Entrepreneurs turn their love for art into pop ups that stimulate local economies

4 mins read

The underwhelming promotion of local artists caused these art aficionados to create pop ups to give shine where needed. They ended up expanding their careers in turn.

The concept of a starving artist seemed problematic for Adrienne Johnson and Melody Short — especially when the art market generated about US $64 billion in 2017 after a two year decline. 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, a venue showcasing artists in and around a burgeoning art scene in Richmond, Virginia. Seven 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. At the their flash retail shops, vendors sell their work and foodstuffs, as well as promote themselves in ways that were difficult to do in a competitive market.

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. The more they conversed with local artists, the two serial social entrepreneurs 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.

Creating an Artist Oasis

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, they 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 nonprofit 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.

The Formula

As ARTisan Café developed as a venue for artists, crafts people and food companies to test products. As well, the artists in Johnson and Short’s collective, provide services to 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 for its annual cinema celebration.

Branching Out

In between their pop ups, both women, who are mothers, maintained and their respective careers in other ways. I know, they do not sleep.

Johnson was named one of the 40 under 40 in Richmond in 2017 for her advocacy work spanning in art and social service. Now, she spearheads family engagement at the Peter Paul Development Center, an agency assisting families to locate and secure basic resources.

In 2016, she kicked off, The Flourish Society, with Tiffany Cole, as way to mobilize and support women to fulfill their dreams and grow their gifts in productive ways. The company crafts innovative gatherings, conferences and meaningful meet-ups catered to women who need a tribe to simply, work out their shit.

Additionally, Johnson also continues a partnership with DJ Prolific, Wine Down, a regular wine tasting social at C’est Le Vin, a restaurant fusing “eclectic wines, diverse art showings, and award winning chef inspired cuisine.”

Short has been seen a lot lately on-screen. As the director of operations of Akwaaba Bed & Breakfast Inns, a black-owned hospitality company that owns a chain of B-and-B’s along the Eastern seaboard, the company enjoyed one season on OWN network with their reality TV show, Checked Inn. Akwaaba just acquired their sixth property in Philadelphia.

Although Johnson and Short wear many hats, their love of art is where they always intersect. Their emphasis continues to feature black and women artists, as they bring balance and representation into the arts and entrepreneurship.

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Kaia Niambi Shivers covers diaspora, news and features.


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