Malene Barnett’s career has changed a lot since she graduated from design school 20 years ago: She’s masterminded dozens of interiors around the world, developed products, and nurtured her fine-arts work in a number of mediums.
But one thing hasn’t changed: When she opens a magazine, she doesn’t see black people—or the robust body of work she knows black designers produce.
“I shouldn’t have to open a magazine and say, ‘Oh, they featured another black designer.’ It shouldn’t be a surprise anymore,” Barnett tells Curbed. “I’m doing the homework the media should have done. I’m not going to wait for them to do it. There are no more excuses for how our work and voices aren’t represented. Let’s talk about how to move forward and create more opportunities.”
Instead of staying frustrated, Barnett decided to take action and establish the Black Artists + Designers Guild, a collective that aims to become the go-to resource for people interested in hiring black creatives and, more importantly, publishing and spreading awareness of their work.
The glaring lack of diversity and inclusion in creative industries is a longstanding problem. Improving representation will take a number of interventions—changing education, improving pay equity, reorienting our historical understanding of design, and overcoming the myriad political and economic systems that privilege people who are white and disadvantage people who aren’t. Much of the design world remains insular: It’s about who you know and word of mouth. The Black Artists + Designers Guild is a resource for those who want to improve representation—and it comes at the right time.
Tech and social media is changing how designers disseminate and communicate their work. Meanwhile, there’s a heightened awareness about diversity, inclusion, and fixing the problems wrought by generations of racism.
“The political environment has helped create more urgency and the response—especially if you’re not in agreement with the current administration and you’re aware that, yes, we need to make some changes here,” Barnett says.
The Guild’s website, which launched in late November, includes about 50 artists and designers who are based in North America, Africa, and Europe. The directory includes a designer’s bio, what mediums they work in, a professional photo of their work, and contact information. (There’s an annual membership fee of $50; $25 for students.) Barnett hopes to grow the collective to 200 members in the next six months to publish a print directory in the next year.
“There is strength and power in numbers,” says Sheila Bridges, a New York-based interior designer and member of the Guild’s board of directors. “Many of the editors, bloggers, publishers, and manufacturers complain that they ‘don’t know where to find us,’ which is essentially a lame excuse to keep featuring the same designers and artists over and over again. Now that there is a directory showcasing our diverse work—along with our contact information—we have made things easier for them to see and access a range of different talents.”
Membership is open to black artists and designers and is style agnostic, preferring to show a wide variety of contemporary expression. Barnett is focusing on “solopreneurs”—creatives that own their businesses, essentially handling every part of it by themselves, and likely don’t have time for things like media outreach and pursuing product collaborations. The inaugural group of members includes established professionals with decades of experience and emerging practitioners.
Jerrell Gibbs, a Baltimore-based artist and current MFA student at the Maryland Institute College of Art, joined the guild because it puts him in dialogue with his contemporaries. “The Guild is specific to artists of various practices who look like me,” he tells Curbed. He hopes membership unlocks connections with patrons of the art world like curators, collectors, and directors. “Also, sales!” he adds.
Becoming an avenue to help black-owned businesses thrive is a major goal for the Guild. Barnett is optimistic about what the collective can achieve: Since launching the site, her inbox has been has been flooded with inquiries from publishers, organizations, and manufacturers about how they can collaborate and partner. But she acknowledges that it’s part of a larger course correction that needs to occur.
“We’re not going to become the savior for everyone,” Barnett says. “It takes members and community to make it work and that’s key. We all have power to change, speak up, and use our voices. Share the Guild information if you know somewhere it’s going to be of value. Make that introduction. Make that connection.”
In the future, Barnett hopes to see more black designers, artists, architects, real estate developers, and homeowners represented so that students and young people see places for themselves in these positions and so that design, as a whole, becomes more exciting.
“If you look at design, African culture and black culture are inspirations for so many spaces, but we don’t get acknowledgement, recognition, or credit,” Barnett says. “I think people need to understand that you don’t have the full story if we’re not involved. We’ve only been conditioned to half the story; this is going to benefit everyone.”