It Takes A Unicorn

Posted On November 3, 2022

Michaela Pilar Brown is committed to maintaining and even expanding Wim Roefs’ inclusive yet judicious curation at if Art

By Kristine Hartvigsen

After gallery owner Wim Roefs passed away unexpectedly this spring, his widow, Eileen Waddell, knew it would take someone very special to fill his shoes at if ART in Columbia. It would take someone accomplished. Someone fearless. Someone brilliant. That someone is Michaela Pilar Brown.

“I thought of several people, but Michaela is the first one I approached,” Waddell said. “I wanted it to be her. She and Wim were good friends and worked together at 701 CCA (Center for Contemporary Art) for quite some time. Michaela has got a good grounding in art history and trends, and she has good curatorial experience as well as extensive experience working with artists.”

A fine artist of international stature, Brown’s work is characterized by sometimes brutal images that demonstrate how racial injustices throughout history have distorted the self-image and wellbeing of Black people, severely limited their opportunities, and perpetuated negative stereotypes. She challenges perceptions of Black bodies and conventional standards of beauty as well as the definitions of family and home.

An art history and sculpture major at Howard University in Washington, DC, Brown over the past two decades has received numerous artist grants and awards as well as had group and solo exhibitions and residencies around the world, including Arizona, New Zealand, Canada, and Germany. In 2019, she was named executive director of 701 CCA, the first Black woman to hold the position. Her art career is rare and unparalleled to almost mythic degree.

“I was looking for a unicorn. It takes a unicorn to run an art gallery,” Waddell said. “You have to have so many unique skills. I thought she was the unicorn.”

Brown took ownership of if ART in September and will remain with 701 CCA through the end of the year to assist in the transition in leadership and to finish a couple of remaining projects. It is a natural progression for Brown. While she feels great respect and affection for Roefs and hopes to honor his legacy by promoting high quality, provocative works, she also will put her own signature on the gallery.

“Wim has been my gallerist for the last decade. He was my art dealer. He has been instrumental in selling my work, and he is a friend,” Brown said. “I will change the name of the gallery. That will be announced later. It necessarily will be a different space because Wim and I are different. We will be moving forward with a smaller footprint. I am taking the gallery back to its original space.”

A busy member of the University of South Carolina journalism school faculty, Waddell did not really have the time or the will to undertake ownership and operation of the gallery. In preparation for selling it, she assisted with the gallery’s downsizing this summer. The work helped keep her busy as she processed the profound loss of her beloved husband.

“It was difficult to walk away from, but I had the summer to spend there,” Waddell said, adding that she will be available as an advisor and confidant to her good friend any time she is needed. “She is going to make it her own. I am giving her the space to do that. It’s not mine anymore.”

For her part, Brown is grateful for Waddell’s counsel. “Eileen is my friend, and I am sure she will be in my ear, lending a critical eye and voice when I need it,” she said.

Brown is committed to maintaining and even expanding Roefs’ inclusive yet judicious curation. Though his focus was international, he often offered support and guidance to artists in the Columbia community and always had a diverse collection of art in the gallery.

“Wim had an excellent eye. He also helped and encouraged artists who weren’t represented by his gallery, mentoring them with honest yet firm and constructive criticism,” Brown said. “I hope to offer a place where people can find that same kind of information and support. I hope it will be a space for contemporary conversations about art. And Wim was committed to the experimental music scene, and I hope to offer a boutique setting for the continuation of the cross-pollination between the arts. I hope to have a regular book series and a salon series. Part of what a gallery is charged with doing is expanding the knowledge base, connecting people in the community through art.”

Running a fine art gallery requires a delicate balance between benevolent intention and the sometimes demanding, practical need for commercial success. At its core, the gallery is a business, and one would never want to rush an artist to market before they are ready.

“I have done nonprofit work in the arts for most of my adult life. I had my own gallery at age 19, so this is not my first commercial gallery, but I come to it with a whole lot more knowledge,” Brown said. Roefs’ direct and candid commentary could be intimidating to less-experienced artists, but he would do them no favors by coddling them. “Wim was family. He was definitely sweet, and he was honest. Sometimes the culture here doesn’t make space for that kind of honesty. … This is a commercial business. You have got to take people when they are ready and when you think you can represent them honestly and critically.”

Brown held a launch event for the gallery last month, featuring Colin Quashie, who recently signed with the gallery.

Based in Charleston, the London-born Quashie has been creating with oil and acrylic on canvas, various mixed media, silkscreen, and digital collage works since the mid-1990s. His work twice has been singled out for special recognition at the celebrated Artfields festival, a massive annual, juried art exhibit in Lake City — winning the Merit Award in 2016 and both the People’s Choice and Merit Award in 2017.

An Artfields Grand Prize winner herself (in 2018), Brown and Quashie also share a mission to challenge and disassemble racial and sexual stereotypes, social injustices, and political power structures through their work, to fearlessly take people out of their comfort zones by using provocative, sometimes incendiary images to spark dialogue that can stimulate progress toward equality and equity.

“I am trying to move deliberately,” Brown said. “I want voices that expand what people are able to see and witness in Columbia — artists of color, young artists, and women.”