THE AFRO-CARRIBEAN FOUNDER OF NEW YORK GALLERY REGULARNORMAL SPEAKS ON BUILDING ART SPACES FOR EMERGING TALENT.
A report by ABIGAIL GLASGOW for Cultured Mag.
PHOTOGRAPHY BY TOMÁS DE LOS SANTOS
If I’ve learned one thing about Danny Báez over the past year or so, it’s that he shows up for his people, and they show up in droves for him. Eighteen years ago, a twenty-year-old Báez emigrated from the Dominican Republic to New York City without a semblance of his next move. As of today, he has apprenticed for the likes of Rirkrit Tiravanija and Gavin Brown, co-founded the nonprofit ARTNOIR, ideated and hosted MECA Art Fair for three years in a row, and, in November of last year, opened his first gallery space at 76 Bowery, REGULARNORMAL. From the start of his accidental art career, he has put humans first—before transactions or renowned reputations—and self-describes as a “regular normal” guy who befriends artists for a living. Not only has his commitment to artists’ security and wellbeing translated to highly trafficked shows (his last with Na’ye Perez completely sold out); but it has earned him the title as a “one of a kind” gallerist, according to his current show partner and artist Bony Ramirez.
Báez has built a community of emerging artists outside of the whitewashed, capitalistic hierarchy of the traditional art world. He notably was the first to exhibit Aya Brown—the artist known for her portraits of essential workers centering Black women—in New York last March, before her ascension into the limelight. He’s eliminated the social climbing, power-infused dynamics within art exchange, and instead encouraged an art ecosystem defined by equity.
To know Báez is to know genuine community. So I sat down with him to hear what manifested such a beautiful career.
Abigail Glasgow: So, what was your first art related job? How did you get into the industry?
Danny Báez: It was 2008. At the time, my friend Glorimarta Linares was pretty much the director of Rirkrit Tiravanija’s studio. I was coming up from a seasonal job and looking for a new one. She asked if I would be down to assist with a conversation series between Rirkit and Nico Dockx, a Belgian artist.
AG: Another temporary gig?
DB: Yep, Friday, Saturday, Sunday. I was supposed to handle the camera; I helped with cooking; I [assumed] many parts at the same time. And on the second day, we were taking a break, and Rikrit comes into the space. I was sitting with the team and he came up and asked me my name, what I was doing, where I came from, my goals in life. I introduced myself. He walked away. And then later my friend Glori said, you’re hired. You start on Tuesday. The team had shared that I was such a hard worker, that I would do whatever they asked me to do. And that made for a good addition to the studio. So Rikrit said ‘let’s give this guy a chance.’ I ended up working there for three years.
AG: Wow, and what resonated with you about the industry when you started working with Rikrit?
DB: I was always learning. I learned more about conceptual art, art that only exists as an idea. And I was like ‘what the fuck is this?’ [laughs]. Rikrit is one of the main artists in that branch of the arts—one of the top ten most important artists of the century. But I was so ignorant to the art world. I was never like, ‘Oh, I work for this Rikrit.’
AG: Right, it was your livelihood. It was a job.
DB: Right, so be it. But then one day Rikrit asked me to meet him at Columbia University: he was (and still is) a professor in their MFA program. He assigned me to oversee a passport project—a 35-foot-long scroll. My duty was to choose stamps from Rikrit’s passports, find the map of the corresponding location at the Public Library, photocopy acetate paper, shoot it on a silkscreen and then print it on top of this passport scroll. I did that for two and a half years, this one project. And that’s how I became intertwined with Columbia’s MFA program. I got to observe students and witness the business of everything. I became acquaintances with many students—and those relationships stuck around, to this day.
AG: That’s how you started to build out your own art network. And that’s how you started working with Gavin Brown?
DB: So in 2011, Gavin asked if I could come to his house once a week. He was (and still is) Rikrit’s dealer. He liked the way I worked. So I started assisting Rikrit at Gavin’s. One day turned to three days, then four days. I eventually switched over and stayed with Gavin for seven and a half years.
AG: These two very powerful men in the art world were so attracted to you as a worker. You somehow got in bed with these huge names.
DB: But I was naive to that. They were just other people. Right? Someone once spelled it out for me. They said, ‘let me tell you in terms of music’—which at the time is what I understood best—’who Rikrit and Gavin [are] in this business: Kanye West and Jay-Z.’ I replied: ‘say no more.’ That’s when I understood what waters I was swimming in.
AG: But again, you were so focused on working hard for these people. Walk me through how you started to see yourself as perhaps your own art entity.
DB: At some point while showing two friends GBE, Gavin’s gallery—at the time it was in the West Village—I was able to sell pieces that nobody was buying. So, two years after I got the job with Gavin, he took me to Art Basel so I could sell work. Then the following year he sent me to Buenos Aires, because I speak Spanish, to handle the GBE booth at arteBA alongside dealer (and now mentor) Bridget Donahue. Dominican people, we always say we know how to do things. When you’re an immigrant, you just do. Gavin saw something in me that I didn’t see myself. And one thing that I really appreciated about Gavin is that when we were together—because you know people would come around and say ‘who is this brown guy?’ And he would say ‘This is my friend Danny.’ Or he would say ‘Danny works with me.’
AG: With me, not for me. It felt equitable.
AG: So tell me how you started your own art initiatives.
DB: I’m a co-founder of ARTNOIR. We started in 2013 as a group of friends going to field trips, to museums, to galleries together—mostly Black and brown people in New York. We decided to name it ARTNOIR because we were mostly Black. It has since incorporated and now we host talks and conversations as a nonprofit.
Then, in 2015 I was at arteBA. I had kept going since Gavin and people started recognizing me. I’m standing in the mezzanine overlooking the fair. I started thinking what is it I want to do? And when I looked at all the booths from the top, it was like a micro universe. [Pauses] An art fair. In the Caribbean (because that’s where I come from). I had a friend, Tony Rodriguez, showing with his space, 20/20, in the young galleries section at arteBA. I went right up to him and asked if he wanted to create a fair together. He said yes. And we shook hands.
What came next was funny, but I had to do it. I went around the fair after that conversation lying to people about an art fair that didn’t exist that was “supposed to happen in 2016.” I started gassing it up to galleries there in Buenos Aires. Thankfully, we were able to sustain it.
AG: And how did you come up with the name?
DB: Tony had read an article in the New York Times that said Santurce—the artsy neighborhood in San Juan—was turning into the “mecca of the arts.” So we decided to call it MECA—with one c, because Spanish. Then I had the idea that MECA could also stand for MErcado CAribeño (Caribbean Market).
We ended up having to move the fair to 2017 so we could find a space. So we had even more pressure to make it happen. We started promoting as a team—myself, Tony and four women we had brought on. We picked June as a date. I got names on board that other fairs couldn’t get. The first fair was 17 galleries. And 10 curated projects. We hosted 2017, 2018, 2019. We didn’t in 2020, obviously. It’s the only international art fair in the Caribbean right now.
AG: I want to go back to the question that you asked yourself: what you are within this whole system. I know you don’t like to be called a curator.
DB: No. I’m a friend of the artist. I put things together, that’s it. I’m a builder.
AG: How have you trained your eye? How do you find artists?
DB: I don’t know. When I first encountered Bony Ramirez—he curated and contributed his own work for our current show, “Flame Tree”—I thought, ‘wow, this is fucking amazing. What is this?’ Meeting the artist and understanding how they go about their work, how much they love what they do and the passion they have is what really gets me going. Some people say ‘oh, you have great eye,’ but I don’t know when that happened.
AG: It sounds like it just sort of…did. Is that why you decided to take the leap into starting REGULARNORMAL? Did you just want your own space?
DB: Well, I never wanted to do this to be honest. I saw how it worked. The stress. People told me I should sell more work, and I kept saying no because I just wanted to be friends with the artist, I didn’t want to do any “business.” I kept doing MECA, but that wasn’t bringing me cash. So I gave selling work a shot. And I never looked back. I had sold work before with Gavin but I didn’t want to embark on that path myself. The amount of artists who have surrounded me is so big. I wanted to go into an LLC to protect myself and protect them. Getting a space was something I needed to do to give them security. And I can host the way I want, the way I envision it, and the way that works for the artists.
AG: And why the name, REGULARNORMAL?
DB: Because I’m a regular normal guy. I’m just the witness of the artists doing the beautiful things. And everyone is treated as a regular normal person when they walk in.
AG: Obviously the art world is very white. Do you feel like you have the opportunity to shift that division through your work?
DB: Well there are people who have been doing that before me. My own personal message of unity goes beyond that. If you’re a white artist making good art and your work ethic is great, your sense of community is awesome, you respect others, I’m game. My priority is people of color, but white people are always welcome here. If you can get behind us. It’s about the integrity you have as a human being.
As someone who has been segregated, put on the side, and discriminated against so many times over, do we need to repeat the same things that were done to us? I don’t want to. Even in DR, we’re raised with a very colonial mindset. The darker you are, the less value you have as a human being. And that’s a colonial complex. So as brown and Black people we are perpetrators of discrimination, too. My responsibility with this space is prioritizing Black and brown people, without creating more division. That’s not the way I operate. First and foremost, artists of color, but everybody is welcome. The door is open for everybody. If it’s not that, then what?
AG: What role do you feel like art has in community?
DB: It’s everything to me. It’s the main reason I’m doing this. Bringing people together who don’t know each other yet to create some sort of connection. The priority here is artists coming together, being taken care of, checking in on them mentally and spiritually. That’s the ultimate goal, right? Some of these artists have never shown before. Which happens. There are so many artists that get overlooked. For us, we’re playing the long game. The longer you stay around, we’re going to get you where you have to go. An art gallery is composed of artists. If there’s no artist, there’s no art gallery. They are the most important component to the whole operation. I work for the artists. They’re allowing me to earn a living through the things that they do. I’m here for them. Others were there for me. Now I have to be there for them.