Arté Noir is reclaiming space for black art in the Central District

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Vivian Phillips has a lot of experience working with nonprofits, but she was the last person she thought would start one, especially in Seattle, a sea of ​​evergreens and 501(c)(3)s.

But then she had a vision: a permanent space to showcase and welcome black artists and a reclamation for a community challenged from their Central District home.

Arté Noir was born.

Phillips, a former commissioner of the Seattle Arts Commission Art Noir in 2021, first as a digital magazine and then as a non-profit. It will open its physical space on the 23rd and Union this spring, including an art gallery by black artists, retail space for pieces by black creators, and eventually a recording studio. Their goal is to reclaim physical space and help generate financial support for many of the black creators who have been pushed out of the area by gentrification in recent decades.

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It’s no small feat for a nonprofit to rent commercial space in Seattle, where rents continue to rise, but Phillips isn’t stopping there. After Arté Noir’s lease expires in mid-2023, it will buy the space, eliminating the redevelopment threat threatening many Seattle renters.

“It is significant in several ways — that a non-profit organization, run by Blacks, populated by Blacks, [is] able to purchase more than 3,400 square feet on the corner of the main hub in the historically black community that offers a continuing presence of black arts and culture.

With the support of Agency for cultural spacePhillips applied for Seattle’s Strategic Investment Fund, which helps communities “buy land to keep residents, businesses, and community institutions in place,” he said website. The fund will allocate $1.5 million to purchase the Arté Noir acreage, and an additional $1.5 million has been raised from individual donors that will be used for expansion, facility and operations, Phillips said .

Matthew Richter, interim managing director of the Cultural Space Agency, said the building’s current owner, real estate developer Lake Union Partners, at one point struck a deal with a major retail chain to fill the space, but the deal fell through. With the advocacy of Richter and Phillips, Lake Union Partners decided to launch a business that is more community-focused, Richter said.

“[They] recognized the value of a more locally based, community-connected use of these spaces,” he said. “What may have started as a failed business deal with a major national company eventually became a more conscious decision on the part of Lake Union Partners.”

Phillips said the developers asked her if she was interested in occupying the corner of the building and anchoring the retail space as a way for the developers to “increase their commitment to the community.”

“I said yes, let me think about it for a minute — yes,” Phillips said.

To forge the future of this neighborhood, Richter said, it’s important to honor both the trauma and celebration that occurred there, while allowing the contemporary setting to coexist with the corner’s history.

“The future of this corner is market-driven, high-density development,” he said. “The compromise is black ownership and a deliberately curated acknowledgment of that history that softens what could only have been wholesale, exploitative gentrification of this corner.”

“The future of this corner is market-driven, high-density development. The compromise is black ownership and a deliberately curated acknowledgment of that history that softens what could only have been wholesale, exploitative gentrification of this corner.”

Phillips’ vision for the retail space is one that not only showcases black creators, but helps them find a financially sound footing. Rather than a traditional shipment format where artists only profit from sales of their items, Arté Noir purchases inventory from artists before it is put into storage, ensuring 100% money goes into the artists’ pockets.

The gallery will be a second location for Gallery Onyxan arts collective exhibiting artworks by more than 400 African-descended Pacific Northwest artists at its current location at the downtown Pacific Place shopping mall.

Earnest Thomas, executive chairman of the nonprofit Onyx Fine Arts Collective, said he and Onyx have had a good relationship with Phillips since their first visit to the Pacific Place Gallery. When Phillips decided to pursue Arté Noir, she asked if Onyx would be involved.

“It was the best of all worlds,” Thomas said. “We would then become one of, if not the only, reputable galleries with a second location in the Seattle area. … That element just added a lot of excitement to me.”

When Thomas moved to Seattle in the 1960s, the Central District was teeming with black music, art, and soul food — “everyone congregated in this area.” Over time, he said, the black community has been priced out. Thomas said he hopes this corner will be a successful attraction but doesn’t think gentrification will stop.

“The handwriting is on the wall,” he said. “There isn’t much that allows our people to remain local[s] there.”

Even if black residents don’t live in the neighborhood again, Phillips wants Arté Noir to be a “familiar and comfortable” place to return to, and she believes Onyx will be a driving factor.

“It’s going to be a great place for black artists to have a place that they can call a kind of home,” she said. “I’m so excited to have a place that not only exhibits and sells this art, but also invites the artists.”

As the pandemic has disproportionately affected people of color, Phillips stressed the importance of that representation and stability for black artists, who are “usually turned upside down by appropriation and isolation.”

Within the walls of Arté Noir, there is no fear of that.

“I expect the developers will eventually sell the building, that’s what developers do, that’s the deal,” Phillips said. “They can sell the apartments, but they can’t sell my space.”

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This coverage is partially provided by the MJ Murdock Charitable Trust. The Seattle Times retains editorial control of this and all of its reporting.

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