Ella West Gallery


Feature image: Ransome, "Gees Bend Quilter Sis," via Forbes courtesy of Ella West Gallery

Ella West Gallery: Latest Art Gallery in Durham

A little over a century ago, Durham’s “Black Wall Street” thrived across Parrish Street. This downtown area buzzed with families running errands, eating out, catching a movie, or even making a stop at North Carolina’s oldest Black-owned bank: M&F Bank. Durham’s Black Wall Street gained national recognition for its vibrant epicenter of nearly 200 Black-owned businesses and eventually played a large role in placing Durham on the southern U.S. map throughout the late 1800s and into the early 1900s.

In the mid-20th century, however, during the Jim Crow era, Durham launched “urban renewal projects,” a term that places a positive spin on city-led initiatives that resulted in the displacement of Black people from downtown Durham. One of the most notable outcomes from these projects was the construction of the N.C. 147, the Durham Freeway, which sliced right through Black Wall Street and Durham’s historic Hayti neighborhood. Durham’s Black Wall Street never recovered.

Ella West Gallery, Image Courtesy of Morgan Crutchfield Photography
Ella West Gallery, Image Courtesy of Morgan Crutchfield Photography

Fast-forward to today: An unsettling parallel can be drawn to the city of Durham, where major “redevelopment” plans, such as the Northgate Mall Redevelopment, seem to foreshadow the displacement of historically marginalized communities throughout the city again.

Though the effects of these city initiatives have unfortunately had a lasting impact, there’s hope of reimagining Black Wall Street.

For example, Durham’s newest gallery, Ella West, is a buzzworthy new art space and a successful Black Woman-owned gallery in Durham, North Carolina. It sits proudly on Parrish St.

Return to Parrish Street A Dream Realized, Image Courtesy of Morgan Crutchfield Photography
Return to Parrish Street A Dream Realized, Image Courtesy of Morgan Crutchfield Photography

The gallery is owned and managed by Linda Shropshire, an art lover and entrepreneur who is actively working to reclaim Durham's history by centering the voices of Black artists. The gallery, named after Shropshire’s mother, pushes the boundaries of art and recontextualizes art history and Durham’s story at large. Shropshire talked to ArtRKL about the gallery's geographical importance.

Ella West Gallery is located in the heart of Black Wall Street’s Parrish Street in the building that once housed the printing presses of The Durham Reformer, a 1920s-era Black newspaper. In that spirit, I wanted the gallery to once again be a destination for raising marginalized voices, as our mission is to provide a platform for emerging and established regional, national, and international artists. With each of our exhibitions, we look both backward and forward, celebrating generations of Black achievement while working to nurture the artistic growth of a new class of artists poised to shape the future of art history. The artists that we have celebrated since opening in the summer of 2023, including Ernie Barnes, Kennedi Carter, Clarence Heyward, Ransome, Maya Freelon, Sachi Rome, and now Stephen Hayes, all express a sense of agency and autonomy that embodies the spirit of Ella West Gallery and more importantly, the neighborhood we call home.”

Founder Linda Shropshire, Image Courtesy of Morgan Crutchfield Photography
Founder Linda Shropshire, Image Courtesy of Morgan Crutchfield Photography

As a former leader for corporate social responsibility and human rights for a Fortune 100 company, Shropshire brings an arts and business background to her gallery. Linda had always dreamed of opening her own gallery as a lifelong art lover who recognized that art history has long been told through a white, male-dominated lens. 

Shropshire talked with ArtRKL about the connection between her new exhibition,  Stephen Hayes: Reclaiming the Discarded, and the significance of the gallery’s location.

"There is the obvious geographical connection that we share: Hayes is a Duke University art professor living and working in Durham, and his work is part of the permanent collections at the Nasher Museum of Art in Durham and the North Carolina Museum of Art in Raleigh. Beyond that, I think the sometimes surprising materials he uses, including bullet shell casings, raw cotton buds, stone, twine, and bronze, underscore the untold stories simmering within his installations that Ella West Gallery also works to uncover and amplify. Hayes’ process of reclaiming these found materials that would traditionally be deemed broken or undesirable calls into question what exactly we are being told to aspire to and whose interests are served in pursuit of these aspirations. In one corner of the exhibition, a collection of bronze muses stands as envoys of collective memory, powerful missives from a troubled past. While Hayes’ subjects are cast from those who walk among us today, the symbols he uses to adorn them transport the audience into a historical setting from which Black women’s trials and triumphs can be reimagined and re-experienced. And that is very much what we want to do here at Ella West Gallery: creating space for Black people, people of color, women, and other marginalized communities who have been historically underrepresented based on race, sex, national origin, sexual identity, gender identity, gender expression, or disability, Ella West Gallery aims to redefine the art world and leave an indelible mark on the history of art."

Image Courtesy of McKenzie Shelton, Embody Media & Design (1)
Image Courtesy of McKenzie Shelton, Embody Media & Design (1)

ArtRKL went to the gallery for the first time last fall to see its debut exhibition, “Return to Parrish Street: A Dream Realized.” We were immediately greeted by many familiar faces and a warm embrace from Linda Shropshire, the mother of our childhood friend. 

While gazing at the incredible works of North Carolina artists Kennedi CarterClarence Heyward, North Carolina native Ransome, and the late Durham artist Ernie Barnes (1938-2009)., Linda whispered to us, “Hey! Girls! Come check this out.” She motioned for us to follow her into a gorgeous office in the back of the gallery. 

Linda pointed to the wall, where a stunning photograph of a woman in vintage fashion confidently looked back at us. 

Image Courtesy of McKenzie Shelton, Embody Media & Design
Image Courtesy of McKenzie Shelton, Embody Media & Design

“That’s my Mom,” Linda smiled proudly. “Ms. Ella West.”

Behind the photograph hung a Clarence Hayward painting of our friend from elementary school with her sister and Shropshire.

It was the kind of moment that gives you chills–With the gallery’s historic location, the exhibition highlighting the voices of incredible Black artists from North Carolina, my dear friend’s mother, a business owner and art lover who was making it all happen in the city we call home, the photograph of my friend’s grandmother, who also inspired the name of the incredible gallery where we stood, taking the moment in. It all felt unreal.

Ella West Gallery Opening, Image Courtesy of Morgan Crutchfield Photography 2.jpg
Ella West Gallery Opening, Image Courtesy of Morgan Crutchfield Photography

Shropshire spoke with ArtRKL afterward,

"Taylor and Sydney are my greatest inspirations. They are consummate professionals, so the gallery is filled with their ideas and enhancements. When I walk into the gallery, I am always keenly aware of my place in history and my responsibility to Taylor and Sydney, as well as all the young people who are watching me. Legacy is important to me. My hope is that Taylor, Sydney, and others (like you) will see my work with the gallery as a model for embracing and running with possibilities. One of my goals is to help shift the narratives of art history. I will do this by consistently creating a world-class space for showcasing exceptional and historically marginalized artists. The future is now."

If you’ve grown up in Durham or even lived in the Bull City for a few years, you know the charm of the city lies in its unique, small-world, big-city feel and, like many small southern towns, its deep-rooted history that has often been inaccurately portrayed. Ella West is actively breaking a long-standing generational curse and rejuvenating a part of our city that needs it the most: Durham’s Black Wall Street. So, if you ever make a trip to Durham, North Carolina, make sure to stop in and see Ella West Gallery, recontextualizing Durham’s past and revitalizing its future through art.

©ArtRKL™️ LLC 2021-2024. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed. ArtRKL™️ and its underscore design indicate trademarks of ArtRKL™️ LLC and its subsidiaries.

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