Design Changemakers 2023: Stephanie Baptist Reimagined What an Art Gallery Could Be
Who: Stephanie Baptist, curator, director, and founder of Medium Tings
Where: Instagram at @mediumtings
Stephanie Baptist finds inspiration all around her, from the plants and books that fill her Brooklyn home to the decaying walls and dated architecture that greet her during trips abroad. She draws it from her view through the tiny box of her camera lens, and from memories of her Central New Jersey childhood home, where her mom used wallpaper and salon-style images to make the rooms “more homey.”
It absolutely tracks, then, that Baptist is the curator and director of a roving gallery, Medium Tings, that she initially launched in 2017 in her Brooklyn apartment. Medium Tings was born from Baptist’s focus on spatial design — how various elements live and interact in the same space, both creating and being influenced by the environment. Building exhibitions in a nontraditional space allowed Baptist to reimagine what a gallery could look and feel like, and where it could live.
While the platform itself is transient in nature, the underlying goal of Medium Tings has remained steadfast: to bring together artistic voices from across the African diaspora in exhibitions that are just as accessible to the artists as they are to the patrons.
Baptist’s participation in last year’s 1-54 African art fair was the culmination of her work thus far: a deeply collaborative project that expanded Baptist’s own vision of where and how Medium Tings can bring art to new audiences. Despite her admitted apprehension about taking such a big creative step, Baptist feels there is value in “getting a little less precious,” she says. “That’s why I like to pilot things. I have to pilot so I can learn it. If I’m hoarding it, I’m never gonna be able to grow it to its fullest.”
From exhibitions in her living room to a gallery at the premier African art fair and, just last month, the launch of a home goods line starting with a collection of commissioned wallpaper, Baptist seeks to demonstrate art’s boundless ability to be found, displayed, and collected just about anywhere.
“I worked closely with Stephanie on curating original works from Black artists for Ethel’s Club in Brooklyn a few years ago,” says Shannon Maldonado, who’s the founder and creative director of YOWIE and a 2022 Design Changemaker, and who recommended Baptist for 2023 Design Changemaker consideration. “Her thoughtfulness in supporting and positioning the artists she represents and her drive to bring Black artists into the conversation at all stages of their career really struck me. I feel so honored to have learned more about these artists through the project and continue to watch her platform Medium Tings grow with pride. I know Stephanie is a rising voice in the art world that has a unique and powerful point of view.”
What’s next for Baptist and Medium Tings? After an intentional two-month hiatus from exhibitions (she takes January and February to rest and refresh), Baptist will continue collaborating with another curator on Medium Tings’ first exhibition abroad, in London. And, as with every other year in the life of Medium Tings, Baptist will work closely with artists to explore the ways their art influences and is influenced by unique exhibition environments.
Apartment Therapy: Tell me how, when, and why you got started doing what you’re doing. What inspired you?
Stephanie Baptist: I started out in the industry with a desire to become a photographer. So I was working with visual artists. I was actually doing a lot of photography myself. Then I moved abroad to London to get a master’s degree in art administration. I was really interested in going into the fine art world. In London, I took an opportunity to work as a head of exhibitions for a gallery there, and was working specifically with artists from Africa and the diaspora. That really laid a foundation for the work that I’m currently doing [with] my own gallery, Medium Tings. When I came back to New York, I realized there still weren’t a lot of spaces that were dedicated to fostering relationships and having conversations with emerging artists from all over. And I was really interested in figuring out a way to blend all of the things I learned abroad with conversations that I think would cross over, not just artists from Africa, but the Caribbean and Black America.
AT: Tell me more about the nomadic or roving aspect of Medium Tings — how did you decide for that to be the format, and what implications does it have on the work?
SB: I launched it in an apartment; it was there for about two years. When I moved out of the apartment, I could have gone into another space, but sustainability has always been a really important part of my curatorial practice and what I’m trying to build. New York City is really expensive, so I started to think about various ways in which I could pilot the platform. Having exhibitions in various places and platforms and in collaboration with other people really allowed me to think about artistic practice in a different way.
AT: What were your design inspirations growing up?
SB: A super early inspiration would probably be my mother in the way that she would decorate our home. My mother would put up wallpaper specifically in bathrooms as a way to make it a lot more homey and make it a really design-forward and intentional space. She doesn’t even come from a design background, but this idea of creating a home that was also filled with salon-style images of us on the walls was really impactful. But also when I picked up photography, the camera helped me define what it means to think about design, because when you’re looking through a frame, there’s a lot of detail that you can capture and think about and move through.
AT: What is your inspiration now?
SB: Travel is one of my biggest inspirations. Whenever I go to various cities, I’m really interested in seeing the decaying of a wall, and any other touches, like the architectural angles and designs and soil color. The things that I’m looking at when I’m in various places play a really big role in what I’m inspired by.
AT: This year you launched your first line of home goods. What compelled you to introduce the line with commissioned wallpaper designs?
SB: Because [Medium Tings] started out in my home, I kept thinking about how I could anchor this idea of having something really uniquely special on your wall that tells you a broader story. Wallpaper lives in this permanent exhibition form. It elicits a broader story when somebody walks in. Wallpaper is about pattern making and repetition, and there’s a beauty to that, but I was thinking a lot about the artists that I work with, and how that wallpaper might be able to embody a broader story.
AT: Who do you look up to?
SB: I feel like, at the moment, maybe it’s not who I’m looking up to, but who I’m looking at. I’m looking at young emerging creatives, and I’m really just inspired by the way these artists are actually creating their practices. I do typically work with a lot of younger artists who are self-taught, and there’s something extremely inspirational about that. I really respect people in the industry and what everyone’s doing. I think that there’s a lane for everyone. But I’m particularly enamored by younger talent right now. And that’s typically why I work with them.
AT: What three words would you use to describe your work or style?
SB: Inspired, collaborative, attainable.
AT: What would you say sets you apart from your peers? What do you see as being your special thing?
SB: What sets me apart is I’m thinking a lot about how I can create a multitude of avenues for artists to be sustainable. And not just in the context of when they get an exhibition, but how that could happen through various modes, whether that’s a shop or we’re releasing a limited edition item, or I’m inviting them to a wallpaper collection or a collaboration. I do a lot of corporate creation for tech companies, commissioning artists to do site-specific murals and installation. So there’s a multitude of ways that I work. My background and my experience on the other side — in the commercial world — play a part in the way that I think about how we can continue to provide more direct roots for earnings for artists that sit outside the contemporary model for what a gallery does.
AT: Is there a specific piece, design, or project of yours, or aspect of your business, that you think is particularly indicative of who you are or what you’re trying to do?
SB: The wallpaper is something that truly embodies where I’d like to go because it allows me to collaborate with global artists from all over the world. I get to foster amazing conversations with people and then invite them to be a part of the platform. So it continues to broaden the conversation and expand upon my travels and the way that we could be thinking about art and global creativity. The wallpaper is embodying the principles of where I’m trying to head with the gallery. We’re creative and we collaborate, and we want to make it exciting and interesting and edgy.
AT: What’s your favorite project you worked on in 2022, and why?
SB: I took part in the 1-54 African Art Fair in New York. That was the very first time Medium Tings as a platform took part in a gallery. That was the culmination of both spatial design and getting beyond my fears of what it would mean to take on something of that scale. I was really proud of myself for doing that and working with this amazing artist named Taylor Barnes, who is a fiber artist out of Texas. It was really successful and taught me how, as a gallery, you can show up for artists in this realm. That was a really pivotal step for Medium Tings.
AT: What three words would you use to describe where you see the design world going in 2023?
SB: More handmade. Things are becoming a lot more bespoke. I’m also seeing furniture with artwork integrated. So I think of this idea of cross-disciplinary design. And then I’d say minimal design with a bit of really unique accents.
AT: Do you have any big plans for 2023 or beyond you can share with us?
SB: What I’m excited about this year is this is the first time that Medium Tings is going to go offsite and abroad, later in the year. This is the first time that I’m going to be working in tandem with another curator. I’m excited about what Medium Tings abroad looks like. And more collaborations with artists. I’m really interested in partnering up with a few more designers to see what we can ideate on together and expand this art and design intersection.
AT: How do you define success in your field? What makes you feel successful?
SB: What makes me feel successful is the idea for me to actually activate ideas. Success for me isn’t contingent upon the biggest platform, the biggest visibility, the highest numbers of people looking at you. It’s about when I get divine inspiration and have this idea, when I can actualize a thing, that makes me feel like I’m successful. And success in the marketplace — I think that’s a moving needle. For some people, success is when they sell their first piece of art. For some people, they made their first piece of art and that was success. So I think it would be hard for me to weigh in on the full marketplace, but for myself, I know what that means, and I think that helps keep me grounded.
AT: What makes you feel at home in your own space?
SB: Light is probably one of the number one things. I’ve moved a lot over the years. But light really does impact the mood and the way that I actually do my work. Then I’d say plants. I have a lot of them, and it’s really a reminder to slow down and be present and just take your time. Enjoy the process at every stage that you’re in. A third item would be my books. I’m a big book collector, and I need those items around me for inspiration and to actually read and reread materials.
AT: What do you think you’re doing to impact the field you’re in? What changes do you hope to create?
SB: I hope that with what I’m building, other people feel inspired to activate their ideas. I also feel inspired to actually take part in this broader conversation of what it means to acquire art. For a lot of the collectors that I’ve worked with, the art that they purchased from me was the very first time they actually got into the art space. If there was something I wanted to leave, I guess I’d say the idea that all are welcome and that it’s about asking questions and then continuing to feel like you have a place in this space. Because a lot of people don’t. When I started doing this, I [told myself], ‘If you let your fears kind of get in the way, if you let the idea that [you] don’t have a physical brick-and-mortar stop you from actually creating something, that would be such a shame.’ So I like this idea of starting where you are. You can stay small, and you have no idea how you’re going to impact somebody else. So I say, activate those ideas. I hope that the platform becomes like a place for education inspiration, and plants a seed for someone else to build something.
Interview has been edited and condensed.