N’Namdi, George R. 1946–
George R. N’Namdi 1946–
Art gallery owner
The owner of prestigious, widely-recognized art galleries in Birmingham, Michigan, and Chicago, George R. N’Namdi was a pioneer in a rapidly growing segment of the American art market—works by African American artists. When N’Namdi opened his first gallery in Detroit in the early 1980s, his was one of a handful of art spaces in America with that specialty. By the late 1990s, with black artists honored at international exhibitions and routinely making art-world headlines, N’Namdi was riding the crest of a powerful wave. It was a wave that he himself in no small measure had helped to generate.
N’Namdi realized early on that in order to succeed in selling art to a largely African American clientele, he needed to work at creating a market for art among that audience. “We have an affluent population here that didn’t necessarily grow up with art, and they need a lot of encouragement,” he pointed out in a 1989 interview with ARTNews. The following year, he described his working method to Black Enterprise: “I spend a lot of time talking to people…. We have to keep educating [people about art].”
George R. N’Namdi was born on September 12, 1946, in Columbus, Ohio. His father was a railroad man who later worked for the U.S. Post Office. “He was a very quiet, gentle person,” N’Namdi told the Detroit News. “He wasn’t one to raise his voice; he always spoke to you with logic.” N’Namdi grew up in Columbus and went on to attend Ohio State University, where he eventually obtained Bachelor’s and Master’s degrees in Education. He also enjoyed a hobby somewhat unusual among college students: art collecting. “It was something I loved but I didn’t plan to make it a business,” he later recalled, also in a Detroit News interview.
N’Namdi moved to southeastern Michigan to pursue a second Master’s degree, this one in psychology, at the University of Michigan. He received a Ph.D. in 1978 and became a practicing psychologist, also teaching at Detroit’s Wayne State University for ten years. His successful course of study, though, was interrupted by tragedy: in 1974, his 14-month-old daughter was strangled to death when a pacifier cord became wrapped around her neck. N’Namdi and his wife established a
At a Glance…
Born September 12, 1946, in Columbus, Ohio; father, a railroad man and postal worker; wife Carmen (a Detroit private school headmistress), two children, Education: Bachelor’s and Master’s degrees in Education, Ohio State Univ., Columbus; Master’s and Ph.D. degrees in Psychology, Univ. of Ml, Ann Arbor.
Career: Nationally-known art gallery owner. Taught psychology, Wayne State Univ., Detroit, 1976-86. Opened Jazzonia gallery, Detroit, 1981; opened G. R. N’Namdi Gallery, Detroit, 1983. Moved gallery to Birmingham, Ml, 1988. Represented celebrated African American artists Romare Bearden, Robert Colescott, AI Loving, Howardena Pindell, and others; also offered works by European and Latin American artists. Opened G. R. N’Namdi Gallery in Chicago’s River North district, 1996.
Addresses: G. R. N’Namdi Gallery, 161 Townsend, Birmingham, Ill 48009–6001; G. R. N’Namdi Gallery, 230 W. Huron St., Chicago, IL 60610.
small private school in Detroit, the Nataki Talibah Schoolhouse, in their daughter’s memory. N’Namdi also began to strike out in new directions in his own career.
He found connections between his chosen profession of psychology and his passion for art collecting. As he asserted to a reporter from Detroit Live, “Art is psychology … it influences the culture and thinking of the community in which it is found.” In a general sense he saw an appreciation of the arts as conducive to mental health, and he was committed to fostering visual art within the black community. To these ends, he spent $40,000 in savings to open a gallery called Jazzonia in downtown Detroit in 1981. “Jazzonia woke a lot of people up to art,” he later told the Detroit Free Press; N’Namdi was one of the first dealers in the U.S. to emphasize the work of African American artists. He was able to open his own gallery, the G. R. N’Namdi gallery, in 1983.
In 1988 he moved the gallery to the posh Detroit suburb of Birmingham, which boasts a thick concentration of nationally-known galleries. “If you want to serve your artists you have to be in the art mainstream,” N’Namdi told the Free Press. In 1989 his customer mix was estimated at 60 percent black and 40 percent white; N’Namdi has skillfully maintained a strong African American identity for the gallery while nevertheless lending it a cosmopolitan, international feel. He is wary of the attempt some white-owned galleries have made to cash in on the strong popularity of African American art, telling Black Enterprise that “It’s important for us to control our culture. It’s also important to be presented your culture by your own.” However, N’Namdi has long represented artists from France and Latin America in addition to Americans of African descent. In connection with the 1996 opening of his new G.R. N’Namdi Gallery in Chicago, N’Namdi told the Chicago Artists’ News that “[p]robably 75 percent of my roster consists of African-American artists, but I’m not really marketing myself in that direction.”
Part of the reason N’Namdi has been able to manage the potential tension between strong cultural identification and broad public acceptance is that the works hanging in his galleries bear the imprint of his own distinctive tastes. He favors bright, boldly colored, accessible, abstract art. Such works diverge from the figure representations common among African American artists; they also carry little of the modernist gloom sometimes associated with abstraction among white artists. Among the artists whose works N’Namdi exhibits are Al Loving, Richard Hunt, Howardena Pindell, Romare Bearden, and mid-1990s Venice Biennale exhibitor Robert Colescott.
N’Namdi’s gallery flourished in the 1990s, mounting major exhibitions of African American printmaking and abstract art. He contributed and personally hung artwork for the restoration of the Detroit mayor’s residence upon the election of mayor Dennis Archer in 1994. Major museum curators sought him out as a discriminating dealer, and such institutions as the Detroit Institute of Arts, the Cincinnati Art Museum, and the Mint Museum in Charlotte, North Carolina, became his clients. He lectured widely and was appointed adjunct professor of Art at Eastern Michigan University.
N’Namdi’s activities in the late-1990s included the establishment of a book-publishing company, Belleville Lake Press. Devoting much of his energy in late 1997 to his new gallery in Chicago’s artistically-important River North neighborhood, N’Namdi also contemplated another new gallery in the future as well as a possible move into documentary video film making on African American artistic topics. An entrepreneur with a great deal of creative energy, N’Namdi is also patient. Sticking with his instincts through the years when few observers paid much attention to African American art, he emerged with a gallery of national significance. “Abstract African American painting is like jazz. It might take a while before the artists receive the credit they deserve,” he told the Birmingham Eccentric. But such artists had already benefited tremendously by having an entrepreneur as thoughtful and energetic as N’Namdi in their corner. His signature porkpie hat is likely to appear at important art openings for years to come.
ARTNews, March 1989.
Black Enterprise, July 1990.
Chicago Artists’ News, March 1997.
Dayton Communicator, May 4, 1995.
Detroit Free Press, April 16, 1989; February 22, 1993.
Detroit Live, Summer 1985.
Detroit News, January 9, 1989; November 1, 1991; February 16, 1993; February 19, 1993; October 19, 1994; October 21, 1996; February 21, 1997.
The Eccentric Newspapers (suburban Detroit), October 1997.
Essence, July 1997.
Michigan Chronicle, March 18, 1989.
—James M. Manheim
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