When Vernon and Kathi Williams decided to move from Chicago and retire in 2016, they chose Phoenix, Arizona because it was emblematic of a new, relaxing phase of their lives. Little did they know, they’d soon be launching booming businesses instead.
The Williams’ are the owners of Onyx Sweet Shoppe, a bakery that started with Vernon’s popular pound cakes that he makes in-house, and Onyx Art Gallery which is next door. The latter is where they’ve really made a community impact.
“We’ve always been art enthusiasts,” said Kathi. “Our son had an art Gallery in Chicago for about five years before he moved here to Phoenix and that’s where the idea for our own began. It’s just something we’ve always been very interested in—being excited about supporting artists and just looking for ways to elevate other creatives. When we came here and were quasi retired, it took only about six or seven months before we were bored and decided we would just go ahead and do what we kind of planned to do which was create a hub for artists, musicians, spoken word artists and the like.”
They said they found a great spot for the venture on Grand Avenue in the Historic Arts District of Phoenix. This is significant because to date, there are no other Black-owned art galleries in the city.
This is emblematic of a larger conversation around the Black entrepreneurial ecosystem in the state where five percent of Arizonans identify as Black or African American but their labor participation rate is 68% compared to the state’s 60% rate. Meanwhile their median annual household income is more than $9,000 lower than other racial groups. The income disparity among Black people in metro Phoenix is nearly $13,300, which affects the level of investment communities of color receive in the city. This was not lost on the Williamses when they were scouting for their gallery’s location.
“Well, we were told that the neighborhood wasn’t the best area to start a business and were even warned against being here, but as Black people, you know how we do–You tell us what we can’t do and we should figure out a way to do it and do it better,” said Veron.
He said the gallery was a labor of love despite not being artists themselves.
“We just wanted to create a place that represented Black joy and beauty, whatever that looked like,” he said. “ We created everything–even the furniture, which was built by us.”
Along with displaying art by multicultural artists, the Williamses also rent the space out for events.
“We just brought kind of like that Chicago flavor to the neighborhood that at the time, only included art, but there was nothing that everyone felt able to be included in,” said Kathi. “We just kind of became a base for artists of all colors and a beacon for Black artists in Phoenix to call home.”