Last year, quarantine and venue closings forced many creatives to find or develop alternative paths. These challenges are what inspired Rico Grant to launch the city’s first barbershop/art gallery, Gallery at Gumbo, a welcoming space to get your groom on, view and support local art, and engage in open dialogue. “Gumbo” in this case is meant to call to mind the unprejudiced way a variety of ingredients add their own nuances, yet co-exist, and provide sustenance.
Gallery at Gumbo’s intent to represent all facets of the community is stated explicitly through block lettered slogans printed on stark white walls. One of them, a nod to the 1990s sitcom Martin, reads: “If you’re racist, sexist, or have any ounce of prejudice in your body, get ta’ steppin’.”
The open floor plan is highlighted by artisanal, emerald colored barbershop chairs and a 900 square foot gallery in the rear of the shop. Here, only local artists’ works are featured and for sale, but as Grant points out, “Gallery at Gumbo is not a place for cheap art—it’s a place for brilliant art.”
“There’s an undertone [at] Gallery at Gumbo, and it’s that we are driving entrepreneurship,” he explains via a Zoom call from Los Angeles. “I learned that there’s an entrepreneurial side to creativity that is not necessarily being exercised in a way that allows our artists to be full time artists.”
After a 10-year spell in corporate, the Queen City native and West End resident discovered his passion for developing venues that value homegrown talent. One of the ways Grant achieves this is as cofounder of Paloozanoire, a lifestyle company and annual conference aimed at empowering Black entrepreneurs and young professionals. In October 2020, Paloozanoire presented Black & Brown Faces, a guest exhibition in partnership with the Cincinnati Art Museum featuring 10 local artists of color. Each artist submitted one artwork illustrating the unprecedented extremes of 2020 through facial expressions.
“We don’t have a shortage of artists,” Grant states. “We don’t have a shortage of support for the artists, to be honest with you. What we have a shortage of, quite frankly, are individuals and organizations who can create spaces for artists to exhibit in a format that they deserve. We have museums, but the museums are scholarly museums. We need spaces dedicated to Cincinnati artists. It’s almost like having a city with too many people without the infrastructure to sustain it.”
He recalls that before the CAM closed to the public for 30 days due to quarantine, a few thousand people were able to view the commissioned pieces featured in Black & Brown Faces, but it would have been nice if thousands more could experience it. It was at that point, he says, he had an epiphany to open an art gallery. But Grant didn’t want to just open an art gallery—he thought about a way to “create a vessel for conversations.”
“What better way to do that, than in a barber shop?” he says. “I’m not a barber. I’m not an artist. I’m a curator. And I’m not an art curator. I’m a community curator. I enjoy bringing people together. Obviously, the last 13 months has made that almost impossible, but I’m looking at the path forward.”
Visitors can look forward to programs such as the Shop Talk series, an open forum of diverse panelists that will include local rap artists, writers, athletes, community leaders and Fortune 500 CEOs. According to Grant, the conversations could riff on any range of topics, from current events in popular culture to the effects of systemic racism on our community at large.
Shop Talk is sponsored by P&G, Main Street Ventures, TriVersity, Haile Foundation, Kroger, Mercy Health, 3CDC, and Cincinnati Regional Chamber of Commerce.
If you missed Black & Brown Faces at the Art Museum, it’s the gallery’s inaugural exhibition, running through June 27.