How The Leaders Of ARTNOIR Are Working To Ensure Cultural Equity Isn’t Just A Fad

Featured image: Freddie L. Rankin II
Black renaissance is redefining the art world, and these leaders saw it coming a decade ago. Now they are helping the art community drive equity beyond a moment.

There is joy and liberation in the air when Black and Brown creatives navigate the art world on their own terms.


It’s necessary during a time when the industry is still rife with inequities. The surge of interest in Black lives after summer 2020’s “racial reckoning,” which in many cases resulted in performative tactics, extended to the art world. Since then, there’s been a rise in exploitative flipping—the act of quickly reselling under-valued art at a profit to the buyer—which has stripped wealth from Black creators. The art market is still widely regarded as “top heavy” and “unbalanced,” leaving artists of color at a disadvantage. This is particularly the case for Black women who, according to a new study from the Burns Halperin Report, make up just 0.1% of auction sales.


There seems to be a disconnect between an intrigue for Blackness and fostering practical longevity for the creatives behind the work.


Fortunately, established organizations like ARTNOIR have acutely equipped themselves for this ongoing dilemma. Founded in 2013, ARTNOIR is a 501(c)(3) whose mission is “to celebrate and highlight the work of creatives of color while catalyzing cultural equity across the arts and culture industries.” ARTNOIR’s seven cofounders, Jane Aiello, Isis Arias, Danny Báez, Carolyn Concepcion, Melle Hock, Nadia Nascimento and Larry Ossei-Mensah spoke to Sweet July about their transformative work and the art world’s cultural reckoning.


“[ARTNOIR] has been a catalyst towards the support of Black and Brown artists, creatives and writers,” says Ossei-Mensah, who is also a curator for the collective. “That’s been the bedrock of the work we do.”

Founder Larry Ossei-Mensah and curator Ekow Eshun in conversation at Neuehouse, In The Black Fantastic. Photo: Woki Massaquoi.

In November 2022, for example, ARTNOIR and NeueHouse hosted curator Ekow Eshun in conversation with Ossei-Mensah about In the Black Fantastic, Eshun’s book commemorating his gallery exhibition on view at Kunsthal Rotterdam until April 2023. The showcase marries Afro-futuristic liberation with sociopolitical discourse, frames race as an unscientific social construct and uses art to challenge inequities stemming from racism. 


“Seeing a multitude of Black and Brown faces in the space to learn and convene was super powerful,” adds Ossei-Mensah.

A community member viewing the Sam Gilliam show at ARTNOIR’s Pace Gallery tour in 2022. Photo: Anthony Artis

For Concepcionalso a brand strategistcultural equity means fighting against white gaze and eurocentricity. “The obvious reasons [for under-representation in the creative sector] are systems of oppression,” she says. 


Achieving true progress, Concepcion emphasizes, also looks like facilitating systems that ensure artists, as entrepreneurs in their own right, have sustainable business models. “We want to be careful [not to] drive artists’ prices up to a place where it accelerates them so fast that they plateau, and then the market is not stable for them and for the longevity of their career.” She nods to some of the “pride and joy” moments of her career, like partnering with Jon Gray on Ghetto Gastro, Diddy on Vote or Die, Beverly Bond on Black Girls Rock, and with Solange on Saint Heron


A more equitable art market, notes Báez, also requires keeping a keen eye on technology that helps spot unjust practices. “We utilize FAIRCHAIN, a blockchain certificate of authenticity—another way to prevent exploitation relies on auction houses, which could help [flag] specific clients known for constantly flipping,” he says.   


According to Báez, who also founded the art fair collective REGULAR NORMAL, cultural equity is a dance between the curator, gallerists and artist. He also underscores the role of community. “Community is more than a word; it’s a verb,” says Báez. “We practice what we preach at ARTNOIR. Real action makes an impact on cultural equity.”

Founders Larry Ossei-Mensah (left) and Carolyn Concepcion (right) with artist Mos Def (center) and ARTNOIR community members at an ARTNOIR’s private tour of the New Museum in New York. Photo: Courtesy of ARTNOIR.

Arias echoes the importance of collective effort. “We need us,” she says. “In building community, we’re able to create shared visions [for our future].” Celebrating 10 years of ARTNOIR has capstoned Isis’ marketing career, which has included All-Star Weekend and Art Basel. “With so many things that need to be addressed, we have to remember to celebrate, smile, laugh, and whisper in each other’s ears, ‘I got you.’” 


For Aiello, also an art collector and entrepreneur, cultural equity simply means valuing diverse communities. “It means mitigating the art world’s class disparity,” says Aiello, which she emphasizes begins at an institutional level. “Historically, the gatekeepers have been white, [and have centralized] their perspective.” 


Hock, also Edelman’s chief strategy officer, exemplifies the kind of leadership needed at the top. “It’s about recognizing the importance of being in the system in order to change it [and recognizing] that while change is often incremental, even incremental change can be profound,” says Hock. “I believe that Black and Brown communities have poured so much value into the United States and the world; we should be getting a return on investment for our contribution to the culture.”


ARTNOIR cofounders with artist Damien Davis. Carolyn Concepcion, Melle Hock, Danny Báez, Larry Ossei-Mensah, Jane Aiello and Isis Arias (left to right). Photo: NOEMAD.

Nascimento, who is also a strategist for impact-based ventures like Sundance and OkayAfrica, is sure of her and her ARTNOIR cofounders’ purpose as it relates to driving Black culture forward in the art world. “For us to challenge systems of oppression, we must be innovative in how we ask questions, challenge norms and rethink structures,” she says. “Old narratives will not help us create a bold future.”


Ossei-Mensah agrees, adding, “Significantly, there’s been a cultural equity reckoning. You’re starting to see the changes in faces, [and] many people of color in positions of decision making.”


He confidently asserts that Black women are leading the charge in driving the art world’s Black renaissance (more on this to come!)—and are often not given the credit they deserve. 


“Black women have been at the forefront of making these changes, putting themselves on the frontlines to ensure that there’s more equitable opportunities and experiences,” says Ossei-Mensah. “Things are evolving and changing, and they’re changing for the better.”

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