By Lisa Snowden-McCray, Special to the AFRO
Joy Davis, the woman behind the Waller Gallery (2420 North Calvert St., wallergallery.com) art museum which opened its doors this past April, says it was all her mother’s idea. Davis just took that idea and ran full-speed with it.
“I took the idea and ran down the street with it, with both hands with full force. And if a wall was in front of me I would have just ran right through the wall,” she says laughing. She lives in the upstairs part of the gallery, which occupies a rowhome in the Barclay neighborhood. The gallery is where the living room would be.
Joy Davis (right) and her mother Sandra McMillan (left) at the Waller Gallery. (Photo by Lisa Snowden-McCray)
Davis says that the idea of a museum as a space to live and work in was born out of necessity. Retail spaces are expensive. But she also says that it means that the museum feels like something that is really hers – that she helped build from the ground up.
“This was all plaster,” she says, referencing the main exhibit space. “Me and my boyfriend, we chipped away and hauled out about 3,000 pounds of plaster out of here. We had people do the walls because we ran out of time, but we probably would have done the walls too, to be honest with you, to both save money and we just wanted it to be ours essentially.”
After she got the issue of the physical space sorted out, Davis thought about the people she wanted the museum to serve.
“I was thinking about…our mission. Like, who are we trying to reach out to? That means not only people coming into the space, seeing the artwork, but the artists. What artists are we really reaching out to? I decided that we were going to work with people of color,” she says.
“Overall I would like to focus on Black and Brown folks because they just don’t get as many opportunities. Not just in the city but it’s a global problem.”
Waller is from Howard County, but frequented Baltimore to visit family and because her mother always made sure that she was exposed to as much arts and culture as she could.
“It was always important for me to see the ballet, and that could have been the community center ballet it did not matter. For me to go to museums, for me to go to galleries, for me to take cultural trips of any kind,” Davis says. “She really instilled that within me as important and anytime that any of that related to blackness in any way then it was doubly important to go.”
The name of the museum is an homage to her mother, and to the other women in her family.
Waller is my mom’s maiden name. It’s my grandmother’s name. my family is built on a matriarchy, entirely. Like the way our family functions, and I think it functions surprisingly well considering families don’t always do that, is based on the rubric and the platform that they’ve built,” she says. “They are always about learning, always about teaching, they are always about uplifting, so that’s all embedded in that in Waller Gallery.”
Davis attended the University of Maryland, Baltimore County where she studied media and history and then moved to Baltimore to work. She also attended the Fashion Institute of Technology in New York where she earned a Master’s Degree in fashion and museum studies.
“I grew up in the arts community here, but I grew up in the arts community that was very White here. Like, all the mainstream artists, the artists that were getting write-ups were white, but I was in that community. I was going to the shows, I dabbled in event photography for a hot second and so like doing all of that stuff it really taught me now I could run spaces and later would inspire me to do this.”
She says that even though the museum hasn’t been open very long, she’s always thinking of ways to open it to more people, to make it accessible to everyone. She says that she hopes to grow, but to always approach her work carefully and with a mission in mind.
“I don’t know if here’s going to be a ‘finished’ version,” she says.” Like I said, I grew up in the art community that yes was very white but now it’s the same arts community but it’s blacker and I really appreciate that. There’s a gift in using small resources but applying it intentionally and I know that’s one of the things that I can be confident about. Applying intention with small resources.”
Editor’s note: An earlier version of the story incorrectly reported that Davis lives with her mother. The story has also been updated to reflect the fact that Davis grew up in both Baltimore and Howard Counties. The Afro regrets the errors.