Vivian Phillips has a lot of experience working with nonprofits, but she is the last person she thought would start one, particularly 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 that has been priced out of its home in the Central District.

Arté Noir was born.

Phillips, a former commissioner for the Seattle Arts Commission, founded Arté Noir in 2021, first as a digital magazine and then a nonprofit. It will open its physical space at 23rd and Union this spring, including a gallery of art by Black artists, retail space for pieces made by Black creators and, eventually, a recording studio. Her 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 over the past several decades. 

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For a nonprofit to lease commercial space in Seattle, where steep rent prices continue to rise, is no small feat, but Phillips won’t stop there. After Arté Noir’s lease is up in mid-2023, it will purchase the space, extinguishing the threat of redevelopment that looms over many Seattle renters.

“It’s significant in a few ways — that a nonprofit organization, Black-led, Black-populated, [is] able to purchase 3,400 plus square feet on the corner of primary node in the historically Black community that provides ongoing presence of Black art and culture.”

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With support from the Cultural Space Agency, Phillips applied for Seattle’s Strategic Investment Fund, which helps communities “buy land to keep residents, businesses and community institutions rooted in place,” according to its website. The fund will provide $1.5 million for the purchase of the Arté Noir space, and an additional $1.5 million has been raised through individual donors that will be used for the build out, furnishings and operations, Phillips said.

Matthew Richter, interim executive director of the Cultural Space Agency, said the building’s current owner, real estate developer Lake Union Partners, at one point had a deal with a large chain retailer to fill the space, but that fell through. With advocacy from Richter and Phillips, Lake Union Partners decided to bring in a business that was more community-oriented, Richter said.

“[They] recognized the value of presenting a more sort of locally based, community-connected use of those spaces,” he said. “What started maybe as a business deal falling apart with a major national corporation ended up becoming a more intentional choice on Lake Union Partners’ part.”

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

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

In forging the future of this neighborhood, Richter said it’s important to honor both the trauma and celebration that has occurred there, letting the contemporary setting exist simultaneously with the corner’s history.

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“The future of that corner is market-rate, high-density development,” he said. “The compromise is Black ownership and an intentional curated recognition of that history that mitigates what could have been just a full-on, exploitive gentrification of that corner.”

“The future of that corner is market-rate, high-density development. The compromise is Black ownership and an intentional curated recognition of that history that mitigates what could have been just a full-on, exploitive gentrification of that corner.”

Phillips’ vision for the retail space is one that will not only showcase Black creators but will help them find financially solid ground. Rather than a traditional consignment format, where the artists only profit when their items are sold, Arté Noir will purchase the inventory from the artists before stocking it, assuring the artists have money going into their pockets 100% of the time.

The gallery will be a second location for Gallery Onyx, an arts collective that showcases artwork by more than 400 Pacific Northwest artists of African descent at its current location in the downtown Pacific Place shopping center.

Earnest Thomas, board president of the Onyx Fine Arts Collective nonprofit, said he and Onyx have had a good relationship with Phillips ever since she first visited the Pacific Place gallery. So, when Phillips decided to pursue Arté Noir, she asked if Onyx would join.

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

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When Thomas moved to Seattle in the 1960s, the Central District was full of Black music, art and soul food — “everybody rallied to that area.” Over time, he said the Black community was priced out. Thomas said he is hopeful this corner will be a successful attraction, but he doesn’t believe the gentrification will cease.

“The handwriting is on the wall,” he said. “There’s not much that’s allowing our people to stay resident[s] there.”

Even if Black residents do not return to living in the neighborhood, Phillips wants Arté Noir to be a “familiar and comfortable” place that they can return to, and she thinks Onyx will be a driving factor.

“It will be a great place for Black artists to have a place that they can call a home of sorts,” she said. “I’m so excited to have a place that will not only exhibit and sell that art, but will also invite the artists in.”

As the pandemic has disproportionately affected people of color, Phillips emphasized the importance of this representation and stability for Black artists, who are “usually upended by appropriation and isolation.”

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

“I assume that at some point the developers will probably sell the building, that’s what developers do, that’s that business,” Phillips said. “They can sell the residences, but they can’t sell my space.”

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This coverage is partially underwritten by the M.J. Murdock Charitable Trust. The Seattle Times maintains editorial control over this and all its coverage.