Most Influential

Most Influential, Equity: Vivian Phillips

Founder and Board President, Arte Noir

By Chris S. Nishiwaki January 31, 2024

Vivian Phillips

This article originally appeared in the January/February 2024 issue of Seattle magazine.

Vivian Phillips grew up in the heart of Seattle’s Central District, graduating from the trifecta of the neighborhood’s Seattle Public Schools: Coleman Elementary, Washington Middle School and Garfield High. She now lives a mere five blocks from her childhood home. It most definitely is not the same neighborhood.

Black families made up more than 90% of the Central District’s population in the 1960s, much of it spurred by redlining, a discriminatory practice that limited mortgages to Black families. Today, the Black population in the neighborhood is as low as 8% by some estimates. Phillips is among the community advocates stemming the tide one artist, one family, and one building at a time.

The lifelong advocate for people of color and the arts is among the leaders responsible for shaping the future of the Central District from its vibrant core at 23rd Avenue and Union Street. Originally hired by developer Lake Union Partners to curate the outdoor art in Midtown Square, her work extended to building a permanent home for artists at the street level in the southeast corner of 23rd and Union. Phillips collaborated with project architectural consultant Rico Quirindongo and artist/muralist Aramis Hamer, as well as a panel of community leaders.

Named Arte Noir, the gallery is also an extension of Phillips’ online arts publication of the same name. Phillips is the founder and board president of Arte Noir. The gallery and boutique shop featuring artists and artisans of color is run by Jazmyn Scott.

“It is very personal,” Phillips says of living and advocating for diversity in the Central District. “My parents migrated to Seattle from the South, like the story of so many Black people in Seattle. They came here in the early ‘50s. They lived in the Central District, which was the only place where they could live. Family and friends, we all lived within blocks of each other; 23rd and Union was my stomping ground. It is literally where I grew up.”

Midtown Square houses 432 mixed-income apartments, 28,000 square feet of commercial retail shops, and the 18,000-square-foot Public Square, which includes one of the largest privately run public arts projects in the region, featuring nine local artists of color.

Phillips, Scott, and the team at Arte Noir will soon add a recording studio to promote students and aspiring and established musicians, as well as a studio where artists and craftspeople can create their work.

“Having the opportunity to restore the presence of art and culture is of the greatest significance,” Phillips says. “It is what the community said they wanted. We went through this process of engaging with the community, of asking what they wanted to see there. The community really wanted something that honored the legacy of the Black community, which was of reverence and discovery, which is what all of the artists responded to. For me it is about reclamation and restoration.”

Arte Noir brings together much of Phillips’ diverse career and experience. She was appointed to the Seattle Arts Commission by former Mayor Norm Rice, and later served as communications director for Mayor Paul Schell. She was also the communications director at the Seattle Theatre Group, and co-hosted a public affairs television show, True Colors, a collaboration between KCTS and KOMO-TV.

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