April Bey

The views and opinions expressed by speakers and presenters in connection with Art Restart are their own, and not an endorsement by the Thomas S. Kenan Institute for the Arts and the UNC School of the Arts. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Through her wildly multicolored and multitextured interdisciplinary work, April Bey loves to explore speculative realms. For example, in a recent installation of hers, titled “Atlantica, the Gilda Region,” she invited the viewer to imagine they'd just landed as aliens on the faraway planet Atlantica, an opulent Afro-futurist wonderland. First exhibited at the California African American Museum in Los Angeles, the show then traveled to the Nevada Museum of Art in Reno this past fall.

Art Restart was eager to speak with April specifically because of a project she created to transform one particular speculation into reality: What if the people who collected her art looked like her and/or had similar backgrounds to hers? What if the world of art collecting invited collectors who for a host of reasons had felt excluded from or intimidated by it? She named the new venture the Equity in Collecting Program, and it is already bearing fruit, with April currently reviewing the third round of applicants to the program.

April spoke to Art Restart from Los Angeles, where she lives and works, including as a tenured professor at Glendale College. Here she explains why and how she created her singular program and describes how her radical invitation to new collectors is changing not only the art-collecting culture but also her relationship with her fans as well as with her own art.

Choose a question below to begin exploring the interview:

Pier Carlo Talenti: Was there an aha moment that led you to creating the Equity in Collecting Program? Was there one moment, or was it something that developed over time?

April Bey: It was both. I had a moment where I realized I couldn't afford to buy my own art, and [she laughs] that was so mortifying to me, and it kept bugging me. It was like the sore in your mouth you can’t stop tonguing.

Pier Carlo: That's complicated because also it means that you had achieved a modicum of success. 

April: It is, it's complicated. It also meant that if I couldn't afford to buy my own work, then my family couldn't and people who looked like me couldn't. All of the art historians and art professors that gave me a chance, gave me my first show at the university galleries, that did reviews of my work, these people who actually made my career couldn't afford to buy my work. 

So I started trying to figure out, “OK, how much power do I have with these galleries and with these collectors, and how can I create equity in our working relationship to bring the price point down to be able to sell at market but with a voucher or a discount?”

Pier Carlo: Could you explain what that means?

April: Yeah. Because I teach, I also have a long background in equity work, student-equity work, so I've sat on committees where we’ve formulated application processes and we've examined the needs of our students to be able to create equity through funding programs. Similarly, I wanted to come up with a program that was close to a Section 8 program that we have, for example, where you're getting the same product and apartment at market value but the government subsidizes it with a voucher program. We have this system in our schools for textbooks and art supplies and all kinds of things. In order to do that, I had to get the gallery to buy in and invest in it, and I do that by how I make my work.

A lot of my work has installation elements that the physical objects fit within like a jigsaw puzzle. The elements of the installation that get left behind once the work leaves the space — for example, the fur and most recently the satin fabric — that fabric is purchased as part of an installation agreement either with the museum or the art gallery. Whoever's showing this installation, that's part of the installation budget. They pay for all of this fur, and I get it after the show, and I recycle it into the Equity in Collecting works. The artwork is essentially the same as if I would make it within my practice, but instead of paying for 100% of the production cost, it's offset by whoever exhibited the work where that leftover or recycled material was being used.

Pier Carlo: So that difference is what goes into the voucher?

April: Correct.

Pier Carlo: Just to break it down, give me a nuts-and-bolts example of how it would work. Also how do you decide which of your pieces will become part of the program? Or are they all part of the Equity in Collecting Program?

April: The Equity in Collecting Program works are a part of their own series. That's also in reference to my personal collecting philosophy and how genuine collectors see collecting. You want to make sure you're getting everything within that house to get a full collection. It's also referencing collecting cards or figurines, etc., which ties into my work in the sci-fi nature of it. But that's a long story. 

The Equity in Collecting works are within their own body, and one hopes to collect all of those pieces as they grow throughout the years.

Pier Carlo: I see. Another way to look at it is you're creating a rabid fan base. You're creating people who want to have as much of the collection as possible.

April: Yup, and that's how it's turning out. A lot of people who collected in the first round were very eager to get into the second round because it was important for them to have one from each round.

Pier Carlo: So let's get into specifics then, because you're currently accepting applications for the second round, am I right?

April: No, that passed in October. The third round is what I'm working on.

Pier Carlo: So let's talk about a previous round. Can you give me an example, without naming names, of someone who bought one of your pieces through the program who couldn't have afforded to collect it without the program?

April: I can give you professions and data because I am collecting data to discuss with the galleries after every round. We talk about the data. It's mostly Black women, highly educated, I would even say overeducated Black women that are in white-collar positions within the art world. These are women who have given me some of my first opportunities.

Pier Carlo: So these are women who have already deep roots in the art world and have a good sense of their own tastes and of the contemporary art scene.

April: Yes, and who contribute significantly to the creative capital. They're doing writing within these institutions, even if it's not even part of their job title. They're doing curation; they're working in nonprofits. So that's the highest demographic. Then right after that are curators, art writers, freelance curators in particular, emerging curators.

Pier Carlo: That's amazing. As you’ve said it, people who are really creating the cultural capital but actually can't afford to own the art they love.

April: Exactly.

Pier Carlo: What are the steps for this person to be able to collect your work?

April: Usually, we put out a press release because it's more than one gallery that participates in the program. That's to give people the choice of where they want to purchase from based on where they're located.

Pier Carlo: How many galleries are you working with?

April: Right now, I'm working with three. So the press release goes out. My website is the only place you can apply, so a lot of people have already learned to just check there. There's an email list that when people email me, I just put them on the list so they get the notice right away, and then they apply through my website. 

It's an application that's pretty typical of what you would find if you were applying for any other type of aid or voucher. There's a question that I pay attention to in particular because I'm looking for people who actually want to collect and learn about collecting and not someone who just saw my work on Instagram and wants a discounted piece. They have to answer several questions that help me understand where they first saw my work, what my work is about, and then their positionality in life that makes them feel like they qualify for the Equity in Collecting Program.

Pier Carlo: Once you, say, give a person a thumbs-up, does she or he get to pick the piece?

April: After that point, it becomes a regular acquisition. Just like any other collector when they contact me, I don't like to deal with that part that comes with actually executing the sale. So I say, “Thank you. I'm going to direct you to my galleries.” When they fill out this application, they select which gallery they want to work with, so when the data comes on my site, I just direct the list to each individual gallery.

Then the galleries reach out to the potential collectors, and they do exactly what they would always do. They vet them to make sure that we're not selling to flippers, and they vet them on their side how galleries vet potential collectors. 

Pier Carlo: I’ve got to tell you, I had no idea that there was a vetting system in galleries to prevent flipping.

April: Good galleries. My galleries. I can't speak for the industry, but the people I work with, they do check up on collectors, see if they've purchased from other galleries before. I check with my artist friends to see if we have any complaints. Most of these collectors are new collectors or people that I know and that I've worked with, but I want them to get the experience of collecting. 

I've had these conversations with my gallerists about being patient and explaining things and holding their hands so they know what the process is like. This is also supposed to help them take the next step of collecting other artists and not feeling so overwhelmed and knowing what a good gallery should be like when dealing with new collectors.

“Come in my Temple,” April Bey, 2024, CMYK halftone hand-printed image transfer, watercolor on gessoboard hand-sewn into metallic vinyl wrapped wood panel

“Come in my Temple,” April Bey, 2024, CMYK halftone hand-printed image transfer, watercolor on gessoboard hand-sewn into metallic vinyl wrapped wood panel

Pier Carlo: Through this process, you do not reduce the value of your work, which is an important thing to keep in mind here. But then how does the voucher process work? In other words, you get the full price of the work that's sold. How does the gallery fill in the voucher?

April: A tangible example is with the last round. The artworks are worth $5,000 each. That's the cost of my smallest work.

Pier Carlo: What size are we talking about?

April: 12 by 12.

Pier Carlo: OK. I've seen your work, and that doesn't capture it because it's also three-dimensional too, but we have an idea now.

April: Once they pass the application stage, I have now said, “OK, it's OK for them to get a 90% discount.” This whole process is the same. If a museum approached me to acquire something and they said we need a 20% discount because that's what our budget is, then we'd talk about it and we'd agree on it. So it's the same thing, only this time I'm like, “These people who are applying are significantly disadvantaged or they're marginalized, and they meet this criteria, so now they get a 90% discount.”

Pier Carlo: Criteria that’s been established through the application process?

April: Correct. So when they go through the gallery, the gallery gives a 90% discount. I should go on the record and say that none of the galleries I've worked with have wanted to take a cut. They've all refused several times. However, this program is a little bit bigger than them for me. It's about collecting data and proving that it's sustainable so that other artists can bring this data to their gallery that may be hesitant because they don't think it's going to be worth it for them to get 50% of this severely discounted piece on work that we've already spent money on and that's been recycled. I'm trying to prove that it's not only sustainable, but it's not going to take away from me working in the studio or the gallery servicing the sale. It functions as a regular sale, a commission sale.

Pier Carlo: So then, forgive me, where does the rest of the 90% come to pay you?

April: What do you mean?

Pier Carlo: This person got it at a 90% discount, but you will eventually get the full $5,000 value of the piece, right?

April: No, it's a discount. just like with every sale that we have. Artists, when they sell normally, we get pressured to give discounts. There are some collectors that just come up, and they say, “I demand a discount. I always get a discount.” There are collectors that have relationships with the gallery to where the gallerist is like, “Oh, I always give them this discount.” 

We're doing the same thing, only the discount is acting as an equity, and it's being assigned to people who actually need it and not millionaires who just want to get a higher investment return.

Pier Carlo: So then, forgive me, can you loop it back in with the idea of the vouchers?

April: What do you mean? The voucher is the 90% discount.

Pier Carlo: Ah, I see.

April: We still are making money. This collector is still paying $500 for this piece, and that gets divided. There's usually 12 pieces per gallery. 

There are also collectors who meet the criteria of the equity and collecting program, but they choose to pay full price. We usually have about two to three of those collectors, and 100% of that goes back into the program.

Pier Carlo: So how did you get your galleries on board? And as you're collecting this data, what do you think is going to be the trick to get more artists and more galleries to copy this program?

April: I think that at the end of the day, artists should be operating as a business because this beautiful state of California surely taxes us as such. Obviously, galleries are businesses as well, and both businesses have to be able to come out even for it to be sustainable. So what I'm trying to prove with the data is that all of the money that we spend on my big huge shows with all of this fur and all of this excess stuff, we can save it and reuse it to create works that don't take as much material costs or labor costs.

Pier Carlo: Ah, thank you! That was the piece I was missing.

April: Usually, it's seriously unsustainable. I've had museums and galleries just throw away things that cost up to two grand for a show just to cover the walls with it. If we could recycle that and it just gets, over the years, resold as other work. I could always do that in the higher-price works, and I do, but if we've already invested in that show that we expected to throw away anyway, we might as well recoup that and create a program where we can diversify the collector base and bring that into the art world.

Pier Carlo: What are you hearing from your collectors?

April: First of all, I'm meeting really cool people that have been following me for years and never thought that they had a chance, so that's been really beneficial. I get emails all the time from people who, when they receive their work, they're like, “You don't realize how this has changed my life. This is so amazing, and I feel like a real collector now.”

Pier Carlo: Oh my god, to know that your work is cherished that much!

April: I know! That's what I think when I read those emails. I'm like, “You're supporting me. You really want to help me out.” The Equity in Collecting Program does help me out significantly. That's one of my favorite streams in my practice because I know that it's going to a bunch of nerdy collectors that are like me. 

Because I get a set too. I forgot to mention that. Now I get my own work, and these are pieces that I really, really like. So it makes me feel so amazing to know that when it's finished, I get first dibs and I can just take whatever I want and I can afford it. [She  laughs.]

Pier Carlo: You get to collect your own work for real.

April: Yes.

Pier Carlo: As you're making work, how do you decide what piece is going to go into the program and what piece is going to be sold at a non-discounted price or less-discounted price?

April: I don't have a system for that yet. I know that the equity works are going to be print-based, within the discourse of printmaking, even though they all require individualized selling. The first run was conceptual. I wanted to make fictitious Polaroids that come from my planet. It's also a personal reference to me because when I was an art student, I struggled with framing my art. My program required us to frame our work for critique, but I couldn't afford framing, so it was like this thing that really messed up my grades and upset me while I was in school.

Pier Carlo: Wait, did your school not know that framing would be onerous for their art students?

April: Not when I was a student. And nobody struggled with it. 

Pier Carlo: You were the only one? Everyone else could manage it.

April: Yeah, it was a normal thing. To be honest, they taught us how to make frames. I'm not saying they just said, “You have to frame everything.” They taught us how to make poplar. It was a very old discipline-heavy program I was in, and that's why I chose it.

Pier Carlo: Where was it?

April: This was at Ball State in the Midwest. I chose this program because I did want to know analog, physically how to do all of these things. And I do know how to build a frame. But when I was a student, it was very difficult for me to afford poplar and all of the things involved with making the frame, and that's what they expected us to do.

Pier Carlo: Is poplar the preferred wood for framing?

April: Yes. It's very expensive. It doesn't warp. At the time I was just like, “I can't do this.” So now as an artist, whenever my work is framed, it’s untraditionally framed. The equity works are framed in this fur. It's like all of these Polaroids are sewn into the fur.

Pier Carlo: Does the collection extend through all the rounds, or does each round have its own collection?

April: They're all in the same body of work.

Pier Carlo: I see. They're all thematically connected.

April: Yes, and they're smaller versions of the larger pieces that have more materials in them as well, so you can see them within the larger practice.

Pier Carlo: As you know, collecting is also a way that some people are able to build wealth, but it sounds to me like you take pleasure in having collectors who have a deep heart connection to the work. You yourself are a collector. Do you have an ethic of collecting?

April: I collect what I like. I'm a nerdy collector. I'm looking at a signed copy of a portrait of Worf and Avery Brooks from “Star Trek.” I have figurines. That's the kind of collector I am, so the artwork I have is from artists that I'm obsessed with and there's going to be a room for them. That's the type of collector I am. 

I have no complete knowledge of how people make money off of art other than flipping it. I used to be really against flipping, but now I'm just like I feel like it's uncontrollable and there's no way to really prevent it or stop it.

“The First Atlanticans,” April Bey, 2021, digitally woven tapestry, metallic cord, glitter (currency), hand sewing, epoxy resin on wood panel

“The First Atlanticans,” April Bey, 2021, digitally woven tapestry, metallic cord, glitter (currency), hand sewing, epoxy resin on wood panel

Pier Carlo: One thing I have to say that astonished me and I learned this later in life is that unlike, let's say, a writer who owns the copyright to her work so that every time it's performed, she gets residuals on it or royalties, a visual artist does not make a penny off a resale, right?

April: Correct.

Pier Carlo: Is there at all a movement to change this?

April: I remember when I first moved to L.A., there was a law that we learned about in school, a resale law, and then it kind of just went away. I think it's something that in order for it to change, it would need to be beneficial for galleries or collectors even. But it's not, so it's not going to. Artists don't really have a lot of autonomy in changing things like that unless they're millionaires.

Pier Carlo: They're not unionized.

April: Correct.

Pier Carlo: They can't afford to simply go on strike and not sell their work for a year.

April: There's a really big artist whose art sells for millions. An article came out talking about how their work was flipped by someone they trusted and loved, and they couldn't do anything because you can't. You just have to deal with your own feelings about it.

Pier Carlo: How long did it take you to work out the specifics of the program, and did you consult with peers and colleagues?

April: I talked about it for a long time, and then when I realized it was going to have to be something I just did on my own … . I talked about it with my galleries for a while, and they were like, “Oh, yeah, yeah, this is great. Yeah, yeah, this is great.” When I saw that, “Oh, I'm going to have to actually do it for it to start,” [she laughs] then I just put it on my website, and I told them, “This is what I'm doing,” and they were like, “OK, I guess we should meet about it.” 

We talked about it, and they were confused at first, but then I was like, “It's just like a regular sale. We give discounts all the time. Instead of giving it to people who don't deserve it, we're giving it to people who do.” Once the first round happened, the second round was like, “OK, we got this. We know how to do this.” Because it also requires that all three of them be on the same email chain working together. 

Pier Carlo: Why do they all have to be on the same email chain?

April: Because sometimes collectors bounce. They choose one gallery because they want a specific piece, and then that piece sells before they have a chance to respond. So then they ask the New York gallery if they have that piece, and then the galleries have to communicate with each other to be like, “OK, this collector dropped out, but I sent them to you to get this piece.” So the initial list I send them can change based on collectors changing their mind.

Pier Carlo: I see. Boy, clearly I know so little about how collecting works! 

Imagine 20 years from now and this program has been going on, what are you picturing to be the success stories? How are you hoping this program might have impacted the world of collecting overall? Who's introduced to the possibility of collecting? Are there bigger-picture dreams for it?

April: Yes. I think that this is going to enable a lot of people to have a large collection of my work to where when I'm gone, it can be exhibited and traveled to places that wouldn't necessarily have access to a large collection of this type of work. I think it's going to be a starter pack for families that are like, “Oh, this is the first piece I collected, and this is how I was able to collect it,” steering their offspring or their family into the direction of working with certain galleries that share in this equity-minded practice.

But also I'm hoping that other artists and galleries will steal this idea and perfect it.

Pier Carlo: Is it happening as far as you know?

April: I don't know. I know a lot of my artist friends are trying to figure out how to make it work because you also have to have a very strict studio practice to be able to add in ... . So for me, the equity works have always been announced in conjunction with a solo show. I'm working on that, which is usually about 30+ pieces, in conjunction with a solo show that has about 15 pieces. It has to be scaled for each individual artist based on how they work. 

My practice is very tedious and time-consuming. Maybe a photographer has a different route or a ceramicist has a different route. So we're talking about it, and I'm doing interviews and we're having conversations. I find that a lot of artists are capable of seeing, as long as I'm transparent about how I'm doing it, they can see ways to morph and adapt different things for their practice. That's my hope.

Pier Carlo: I would think also that a gallery might be really interested in having a whole new set of potential collectors, new clients, basically, who, if their life changes or they get a promotion, might be able to afford things at full market rate, right?

April: Exactly, and we've already started that. We have collectors that bought for the first time through my program that are now purchasing from other galleries because they have that experience. It can be daunting to start that process. I remember when I was a student, I used to get panic attacks walking into galleries because I was like, “Do I belong here? Are they looking at me? Am I too dirty to be in here?” That's a lot of concerns that people have, entering those spaces that they don't sometimes feel welcome in.

Pier Carlo: You are also a tenured professor. Are you teaching any of this or teaching the idea of talking about ways to create equity in collecting with your students?

April: Oh, yes, long time. My students are going to cause a lot of problems once they get out into the art world. I show my students my contracts. I show them emails that people send me. I show them my calendar. I teach them how to put up a calendar. I teach them about taxes, everything. In fact, my two assistants that I've been working with for almost a decade, they were students. I saw them throughout their entire academic career, and then they came and worked for me. One of them is going to be my studio manager. I teach them all of the things that I didn't get taught when I was in school and that I had to fumble and skid across the sidewalk to learn. They know exactly how much they should be paid when they get asked to do things. I show them everything.

Pier Carlo: That's incredible. Did you know you wanted to make that part of your teaching practice from day one?

April: Absolutely, absolutely, because I had a few professors that were like that, and if I could have crawled into their bodies, I would have. I didn't want to take any other professor but them because I felt desperate. I felt like if they're willing to be this transparent and help me, where else should I be? Even though I didn't have access to them for all of my academic career, they had a huge impact on me. 

So I'm going to give my students 100% of that instead of, “Oh, they just take one class and get some help throughout the three years or however long they're in the program.”

Pier Carlo: Why do you think it doesn't happen more often that art students are taught the business side of things?

April: I think academia does not want the gallery and commercial aspects of this career to come into play. It's about craftsmanship, the art of making, and then theory and philosophy, what your work means and how it makes people feel. I didn't get a lot of the nitty-gritty part because that's not something they want us to aspire to while we're students. This is what I was told. 

As an academic now, I can see within my peer group that there are a lot of educators who are just doing it because they need to pay the bills. They're not really interested in meeting these students as their peers in a few years. Whereas when I started teaching, my biggest fear was that if I failed someone in this classroom, they could be in a group show with me in two years. They could be rude and disrespectful, and I have to work with them in two years.

If I have this huge opportunity to mold and morph and educate and just throw as much as possible at these students and they're here and willing … . I teach at a community college. I would say maybe 95% of my students are aggressively willing to be in that classroom. They absorb everything, and that's a benefit to me, but not all artists who teach should be teaching.

Pier Carlo: I want to end by asking which current or upcoming projects you're really excited about?

April: I'm working on this collaboration with Akwasi Brenya-Mensa. I first met him as a chef. He's morphing in his career. I first met him in London. He did the dinner for my first European show, and it was phenomenal. Now we're working on a collaboration where we're designing dishes based on the premise of them being from the planet that I make all of my work from. 

Frieze Week LA is happening this week, and we're going to be hosting a brunch from another planet. It's titled “We Learned to Love Ourselves Until We Were Full.” Right now, he's in the other room working on the recipes, and I was out in the garage, working on installation elements, because I'm creating an installation that people will dine in. That's what I'm excited about. It's happening this Saturday.

Pier Carlo: Do you get to taste? Do you have veto power?

April: Well, we're having a rehearsal the night before, so I'm going to consume on that night and the day of. A lot of the dishes are based on dishes from The Bahamas and Ghana. I'm from The Bahamas, he's from Ghana and London, so we're mixing all of these cultures. I haven't had anything yet. I'm waiting. I'm waiting for the air to change in the house to see if he's going to cook something, but nothing yet so far.

March 18, 2024