Meet Chela Mitchell, the ‘Art-World Outsider’ Behind a Fast-Rising Gallery in Washington, DC

Célia Rakotondrainy, "rising tide” (Installation View), 2023. All images courtesy of Chela Mitchell.

“I had a dream to come back to DC in 2020,” says Chela Mitchell. The fashion stylist turned art advisor left her hometown for New York in 2015 to work in the fashion world before returning during the pandemic. For many, the period offered an opportunity to slow down and rediscover a sense of purpose—and for Mitchell, that meant opening an art gallery.

“A lot of people were called home to do special things and have special missions,” she remembers. “I think mine was to elevate the fine art world here.”

Portrait of Chela Mitchell by Amber Logan.

Since establishing the gallery in 2021 and opening a storefront in DC’s Union Market District this past June, Mitchell has dedicated herself to giving Black people a space to create change, amplifying the voices of folks interested in the intersection of fine art and design.

While DC is famous for its top-tier museums, the commercial gallery scene has never managed to develop a critical mass. Mitchell’s strategy involves nurturing home-grown talent, working with emerging artists, and providing them an opportunity for extended exhibitions while promoting them to a broader audience at art fairs in cities including Miami, Los Angeles, and Barcelona.

“I love that I'm an art-world outsider,” she says. “I love that I'm a girl from the hood. I love that people get to see art through my lens and my perspective.” Mitchell grew up in Southeast DC, a neighborhood that remains, even as other parts of the city have experienced extreme gentrification, majority Black. She cites easy access to the free Smithsonian museums as a key source of inspiration.

While Mitchell always wanted a gallery, she decided to begin her journey in the art world as an advisor, building up a client base before opening her own space. Although DC lacks a robust gallery circuit, Mitchell says it is home to a rich and growing network of creative entrepreneurs who have offered essential support and collaboration.

Célia Rakotondrainy, ”rising tide,” 2023 (Installation View). Photography by Amber Logan.

She points to Keem Hughley, the owner of Bronze, an Afrofuturism-inspired restaurant that serves up international fare with African culinary influences, and Caitlin Berry, the director of the DC branch of the Rubell Museum, which opened to showcase the collection of contemporary art collectors Mera and Don Rubell last year.

In many ways, Mitchell suggests, the gallery has room to grow and stand out precisely because it isn’t competing with dozens of others, as it would be in New York or Los Angeles. Like Atlanta, another city with a rich creative history and an emerging art scene, DC is poised to become a cultural hub because of the pride its community takes in it. “I've had collectors throw brunches and introduce people to our gallery,” Mitchell says. “Collectors will always buy from New York galleries, but now local galleries like mine can support not only local dealers, but ­local and international artists.”

In a short time, the gallery has already made waves. It was the first to represent DC at any Frieze fair when it presented a booth of works by Larry Cook, a conceptual photography and video artist whose work explores Black identity, and Mojdeh Rezaeipour, an Iranian-American mixed media artist, at Frieze Los Angeles last February. For the next edition, she will return with a solo presentation dedicated to textile artist Siena Smith.

In September, she mounted a sold-out presentation of work by Cook at Photofairs New York. One of the collectors was an artist. “It's the highest honor,” Mitchell says, “when an artist buys another artist's work.”