The concept of a starving artist seemed problematic for Adrienne Johnson and Melody Short — especially when in 2013 the art market generated about US $64 billion. Both self-professed art aficionados see creatives as those who feed the souls of people. But, who feeds artists?
They began to tackle that question in 2011 when they launched ARTisan Café. Four years later, Johnson and Short’s startup is a template for cities to grow their economy using artists — and in turn, ARTisan Café operates as an incubator helping artists become more entrepreneurial.
ARTisan Café hosts pop-ups for local artists, crafts persons and small-batch specialty food companies to showcase and sell their work and foodstuffs. Starting in Richmond, Virginia, Johnson and Short were committed to provide a platform within the growing art and food scene in their hometown because of the visible absence of artists-of-color and women. As they dialogued with local artists more, they discovered that many talented artists who worked on their crafts for years, had never received proper promotion or venue.
Their idea was simple — bring artists to a space and bring the people. Their mission was to be able to help artists generate sustainable incomes for their families and provide a space for regular folk to experience art in a comfortable, down-to-earth environment. They added a deejay and ensured that the event was family friendly — another oddity when displaying art. The response was immediate because people were hungry to experience something that was fresh and simultaneously familiar.
Johnson and Short carefully select artisans from various genres to create a collective that can exhibit at events. They promote artists and develop firm business relationships. The first year, they received such a large response from Richmond, they were surprised at how many artists and craftspeople were simply ignored. That had to change.
In 2012, Johnson and Short entered a competition given by Richmond’s Chamber of Commerce. The prize was $10k to the best start-up. They lost. That did not deter them. They used their own savings then worked the relationships and networks that they built. Johnson, an entrepreneur who works in the non-profit sector, and Short, who enjoyed a career in music and hospitality, continued to hold ARTisan events every quarter to gain more momentum.
As Johnson and Short understood with more focus how ARTisan Café events directly correlated with generating currency into financially distressed sectors of the local economy, their company slowly became an incubator for artists to develop the business-side of their work. Artists became more business savvy and developed better marketing and production techniques too.
Mango Mango, a specialty food company vied for funding to grow the distribution of their mango preserve preserves on season five the popular show, Shark Tank. Visual artist, S. Ross Browne, is an incredibly brilliant painter of figurative realism who just finished an exhibition at Rush Arts Gallery. And Todd Parsons, fine artists and jewelry maker who uses wood as his medium, lost his job when he did his first ARTisan Café in 2012, but has since became so popular that he opened an art studio and runs it full-time.
ARTisan Café’s pop-up shops developed as a venue for artists, crafts people and food companies to test products. As well, the artists in Johnson and Short’s collective service a consumer market that big retailers overlook. At the same time, the pop ups recycle money back into financially strapped and under-represented communities.
Rapidly, Johnson and Short began to gain local and national recognition for being one of the few black women entrepreneurs organizing regular pop-ups around artists.
In 2013, they worked with the City of Richmond’s Economic and Community Development Department and a local real estate company to procure a brick-and-mortar retail space in Stony Point Fashion Park. Members of the artisan co-op donated time as staff employees in exchange for selling their art.
Although the retail space closed its doors after eighteen months, Johnson and Short decided they needed to find an area that fit their retailing ideas. Since, they hosted ARTisan Café events in Washington D.C. and entered into a partnership with the BlackStar Film Festival in Philadelphia to curate a vendor market.
Short is featured on a 2017 Oprah Winfrey Network (OWN) show called, Checked In, a series detailing a chain of black-owned Bread and Breakfasts founded and led by Monique Greenwood.
Their emphasis continues to feature black and women artists, as they bring balance and representation into the arts and entrepreneurship.