Strength in Numbers
Lessons from ARTNOIR on centering your community and serving your audience
Words by Adenike Olanrewaju
Photos of ARTNOIR founders by Faisal Mohammed
Film by REVIVETHECOOL

Watch: ARTNOIR delves into the business of art and the importance of centering community in any venture. Film by REVIVETHECOOL

The founders of ARTNOIR know their way around a gallery or two. An art collective and nonprofit, ARTNOIR was founded in 2013 when a group of 12-15 family and friends came together to go on a series of impromptu field trips to museums, galleries, and art festivals around the world. 

Since its founding, ARTNOIR has made strides in shaping the future of the art world and supporting the work of emerging Black and brown artists. In summer 2020, ARTNOIR debuted the Jar of Love, a microgrant initiative intended to provide relief for artists, curators, and cultural workers of color. Last December, they released the inaugural AN12 list celebrating remarkable artists from across the African diaspora. When in-person trips to museums and art galleries weren’t an option during the peak of the COVID-19 pandemic, the team hosted a series of “virtual visits” studio tours on Instagram, led by a variety of established and emerging artists each week. 

Now comprised of a core co-founding team of 7 entrepreneurs, curators, strategists, and collectors—Larry Ossei-Mensah, Carolyn “CC” Concepcion, Jane Aiello, Isis Arias, Danny Báez, Melle Hock, and Nadia Nascimento—the collective recently launched “From a Place, of a Place,” a 5-part, 3-month-long project in collaboration with New York’s Meatpacking District, which utilized public spaces to tell Black stories around futurism and featured artists such as Olalekan Jeyifous and ARTNOIR co-founder and curator Danny Báez.

Carolyn “CC” Concepcion, Co-founder of ARTNOIR
Carolyn “CC” Concepcion, Co-founder of ARTNOIR

“ARTNOIR’s primary mission is to unlock access for an artist, for the community, and for anyone who’s just curious about art but may find it intimidating,” explains Concepcion, a global marketer and former president of the Solange Knowles-founded creative agency Saint Heron.

“Through our field trips, by teaching people how to collect art—that’s a big one, especially for those without much disposable income—we’re giving those who’ve historically been excluded from building generational wealth a pathway to do so,” she says. 

Adenike Olanrewaju spoke with a few of the collective’s co-founders to learn more about their mission and the lessons people in any industry can learn from ARTNOIR.

Center community

Central to ARTNOIR’s mission is the role of community, where vibes and intentionality outweigh ego and individual ambition. “Community is the beginning and the end for us,” explains Ossei-Mensah. “It’s our North Star.”

ARTNOIR co-founder Jane Aiello echoes the sentiment. “ARTNOIR is rooted in community and the journey of discovery for art enthusiasts and novices alike,” she says.

Feelings of belonging, cultural equity, and adequate representation are hallmarks of the ARTNOIR ethosand can be for your business, too. As you build community around your brand, Concepcion has these words of wisdom: “Find your tribe, the ones who match your passion about building with and for community,” she says. “Flow with the current of the collective's individual strengths and super powers as you all work together to grow the vision and its impact. Foster an environment—within the collective and with those you engage with—of openness, love, acceptance, and collaboration.”

Melle Hock, Co-founder of ARTNOIR
Melle Hock, Co-founder of ARTNOIR
“Community is the beginning and the end for us. It’s our North Star.”
Larry Ossei-Mensah
Segment for success

ARTNOIR fashions itself as a one-stop shop for art lovers at various points of entry including aspirational art collectors, established gallerists, and emerging artists. And although the collective is based in New York, it caters to its global audience. “All art collectives that support artists of color in any way is a beautiful thing, but ARTNOIR has always stood out from other collectives because we operate simultaneously at the local, national, and global levels,” Aiello says  

ARTNOIR focuses on 3 primary audience segments for whom they target their efforts: Black and brown creators, curators, and collectors. The team creates programming and pools resources to support the unique needs of each of these audience segments.

Speaking to the creator segment, Ossei-Mensah says, “We’re almost like a hospitality service. We try to ensure that our artists feel support around their practice at every step, helping them be sustainable and to create more awareness around their practice.”

As you build your business or brand, it's important to be clear about the different segments that make up your target audience.  Once you have an understanding of the different types of people who make up your audience, build your product offerings and marketing strategies around their problems, needs, values, and aspirations. 

Danny Baez, Co-founder of ARTNOIR
Danny Baez, Co-founder of ARTNOIR
Isis Arias, Co-founder of ARTNOIR
Isis Arias, Co-founder of ARTNOIR
Jane Aiello, Co-founder of ARTNOIR
Jane Aiello, Co-founder of ARTNOIR
Yaw Owusu, Artist
Yaw Owusu, Artist
Layo Bright, Artist
Layo Bright, Artist
Produce your own pipeline

A common excuse for the lack of diversity at institutions from large corporations to elite art spaces is the so-called “pipeline problem”––the idea that the reason there are so few people of color in positions of power at prestigious organizations is because there simply aren’t enough qualified candidates. While this theory has been debunked as an issue of implicit bias rather than lack of talent, it unfortunately persists.  

Concepcion knows this all too well. “When you go to all the [art] fairs, the number of Black artists that you see are few,” she explains. “Making sure artists are given the opportunity to take root and not be just the flavor of the month is important to us.”

The ARTNOIR team aims to fight the “pipeline problem” by cultivating their own talent funnel for Black and brown creators, curators, and collectors.  “We’ll continue to build our legacy of fostering the careers of artists of color by advocating for the diversification of permanent museum collections across the globe,” says Isis Arias, an ARTNOIR co-founder. “From campaigning to get people of color more leadership roles throughout the art industry,  to getting more Black and brown people on boards, there's a plethora of ways that we hope to normalize Blackness and promote inclusivity in the art world.”

Just as the ARTNOIR collective is building their own channels of inclusivity, you too can produce pipelines of opportunity in your industry and for your audience. Consider these questions:

    ·What barriers do my customers face when attempting to solve a problem or access an arena?

    ·How can I ease or eliminate those barriers?

    ·What tools or resources can I introduce to my audience to improve their lives?

    ·Who is seeking access to my audience/customers, and how can I facilitate those relationships?

Archie Raphulu, Gallery Sales Associate, REGULARNORMAL
Archie Raphulu, Gallery Sales Associate, REGULARNORMAL
John Rivas, Artist
John Rivas, Artist

Looking forward, the ARTNOIR team is optimistic about the future of Black and brown arts patronage. “What excites me about the next generation of Black artists is their pure innovation,” Arias says. “I look forward to seeing how artists will continue to make work that can be impactful across different types of platforms and I'm really excited to see our folks expand into a lot of different areas In interesting and innovative ways.”

As more Black and brown artists gain traction and find commercial success, ARTNOIR believes it has an even greater obligation to ensure that proper resources exist to support burgeoning platforms that will ensure the longevity of an artist’s career. Thus, the collective has launched its Artistic Pathways Scholarship Fund, a new initiative to help MFA visual arts students at City University of New York and State University of New York by providing them with monetary assistance, career coaching, mentorship, art residency opportunities, and support in elevating their artist platforms. 

“We are building a future that creates more platforms and free spaces to develop expressions of imagination, care, and preservation,” says Nadia Nascimento. “In our future, we will be establishing more digital and physical properties where we can imagine things as they were and also as they may be, developing new artists while building intergenerational bridges to artists who removed previous hurdles.”

Just as there has never been a better time to be a Black entrepreneur, Ossei-Mensah believes the same is true for Black artists and art enthusiasts.“ [There is a] heightened sense of discovery for people who are looking to buy work by artists of color, exhibit their work, provide a platform, and be in the conversation,” he says.  

“Overall, there is a lot of excitement, curiosity, and an opportunity to have your work be seen and collected,” Ossei-Mensah adds. “And for me, that’s exciting.”

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