Michael Misha Kennedy gives minority artists a place to be seen
By Jessica Laskey
“I strongly believe that when people walk into a gallery, they deserve to see themselves reflected in the art,” Michael Misha Kennedy says.
Over the past two decades, Michael Misha Kennedy has made it his life’s work as both an artist and a gallery owner to make sure everyone in the Sacramento community—especially women, people of color and members of the LGBTQI community—has a place to be seen.
His eponymous Kennedy Gallery has been in operation for 13 years—and has called the stately Victorian on L Street (which once housed B-Bop Costumes) home for the past seven years.
“My gallery is proudly one of the few minority-based galleries in the region,” says Kennedy, who moved to Sacramento from Portland in 2000. He immediately entrenched himself in the arts community as an art agent, managing rotating exhibits at several locations including the iconic (and now defunct) coffeeshop Butch N Nellie’s.
“We have over 20 resident artists, half of whom are women and half of whom are persons of color and LGBTQI,” he says of Kennedy Gallery.
Michael Misha Kennedy sites “art mom” Joanie Ferry (founder of the 20th Street Art Gallery) as one of his most important early influences while finding his footing in the local arts community. “She took me under her wing,” he says. In 2006, an opportunity for the painter and art agent to open his own brick-and-mortar gallery came calling.
Not only was Michael Misha Kennedy going to have a place to call his own, but, even more thrilling, he was alive to see it happen. One year prior, an infection under a metal tooth filling landed him in a coma for more than six weeks followed by six months of recovery at Sutter. During that time, friends encouraged him to continue making art—collage and pencil works—in bed to help defer the costs of his medical care.
“Art gave me something to hold on to,” Kennedy says.
Not long after the gallery opened in its first Midtown home at 21st and K, the owner of Faces nightclub approached Kennedy about taking over some of the space at 20th and K next door to Head Hunters dance club (now Mango’s Sacramento). Michael Misha Kennedy initially agreed to take the front half—roughly 600 square feet—but his stable of artists were so enthusiastic about the move that they entreated him to take over the entire 3,000-square-foot space. During the first Second Saturday in the new location, Kennedy was shocked to find that nearly 3,000 people had gone through his gallery.
“We clearly had a hit on our hands,” Kennedy says.
Now long considered “the Jewel of Midtown,” the Kennedy Gallery has enjoyed immense success from its supportive network of artists and arts patrons who value its impressive roster of talent and highly anticipated annual exhibits. Every March, Kennedy hosts a show of his own abstract works, and every May, he hosts the prestigious “20/20 Show.” For this annual exhibit, a holdover from the 20th Street Art Gallery, 20 artists produce 8-by-8-inch pieces, each based on a single theme.
The gallery also regularly partners with local charities to host mini concerts to raise money for nonprofits (an event last year raised $5,000 in one night for Sierra Forever Families). “Paying it forward is part of the Kennedy family spirit,” he says.
Kennedy also happens to be one of the most titled female impersonators in the world. As drag performer Misha Rockafeller, Kennedy has won many competitions, including LaFemme Magnifique International, the world title for drag queens.
But despite the prestige, Kennedy’s main goal has always been to represent his community with pride.
“We deserve to be able to tell our story,” Kennedy says. “Being who I am and the struggles I’ve gone through inform my artwork—we always have a sense of hopefulness in our identity. We’re colorful, we’re tenacious and we just don’t stop. I’ve built this gallery because we deserve to be seen and heard.”