Meisha Johnson opens Elevate, a new gallery for emerging African-American artists 

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Ruta Smith

Meisha Johnson is on a mission. The owner of Neema Gallery, one of just a few African-American owned art galleries in Charleston, wants to bring diversity to this city. She's already creating change on Broad Street, successfully opening Neema at the end of 2018 and hosting a slew of events, from artist talks to book signings.

Now Johnson's mission is expanding; she opens Gallery Elevate at 140 East Bay St. this Spring. The gallery will feature the work of new and emerging African-American artists from all over the world. Neema Gallery will shift its focus to highlight the work of top African-American Southern artists, both living and deceased.

"What was very eye-opening for me was Art Basel," says Johnson of her recent gallery changes. She saw galleries regularly selling $100,000 paintings and realized that the work of some of the artists she represents was just as world-class as the work of those showing in Miami. "It shifted my thinking," she says. "I want to position myself where we can accomplish that."

Neema Gallery will now represent the work of deceased artists including self-taught Spartanburg native Johnnie Lee Gray. A carpenter by trade, Gray's work often incorporates house paint and plywood, capturing scenes from America's Jim Crow era. Neema will continue to represent Tyrone Geter, whose work Johnson showed, to much acclaim, at Art Basel. Geter, in addition to creating stunning charcoal drawings, has developed his own torn paper technique. Then there's Otto Neals, a Lake City native who moved to Brooklyn at age 5, and created art during the Harlem Renaissance.

Johnson has indeed created a world-class roster of artists.

While Neema's works are geared toward the more seasoned art collector, Gallery Elevate will cater to new buyers. You'll find visual works (including prints) and jewelry at Gallery Elevate, with works that are priced with beginning buyers in mind. Johnson plans on curating educational newsletters for people who visit Elevate, sending out info about artists, as well as do's and don'ts for first time art buyers.

Johnson had no trouble finding artists to fill the walls of Gallery Elevate. "Pretty much every other day I get emails from artists," she says. "I went back and read them all and reached back out to them." Now, artists who couldn't make it into Neema, will have the chance to show their work at Elevate.

"Charleston is really a goldmine. You get people from everywhere. If you're an artist wanting gallery representation, I think Charleston is ideal. If a person purchases from you they may be from New York or Chicago — the word of your art spreads," says Johnson. "It's a win-win for the arists I represent. They get that. Which is why they're with me."

Gallery Elevate will be open later than other galleries downtown, accomodating dinner crowds who may want to peruse works of art while waiting for their reservation. Johnson expects to see the same kind of people she's seen frequenting Neema over the past year: tourists, snowbirds, a few locals here and there. She's seen art-lovers who make a point to visit every gallery they can on a vacation, buying a work of art as their souvenir. She's made friends, with people near and far sending her five-year-old, Sabina, gifts. She's been inspired by the artists she works with, looking to Geter and others as mentors in the often cut-throat art gallery world.

"It's been a real beautiful thing," says Johnson of opening and operating her first, and soon to be second, art gallery. "It's not for the faint of heart. From the beginning, I'm on a mission and I want to see diversity downtown. It's not here and it's time for it."

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