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We live in a world where we’re often discouraged from exploring all of our artistic sides, but those rigid confines don’t exist for visual artist and entrepreneur Tiffany LaTrice, who is the proud owner of Tila Studios, a visual arts incubator that uplifts, guides and empowers Black women in the art world.
Over the last six years, the busy activist and curator has been steadfast in her mission to remove challenging barriers that often hinder Black women from succeeding in the art space. With a focus on mentorship and equity, Tila Studios’s dynamic community-based initiatives have helped over 100 artists to showcase their work at notable institutions across the US.
In 2019, the organization launched its Garden Fellow Artist residency as a part of the Above Four Campaign, which awarded five Black female artists the opportunity to further their practice by showcasing their work at Miami’s world-renowned Art Basel. Since its inception, Tila Studios has generated over $100k in art sales for Black women in the industry.
Perhaps what’s so interesting about Tiffany’s God-given work is that she hustles around the clock to build an equitable seat at the table for Black female artists while she continues to find her very own voice as a painter, writer, and now, a soon-to-be memoirist. The Tennesee native muscled enough courage to start her own blog in September 2020 called The Yellow Book, a space where she divulges her personal life experiences and some of the challenges she’s overcome.
MADAMENOIRE chatted with the radical art feminist about her mission to elevate the work and stories of Black women in the Fine Art industry, her rocky road to success and some of the challenges that Black women often face navigating the art world.
MN: Tila Studios has exhibited nearly 100 artists and welcomed more than 2,000 visitors to its gallery space, but your journey has been far from easy. What served as the turning point to launch Tila Studios?
When I was getting my master’s degree at Sarah Lawrence College, I was studying women’s history, and I’m a history nerd. What I wanted to find were Black women that were radical, pioneering, and artistic. I wanted to write their stories. I found this woman, Meta Vaux Warrick Fuller, who was born in the 1800s. She was just such a change agent committed to her art practice, and she just went against the odds. She traveled to Paris to study under the greats and had this incredible career. She did these large-scale sculptures that lived throughout the Northeast. Not much literature was written about her.
You know, people know sculptors such as Augustus Savage, but not a lot of people know about Meta Vaux Warrick Fuller… I was like, oh my god, I see myself in her. So I wrote her story. I wrote my thesis about female friendships and how they accelerate your personal creative career. I think that was kind of like the beginning and the narrative that shaped the theory of Tila, right? Black women supporting Black women, and we’ve done it historically, too. It’s not a new concept, but it just makes it more, I guess, contemporary and accessible to the generation that we live in today. I think the second thing was that I was historically a people pleaser. I could have easily been a VP at NBC Universal, that was my track, but I said if I can make money for other people, what would it look like to make money for myself? That was a risk I was willing to take.
MN: So after NBC Universal, I read that you moved to a farm in Powder Springs, Georgia to become a full-time artist?
Yeah, girl. My mom was livid. One of my co-workers introduced me to her best friend, and she was having her wedding on this farm in Powder Springs and she said, ‘”If you ever need a place to retreat to create, you can use my house.’”
A year later, I just packed up a Uhaul and drove from New York to Atlanta. My test to myself was to see if I could be committed enough to my personal practice where I could see myself doing this full time. So, I took a year and a half off. No one knew I was in Atlanta. I had an upstairs studio, and I just painted. I made so much art, probably 30 or 40 pieces, and I felt so alive. I was only making like $200 a month selling prints, but I said to myself, this is awesome. This is definitely where I need to be and where I find my joy. I stayed on the farm between 2014 and 2016 and just painted for two years.
MN: When did you officially launch Tila Studios?
2016 was really when the idea started to percolate. I got a job and probably was only there for a couple of months. I was bored. Corporate life is really not for me. I need to make myself realize that sooner or later. I quit and went on a two-week sabbatical in Hawaii. When I came back, I finally sat down in September, and I started writing my business plan. I came up with the idea of Tila. Tila was actually a derivative of my name, Tiffany LaTrice. I enrolled in a business class, this organization called C4 Atlanta. I ended up pitching my business at the end of the program. I won the pitch competition, too. I won $400. Not a lot of money, but that kind of gave me the ignition and the fire to move forward. Then, I pitched my business to the city of East Point and started doing the paperwork to actually get the business established. The mayor and the city loved my business idea so much that they said, why don’t you start looking at places to start Tila.
I searched for buildings for almost three weeks. I remember pulling up to this two-story brick house owned by a security company. This Black man who owned it said, “I’m already gonna rent it out to this video production company. They’re gonna pay me a lot of money.” I told him that’s cool, but “We should stay local. It should be black-owned. I know I have no money, but I know I can make this work.” He told me, “I like your grit and your gut. So come back and host an event here.”
I had two weeks to put on an event. I did everything myself. I didn’t even sleep. I made a Tila Instagram. I designed our logo in two seconds because I had to send it to the city of East Point to list.
Finally, we have our open call. We have like 16 artists, and somehow we have a fucking show. I raised like $5,000 that night. I finally formed the business on January 4th, 2017, deposited that $5,000 and we were off to the races.
MN: Oh my goodness, that is incredible! It’s interesting to be having this conversation because the art world hasn’t been inclusive to women of color, or any marginalized group of color, for that matter. Black women have been innovators in the art space for centuries, but yet “only 4%” of art across museums and galleries are from Black women artists. The number is just really concerning. What are some of the biggest challenges you see Black women face in particular when they begin navigating the art world?
I think the biggest issue is that a lot of Black women artists, even me, we create from a place of resistance. Everyone is telling you not to do this, but you just have to create. A lot of your work is very personal. But the issue is that the business of art isn’t personal. A lot of times, artists make their first step into the art world very personal by sharing very structured personal narratives instead of looking at themselves within a contemporary context and alongside their peers. They struggle with finding the competence to understand that their voice matters within the history they emerge from, but also charting their own territory and standing in that truth, whether or not it’s popular at the moment. It will get the recognition that it deserves. I feel like art is emotional when you’re creating it. But when you’re about to present it, you have to take that emotion out. That’s the biggest challenge because even as I’m coaching artists, it becomes so personal, and you have to literally look at yourself as a business and your work is like a third party. It’s not a part of you anymore once you create it. You have to think of it like this.
MN: I imagine that conversation gets even more complicated when you start helping artists negotiate pay, right?
Galleries take commission, but they’re doing so much of the upfront cost of marketing and installation. That is very cumbersome and labor-intensive. I think some people just ignore that. Sometimes you need that additional support to get you to the next level, to get you to the museum acquisitions, on the auction block or in Miami Art Basel. Sometimes you need to have that team of support to help you scale your work in that way. Sometimes you may have to take a price cut, but I always tell people that if you don’t want to incur those costs, just add an additional 30% tax on your original base fee. So, if your piece is worth $1250, add an additional 30% on that so you can keep your base and you don’t have to lose.
MN: How is Tila Studios helping Black women in the art world build equity and ownership?
That’s a great question! We’ve always been in the legal realm. I’m not a legal expert, but we are aligned with Sammetria L. Goodson. She is a lawyer that represents artists, a lot of times pro bono. She runs Goodson Law Group. I typically have workshops with her, especially with our fellows who are interested in exploring different spaces. I always offer at least quarterly consulting with her to our community so they can ask her questions, and I’ll just pay her a flat fee. The artists don’t incur that cost. If they do sign an agreement with her, then that is their relationship. But Tila has representation on staff as well. I’m really big on that. Even when I issue an artist’s contract, I always tell them to get legal representation or have a lawyer read it.
MN: One initiative that stuck out for me was the Above Four Campaign in 2020. Can you tell us more about the program and its significance? Are you still running the campaign currently?
COVID was a big slap in the face. We stopped it, and we pivoted to grow a different particle of our business, which is the agency program. It has been incredibly lucrative, too! We get to work with corporate clients and pipeline artists into creative paid gigs. Tila gets a 30% talent management cut for that. So, we’re sourcing the talent and sourcing artists for these large-scale installations or curatorial projects. We’ve been doing that for the past two years.
I do want to bring it back in 2023. The plan is to get the infrastructure to run the fellowship again. The Above Four campaign was raising awareness to 4% of art across museums and galleries are only for black women artists. We’re trying to say that we’re above four. There are so many of us out there doing work right now. It’s not just the greats that have passed or are deceased. There are living and working artists that are doing incredible work that haven’t gotten their shine, and our job is to elevate those stories.
MN: I was taking a look at your Instagram and saw you raving about your time At Culture Con in Atlanta this year.
Oh my god. It was so fun! I love connecting people with art. Imani Ellis, she’s the founder of Culture Con and the Creative Collective in NYC.
We go way back, and we both started at NBC Pages together. We’ve always been aware of each other’s work but I always feel like collaboration happens at the right time. Culture Con was coming to Atlanta. And we were at dinner, and she said, “Tiffany, you need to do a gallery at Culture Con.” When Imani tells you something, you just kind of got to do it. So, she introduced me to her team, we did a call for art, and we had Culture Con. It was challenging, but anything that’s challenging means it’s going to bear a lot of fruits. Our Installation turned out to be stellar!
MN: I want to actually dive in a little bit into your artwork. I absolutely love your painting, “I fell open and released all that I carry.” It feels like an incredibly personal piece. Can you tell me about the story connected to this painting?
Yes! I’m getting back into my creative form. I think I was battling the idea of showing up as an arts administrator that I forgot my talents as well. I’m still on that journey, finding out how to best showcase my talents while still supporting artists. I will say I’m struggling with that because I feel like I’m young. I’m 33, and I’m the same age as a lot of the women that I support within my community. I really want to make sure that they feel that they’re supported and that I’m always keeping their needs in the forefront. I also feel like there’s a need for me to share my voice because I think God gave me a talent. In 2020, after raising venture capital and running our Above Four campaign, an organization reached out to me with an opportunity to do a week residency in Paris, Tennessee. I was gonna give it to my community but then, I asked if I could do it. Before you know it, I ordered canvases and paint supplies for the first time in five or six years. I drove to Paris, Tennessee. I was super tense when I got there. I put on this yellow bathing suit, and then I just got completely naked. I just photographed myself. I was like, I need to see me like I haven’t seen myself.
I don’t even know how my weight is feeling in my body. I’m heavier, but I feel beautiful. I feel free, but I don’t know where that’s coming from. I painted nine paintings in four days. I couldn’t even walk from the studio. I just labored and poured it all out, and I just wanted to see myself in the freest form. I wanted the paintings to feel raw with a lot of movement, a lot of brushstrokes. I don’t want my face to be perfect. I don’t want anything. I just wanted to capture what I felt right then. I just felt like I had released all the anxiety of me finally accepting me being an artist, me allowing myself to experience unconditional joy in the midst of chaos. I felt like that just kind of opened me up, and that opened up a portal for me to do more of the self-portrait work that I’ve completed over the last two years. I also wrote a memoir that no one knows about. But eventually, someone will.
Have you thought of a name for the memoir?
No, I haven’t, but the great thing is I’m going back to Paris. I requested another week. I’m bringing the full manuscripts, and I’m bringing the paintings I created there, and I’m just gonna sit with the work. I’m just gonna sit with it, and I’m gonna see what it tells me to do with it. A lot of people don’t know that I’m a writer. I’ve always been a writer. I started a blog last September, where I write these kind of poetic think pieces and essays about my observations of life. It’s called The Yellow Journal.
The last post you wrote about surrendering and allowing yourself to be vulnerable really hit home. It just feels like it’s so hard to do with all the chaos in the world, especially in this digital age.
I totally live a very analogue life, and I just feel like whoever reads it, reads it. Like when I wrote that piece, I didn’t want to write it, but that’s how I knew I should write it. A lot of the times I write to allow myself to move on. I’m on that journey.
How is your role with NAAM going?
Oh my god, it’s so much fun. I think my long-term goal is to influence art policy, like really shift policy and create more equity in how funds and philanthropy are invested into the Black art space. I see a lot of disparities with that. I think my museum work and being under the divisionary CEO, I’m working on a $160 million capital campaign with them. I’m connected to the Smithsonian Institution and the African American Association of Museums. I am getting to see what it means to build something beyond the grassroots level and on the institutional level. I get to see what it means to build a world-class institution. That is exciting because I think it also helps me dream bigger and get out of my way. It’s hard work. I probably don’t sleep, but I’m having a great time.
I’m interested to know about the art collection world. Are you starting to see more women of color step into that role? Is it difficult for them to break into the art collection world on the buying end?
Great question! I think it’s more accessible now. Over the last three years, a lot of people have been collecting in the digital space. Now, you don’t have to travel or be invited to the private opening. Now, the whole exhibition is right at your fingertips. We had a whole Black movement in 2020, and that just was a catalyst even for Black women artists. I just love seeing Black women artists getting their shine and Black woman cultural workers getting their shine and resisting institutional spaces as well. They’re owning their power and creating their own space. I see Black women collectors coming in and supporting other Black women as well. So, I feel like we’re all tapping in on this Above Four movement subconsciously or consciously and elevating ourselves collectively.
I’m a big collector as well! I have like a Tiffany Alfonseca piece that I’m super proud of. I’ve collected just about everyone from my community. I’m actually running out of wall space in my house. But I always educate and empower others to collect too. I honestly, it’s about taking a bet on someone you know, like how beautiful it is to take a bet on someone and buy a piece for $1250, and then that appraises for $5,000 or $10,000 later, you know? It’s such a great feeling. I just feel like it’s all about your relationships and how you show support. If you give it value, other people will give it value. So why not bet on someone that you believe in?
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