ArtSEA: Seattle’s new Arte Noir shines a light on Black creators

A retail shop showcasing products by Black makers, a second outlet for Gallery Onyx, the first edition of a literary fest and other fall debuts.

a woman wearing a headscarf and glasses laughs while talking to someone else in an art gallery

Arte Noir founder Vivian Phillips greets Cassandra Mitchell during a soft opening for the Arte Noir and Gallery Onyx shared space at Midtown Square, September 14, 2022. (Genna Martin/Crosscut)

One week and one day before the grand opening of Arte Noir, the promise of the new Central District space was held in a smattering of sticky notes. When I visited, the yellow and mint-green paper squares were posted all over the empty walls, counters and shelves — even wrapped around sets of keys.

Handwriting on each Post-It foretold what would soon be loaded into this retail shop dedicated to Black makers: accessories, skin care, head wraps, clutches, apothecary items, bracelets, books and more.

ArtSEA: Notes on Northwest Culture is Crosscut’s weekly arts & culture newsletter.

The specialty shop began with the Arte Noir newsletter, launched just over a year ago, and is about to have its big reveal with a festive celebration on Sept. 17 (noon to 6 p.m.). The event coincides (no coincidence) with Wa Na Wari’s second annual “Walk the Block” art walk (Sept. 17, 2-6 p.m), a ticketed fundraiser featuring a wealth of Black artists, dancers and live music.

“We’re 95% there,” Arte Noir founder Vivian Phillips said, as she toured me around the high-ceilinged space. “But we still don’t really know how to work the lights.” She laughed and showed me a mystifying panel of 24 individual controls.

Located at 23rd and Union, on the ground floor of the Midtown Square development, Arte Noir is situated among many new public works by Black artists. One of them is visible from the windows: Yegizaw “Yeggy” Michael’s permanent installation Visual Rhythm. This abstract timeline of the Central District is rendered in 200 wooden slats — painted in vibrant colors and carved with Eritrean symbols — and hangs from the building façade like a peacock fringe.

Inside, the vibe is crisp and modern, with a long expanse of floor-to-ceiling windows and sleek blond-wood display cases. Executive Director Jazmyn Scott was also on the premises (“Oh, I’m always here,” she said), making final furniture arrangements and writing out a few more of her signature sticky notes. She wasn’t yet sure about two new yellow chairs that guest services manager Marcus Mitchell was unwrapping from packaging. At the opposite end of the room, guest services associate Cole Abram was busy painting a design in the entrance vestibule.

Artist and Arte Noir board member Juan Alonso-Rodriguez browses through the art displayed at Gallery Onyx, which shares the new space at Midtown Square with Arte Noir, September 14, 2022. Both the gallery and the retail shop officially open to the public on September 17. (Genna Martin/Crosscut)

Sharing the square footage with Arte Noir is Gallery Onyx, a Black-art-focused collective that already has a space in Pacific Place mall. With an elaborate ceiling-grid system that supports foldaway panels, Onyx will be able to arrange its section in any number of ways. The opening exhibit is Truth B Told II, a group show highlighting Northwest artists of African descent. (It was not yet installed when I visited, but the flexible space radiated potential.)

Phillips and Scott — who are also mother and daughter — have personalized their portion of the concrete and glass space with softening touches appropriate to their nonprofit mission: curating and showcasing products made by Black creators and supporting Black-owned businesses.

Two rattan peacock chairs sat near the windows, awaiting their moment in future Instagram posts. Scott was expecting a selection of greenery from local Black Origin Plants, both as décor and for sale. She also plans to add a vintage record player and offer a limited number of vinyl albums such as “Miles Davis, Aretha Franklin, Michael Jackson, Outkast, Solange, Kendrick Lamar,” she said.

Seattle author and playwright Stacy D. Flood walks through Arte Noir’s retail offerings with a bag he purchased during a soft opening at Midtown Square, September 14, 2022. (Genna Martin/Crosscut)

Further out, Arte Noir will build a state-of-the-art recording studio, “for training the next generation of music producers,” Phillips said. She also recently added another 200-square-foot parcel in the building for a future onsite makers’ space. But in this moment, Phillips and Scott were closing in on the final details and to-dos for the ribbon cutting at noon on Saturday. “That’s the point of no return,” Phillips said.

Mitchell returned from a jaunt across the street, bearing bright-pink beet smoothies from new Ethiopian coffee shop and juice bar Avole. “Those are so good,” Phillips said as she began unpacking a box of African masks, which Arte Noir supporter Beverly Kelly donated for décor. Phillips pulled out each one and looked it in the eyes. “This one…” she said, holding up a powerful feminine face from Gabon. “We need to find a prominent place for her.” Considering the benefits of various locations, Phillips said, “She should watch over everything.”

Then she looked around the room, another idea brewing. “Oh no,” Scott said with a tone of familial teasing. “Whenever she puts her finger to her nose, I know it means something else for me to do.” She and Phillips both laughed, then Scott protested, “I am out of sticky notes!”

Composer Angelique Poteat at Benaroya Hall on Tuesday, Sept. 6, 2022, holding her composition ‘Beyond Much Difference’ (2014). (Amanda Snyder/Crosscut)

More Seattle premieres

It seems to be the weekend for big cultural debuts, as several other events are making first-time appearances around town. 

Crosscut contributor Paul Constant wrote this week about the launch of a new literary festival — the first Seattle has seen in 18 years. (Remember Northwest Bookfest? R.I.P.) Held at and orchestrated by Town Hall Seattle, Volume 1: Humble Beginnings (Sept. 16-17) will feature readings by recognized names like science writer David Quammen, novelist Oscar Hokeah, debut author Leila Mottley and Bellevue-based science fiction writer Ted Chiang. But the overall theme is celebrating the storytellers we all carry inside of us.

Also brand new: a world premiere composition by Seattle clarinetist Angelique Poteat, who Crosscut’s Margo Vansynghel profiled in her recent story “Four rising Seattle artists to watch.” Poteat’s piece Breathe, Come Together, Embrace graces the opening-night concert of Seattle Symphony’s new season (Sept. 17). “I envisioned it as a post-pandemic piece of music,” Poteat told Vansynghel. “It’s very lively.”

The Local Sightings Film Festival (Sept. 16–25) makes its return this weekend as well. It’s not a new event — in fact, this is the 25th anniversary — but it always brings an exciting array of debut films. The program runs online and in-person at Northwest Film Forum, and features a smorgasbord of PNW-sourced short and feature films, including: homespun horror flick Skagit; Seattle-set “second coming-of-age” drama Mountainside; the premiere of art maven Tariqa Waters’ new pop-art talk show, Thank You, MS PAM; and former NWFF director Vee Hua’s anticipated short Reckless Spirits

Finally, consider this debut: You, dancing your buns off in an airport hangar. Seattle-born dance party/fitness phenomenon Dance Church — the brainchild of choreographer Kate Wallich — is bringing its sweaty vitality to a gigantic Alaska Airlines hangar at Sea-Tac airport (Sept. 17, 11 a.m.). No dance experience (or boarding passes) required, but you will need pre-registration and proof of vaccination. Prepare for takeoff.

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