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Southfield Gallery Paints Positive Images of Black Community

Crain’s Detroit Business
Mark S. Lee
Feb. 15, 2022

As part of the 20th century’s Great Migration, many Blacks moved to northern cities, such as Detroit. And while the city’s Black population grew significantly, so did its bustling creative community.

Metro Detroit is now home to some of the leading African American art galleries in the art industry. Southfield-based Umoja Fine Arts is one of them.

Umoja Fine Arts is a Black-owned gallery that focuses on positive Black images through artistic expression and has recently released a digital and hard copy book on a guide to collecting African American Art. With nearly 30 years in the art business, Umoja Fine Arts has withstood decades of an ever-evolving industry and remains one of the largest publishers and distributors of African American art in the country.

Umoja means “unity” and cultural awareness is a big part of self-esteem. The gallery remains focused on selling original works of art and affordable prints to the community.

Ian Grant, chief executive officer and curator of Umoja Fine Arts, gained expertise in the art industry in Philadelphia during the ’80s. He became acquainted with publishing procedures, the medium of art, the identification of the functions of distribution, and how to relate the functions to the public. After a career as a sales and marketing executive for more than 25 years for a Fortune 500 company, this year Grant decided to pursue his passion on a full-time basis.

I recently talked to Grant about African American art and how his business model has evolved during the COVID-19 pandemic.

  • Lee: Umoja has been in business since 1996. Tell us what has been the secret to longevity and what type of art do you offer?

Grant: The secret to longevity is always being willing to change with the times. We started out as publishers and distributors of African American art. We became the largest publishers and distributors in the Midwest during that time. In addition to that, we opened our gallery to service the retail operations in Southfield. Now, especially during the pandemic, we’ve focused on art education and diversifying price points by working with artists to design merchandise with their art images while remaining committed to higher-end art as well.

Umoja offers a unique experience and expertise with original paintings, bronze sculptures, serigraphs, archival pigment print — 100% cotton rag paper, lithographs, and sculptures. Art images range in price from $45 to $1,500 and originals may range in price from $1,000 to $75,000.

  • You gained art expertise in Philadelphia but ultimately moved to metro Detroit. How did you end up here?

I moved to metro Detroit in 1991. But, I moved here from Rochester, N.Y. I moved to Detroit based on corporate business. I ran the business for my company in different areas of the country.

And I chose Southfield for Umoja Fine Arts business in 1996, because this area captured my specific target audience.

  • COVID has impacted every business, especially entrepreneurs such as yourself. How have you adjusted your business model to focus on sustainability?

Change is never avoidable. We have learned to adapt. With us no longer being able to rely on foot traffic to our storefront on a weekly basis, we still decided to hire a new gallery manager to focus the business digitally. Since then, we have developed a virtual gallery, a gift shop, and restructured our website to operate as an e-commerce website. We’ve seen a great deal of success online reaching our audience nationally and globally.

  • Art is an investment, but some unfortunately don’t view it that way. What are you doing to spread the message on how important investing in African American art is and what should one consider when purchasing fine art?

Art investment is the focus of our new hard copy and digital book that is currently available on umojafinearts.com.  “A Guide to Collecting African American Art” is an 18-page educational book that teaches the vital elements of collecting African American art. It shares the secrets to and reasons for collecting art and understanding how to best preserve your art collection while creating generational wealth.

  • Umoja has a great lineup of artists, and your starting player, so to speak, is Paul Goodnight. Tell us more about his work and what goes into selecting artists to be on Umoja’s team? What makes Umoja unique from other art galleries?

Paul Goodnight is an internationally acclaimed artist whose work has been featured in the Smithsonian plus has adorned the homes of Anita Baker, Maya Angelo, and more. As our lead artist, Umoja Fine Arts is the exclusive distributor of his open edition prints and also represents his serigraphs, archival pigment prints and original artworks.

Umoja Fine Arts also has a family of artists that we exclusively represent from the Detroit metro area: Rosemary Summers, Tyhib Rawls, Priscilla Phifer, and Marcel Stewart.

When looking for other artists to join the gallery, we tend to focus on creativity, talent, and the mindset to understand the global expansion of the art industry.

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