Artist Atiya Jones moved from Brooklyn to Pittsburgh about two years ago because she heard the city’s art scene was more supportive. So far, she’s been totally right.
$360,000 in total grant funding from the Henry L. Hillman Foundation
“In New York, people are like, ‘what do you do?’ And you tell them, and they say, ‘that’s awesome. Good luck,’” she explains. “In Pittsburgh, they say, ‘what do you do? That’s awesome, you should meet this person.’ And then they actually connect you to that person.”
Monmade, a project of Bridgeway Capital that received seed funding from the Henry L. Hillman Foundation in 2016, has been a big part of that supportive network she has found here. It is a trade group that is helping small craft businesses and creative producers in Pittsburgh reach new heights by connecting them with fresh economic opportunities.
Director Adam Kenney leads the charge, facilitating deals between small-batch producers and real estate developers, and seeking out makers who have the potential and desire to grow their businesses to the next level. The idea is to empower creative makers to succeed, while simultaneously diversifying and enriching Pittsburgh’s economy.
As the city undergoes an unprecedented development boom, Kenney wants to encourage developers to keep money in the region by supporting local producers. For example, when new hotels or other large businesses come to Pittsburgh, Kenney wants to make it easy for them to purchase locally-produced furniture, equipment, and decor. Monmade makes these types of connections possible.
“Number one, you’re going to get probably a higher level of quality. You’re going to get absolutely unique designs that in a very competitive environment will help your space stand out,” Kenney says. “And, you’re going to have economic development impact.”
The money spent by developers then helps grow small businesses situated in disinvested neighborhoods, like Homewood or Beltzhoover, where Monmade producer Commonwealth Press recently purchased a building to house its production warehouse. Bridgeway Capital, Monmade’s parent organization, financed the building’s purchase demonstrating the many ways the project helps creative businesses build up disinvested communities. With Monmade’s support they create jobs, reactivate industrial spaces, revitalize main streets, and advance Bridgeway Capital’s goals of equitable economic development for the region.
In addition to connecting makers and developers, Monmade also fosters partnerships between creative producers. Commonwealth Press partnered with Jones to produce a series of prints based on her artwork, which were then exhibited at the Pittsburgh Glass Center earlier this year. Jones says that exhibition provided her with some valuable exposure for her blossoming business.
“I was really grateful to Adam for making that connection for me, and putting me in touch with [Dan Rugh], because it is overwhelming as a visual artist to venture into [the] entrepreneurial world,” Jones says.
Kenney, an artist himself, agrees that often the biggest challenge is helping artists realize their own potential to take their work to the next level.
“They come out of these programs, whether it’s a design program or an art program or a craft program – and there’s [typically] zero entrepreneurial training,” he says. “But they’re good at making stuff. So right away, they know they have to sell it.”
So Monmade steps in to help creative producers become more sustainable. Whether it’s acquiring a loan to purchase real estate, or hiring an employee to help with increasing product demand, Monmade’s team of consultants identifies ways to help local makers excel.
And the group’s strategies come straight from the minds of fellow creatives. Nisha Blackwell, founder of Knotzland Bowties, was first a Monmade producer before stepping into her current role as Equity and Inclusivity Specialist. She also serves as Monmade’s Producer-in-Residence.
Blackwell focuses on recruiting creatives who can diversify Monmade’s pool of producers. She’s excited about watching local makers of color – like Jones and LaVerne Kemp – thrive. Bridgeway Capital focuses on uplifting African-American and women-owned business, and Monmade’s efforts reflect that longtime commitment and impact.
“It’s been a really, really great role for me – for my personal growth and professional growth, and also for Knotzland’s growth,” she says.
Blackwell points out that as Pittsburgh’s technology and medical sectors grow, it’s also crucial to highlight grassroots creators who work with their hands.
“These are also real, lucrative businesses and sustainable businesses. They’re part of the larger ecosystem and making our city what it is,” Blackwell says. “You have tech, you have education and you also have craftspeople.”
It’s that hands-on craftsmanship that helps to define Pittsburgh’s legacy – and, hopefully, its continued growth as a hub for unique design, nationally and internationally. “This is kind of the full version of … exactly why I moved here,” Jones says of Monmade. “This is a built-in network of creative people who support each other.”
Monmade is a program of Bridgeway Capital, which has for 28 years provided flexible, alternative financing for small businesses and other organizations in western Pennsylvania. Atiya Jones is a Pittsburgh-based artist who works under the moniker Twelve\Twenty Studio. You can also view her work via her Monmade profile.