Time has been running out for Ricco Wright, the owner of Black Wall Street Gallery in Chelsea.
In the past year he has received eviction threats from his landlord and warnings from lawyers representing two artists who say they are owed nearly $100,000 altogether in unpaid commissions for the sale of some half-dozen paintings.
There are two separate GoFundMe pages dedicated to employees whom Wright allegedly spurned, and a Reddit page with more than 45 comments by current and former associates debating whether he is a swindler. An online petition has accumulated dozens of signatures from those concerned that he has mistreated and failed to pay artists and employees.
Wright does not dispute several artists’ claims that he owes them money, but says this does not amount to wrongdoing. “I’m open to paying all of these debts,” he told Artnet News. “It is very difficult to do so when people are spreading false information.”
Interviews with more than a dozen artists and former employees, alongside a review of several emails and texts, illustrate how a man claiming to uplift the Black community seems to have shortchanged various artists.
A young artist named Brandon Tellez, who had exhibited with Black Wall Street Gallery since its opening in New York in 2020, made a trip to Florida a few months ago thinking that a $7,500 payment from Wright was forthcoming. But the check never came.
“I told him I was dependent on that money to get back to New York. He didn’t seem to care,” Tellez recalled.
Another artist, who claimed she was owed $12,000 for a February 2022 exhibition, said her requests for payment went unanswered, despite having a contract that stipulated that payment would come in 30 days. (The artist asked to remain anonymous because she did not want her name to be associated with the gallery.)
Last spring, the gallery was not responding to her questions about the unsold paintings. Then an art handler contacted her with an address of a Manhattan Mini Storage where she’d find her unsold work. Inside were not only the lost paintings, but seven others Wright had claimed to have already sold. (Artnet News saw a photograph of the storage unit.) Their buyers questioned in emails to the artist why the artworks they purchased still hadn’t shipped nearly six months after the sale.
The artist eventually parted with the gallery without recouping the money that Wright allegedly owed her. She wanted out of the business relationship. “My last sentence to him was leave me alone,” she said.
Wright has offered defenses of his actions in communications to some of the artists.
“I’m not running a Ponzi scheme. We had one bad quarter due to the two exhibitions that didn’t go well,” Wright said in January texts to another artist to whom he allegedly owes $12,500.
When the Japanese painter Mayumi Nakao notified him that she planned to sue him for not paying some $35,000 he allegedly owed, he said that he was working on paying her back. After criticizing Nakao for sharing a Reddit post in January that accused him of being unethical and abusive, Nakao responded, asking where the lie was in the post.
Wright wrote back, referencing the allegations in it: “I am not a predator. Nor am I a sociopath.”
In February, the artist Lawrence “LAW” Parker sued Wright in New York State Supreme Court, claiming that the gallerist owed him $79,500 for eight paintings, including one that Wright allegedly undersold without permission.
The gallerist told Artnet News that he has not been served legal notice for either case. “Businesses face challenges,” he said. “That doesn’t mean the gallery is the scum of the Earth because it’s hit hard times.”
Wright first opened Black Wall Street Gallery in Tulsa, Oklahoma, in 2018. The gallery was located in the Greenwood District and commemorated the African-American families who were massacred in the 1920s by white rioters.
Wright became a local celebrity and opted to run for mayor based on a promise of uplifting the Black community. But his 2020 campaign ended when a local artist accused him of sexual battery. Wright denied the allegations, saying he was roofied the night of the alleged attack. No criminal charges were filed.
In a Facebook post announcing his withdrawal from the mayoral race, he wrote that the allegations had become too much of a distraction from the issues. “And on a personal level, I am committed to changing my behavior to make certain that I am respecting boundaries and living a just life,” Wright wrote. “I am a single father who strives to be a great example to my two daughters.”
A few months later, in October 2020, Wright moved to New York and reopened the Black Wall Street Gallery. He quickly made headlines again.
Someone vandalized the gallery’s storefront three times in one week.
“A literal white washing,” Wright told a reporter, and called on police to investigate the graffiti as a hate crime.
Police subsequently arrested William Roberson, a Black man, who openly admitted to vandalizing the storefront. But the attack was not racially motivated, he said on Instagram; it was because he felt that Wright had allegedly made his wife uncomfortable with what she perceived to be sexual advances.
Wright told the New York Post: “It had nothing to do with his wife at all.” He added: “I do believe that that young man is dealing with some mental issues.”
Wright’s more recent financial problems seem to have started with his relocation to a two-floor gallery space on West 25th Street in Chelsea that is situated near blue-chip galleries like Gagosian, David Zwirner, and Pace.
But prestige comes at a price, and Wright told artists he was on the hook for more than $30,000 a month in rent. “So each exhibition has to sell at least $60,000 in order to cover rent,” he texted one artist in August 2022. “But honestly, each exhibition has to sell at least $100,000 in order to cover rent and other expenses.”
That was a difficult task for most artists on his roster, whose paintings were selling for just a few thousand dollars apiece. But the gallery was supported by some influential collectors, including Susan and Michael Hort. The printing tycoons frequently purchased works and Susan often promoted the gallery on her Instagram account.
Four former employees said that Wright had described the gallery to collectors as a nonprofit, though Wright denied these claims.
Public records show that an application for nonprofit status was approved in 2019 for an entity known as Black Wall Street Arts; however, the designation was automatically revoked in 2021 because the organization never filed its financial disclosure forms with the government. The Chelsea gallery is registered as a limited liability company, according to Wright.
Inside the gallery, Wright would allegedly describe Black Wall Street Gallery as if it were a startup.
“My understanding was that it was a commercial gallery,” said Nina Mdivani, the gallery’s former senior director. “I never had access to financial accounts or statements of the gallery. Although I repeatedly asked for those to keep track of income.”
Wright offered all employees, from art handlers to executives, a monthly salary of $4,000, according to Mdivani, who said that none of the workers had signed formal contracts with the gallery despite requests for contracts.
Days before this past Christmas, Wright fired the gallery’s entire staff, blaming two previous exhibitions for his financial issues. He promised to pay the remaining salaries in two installments and complete reimbursements in the near future. “Thank you and happy holidays,” he added.
Former employees were skeptical that undersold exhibitions were the only problem. Three suggested that Wright had used gallery funds to subsidize his work trips to Vienna, Berlin, and Art Basel Miami Beach, as well as his Soho House membership, which he used to court artists, and his outstanding debts to other artists. Multiple artists and employees said Wright sought to rebrand his gallery as a members club catering to creatives, noting that he would take potential investors on tours in the gallery to convince them of his vision.
Wright told Artnet News that he was confident in Black Wall Street Gallery’s ability to pay its debts, though it might not make financial sense for it to stay in Chelsea. “We faced some financial challenges and we are working our way back,” he said.
“I think he has gotten in way over his head,” Tellez said. “Ricco wanted to build something so big that he dug himself in a deep hole.”