimore, Ferguson, Mo., and Gaza, Palestine.

“Decolonization is not just an academic buzzword for the official institutional discourse, ‘diversity and inclusion,’ which focus on the representation of identities rather than a fundamental redistribution of power and resources,” the group told Observer. “Decolonization is a practice and a process that unsettles.”

Decolonize This Place ultimately measures impact “in terms of the relationships we are cultivating, the spaces we bring to life, and the shift in collective imagination we have facilitated. We measure these processes in terms of years, decades and generations of liberation struggle.”


Nanne Dekking

Nanne Dekking. Anne Timmer

Nanne Dekking grew up in the art-rich Netherlands but established most of his 20-plus-year art career in New York. He has worked as a dealer and advisor for collectors, runs his own art consultancy business and led Sotheby’s global private sales as the auction powerhouse’s vice chairman.

In 2016, Dekking left Sotheby’s to found Artory, a blockchain-based database that tracks the provenance of artworks with the goal to bring “a greater level of transparency and confidence to the art market,” he told Observer.

Outside Artory, Dekking serves as the board chairman of The European Fine Art Fair (TEFAF), which hosts an annual art fair in Maastricht, Netherlands.

“I am happy to spend each day at the intersection of art and technology,” he said. “My dual roles as the founder of Artory and the Chairman of TEFAF have allowed me to understand the single most important element in the art market: trust—specifically, trust regarding provenance and authenticity. And there was nothing like this in the market,” he said of his nascent tech product.

Late last month, the company announced an acquisition that will arm art buyers with even more knowledge—and therefore security—with the purchase of Auction Club, a comprehensive database of fine art auction records. And, for the first time, the information will be free for public access.

–Sissi Cao

Desert X: Amanda Hunt, Matthew Schum and Neville Wakefield

Matthew Schum, Amanda Hunt and Neville Wakefield. Desert X

The highly anticipated second edition of Desert X is now underway in Coachella Valley, reclaiming what it established in 2017: contemporary art at its most Californian, scattered across 55 miles of scenic desert locales that are perfect for Instagram.

Artistic Director Neville Wakefield has returned to the helm of the festival, this time bringing in Amanda Hunt from MoCA in L.A. and writer Matthew Schum as co-curators. While the Desert X debut drew over 200,000 visitors, much in part to its social media–friendly scenescapes and sprawling collection, Wakefield, Hunt and Schum have, for this edition, curated work to engage with the region holistically. The result is an exhibition of 19 artists, many of whom are presenting work that directly tackles the social and environmental issues affecting the state.

For example, Cara Romero, a Chemehuevi tribe member, explores the erasure of indigenous people from the region, while Pia Camil presents new work that evokes the realities of the refugee crisis along the U.S.-Mexico border. The result is an art biennial fully aware of its physical surroundings, entering the labyrinthine art world with its own hyper-local lens.


Diller Scofidio + Renfro: Elizabeth Diller, Ricardo Scofidio, Charles Renfro, and Benjamin Gilmartin

DS+R Partners. Geordie Wood

So far, the only building that has escaped mass opprobrium in the Hudson Yards Mall complex has been The Shed. Unlike every other building in the development project, its modular structure demonstrates the kind of innovative thinking and design Diller Scofidio + Renfro consistently deliver.

Led by the firm’s four partners, Elizabeth DillerRicardo ScofidioCharles Renfro, and Benjamin Gilmartin, the structure’s design was inspired in part by the rail line leading into the complex. The shell glides along rails, expanding and contracting as events demand. With its modularity and uniqueness of shape and form, it’s truly a structure for the 21st century.

As the city’s marquee civic arts center, secured at the cost of $500 million, New York has a lot riding on the Shed’s success. What happens inside the building has yet to be assessed, but the architecture itself has already made its mark on history. Also awaiting final judgment is another project of the firm’s, one that is similarly sure to leave an indelible mark on New York City culture: their design for MoMA’s renovation and expansion, opening on October 21.


Edward Dolman

Edward Dolman. Phillips

When Edward Dolman was appointed CEO and chairman of British auction house Phillips in 2014, it looked like almost a step down compared with his previous posts which included CEO of Christie’s and top director for Qatar’s state art regulator. But he saw the job as an exciting opportunity to delve into the largely untapped mid-range auction business as high-end auctions became an increasingly cutthroat game.

Since Dolman took the helm, Phillips’ sales have soared year over year to reach a 220-year high of $916 million in 2018, notably driven by growth in Asia.

“Phillips has experienced exponential growth in Asia in recent years—holding a series of successful auctions in Hong Kong. We continue to make significant investments in Tokyo, Taipei and Shanghai,” Dolman told Observer.

Outside auction houses, Dolman reveals himself as a true aesthete, but this time his appreciation is for natural beauty, rather than man-made. He “spends days, or even weeks, on a boat in the middle of the sea,” Dolman told us. “I have been sailing since I was about 11 years old,” he said. “It’s glorious to forget your job for a little while or how your stock portfolio is behaving and just focus on the wind and the sea.”


Bridget Donahue

Bridget Donahue. AMBER De VOS/ PatrickMcMullan

Bridget Donahue’s gallery program may be among the most progressive in New York City. The almost all-women roster, including the likes of Martine Syms, Jessi Reaves and Sondra Perry, stands in stark contrast to her colleagues who overwhelmingly show male artists.

The sheer strength of the gallery’s artists and exhibitions also makes Donahue’s work distinctive. This year, the gallery, located on the Bowery, showcased an extraordinary grouping of photographs by filmmaker Ulrike Ottinger. Shot on set, these mesmerizing images capture a highly cultivated world in which power, gender and sex converge into broken, ritualistic acts.

Coming up, Olga Balema will open a solo show that will run through the summer, followed by a group show organized by Erin Leland, who has been working with the gallery since it began.

When asked what she does when she’s not in her gallery, Donahue told Observer, “I don’t have so much free time.”


Ari Emanuel

Ari Emanuel. Courtesy Ariel Emanuel

After years of Los Angeles collectors skipping the local fairs to buy the same art in New York and Miami, a shift finally occurred—Frieze set up shop in the city and collectors started buying. The man widely credited for this groundbreaking success, Ari Emanuel, runs Endeavor, a Hollywood sport and entertainment conglomerate that in 2016 reportedly purchased a 70 percent stake in Frieze. (The fair is said to operate independently.)

“I wanted to create something new,” Emanuel told Observer. “The longer we looked at it, the clearer it became that L.A. was our best chance to break new ground. From there, we all worked hard to realize the vision. With the Frieze team at the core, so many other elements of Endeavor got involved, from WME [the talent agency] to Endeavor Global Marketing.”

When asked what Frieze brought to L.A., Emanuel spoke of his pleasure in defying expectations.

“It proved what so many of this city’s artists, galleries, collectors and art institutions have known all along: L.A. is a global art capital,” he said. “It was particularly rewarding for me to see the creative forces from the worlds of entertainment and art come together, which was part of our strategic goal from the beginning.”


Awol Erizku

Awol Erizku. Jeff Vespa

At 31, Awol Erizku’s career is ascendant. His photographs, with their easily recognizable style, treat figures and objects as still lifes arranged for texture, color and beauty. This aesthetic has made him something of a celebrity and media magnet. His work as a commercial photographer and as a fine art photographer intersects in ways that tend to be mutually beneficial. For example, while Erizku may be best known for his 2017 photograph Beyoncé used to announce she was expecting twins, it was his rising art career that secured that gig.

This year, his pictures ran in the September issue of Artforum in a special series of still lifes spread across the magazine and, simultaneously, a more commercial series of photographs of Ruth E. Carter costumes were commissioned for The New Yorker. (This work followed his now-iconic shots of Donald Glover earlier that year.)

All of this work seems to connect to his current collaborative project with floral designer Sarah Lineberger and Hand & Rose, a flower and art object delivery service. The website’s photographs have Erizku’s trademark color palette, and they run a truck service selling their wares with a weekly schedule published on their website.

“There’s an aspect in my work that I want to be universal,” Erizku told New York Magazine in 2015. Four years later, it’s clear his aspiration has become a reality.


Tom Finkelpearl

Tom Finkelpearl. Courtesy The City of New York

It’s been a big year for New York City’s Department of Cultural Affairs. They currently have the most significant city allocation for the agency in history, with over $200 million expense dollars and another $200 million in capital. As the city’s cultural commissioner, Tom Finkelpearl oversees the agencies that distribute those funds, but he is quick to point out he’s just one of a team of many.

“Everything is a collaboration with the agency staff and has been achieved along with an array of colleagues at City Hall and partner agencies,” he told Observer.

Finkelpearl says the job has him out most weeknights. “This could be anything from an opening at the Metropolitan Opera to a concert in Jamaica, Queens, for the Bangladesh Institute of Performing Arts,” he explained. “This might sound like fun, and it can be, but the schedule is relentless, and I am there representing the City.”

Though grueling, that work is paying off. One hallmark of Finkelpearl’s tenure has been a shifting of funding to create greater equity. This March, the city announced it was directing $2.8 million in admissions revenue from the Met Museum to arts groups in underserved communities citywide. The decision is consistent with the city’s cultural plan, CreateNYC, which strives for more equitable distribution of arts and culture services—thus adding to the diversity of voices that make New York’s cultural life so robust.


Nan Goldin

Nan Goldin. Neilson Barnard/Getty Images

As a documentarian of uncountable instances of intimacy that are both massive in their tenderness and heartbreakingly fractured in their execution, photographer Nan Goldin is peerless. Her best-known work is The Ballad of Sexual Dependency, 1980–1986, a visual essay comprised of close to 700 pictures that capture the often funny, often dark and often ecstatic misadventures of Goldin and her fluid circle of friends as they grappled with the contradictory imperatives of staying alive. Excavating this fierce, primal struggle is a theme that Goldin has stuck with.

In January 2018, Goldin published a piece in Artforum that chronicled the addiction to OxyContin that consumed three years of her life. She’s since been at the helm of several large-scale protests against the Sackler family, owners of the juggernaut OxyContin manufacturing company Purdue Pharma. The most recent demonstration Goldin organized took place at the Guggenheim Museum in Manhattan. Her radical, tireless empathy is profound, both as an artist and as an activist.

–Helen Holmes

Deana Haggag

Deana Haggag. Olivia Obineme

In only two years heading the granting organization United States Artists, Deana Haggag has laid the groundwork for the growth and expansion of its programs. That expansion starts this year with The Berresford Prize, a new $25,000 award of unrestricted funds given to a cultural practitioner who has contributed significantly to the welfare of artists. This year’s award went to Kristy Edmunds, executive and artistic director of U.C.L.A.’s Center for the Art of Performance.

“The Berresford Prize is the first of what will be five years of announcements coming out of United States Artists,” Haggag told Observer. “We are interested in celebrating, honoring, supporting and promoting and we have new initiatives we want to launch over the next few years that focus on that last bit.”

Importantly, the prize evolved out of conversations with artists, who felt their growth could not happen independently of a larger community that also needed support.

“In the cultural sector, there’s no shortage of good ideas,” Haggag observed. “It’s just the resources to bring that thing to fruition [that are lacking].”


Marqueece Harris-Dawson

Marqueece Harris-Dawson.
Marqueece Harris-Dawson. City of Los Angeles

Destination Crenshaw might be the best public art project to come along in half a century—or at least the most ambitious. Spearheaded by Los Angeles City Councilman Marqueece Harris-Dawson, the 1.3-mile, open-air museum flanks the new Crenshaw/LAX Metro rail line (between 48th and 60th street) that connects the Los Angeles airport to the city. The intention is threefold: to connect a neighborhood divided by an above-ground train line, to prevent the cultural erasure that comes with gentrification (by creating cultural landmarks too significant to remove), and to celebrate a renaissance in black culture in a predominantly African-American neighborhood.

“The black community will be the gateway to the city of Los Angeles for travelers from all over the world,” Joanne Kim, senior adviser to Harris-Dawson told Observer.

The programming planned for the 2020 opening is nothing short of staggering: 18 narratives about black L.A. that have had a global impact embedded into the art on the corridor, 10 major art commissions just to kick off the project, and over 800 new trees to replace the ones that were clear cut for the train line.

“Like Harlem, we plan to create cultural markers and monuments to prevent erasure of our legacy, as often happens with rampant gentrification,” Harris-Dawson said of the project. “Los Angeles is the leader of the current black American renaissance, and we believe Destination Crenshaw can support something akin to the Harlem Renaissance.”


Leila Heller

Leila Heller. Courtesy Leila Heller

Leila Heller founded her groundbreaking, eponymous institution smack dab in the midst of New York City’s heady, high-octane 1980s art scene—an environment that gave rise to many immortal movers and shakers—but her longevity as an influential champion of Middle Eastern, Southeastern and Central Asian artists is no fluke.

Heller has facilitated the exhibition of the work of myriad radical and creative thinkers including Iranian-American artist Shiva Ahmadi, Turkish sculptor and painter Kezban Arca Batibeki, and internationally celebrated architect Dame Zaha Hadid, who passed away in 2016.

Heller, a prolific collector in her own right whose personal trove of treasures includes works by Alexander Calder, Marilyn Minter and Charles Hossein Zenderoudi, has also enjoyed a remarkable career in academia. As an undergraduate, she studied art history at Brown University and she’s also earned two master’s degrees, the first from the Sotheby’s Institute in London and the second from George Washington University in art history and museum management.

In 2015, Heller opened an outpost of her space in Dubai’s Al Serkal Avenue. Earlier this year, she moved back to her original neighborhood, the Upper East Side, from Chelsea, where she’d set up shop for nine years. To celebrate the new space, she put on a humdinger of a show featuring the likes of Yayoi Kusama, Alexander Calder, Mark Bradford, David Smith, Luc Tuymans, Renoir, Picasso and Marilyn Minter.


Rujeko Hockley and Jane Panetta

Rujeko Hockley and Jane Panetta. Scott Rudd

When the time came to choose who would be in charge of organizing the 2019 Whitney Biennial, the museum hummed with the awareness that the choice would be as widely publicized as the already famous and rigorously scrutinized event itself.

Curators Rujeko Hockley and Jane Panetta represent a synergy that the Whitney is known for, one that marries their combined years of curatorial excellence with an equally shared instinct for the burbling aesthetic opportunities few others would spot.

Hockley studied art history at Columbia University and became an assistant curator at the Whitney in 2017 after periods at the Studio Museum in Harlem and the Brooklyn Museum. At the latter institution, she co-organized the exhibition “We Wanted a Revolution: Black Radical Women, 1965–85” with Catherine Morris. Panetta helped envision “America Is Hard to See,” the staggering inaugural show that debuted in 2015 along with the museum’s then-new Meatpacking District location.

“The 2019 Whitney Biennial is perhaps the most ambitious project I have worked on to date and feels exceedingly exciting and rewarding as a result,” Panetta told Observer. “My co-curator Rujeko Hockley and I are thrilled about the group of 75 artists that we have brought together for the show and are eagerly anticipating making this project public.”


Pierre Huyghe

Pierre Huyghe. JOHN D MCHUGH/AFP/Getty Images

Pierre Huyghe always seems to be having a good year. He’s one of a handful of artists who perennially fills the role of curator darling, perhaps because of his almost inhuman ability to produce consistently strong work.

But even with a resume that includes solo presentations at the Met, the Serpentine Galleries, the Guggenheim Bilbao, MoMA, LACMA and Centre Pompidou (to name a few), when New York Times critic Jason Farago goes so far as to call an artist’s show “landmark” and his work a favorite, surely some awe can still be afforded.

Most Americans will not have seen the Serpentine exhibition, “UUmwelt,” that inspired Farago’s high praise late last year. But that work, a series of incomplete images generated by a computer program attempting to visualize human thoughts and 10,000 flies with millions of eyes, will almost certainly travel. When it does, it’s our job to make sure to see it.


Jamillah James

Jamillah James. Paul Mpagi Sepuya

Over the next two years, Jamillah James will produce some of the most important exhibitions to launch in the United States.

The New Museum just announced James and Margot Norton as co-curators of their 2021 Triennial, the fifth edition of the institution’s benchmark show that highlights the most promising emerging artists of today. Meanwhile, I.C.A. L.A., where James is a curator, will launch her survey of Nayland Blake’s work, the first since 2009, along with the group exhibition, “The Living End: Painting and Other Technologies 1970-Present.”

James has achieved all this without the standard credentials. “I don’t have a master’s degree,” she confessed to Hyperallergic in 2017. She even failed a drawing course. None of that has slowed her down, though. She’s a formidable presence shaping the L.A. art scene and beyond, and if this year is any indication, will be doing so for years to come.


Grace Jones

Grace Jones. Andrea Klarin

Nobody does 70 better than supermodel, artist, and dance club icon Grace Jones. This March, the Jamaican-born legend dominated Paris Fashion Week, walking the Tommy x Zendaya Spring 2019 runway in a disco-inspired bodysuit while dancing to her hit song, “Pull Up to the Bumper.” The internet blew up. Is there any other 70-year-old that has managed to sustain such a long career of extended creative output and also looked so good doing it?

Jones’s influence on contemporary artists is prodigious, as evidenced by curator Nicole Caruth’s 2016 exhibition, “The Grace Jones Project,” for the Museum of African Diaspora. The show assembled Jones-related ephemera and more than 20 contemporary artworks impacted by the icon. Amongst those artists were superstars Simone Leigh, Wangechi Mutu and Jacolby Satterwhite.

Unsurprisingly, for Jones, there’s still more in the works. On June 29, New Yorkers will have the benefit of seeing her headline the Pride Celebration—giving us all one more reason to look forward to the event.


Vince Kadlubek

Vince Kadlubek, CEO of Meow Wolf. Courtesy Meow Wolf

It took a decade for the feral arts collective known as Meow Wolf to transform itself into an arts and entertainment juggernaut. Specializing in immersive experiences with detailed narratives and complicated build-outs, the entity is now nearing household name status in the field of experience art.

The man behind Meow Wolf’s business development is founding collective member and CEO Vince Kadlubek, and he deserves much of the credit for the company’s financial health.

“Meow Wolf strives to have a 50 percent profit margin while also maintaining affordable admissions and high pay and benefits for employees,” Kadlubek told Observer. As a point of comparison, Cedar Fair amusement parks reported a 9.39 percent profit margin in 2018. Meow Wolf pays its employees at least $15 an hour and offers them health care and even college course credit.

“We also gauge success by our level of disruption in our industries, which is much harder to quantify,” Kadlubek explained. According to him, that means challenging status quo thinking and sparking conversation.

As Meow Wolf expands from its Santa Fe, N.M., base to Denver and Las Vegas, Kadlubek looks to the future. (A hotel in Phoenix is also planned.)

“I’m excited about this gamified network of explorable spaces that will allow people from around the world to coexist within a hybrid of physical and virtual space,” he explained obliquely. He also mentioned an unannounced public art project he thinks “will blow people’s minds.” When asked what he does in between producing the art most of us consume in our leisure time, he replied, “I sit. Literally, I sit. I don’t do anything else.”


Suzanne Lacy

Suzanne Lacy. Courtesy USC Roski School of Fine Arts

Suzanne Lacy is rightfully considered one of the pioneers of socially engaged art. In a career that spans over four decades, her videos, installations, critical writing and performances have been so instrumental in bringing social issues like sexual violence, poverty and gender identity to the forefront of modern-day discourse that she’s often been called more of an activist than an artist. Lacy says the distinction lies in the way she distributes her resources.

“I make decisions that are not the decisions an activist would make. I’ll spend $7,000 to ship 400 chairs in from Tennessee—if I were an activist, I would have a lot of people screaming at me about better ways I could use the $7,000,” she told Art in America in 2012.

A professor at the Southern California Roski School of Art and Design, she has shown at the Tate Modern, MoCA in L.A., the Whitney Museum, the New Museum, MoMA P.S. 1 and the Bilbao Museum in Spain, while also holding fellowships with the Guggenheim Foundation, the Henry Moore Foundation and the National Endowment for the Arts. It’s almost surprising that no institution has yet mounted a full career retrospective. That’s where the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art is saving the day. Their multi-venue show, “We Are Here,” opens April 20.


Deana Lawson

Deana Lawson. © Deana Lawson, courtesy of Sikkema Jenkins & Co., New York, and Rhona Hoffman Gallery, Chicago.

Figurative photographer Deana Lawson is having a moment. Even a cursory list of career successes within the last year impresses: a self-titled solo show at Sikkema Jenkins last April, a New Yorker feature, an extraordinary exhibition at The Underground Museum in Los Angeles and a brewing buzz on social media. That’s in addition to her photographs of Rihanna that graced Garage magazine’s cover last September, capturing the pop star in repose with an empathetic gaze.

What’s harder to quantify than Lawson’s meteoric rise is the aesthetic that drives her photographs and her response to those in her camera’s sight. Made through a process of methodically staged interactions between the artist and subject, the images go beyond mere arranged posing. They celebrate popular black aesthetic but in a plain-spoken, straightforward way. They feel familiar even when you’re looking at something you know you’ll never see like that again.


Simone Leigh

Simone Leigh. David Heald

This spring, Manhattan’s scenic High Line will cement itself as a landmark for the city’s public art scene. The elevated rail trail will open an annex called the High Line Plinth, its first section dedicated entirely to art, with the intention to commission new work every 18 months.

The High Line continues to have a transformative presence on Manhattan’s West Side, so it seems only fitting that the inaugural work at the Plinth go to New York City-based artist Simone Leigh, whose sculpture Brick House will engage directly with its architectural surroundings. The sixteen-foot-tall bronze bust of a black woman is part of Leigh’s “Anatomy of Architecture,” a series of sculptures that explore the human body in its relation to architectural forms, specifically from regions such as West Africa and the American South.

As the Guggenheim’s Hugo Boss Prize winner for 2018, Leigh is also putting the finishing touches on her exhibition for the Uptown institution. Called “Loophole of Retreat,” it encompasses sculptures and sounds that explore ways communities come together to nurture, withstand hardship and resist oppression. That will open on April 18, just as her temporary downtown landmark takes up residence set against the backdrop of a Chelsea skyline, where it will gaze down upon 10th Avenue from atop the Plinth.


Adam Lindemann

Adam Lindemann. Courtesy Adam Lindemann

Adam Lindemann, at times notable for his contributions to this very publication, has long been known for his unparalleled eye and unrivaled collection. Among the recent successes of his gallery, Venus Over Manhattan, Lindemann highlighted the revival of the career and work of Maryan and seeing the space’s Westermann show travel to the Prada Foundation and to the Reina Sofia in Madrid.

It’s more than just good taste and high ambition that lands Lindemann on this list, though. It’s his ability to identify and capitalize on business opportunities at exactly the right moment. As Bloomberg’s Katya Kazakina put it, “Adam Lindemann tends to have pretty good timing.”

Thus, his half-day conference on Blockchain during Art Basel Miami last December may signal future art world developments. For the event, Lindemann brought together leaders in both art and technology to discuss the overlapping opportunities between the two sectors. The guest list was a virtual who’s who in both worlds, including Pace Gallery president and CEO Marc Glimcher, Square co-founder Jim McElvey, and Serpentine Galleries chief Ben Vickers.


Julie Mehretu

Julie Mehretu. Anastasia Muna

“Right now we are in the midst of a complete shit show,” Julie Mehretu told Observer. “From the entire Brexit mess to our own dangerous political fiasco-theater here in the U.S., it’s all a shit show. But we keep working and making, insisting on inventing through and from it.”

Mehretu has embraced that strategy this year with a full schedule. Not only was she chosen to be a curator of “Artistic License,” the first and only artist-curated exhibition ever mounted at the Guggenheim Museum, but she will also show at the Venice Biennale’s Central Pavilion, before unveiling her first comprehensive career retrospective, beginning at LACMA in November and moving to the Whitney in June 2020.

Addis Ababa-born Mehretu is known for exploring the intersections of power, history and political unrest through her large-scale, abstract paintings. Her Guggenheim show is expected to reflect on cross-cultural expressions of trauma in displacement in the decades of World War II, where she says she is “pushing what that story can be.” However, it’s her retrospective at LACMA, which will cover two decades of Mehretu’s own examinations of colonialism, war and diaspora that will create new conversations around today’s geopolitical climate.

“What feels most momentous is finishing the paintings and mounting my 25-year survey exhibition with Christine Y. Kim and Rujeko Hockley,” she said. “Outside of making art, I mother my two boys, read and travel, but all of that is wrapped into making, looking and thinking about art.”


Minnesota Street Project: Deborah Rappaport and Andy Rappaport

Deborah and Andy Rappaport. Courtesy Deborah and Andy Rappaport

It isn’t easy to make ends meet in San Francisco. According to the National Low Income Housing Coalition, minimum wage workers need to work 4.7 full-time jobs to afford a two-bedroom unit in the San Francisco Bay Area.

It’s within this context that the Minnesota Street Project emerged—a unique business model founded and run by Deborah and Andy Rappaport that uses their for-profit art storage facility to subsidize economically sustainable spaces for art galleries, artists and related nonprofits. They have almost single-handedly created a sustainable environment where an arts community can thrive.

The program hosts bigger names such as the McEvoy Foundation, Altman Seigel gallery, and Adrian Rosenfeld Gallery, and it provides residency programs and affordable studio space for rising art stars like Sarah Kerr, Dana Hemenway and Chris Sollars.

Seeking to build on their already successful model, the Rappaports are currently working on a new initiative that will put even more art professionals in touch with their tenants.

“We are very excited about a program we are developing to bring the arts communities of other cultures and cities to San Francisco,” they told Observer. The program will run by extending invitations to a lead gallery that, in turn, invites several others. The resulting platform should include a series of events that will include food, performances and lectures.


Jason Moran

Jason Moran. Clay Patrick Jason MoranMcBride

A 2010 MacArthur “Genius Grant” awardee, Jason Moran has long been known in the music world for his genre-crossing compositions that fuse funk and hip-hop with jazz and classical. If you haven’t sampled his work as the artistic director for jazz at the Kennedy Center, you may have heard his score in Ava DuVernay’s Selma.

But Moran’s efforts cannot be categorized as purely aural—he’s a frequent collaborator with visual artists like Carrie Mae Weems, Adam Pendleton and Ryan Trecartin, and his work often veers into the realm of experiential performance art. While Moran sometimes composes sound to accompany artists’ visual creations, he’s also been known to make drawings and sculptures of his own, along with fabricating sets in which his compositions can be performed. For him, the role of an “artist,” seems to encompass everything he does.

“Every aspect of my life is informed by whatever ‘art’ is,” he told Observer. “Raising kids is an art. Being a decent husband is an art, as well as my role at The Kennedy Center making sure that the ‘art’ and artists have a place to settle.”

An exhibition that originated at the Walker Art Center featuring his projects and solo endeavors will finish its run (after stops in Boston and Columbus, Ohio) at the Whitney this September. “The exhibition centers around three installations, all former jazz venues in New York City,” Moran said. “I’m excited that they will return home for a few months.”


Denise Murrell

Denise Murrell. John Pinderhughes/Columbia University

Denise Murrell is probably the first business executive turned curator whose doctoral thesis became a blockbuster exhibition. Beginning at Columbia’s Wallach Art Gallery, the show, called “Posing Modernity: The Black Model from Manet and Matisse to Today,” ultimately traveled to the Musee d’Orsay in Paris, opening on March 26, and earned her a review in The New York Times. A similar reaction from every other major publication followed. The show’s title tells it all—the exhibition assembles important works throughout art history picturing the black figure.

In the past, Murrell has encountered a reluctance to take on race or other marginalized subjects for fear that the subject matter won’t have broad appeal. Asked if those fears were unfounded, she responded, “Yes, at least in New York. We had record-setting audiences at Wallach. Many visitors said they were there for the first time. Visitors often said they made repeat visits, going back with friends and family. The audience was diverse.”


Jonathan T.D. Neil

Jonathan T. D. Neil. Courtesy Jonathan T. D. Neil

With a bachelor’s in architecture from Cornell University and a doctorate in art history from Columbia University, Jonathan T. D. Neil has approached the art world from the perspectives of an educator, critic, editor and entrepreneur throughout his 20-year career.

He currently serves as a founding director at Sotheby’s Institute of Art, Los Angeles, where he oversees the institute’s academic partnership with Claremont Graduate University.

To Neil, intersectional expertise, especially in technology, is an important aspect of preparing and educating aspiring artists. Last fall, he helped the institute establish two master’s degree programs that combined the core curriculums in existing business, fine art and information technology programs.

“The more I talked to leaders in this field, the more I realized that there’s a real need for people who are fluent in technology and also have a deep understanding of the arts,” he told Observer.

Neil has also been working on a similar program in partnership with the Centro Design School in Mexico City. “At this moment politically, I’m particularly proud that we are building this educational bridge to Mexico,” he said.


Alex Poots

Alex Poots. An Rong Xu

Slated to open April 5, The Shed amounts to a sea change in the New York art landscape. The $500 million city-sponsored arts center will commission, produce and present performing arts, visual arts, and pop culture at an accessible price point. The cost of admission for gallery shows is only $10 and free for anyone 18 and under. Additionally, up to 10 percent of tickets for live performances will be made available to lower-income individuals. According to Alex Poots C.B.E., founding CEO and artistic director of The Shed, this will result in 50 percent of their annual audience attending events for $10 or less.

When asked how The Shed will measure its impact, though, Poots doesn’t cite attendance numbers. He explained that they judge “by the range, quality, and risk-taking our artists make, and by the breadth of audience taking part.”

“As a commissioner and presenter of original new artwork, the process of creation and experimentation is as important as the culmination,” he said.



Pope L. Courtesy the artist and Mitchell-Innes & Nash, New York

It’s not often an artist sees the launch of three major exhibitions in the same city at the same time. This fall, though, Pope.L, a performance and installation artist known for his scathing and unsettling critiques of race and power, will see it happen.

His long-overdue major MoMA retrospective opens this October and will focus on 13 performance pieces made between 1978 and 2001. Pope.L will simultaneously present a newly-commissioned installation for the Whitney Museum of American Art this fall and execute his largest and most ambitious crawl performance yet for Public Art Fund. Pope.L says he also plans to produce a special version of the play Rachel by Angelina Weld Grimke.

That’s one hell of a lineup, and timely, too. With the Trump administration waging war on minorities, powerful, sustained critiques of racial inequity in the U.S. are providing a much-needed counter-narrative.

That context doesn’t necessarily change his own approach, though. When asked if politics has affected the urgency of his work, Pope.L replied, “I’m not sure there is an urgency to my work. There is an urgency to respond to the current administration, especially concerning the build-up to the coming election.”


Laure Prouvost

Laure Prouvost. Alexandre de Guirkinger

It’s not always easy to know if the tales artist Laure Prouvost is telling are true. Her grandmother did not, in fact, fly through the skies completely naked, suspended from an airplane. As the New Museum’s artistic director, Massimiliano Gioni, assured the crowd of art world A-listers Prouvost had been regaling at an award ceremony last year, Prouvost was just “blurring fiction and reality.”

Luckily, we have official announcements to confirm what the artist is up to. She’s composing and rehearsing a song about Brexit that will be performed by a choir in the London subway, while also infiltrating the city’s maps, ads and screens as part of a commission for Art on the Underground..

Next, the 2013 Turner prize awardee will unveil her installation for France’s Venice Biennale pavilion (only the third female artist to represent the country) that will apparently take the form of “an escapist journey…designed as an invitation to melt into a liquid, sprawling universe surrounded by the various unveiled, shared realities which meld there,” per Institut Français.

After all that, you can pop over to Antwerp where the largest exhibition of Prouvost’s work is currently on view at the Museum of Contemporary Art through May.


Martin Puryear

Martin Puryear. Shannon Finney/Getty Images

Martin Puryear has influenced young artists for decades, but the U.S. Department of State’s announcement that he would represent the country at the 2019 Venice Biennale still came as a surprise.

The Venice Biennale has conveyed a sense of exclusivity in both its premiere showcases and the audiences it reaches. Conversely, Puryear’s sculptures are known to stand boldly in public spaces, embracing inclusivity. The sculptor’s decades-long commitment to making his art free and accessible to the public makes him an unusual choice for the storied biennial.

Curated by Brooke Kamin Rapaport of the Madison Square Park Conservancy, Puryear’s exhibition will mark the first time the U.S. offers a public art installation at Venice.

“Public art is viewed in the context of full democracy: no admission fees, complete accessibility, open to all,” Rapaport said. Of course, the Venice Biennale will still require visitors to pay an entry fee to enter the pavilion exhibition, but Puryear’s presence will no doubt send a message that change is in the air.

“When Puryear learned that he would represent our country at the Venice Biennale,” explained Rapaport, “his response was that he would do so as both an artist and as a citizen.”


Michael Rakowitz

Michael Rakowitz. Daniel Asher Smith

Michael Rakowitz’s art brings people together. In Dubai, he opened the first restaurant in the Arab world to serve Iraqi-Jewish food. In London’s Trafalgar Square, he recreated an ancient Iraqi sculpture made from Iraqi date syrup cans. He’s been on our list before, and appears again for good reason.

Invited to attend the 2019 iteration of the Whitney Biennial, the artist declined, citing the compromised stewardship of vice chairman Warren B. Kanders, the owner of Safariland, a company that supplied tear gas for use on asylum-seekers at the U.S.-Mexico border.

Rakowitz is one of a growing number of art professionals who feel they can no longer afford to stay silent in the face of injustice.

When we asked Rakowitz what he’d learned from the public discussion that ensued, he said, “That first step taken with the Whitney was a miracle, where the critique came from within—courageously, collectively, interdepartmentally. The letter written by the staff and signed by more than 100 of them was not a work of institutional critique. What started all this was not an artwork, it was art workers who felt that their silence would tacitly accept the violent suppression of the dissident voices that many of us (not all of us) center in the work we do.” He situates his personal protest as one rooted in a group effort. “Our institutions need us more than we need them,” he said. “And we need them to be better.”


Alex Rotter

Alex Rotter. Courtesy Alex Rotter

Alex Rotter’s skill as a salesman so impressed Christie’s former chairman and international head of postwar and contemporary art, Brett Gorvy, that he hired Rotter as chairman of Christie’s Americas in 2016. Until recently, Rotter shared that position with Loïc Gouzer and together, the two brokered the sale of Leonardo da Vinci’s Salvator Mundi, the most expensive work of art ever sold. In December, Gouzer stepped down, leaving Rotter in charge.

As the art world watches to see what price records will fall, much attention will be fixed on Rotter.

“For me, it is very important to focus on works that were groundbreaking at the point when they were conceived,” Rotter explained. To that end, he has secured the sale of The Robert B. and Beatrice C. Mayer Family Collection, which includes Robert Rauschenberg’s Buffalo II, created shortly after President John F. Kennedy’s assassination and acquired by the family soon after.

Perhaps the most exciting offering, though, will be the collection of S.I. Newhouse, the recently deceased Condé Nast owner named by ARTnews as one of the top 200 art collectors. This May, Christie’s will present 11 works created at pivotal moments for the artist who made them—including Jeff Koons’ 1986 Rabbit.

“For me, Rabbit is the ‘anti-David,’ which signaled the death of traditional sculpture—disrupting the medium in the same way that Jackson Pollock’s Number 31 permanently redefined the notion of painting,” Rotter told Observer.


Antwaun Sargent

Antwaun Sargent. Antwaun Sargent

Known as Sir Sargent on Twitter and Instagram, Antwaun Sargent represents a new generation of critics and curators who are actively working to make art by black artists accessible.

“There’s power in looking, right?” Sargent said to Observer recently, quoting the feminist author and activist bell hooks. “[I’m trying to] give people permission—that they too can look—because the visual arts system is set up to always subtly suggest that they don’t belong.”

The 30-year-old Chicago native turned New Yorker makes it a point to write for mainstream publications in which art is not a focus. (Trade publications have overwhelmingly white audiences.) His bylines include W Magazine, Vice and The New York Times, as well as Artsy, Hyperallergic and the Huffington Post. He’s interviewed musician Solange Knowles, artist Kara Walker and painter Mickalene Thomas, all while continuing to give talks at smaller spaces. For every large venue or art star he works with, he’ll find an emerging organization or artist to balance it out.

This approach extends online, where he describes the conversations in his DMs as “just as important as the ones that I’m having in the Times or an artist catalog or a museum or a community space.”

His writing has led to a book and touring exhibition that will launch this fall at Aperture, titled “The New Black Vanguard: Photography Between Art and Fashion.”


Jonathan Schwartz

Jonathan Schwartz. Courtesy Jonathan Schwartz

As founder of the fine arts logistics company Atelier 4, Jonathan Schwartz has helped put some of the world’s most renowned and unconventional work on show. “We handled the packing, crating and transport of David Altmejd’s Venice Canadian Pavilion years ago,” Schwartz told Observer. “It contained mirror fragments, taxidermy, material that required special permits for endangered species and specialty insulation to prevent breakage of delicate elements.”

They are gearing up for Venice again, and while Schwartz has a hand in all manner of art events, he admits that exhibitions like the Italian biennial are particularly invigorating. “From the job aspect, it’s all about the deadlines, the challenges of the medium, and it’s all being done on the water in very old buildings and often with outdated infrastructure, so sometimes you need to get creative.”

While many companies focus on a single aspect of the crating, local trucking, storage or customs brokerage process, Atelier 4 does it all. This year will bring a big expansion for the business, as they triple their Miami space. It’s all this expertise that makes Schwartz well-qualified to chair the International Convention of Exhibition and Fine Art Transporters, which he describes as something like a professional support group for the greater good. “It’s a collegial group with a shared mission of codifying and raising the standards of fine art handling practices,” he said.


Alice Gray Stites

Alice Gray Stites. Courtesy 21c Museum Hotels

Now in eight locations across the United States, the unique 21c Museum Hotels model, where guests can sleep in an actual museum, is more than just an enriching experience. It’s a profitable business model.

While they originally targeted underserved locations, their latest venture, slated to open in Chicago this fall, marks a shift: They now have enough name recognition to attract visitors in cities where there is no shortage of art. At the same time, they continue to grow their brand in smaller locales as well—two more locations in Des Moines, Iowa, and St. Louis will launch within the next two and half years.

At the helm is Alice Gray Stites, the chief curator and museum director. When asked how she measures success, Stites ties her metrics to standard institutional benchmarks: greater visibility for artists they collect, attendance and partnerships.

“It is encouraging when artists in the collection gain greater national recognition, such as Ebony G. Patterson having a solo show at the Perez and Anthony Goicolea creating New York’s first official LGBTQ monument,” she said. She later rattled off a few of 21c’s collaborations easily: For Freedoms, Creative Time, Pen+Brush, Artspace and the Southern Foodways Alliance.

The museum’s hometown of Louisville, Ky., and its partnership with The Speed Art Museum remain at the core of its programming. This spring, the two entities will co-present an exhibition of works by British-Nigerian artist Yinka Shonibare C.B.E. that features his work The American Library.


CK Swett

CK Swett. Owen Hoffmann/PMC

Working as a professional auctioneer is kind of like being the Seabiscuit of public speaking, and CK Swett is certainly a thoroughbred. After graduating from Duke University with a degree in English, Swett began his career holding auctions at venerable institutions like Christie’s and Phillips. But he quickly discovered that he was happiest when directing his considerable energy toward raising money for nonprofits.

Today, Swett is a co-founder of Lot 1 Auctioneers and a prolific showman whose efforts to date have yielded more than $50 million for a wide range of philanthropic organizations from the American Cancer Society to groups working on behalf of veterans returning from Afghanistan and Iraq.

He’s also reliably able to translate lots of specialized interest into huge payoffs for his clients. In 2012, Swett set the world auction record for boxing ephemera when he successfully sold gloves once worn by Muhammad Ali for a cool $1.1 million while working on behalf of the Lou Ruvo Center for Brain Health.

Not one to keep his skill set a guarded secret, Swett often shares tips and insights into organizing a successful charity auction with professionals in the nonprofit sector. Recently, you could catch him begging for one last bid at events like the Womankind benefit auction, the National Down Syndrome Society gala or the Worldwide Orphans gala.


Sally Tallant

Sally Tallant. Hugo Glendinning

This year, Sally Tallant was responsible for possibly the most-selfied artwork at 2019’s Armory Show. She was the curator of the fair’s Platform series which saw a giant wad of plastic bags grace the ceiling of Pier 94. The work, by Pascale Marthine Tayou, was one of nine large-scale installations that Tallant brought to the tent in a role the Liverpool Biennial director took on shortly before announcing that her presence in the New York City would be made permanent—she will become the new director of the Queens Museum.

Tallant has a big job ahead of her, filling the position vacated by Laura Raicovich due to disagreements with the board over some of Raicovich’s political stances. But Tallant hasn’t shied away from meshing politics with her aesthetics. “Beautiful world, where are you?” asked the theme of Liverpool’s 2018 festival, which Tallant confirmed was an invitation to address the world’s current political climate.

Tallant might be careful at first in airing her politics in her new role, but even in talking about the aim of her work, it’s clear art and activism are, for her, inextricable. “I believe that access to art and education is key to how we will create a society that is creative and resilient enough to face the challenges of the future,” she told Observer.


Javier Téllez

Javier Tellez. Nue Chanthavongsay

Javier Téllez has shown little interest in the art world establishment in the past. He famously turned down an invitation to represent Venezuela at the 50th Venice Biennale, citing the corruption and class warfare that plagues his home country. But this year, he will lead the conversation on art and class through his own curated exhibition at Frieze New York.

In curating “The Doors of Perception,” Téllez has assembled a group of self-taught artists in collaboration with the Outsider Art Fair. The artist’s frequent use of film often explores mental illness and the stigmas and otherness attached to those affected by it. This, alongside conversations of wealth and class, has created an intersectional body of work that has evolved alongside shifting concepts of the “outsider.” “Doors of Perception,” with its roster of self-taught international artists, will be another way that Téllez shifts the discourse in the art world to refocus on inclusion.


Hank Willis Thomas

Hank Willis Thomas. Courtesy Ben Brown Fine Arts, London. Photo: Levi Mandel.

Over the course of his more than 15-year career, Hank Willis Thomas has employed the languages of photography, marketing and advertising to illustrate how pop culture messaging impacts our understanding of race.

That perspective will receive much attention this year. The first major survey show of Thomas’ work will launch at the Portland Art Museum this October, as will an exhibition of his visual and archival research on the photographer and filmmaker Gordon Parks at the Gordon Parks Foundation.

The shows follow the 2018 launch of the For Freedoms 50 State Initiative (currently on display at ICP), a collaborative project founded with Eric Gottesman that aims to fuse art and politics through public programming. Billed as the most significant creative collaboration in U.S. history, the project included specially commissioned billboards, events and exhibitions. This year, Thomas and Gottesman will be gearing up for For Freedoms 2.0—the second iteration of the project, slated to appear around the looming 2020 presidential election.

But Thomas has so much going on that it would be impossible to list it all. “I don’t know what free time is,” he conceded over Instagram before adding, “but my baby does have me watching the clock more closely.” Family comes first.


Henry Timms

Henry Timms. Sylvain Gaboury/PMC

Lincoln Center has had a tumultuous few years. After Jed Bernstein’s controversial departure in 2016, the cultural landmark—which counts the Metropolitan Opera, the New York City Ballet and the New York Philharmonic among its tenants—has been under scrutiny for its financial challenges and downscaling.

Enter Henry Timms, the president and CEO of 92nd Street Y, who is rightfully credited for billing programs that have strengthened civic engagement in New York City. He’s also a known innovator in helping nonprofits scale upward: As the co-creator of #GivingTuesday, he started a trend that resulted in hundreds of thousands of dollars in charitable donations.

“Many industries now face a version of the same challenge: how to re-imagine their work in our chaotic and hyper-connected age,” Timms told Observer. “The world outside the arts has a lot to teach us, and vice versa.”

In February, Timms was named president-elect of the Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts, where all eyes will be on him as he re-engages the cultural epicenter with artists, donors and the general public.

“I join that community at a time of real opportunity,” he said. “We have never had more ways to find connections with people both in N.Y.C. and globally. But it is also a time of real need. The great irony of a connected age is that we often feel disconnected from ourselves and each other. The arts help us find meaning like nothing else.”


Susan Tynan

Susan Tynan. Courtesy Framebridge

Susan Tynan started her company after a familiar experience: She attempted to complete a simple task and found the process to be unnecessarily convoluted. That endeavor, an arduous and ridiculously expensive effort to have four national park posters framed, gave birth to her company, Framebridge, which sells affordable, high-quality custom frames. So far, she has raised over $66 million in venture financing since launching in 2014. Beyond that, her enterprise has created over 450 jobs, many of those in Richmond, Ky., where the manufacturing facility is located.

The gains Framebridge has made over the last five years have been significant, culminating this March with the launch of its first retail store. Now open in Washington, D.C., with another store on the way, customers can book appointments with experts and look at frames in person. Think of Framebridge as the Warby Parker of picture frames, coming to a wall near you.



WAGE. Courtesy W.A.G.E.

In just over ten years, Working Artists and the Greater Economy (WAGE) has single-handedly changed the standard for artist payment at museums and nonprofits. Much of the shift came when the advocacy group started offering a certification program to institutions that followed their guidelines. Museums around the country worked to achieve certification and, as a result, this year, for the first time in its history, the Whitney Museum of American Art will pay artists for their participation in its biennial.

WAGE gauges its success by the number of certified institutions and artists using WAGENCY, a platform that supports artists negotiating institutional fees.

“Ten years ago, non-payment was the industry standard and today payment is the norm,” the advocacy group told Observer. “It’s no longer a question of whether artists should be paid, but a question of how much—that’s the current battleground.”

To that end, WAGE has plenty on the horizon. This year they hope to roll out a sales contract for the commercial art market—an updated version of Seth Siegelaub and Robert Projansky’s 1971 The Artist’s Reserved Rights Transfer and Sale Agreement, but this time, on blockchain.

“WAGE’s version is intended to give artists greater control over how their work is circulated and used in the context of an increasingly financialized marketplace,” they explained. Given the potential for exploitation artists of all levels face in this evolving economy, these tools couldn’t be more needed.


David Zwirner

David Zwirner. Jason Schmidt/Courtesy David Zwirner

Set apart from his peers by his museum-quality shows, superior business acumen, and his reputation for generosity and kindness, gallery magnate David Zwirner could easily secure a spot on this list every year.

This January, the Hilton Als-curated group exhibition, “God Made My Face: A Collective Portrait of James Baldwin,” rightly got wall-to-wall coverage for its sensitive pairing of Baldwin’s words and images made by friends and admirers alike.

Beyond the nuts and bolts of exhibition-making, though, Zwirner invests wisely in those around him. As a recent shareholder in a Renzo Piano-designed project by Casco Development Corp, Zwirner demonstrated his willingness to invest in the development of the neighborhood.

Ultimately, though, it’s Plan B, a pop-up art fair hosted by Zwirner and collector Peter Hort in response to Volta’s sudden cancellation, which earned the dealer a spot on our 2019 list. Both an act of generosity and a quick move on an opportunity, the event saved galleries which might have otherwise lost thousands of dollars and drew collectors into the gallery all at once—not a bad haul for two short weeks of work.


Arts Power 50: The Changemakers Shaping the Art World in 2019