According to an investigation conducted by arts news outlets In Other Words and artnet News, only 7.6 percent of art exhibited in the top 30 museums in the Country from 2008 to 2018, including our very own Cleveland Museum of Art, came from black and African-American artists. The abysmal number is evidence of a continuing trend of museums and galleries not acquiring or presenting black artists.
To David Ramsey, this deficit is an opportunity – and he knows the right space. The Deep Roots Art Experience, owned by David and a silent partner, is an arts space that sits at the corner of East 79th Street and Central Avenue in the Central neighborhood on Cleveland’s East Side. An extension of the non-profit HigherArts, the gallery is dedicated to exhibiting artwork of youth of color and black and brown artists. The Deep Roots space was once a grocery store, a campaign space, and a day care. Now the location has now been upgraded to serve the community as an art gallery after David and his business partners worked to make the space what it is today.
“A space devoted to supporting the creative arts of people of color,” David states. “The central purpose of this space is to showcase and highlight artwork.”
This space began as a seedling of an idea that took root once David and company found a location that had been various spaces for community needs. David created a relationship with the owner and explained the idea of what they wanted to create. After hearing his plans, the owner, Dionne Thomas, gave them the keys the same day. Construction began in the fall of 2018 and Ramsey got the space up and ready within nine months. From forest green walls and gray tiled floors, the space was transformed into white walls that created a bright space with hardwood floors – walls ready to feature artists.
Deep Roots’ first exhibition was titled SheArt and featured artwork entirely by black and brown women. The first show curated by Asia Amour, Deep Roots’ lead curator, and David, featured artists both from Cleveland and from outside of the region.
“There is a huge wave of [women of color artists] being recognized, but specifically in Cleveland… Cleveland didn’t really have that,” Asia says. “It was important to showcase the black and brown women in the community.”
With Deep Roots’ first exhibition it was important for them to center the people who helped the most in renovating the space, including helping with construction, which were black and brown women, some of whom would just come in after passing by the space.
As stated, there is a dire need for spaces where all artists feel welcomed and valued, but there is a particular need for spaces that welcome black and brown artist aesthetics can thrive.
“Anywhere where that black artistry had become popular, there were locations that were dedicated to supporting those arts,” David says. “The time I’ve spent in Cleveland has proven that the art scene can be a little resistant to our style at times and its suggestive of our skills not being at the same level. That’s just not the case, we just have a different artistic eye and we need a place that is devoted to uplifting and supporting that style.”
In addition to SheArt, the gallery has featured group shows and opened up for local artists to do weekend pop-up shows.This gives artists the opportunity to showcase their work in a gallery and bring their fanbase into the space. It’s a win-win for both parties. The artwork chosen varies, they have given space to artists like Mr. Soul, Katrice Monee Headd, Gerogio Sabino, September Shy, Asia Amour, and Ariel Watts to name a few.
Location is another factor that plays a role in Deep Roots connection to the community. David noted the importance of the Central Cleveland neighborhood to the gallery.
“This is the neighborhood that housed Karamu [House], which is the oldest black-owned theater in the country,” he says. “This is the home of Langston Hughes – I grew up in this neighborhood.”
Beyond just the gallery, David wants to help revive the corner where Deep Roots lives. He’s working with Dionne to renovate some of her other spaces, such as adding a new bakery and supporting an existing restaurant called Good N Plenty. Dionne is also finalizing plans for a negro cultural center that will be a standalone library for authors of color.
“The goal is to revitalize an area that has always been supportive of and available for black artistry,” he explains. “We really want to support revitalizing and rebuilding [the space] to be a space supportive of and available to minorities of our generation who find themselves ostracized from arts spaces and ostracized from public spaces and feel like there isn’t a place really caters to them or tailored to them. We want to create [that] not just in the gallery, but within that neighborhood.”