Sheila Urevbu is on a mission to elevate Black artists who have historically been overlooked and disadvantaged. Her art gallery, Urevbu Contemporary (formerly Art Village Gallery), is based on this premise — providing a space for artists of color to display their work while art lovers indulge in rich cultural experiences. It’s a win-win situation, as talented artists are provided a platform and art lovers are exposed to art — much of it from artists of the African Diaspora.
Having recently changed the name of the gallery to Urevbu Contemporary, Sheila’s rebranding reflects the gallery’s growing international appeal while also allowing the name to carry the legacy of Sheila’s family. Although the gallery has been around for more than two decades, Sheila says there’s much more in store. She spoke with us about her love for art, the biggest challenges she’s faced as an art gallery owner, and how Memphis inspires her creativity.
Why do you do the work that you do?
What I do is so much bigger than having shows; it’s an intellectual, cultural conversation. I want people to care about diversity and culture. I want to address the imbalance of it all and teach people of all backgrounds about the work and experiences that these different artists bring. I want to change people’s level of awareness and increase people’s knowledge. Art has a way of [being a] commonality among people, and that’s what I’m looking for.
What’s the inspiration for Urevbu Contemporary?
The gallery was founded by my husband back in 1998. After receiving his MFA from what was then known as Memphis State, he experienced roadblocks and challenges getting galleries in Memphis to exhibit his work. At the time, there wasn’t a strong representation [of] Black artists in the city. As a result, he decided to open the gallery to exhibit his artwork and also exhibit artwork of other artists of color.
Fast forward to 2015. I decided not to continue my corporate career, which lasted over 20 years. After some thoughtfulness and prayer, I decided to take full ownership of the gallery. My inspiration and mission were to build on the work my husband had already established and also to expand programming and artists. I was very inspired by my community and wanted to expose it to other cultures — highlighting the artwork of artists from Africa and its diaspora. The foundation of the mission still remains the same, which is to support a community of artists who’d been overlooked and disadvantaged. I address that imbalance in the work I do at the gallery.
Where did your love for art originate?
This is an interesting question for me. I always tell people “art found me,” not the other way around. I fell in love with art around the same time I fell in love with my husband. He’s a phenomenal visual artist, and my love for art grew alongside our love.
What do you love most about your work?
I needed to feel like the work I did in the gallery had a positive influence on my community and surrounding neighborhood. When I began to receive feedback through emails, letters and postcards from strangers, as well as from friends, [who were] moved to let me know how a particular exhibition or program in the gallery deeply impacted them, I knew I was walking worthy of my vocation. I love this confirmation. Equally, I rather enjoy meeting and getting to know artists locally and abroad.
What have you learned about yourself since becoming a business owner?
Coming from a 20-year corporate career where there were structures and budgets and staff for everything, I brought some behaviors, knowledge and skills along with me into the world of entrepreneurship. Some served me well, while others didn’t. I quickly learned I was impatient and also a perfectionist, and that needed to change if I was going to be successful. When you own your own business with limited staff and resources, things tend to move a bit slower. Because of this, I’ve learned I CAN do hard things. One surprising thing I’ve learned about myself is I’m creative. I would never have said that about myself six years ago.
What’s been one of the biggest highlights of your career?
After several years of hard work in the gallery, I received my first invitation to participate in an international art fair in Washington, D.C. Following this amazing opportunity, the gallery attended an international art fair in Manhattan, which helped so much with exposure of the talented artists I exhibit as well as the art gallery itself.
What about one of the biggest challenges?
One of my biggest challenges continues to be unlearning habits from Corporate America that don’t translate well when you own your own business. I started working in corporate environments when I was 23, and I’m almost 50! Old habits die hard. It’s hard to find good talent in the city — people [who] are interested in finding people who want to work in the art gallery as gallery managers or art writers or curators. And as a small business, you need staff to allow you to scale.
How has the pandemic affected your business?
Honestly, it’s been a mix of good and bad. Of course, there was a downturn in business and events I would normally hold. I was shut down for the entire spring and reopened by appointment only towards the end of summer. This time really taught me to always be prepared with a Plan B. I was able to quickly set up virtual exhibitions and continued to showcase [the] work of artists. I’m slowly easing back into the idea of physical engagement and plan to do my first in-person event soon, but with plenty of guardrails.
Memphis is known for its rich culture. As the owner of an art gallery that focuses on cultural representation through art, what do you love most about the city?
I love that there is a welcoming community of supporters like colleagues, artists, patrons, collectors and fans [who] continue to embrace what I bring to the community and are always curious about what I have going on.
What are some places in Memphis that inspire you creatively?
I love walks and views along our riverfront. The blue sky meeting the river during a sunset is definitely inspiring. I’m a member at Dixon Gallery & Gardens and frequently visiting — especially during this time of isolation — has definitely been cathartic for me.
What’s next for Urevbu Contemporary?
I have a ton of rebranding work to do. I’ve evolved the gallery in so many ways, and although the mission of the gallery isn’t changing, the new name better reflects the roots, identity, soul and essence of what the gallery has become. I’ll also be converting one of the smaller galleries into a project space that will welcome local artists to have artistic freedom to explore and express ideas and concepts through visionary art, performance and interactive installations.
What’s the best advice you’ve received?
This is a long story, but my mentor once told me that we are all the “average” of the five people we spend the most time with. “If you don’t believe it,” he said, “take the salary of the five people you spend the most time with and add it up and take an average. Now, look at your salary. It’s the average, right?” He continued and said, “You may be telling yourself that it’s okay, you’re at the top of your group. If so, and you do see yourself as the leader of the group, then no one is lifting you up, but rather you’re being pulled down. Therefore, you need someone to lift you up! Who is that person?”
If a person wants to improve their life, they should change the five people they spend the most time with. They should get a new five. He continued that this didn’t mean cutting people off or even meeting new people in the physical form. Simply add five new people in your life by way of motivational speakers, authors and the like.
I remember being so inspired by this concept. I purchased several audiobooks and paperback books to “replace” my five people. I took them everywhere I went. I kept one of my books by Og Mandino in my purse and would read it when alone at a restaurant. When in my car, I didn’t listen to music. Rather I played one of the audiobooks.
Besides faith, family and friends, what are three things you cannot live without?
Art, the Mississippi River, and technology.
Thank you, Sheila! Urevbu Contemporary is located at 410 S. Main Street, Memphis, TN 38103. Learn more at urevbucontemporary.com.