Who’s Next: Jessica Stafford Davis

The collector and philanthropist aims to change the art world with The Agora Culture.

The art world is intimidating to many people. left her executive post at AOL to solve that. The McLean, Va. native had always been an art lover, but it wasn’t until she started to collect that a new career path formed. In her case, frustration fueled innovation. “I found it very difficult to navigate the art world or to find artists of color that were a part of the critical discourse,” she explains. There was no welcoming, public way to get the knowledge she needed. “I met a lot of collectors who would share information, but only behind closed doors.”

The art world doesn’t have to be unapproachable, she thought; a more open atmosphere might encourage budding collectors to engage. So, in 2013, Stafford Davis said goodbye to AOL and launched her web-based multi-cultural arts platform,The Agora Culture, an avenue that bridges the gap between emerging collectors and contemporary artists (both established and on the rise). Her aim is to “make art more accessible and give communities that don’t have an access point, whether that is a culturally curious person or an artist, a platform.”

She began with a private reception in her home for world-renowned mixed media artist Mequitta Ahuja, connecting the recent Guggenheim Award recipient to potential patrons. Stafford Davis then co-curated her first exhibition, “Women as Color, Light and Form,” with Galerie Myrtis in Baltimore, Md. Now thousands of aspiring, intermediate and even seasoned collectors who wish to consign pieces and need help with auction house liaising or legacy planning have a place at The Agora Culture.

The Agora Culture has a vibrant presence both offline and on. Stafford Davis hosts events including educational workshops, exhibitions and salons featuring artists and experts such as Sheldon Scott, Kim Sajet and Amy Sherald, whose portrait of Michelle Obama now hangs in the National Portrait Gallery. This summer Stafford Davis will be on Martha’s Vineyard for her annual Art on the Vine (August 12 – 15), a free three-day fair featuring conversations with dozens of visual artists from the African Diaspora. Art on the Vine also funds two emerging artists each summer for a four-week residency; this year’s artists are both from the District.

“We developed a residency to give artists an opportunity to continue to work on their practice,” Stafford Davis says. “Artists are such a gift to us. We need the infrastructure to help support them.” Affordable housing and spaces for artists to work will help keep them in Washington instead of leaving for another city, she says.

Her parents, philanthropists Earl and Amanda Stafford, showed that giving time is as important as giving money. Stafford Davis also credits the late philanthropist and art collector Peggy Cooper Cafritz for inspiring her. “The reason I’m so focused in the art world is because of her example and her advice. She would always say, and sign her emails with ‘give until it hurts.’ That has pushed me to ensure that I go above and beyond.”

Stafford Davis was recently recognized for her work by Arena Stage at their annual gala, where she accepted the Emerging Leader award for her “passion and entrepreneurial support of the arts.”

“We need art to see the world differently,” Stafford Davis says. “When you look back over time, art helps tell a story and gives you a sense of what was going on in that time and what was important. The arts are the foundation to a society.”

This story appeared in the June 2018 issue of Washington Life. 

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