Photograph: Lisa Predko
brigette mccullough

Brigette McCullough at home in Hyde Park

At meetings, Bridgette McCullough often finds herself sitting across from veterans of ArtReview’s “Power 100” list, otherwise known as the movers and shakers of the art world. To prepare, she doesn’t rely on her knowledge of Manet or any of the other Parisian painters on whom her scholarship is based. Instead, the 41-year-old Art Insitute prof relies on a more contemporary artist: “Biggie Smalls is really my inspiration,” she says. “To keep from being intimidated I listen to Biggie the whole night before.”

The late rapper has been a powerful muse for McCullough, an art adviser who holds an art history master’s from the University of Chicago and works with athletes, opera singers, and even a former prime minister of Canada. Her current
passion, however, is to bring African Americans to the lucrative world of art auctions and art investing. “When you go to auctions, you just don’t see us there,” says McCullough, who grew up in the Austin neighborhood, attended Whitney Young Magnet High School, and now lives in Hyde Park. “Looking out at an ocean of 500 people, you may never see a black face.”

McCullough says that the small community of established black collectors purchase primarily from galleries. The auction houses saw an untapped market, and two have partnered with her to target new buyers. With Sotheby’s, McCullough has organized a series of New York events that combine a cocktail party atmosphere with seminars on subjects ranging from art and race to auction savvy. In late spring, she rolls out an even bolder endeavor called “In the Black,” at the New York auction house Phillips de Pury & Company. African American entertainers and athletes will be invited to evenings that feature a hip-hop concert and conversational art counseling. “You can spend $100,000 on a car that’s worthless after ten years. Intricate custom jewelry-you can’t resell that,” she says. “But if I can get them comfortable in the world of art, they can make smart long-term investments.”

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Among the artists currently championed by McCullough is local painter Levi Smith (above, his Forest in France, 2002)

McCullough’s boldness in promoting her mission has brought her quick success. When actor Thomas Jefferson Byrd (from Spike Lee’s films) chatted her up at a hot-dog stand, he became a client. After approaching former Canadian prime minister Kim Campbell on an airplane, McCullough was asked to outfit Campbell’s chateau in Paris with artwork. However, her most memorable brush with greatness-in her mind, anyway-did not lead to a professional relationship. “In 1994, I was crossing 125th Street in Harlem,” she recalls. “Biggie Smalls made a right turn and had to slam on his brakes to keep from hitting me. He yelled, ‘Bitch, get out of the way!’ All I could say was, ‘Oh, my God, it’s Biggie!'”

The rapper was gunned down in Los Angeles in 1997. But McCullough knows how she’d approach him if he were around today. “I would give him my card and tell him that if Manet wanted an emcee to help him express his ideas, you could have been good partners. I think that would have piqued his interest.”