One of my favorite projects in the last couple of years is Grace Bonney's In the Company of Women, in which women creatives and entrepreneurs share their triumphs and fears and honest experiences of trying to make a successful creative life. I had been a longtime reader of Design*Sponge, Bonney's design blog that incubated (and originally published) these conversations, and it was one of the only spaces on the Internet that was making a really conscious effort to be representative and inclusive of the breadth of the design community: women of color, queer women, disabled women, etc. Being privy to these conversations so openly and candidly was hugely inspiring for me.
I opened Material Life's first doors in New Orleans on May 5, 2016. I had selected a location (the second, but that's another story) that I knew would be a challenge but I was up to it. We* had purchased a building that had lots of space, and for that I had lots of plans (and, what I thought, would be a diversified revenue stream while Material Life got off the ground): a store, a coffee shop, an exhibition space, a neighborhood gathering space—but despite best intentions the only one that manifested was the store. I got a little press, drew some regular customers, and established a small but significant reputation, but days would go by without anyone even walking by, let alone coming in. For a year I gave it the old college try, but the business was dying in that location. Failure wasn't an option, though—I still believed that the basic concept for the store was a valuable one: supporting black artists and fostering an audience for affordable art.
With a tremendous amount of luck (and one dear connected customer/vendor) I found another location —a dream location, really, right next door to a community institution. I opened here on August 1, 2017. Although it was a rental space and I was nervous about making the rent—after all, my first year had been a little less than lucrative —I was ecstatic for the second chance. But I'm still catching up. I haven't earned a salary in 4 years. A month after opening someone totaled my car and I couldn't afford to replace it, my house needed significant repairs so that I could put it on the market, and the few new relationships I'd forged since moving here blossomed, struggled, and ultimately ended. No one said it would be easy.
I come from a background of nearly 30 years in the non-profit arts, where I would wait a minimum of 6 months for payments of already grossly underpaid freelance writing and editing work. I knew I didn't want to perpetuate that kind of economy in which artists aren't paid or are poorly paid for their work. Now, as a first-time retailer and one-woman show who wants to make sure that artists get paid up front, there's been a steep learning curve, and I've surely made sincere promises that I ultimately could not fulfill. I am new to the pace and expectations of this business, and am learning, often the hard way, how to handle all of the many details of this work as I go. I say yes too readily and frequently, I fall behind in communication, I miss appointments —I take responsibility for all of that. My capacity isn't superhuman. Sometimes it's barely capable. It's certainly never been malicious.
Nevertheless, I've had wrenching encounters with vendors which, each time, make me question why I'm even in this: the first accused me of being past due on an invoice 4 days after she submitted it (in the wrong amount, I might add); another never submitted an invoice, gave me the wrong email address to remit her payment, then took it upon herself to tell anyone who'd listen that I don't pay my bills (including my landlord); and finally a recent one whose work I hoped to purchase and exhibit but ultimately couldn't afford and returned, let me know that she AND her partner would be informing everyone who'll listen not to do business with or patronize my shop. I have dozens of vendors from all over the world, yet these three have been the loudest voices: all black women, one queer —the very people I most ardently support through this venture —all bridges sadly burned, all lessons very hard earned.
I am extraordinarily lucky to be making a success of this venture in a city I love, even though it whips my ass more than I care to admit. I'm still able to awaken here and feel joy daily. I could not be more proud of what I've managed to achieve with very little to start other than my knowledge, my determination, and a handful of extraordinary beings who love me, wanted this and me to succeed, and haven't given up on me. So while I may be a mistake-making, fledgling retailer who has learned in a very painful way to stop issuing verbal checks my reality can't cash, I am also a well-intentioned, often overwhelmed individual trying to create something meaningful in the world to continue to support black artists and designers and my LGBTQIQ compatriots. It is my life's work. And I have to trust that if I continue to do my work sincerely that certain disappointed individuals cannot destroy what I'm working so hard to build.
*A dear friend and her father turned out to be investors, without whom this couldn't have happened.