BOOM Concepts is a creative hub that reflects the faces of the community on Pittsburgh’s Penn Ave.
D.S. Kinsel, co-founder of Pittsburgh’s BOOM Concepts, is a painter, installation artist, event maker, and art curator. He says he is always trying to make sure that his art is relevant to and a reflection of who he is.
“I am Black man of hip hop culture and of the hip hop era,” he says. “I’m from the same neighborhood as [photographer] Teenie Harris and [playwright] August Wilson,” both iconic Black figures of Pittsburgh’s arts legacy. “I also went to the same high school as Andy Warhol. All of these artists created work in this city and their work is a reflection of that.”
Kinsel talks a lot about the identity of a place and how a place is a reflection of its people. He co-founded BOOM Concepts to be just such a space – a creative hub for artists of color like himself, who weren’t being represented in the growing arts district along bustling Penn Avenue.
He had been engaged in the arts community there for a decade and noticed an absence of artists of color showing in galleries or having their own gallery or studio spaces along Penn Ave. He began discussing this with his friend Thomas Agnew, co-founder of the urban youth culture magazine JENESIS, a magazine that has been around for a decade and was an early media supporter of hugely popular rappers Wiz Khalifa (from Pittsburgh) and Curren$y.
“We both had this line of hip hop influencing us; me with more of a classic fine art approach, him with more of a commercial and media presentation.” They thought it would be great to collaborate together on a commercial creative space, so they began a conversation with community development corporations and nonprofits and made a strong ask around their needs.
“We were able to make a really strong case through our collective resumes as creative entrepreneurs,” says Kinsel. “Black men in Pittsburgh are historically absent from industry and entrepreneurship, and we were really up front about that hard research.” He further reflects, “We probably didn’t have to fight that hard; they were really open to it.”
The Bloomfield-Garfield Corporation came on as a supporter and with that, Kinsel and Agnew were able to secure a space on Penn Ave. Initially it was just going to be the two of them – a studio space for Kinsel and a workspace for Agnew and JENESIS. But the large, spacious storefront with an open layout ground-level floor seemed to lend itself to something greater than a workspace for just these two artists.
“It felt natural to open it up to be more community-based,” says Kinsel. And with that, he was able to address a problem he saw in the Penn Avenue artist community by creating a space for those artists who seemed invisible. And so BOOM Concepts officially opened in February 2014.
“We are presenting a safe space where residents can see themselves reflected in the artists,” he says. “BOOM Concepts is a creative hub dedicated to incubating artists of color and from marginalized communities so they can create income for themselves through art sales and events. We are really able to be a great reflective presence of this predominantly African American community.”
BOOM Concepts isn’t just a place for artists of color to create and collaborate, but a place that speaks to the residents in the community in which it is located.
“We have two older women who live upstairs and they don’t care what’s going on here, they always stop by,” Kinsel says. “They’ve been really supportive and happy to see the amount of energy here, and the good feelings we’re bringing to the space. They’re really happy to see it being run by young Black men. For them, it’s good to see a reflection of their own community.”
The now-cliché (but no less relevant) story of white hipster artists moving into predominantly Black communities and generally being disconnected from the communities in which they reside also has an alienating effect on the residents of those communities, who might view “artists” with a bit or scorn or skepticism. “You’ve got Grandma at a BBQ saying she hates artists coming in and I’m saying, ‘Do you know what we do?'” Kinsel says.
“If there’s going to be a shift in class you have to connect to the legacy of community,” he continues. “People can’t come to a neighborhood of a different class or a different culture and not try to pay homage to that preexisting culture, the legacy or history of that place.”
Kinsel refers to the work of BOOM Concepts as the practice of creative placemaking, but also of what he calls “cultural spacekeeping.” It is an event and exhibition space, curating anywhere from 12 to 25 shows each year.
Every month there is a new artist exhibit and the Unblurred: First Fridays on Penn art crawl. They also hold other events like concerts and creative communications workshops. Even when there isn’t an event, Kinsel encourages people to pop on by.
“We’re encouraging artists to just come by during the day,” he says. “Even if there isn’t an event, come to the space. We’ve had people getting jobs and selling work just by being there; that’s the benefit of being on one of the busiest avenues in Pittsburgh. Being there will benefit their practice. We might make you run a sweeper, but we’re always encouraging folks to hang out!”
In addition to their regular events, BOOM Concepts has been creating more off-site events, like the recent silent disco at the Carnegie Museum of Art, and Kinsel is also working with the Andy Warhol Museum as part of the Activist Print selection committee, a collaboration project between the museum and local screenprinting collective Artist Image Resource that will commission three Pittsburgh artists to create socially and politically inspired “agitprop” poster prints to be painted with wheatpaste on a vacant building – a recent gift to the museum – in a high-traffic, high-visibility area across the street from the museum.
“Having these connections with those institutions after just two years is mind-blowing,” Kinsel says.
Most recently BOOM Concepts was awarded a grant from the Heinz Endowments to support Black men operating as creative entrepreneurs.
“We want to support everyone and anyone, but as two Black men we saw an absence of programming,” explains Kinsel. “Women of color were supporting us, having breastfeeding meetings, launching a zine and a reproductive justice initiative, and holding a yoga micro residence in our space. We knew we were doing something right in that they felt it was a safe space for them, but we saw that people who identify as men maybe needed an additional push or some extra support.”
This grant allows them to support male artists of color in micro-residencies, which will provide them with creative support and incubation space. The artists have all been selected and now they are finalizing their calendar for these micro-residencies and coordinating events. The artists include a dancer, photographer, rapper, and producer.
“Each one has very specific goals,” Kinsel says. “The dancer is looking to connect with cisgender straight audience in his work. The photographer is looking to connect with more an African American audience, since a lot of his work is consumed by a white audience. The rapper needs some media training. The producer has a producer credit on a Wiz Khalifa single, but he wants to get out from behind the soundboards and get an audience of his own. We’re recruiting these artists to show more men of color on the Avenue.”