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'Creating an environment where black artists can thrive.' Central District gallery looks to reclaim neighborhood

caption: Vivian Phillips at Arte Noir
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Vivian Phillips at Arte Noir
KUOW Noel Gasca

After years of rapid redevelopment and gentrification transforming the Central District, Seattle’s historically Black neighborhood, local philanthropist and advocate for Black arts Vivian Phillips has stepped in with a plan to reclaim a piece of the community.

With the everchanging neighborhood and the continuing displacement of Black families looming, Vivian Phillips, a former Seattle arts commissioner, has stepped in to reclaim a corner on 23rd and Union to serve to serve Black artists in the community.

Phillips is the founder of arts nonprofit Arte Noir, which will have its grand opening Sept. 17 during Wa Na Wari’s “Walk the Block.” Located on the ground-floor of the Midtown Square apartment complex, Arte Noir will have an art gallery, retail space, a kid’s corner, and in the near future – a recording studio.

The changes to the Central District have been especially conspicuous at the intersection of 23rd and Union. New developments on the corner have not only pushed out some Black residents and businesses, but have also brought in new establishments like Uncle Ike’s – a marijuana retailer that opened next door to Mount Calvary Christian Center, a prominent Black church.

“I grew up in this community where we are right now,” Phillips said during an interview in Arte Noir’s gallery. “Twenty-third and Union was the hub for everything. My aunts and uncles, and cousins, they all lived in this neighborhood.”

Looking out the window, Phillips recalled her days as a radio DJ for KYAC in the 80s. There was a Safeway across the street where she would host live shows. On the block where Arte Noir sits, there was once a Tradewell Supermarket. Her brother worked there. Now, decades later, a new business occupies this block with the purpose of recognizing Black artists.

“I want black art to be elevated to its rightful place,” Phillips said. “That's all I really care about. And, in order for that to happen, we have to have a whole lot more interaction with the greater arts community.”

One way Arte Noir is creating connections is through partnerships, and one of the key partnerships at opening will be with the Onyx Fine Arts Collective.

“One of the issues that we've been faced with as a people is that we typically don't see and find a lot of history about ourselves, especially in the arts world,” said Earl Thomas, the group's president. “So, one of our objectives, as Onyx Fine Arts Collective, is to showcase our local art and then document the artist. We had, back in 2017, one of the largest exhibits for artists of African descent in the history of the Pacific Northwest.”

Arte Noir’s business model is intentional about lifting up Black artists. All artists with work sold in the space will receive 100% of the profits from the purchase of their pieces. This model is sustainable due to the amount of funding Phillips was able to secure. Arte Noir has also been able to work with some artists to take on the cost of producing the art that will be sold in the space. There are currently about 30 artists on Arte Noir’s roster, and they will all receive direct checks on the front end, with the nonprofit taking on the responsibility of selling the art on the back end.

“It's a unique concept,” Phillips said. “But, having been an arts advocacy for so long, and working to really understand our creative community, I recognize that the lowest paid artists are people of color. And if you say people of color, then you know that black people are at the bottom, or pretty close to the bottom. [So] I'm so dedicated to creating an environment where Black artists can thrive.”

Arte Noir is also fostering key partnerships in the city to support the Black arts community. At the grand opening, the art of 74 artists from the Onyx Fine Arts Collective will be on display.

Arte Noir opens Saturday, Sept. 17 from 2-6 p.m. at 2301 E Union St Suite H, Seattle, WA 98122

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