In Conversation with Thomas Agnew and D.S. Kinsel of BOOM Concepts

Beginning in September 2020, the Museum will collaborate with BOOM Concepts during a multi-year project with a focus on engaging Black and marginalized artists through an artist residency program that will include insightful community enrichment programming.

Joan McGarry, Director of Education and Visitor Engagement, interviewed the founders of BOOM Concepts Thomas Agnew and D.S. Kinsel in order to share with you the important work of their organization and their thoughts on this new partnership with The Westmoreland.

JM: So, I wanted to start off by talking a little bit about how BOOM Concepts came into being and what the vision for BOOM Concepts was.

DSK: BOOM Concepts came into being, just trying to fill a need for artists and creative entrepreneurs. Initially, it was a conversation — or many conversations held in a digital space and real life, which led to a meeting with the Bloomfield-Garfield Corporation and the Heinz Endowments talking about how black artists and/or black creatives could occupy a space, which was initially supposed to be a short term deal, like a short term kind of occupancy of a space on Penn Avenue in the Independent Arts and Business District in Pittsburgh, located in the neighborhood of Garfield. There were multiple people at the table that day. The last two at the table were Thomas and me, and we decided to move forward because one of the primary things we were both looking for was a space to work out of. When we were introduced to the space and knowing the legacy of Unblurred and even our experience in the arts region of Pittsburgh, we considered offering something more than a space that would reflect each of our practices. So, that’s like a quick and dirty how BOOM Concepts came to be. Maybe my business partner can talk about our vision a little bit.

“BOOM Concepts came into being, just trying to fill an need for artists and creative entrepreneurs.”

TA: Yeah, I mean basically going over what you (D.S.) said. Originally, we both were looking for a space to work out of. We came together to talk about our initial ideas separately of what we wanted to do. I always laugh about the early days of BOOM because we opened up the space with no name. It was just a work space for both of us and people who were associated with us at the time. And, then Most Wanted, a business ensemble, asked us to host events in the space, because they had overbooked.

I mean, we didn’t have speakers or any of that stuff, but we hosted the events. And, then as soon as that happened, individuals were like, “Oh you’re hosting events at the space?” And, we were like, “Well I guess we are now.” So, we both came together and just started figuring out what that framework would look like as having the space open for a rental space or a community space and need. And, that came together pretty quickly, and we just started it. As the time went on, it formed into many different things. As you were asking us about the residency program before, it was like we were able to complete a micro-residency program within the space. I mean, less than a year from when we were actually open, we had our first person in the space doing a micro-residency. And, through the following year, we had four women, and then the next year, we had four men in the space who all utilized the micro-residency program. And basically, almost all those artists have gone on to do other great things outside of the space just because of the support and then being able to sit down and think up a vision of what they wanted to do later on with their practices.

DSK: Yeah, and we just want everyone to have the tools and resources to live sustainable lives. We want people to have ownership over their ideas, over their crafts, and then ownership over their community and just having people feel free to express themselves in a way that reflects their ideas, their values, and their vision. And, being able to kind of see that this was a need and specifically centering on black artists, black creatives, black entrepreneurs, it just led to a lot of support, a lot of success. And, here we are six years later launching a full-residency program with The Westmoreland Museum of American Art. So, we’re really happy about this growth and how our original micro-residency program began at BOOM turned into creating new partnerships with other institutions.

JM: I know that community engagement is really important to you and, as you said, really working with artists to help them with sustainable practices so that they can go on to have really great meaningful careers outside of their time at BOOM. Could you tell me more about this work?

DSK: Well, we’re just really excited to be connecting with peers locally and nationally. We’re not the first artist run space, so we’re really inspired by AS220 in Providence, Project Row Houses in Houston, the work of Theaster Gates of Chicago, and just really the creative placemaking and spacekeeping as one of the tenants of BOOM and what we do and how we serve artists. I don’t know if we’ve supported people, or if we’ve been lucky in picking really cool amazing artists. It’s like Phil Jackson. Is he a good coach or does he always get to coach superstars? And, we just feel like we’re always working with superstars, whether it be locally or nationally. We’ve had the opportunity to connect with national partners such as Common Field and Allied Media Conference, where we get to kind of test our skills and test our knowledge and really showcase our expertise on the work of BOOM. And, we haven’t done that as individuals, we’ve done that as a movement. So, we’ve taken groups of students and artists to these different places and really started to work to making cultural pipelines between different cities.

DSK: We’re currently working with a group from Providence. We have some connections in the Bay Area where we’ve hosted artists here and brought them in for residencies. We’re making connections and been rooted strong with artists in Houston. So, it’s all been very organic, and we’re happy because we’ve been up front with artists from the door that we work with that BOOM Concepts may not be the place for you if you’re a hobbyist. We’re really trying to develop artists, help them grow their practice, and find different ways for them to generate revenue from their practice. So whether it’s consulting contracts, art sales, they want to operate a space that’s in community, smaller goods, grant writing, contracts with institutions, we’re really transparent on how we’ve grown toward success and the mistakes that we’ve made. And, we openly share that with all of our artists who come through the door. So, we’re really blessed and just happy and proud to be standing together, and one of the best pieces about BOOM is the partnership that it’s founded on. So, Thomas and I, being together for six years, we’ve each put pressure on each other to evolve and grow our personal practice, our team practice, and even how we manage BOOM as a project and an institution itself.

JM: So can you talk a little bit more about some of the ways or the programs that you are using to support artists right now?

DSK: So, the first program that we’re running is Sidewall Public Art Project that’s located in the Bloomfield community of Pittsburgh. That’ll be rotating artists. We have three artist featured so far. We’ll be doing about eight artists total this season. To compensate for the cancellation of our monthly Unblurred, we have transformed our monthly exhibition that we did in conjunction with the First Friday on Penn Avenue with all the other artist’s projects in independent run galleries. We’ve turned that into a residency. So each artist per month that was supposed to have an Unblurred opening exhibition and traditional art show where people visit has now been turned into more of an incubator where they temporarily move into Boom Concepts, work in the space on their project, develop it further. Thomas and I do critique sessions with them weekly on the work and help them to be goal focused and motivated.

We were just alerted of support from the census where we will be identifying artists that work in memes and gif content online for the purpose of going viral and creating census focused content encouraging black, brown, queer, and low income community members to participate in the 2020 Census. We’ll also be doing window displays to support the census and as part of that small program. We’re working with the Carrie Furnace and Rivers of Steel to create a two-year program, this year and next year. We’ll be launching that in late August, early September centering on black artists and muralists at the Carrie Furnace. We are working with Fresh DigiFest, this year’s iteration of FreshFest. This is the first black centered beer festival, which was launched in Pittsburgh, where we will be featuring seven artists working, doing live painting for FreshFest. And, one of the biggest things we’re excited for, which is in two weeks – so I don’t know if this magazine article’s going to catch it – is Hotline Ring which we will be participating in and led by the Kelly Strayhorn Theater and other Pittsburgh based nonprofits and arts organizations that are led by black people, POC, or queer people.

“… We’re just really excited to be connecting with peers locally and nationally.”

TA: And, we are just as busy as ever if not even busier during this time. So, we took a small hibernation directly after COVID and really pivoted our attention to the neighborhood in which we reside which is Garfield here in Pittsburgh. We made some donations and did some flyer distribution and connected folks with resources. But the past 30 days or so, 45 days, we’re back in action. And, the only difference is that our community members are not gathering at the space in the usual manner. So, we’re just as busy as ever, and we’re excited to be announcing this partnership with The Westmoreland, which is just increasing our footprint here in western Pennsylvania.

JM: We are very excited to be working with you. Knowing that you started off with something that was kind of fluid and organic is really great, because it’s kind of an organic process for us to have the artist-in-residency program here at the Museum with you. So, I think this is a great opportunity for the Museum to benefit from your expertise in that area.

TA: Yeah. And, I think one last thing I wanted to say too was that obviously we’re able to do these partnerships, and I hope that it gives light to other larger organizations or businesses to see, “Hey, you don’t always have to do everything on your own. You can call upon people like us to do some programming where you may feel like, ‘Oh, we’ve been wanting to do this for forever, but we don’t have the capacity to do so.'” There are many people like us who can step in and do the programming successfully, I mean, we have such a long sheet of things that we’ve done already in the last six years. So, we just want people to know that, hey, just because you may have to budget or the staff isn’t there or whatever, whatever it may be, you could always reach out and ask somebody for help. It’s not a problem. Big or small, we’re always available to do this with other people too. That’s like another lane that we always want to be in too. It’s like, “Hey, we’re also here to help other institutions and other organizations build in the areas that they feel like they need some help in.”

JM: Wonderful. Well, hopefully, this program that we’re building together will be an inspiration for other museums and institutions. Thank you both so much for your time.