December 1, 2004
With few resources and a lot of hope, Philadelphia entrepreneurs Sean Simmons and Kelly H. Walker were determined to bring the upscale world of black art and custom frame design to the heart of the Philadelphia ‘hood. In October 2000, the duo launched Art Noir, which topped $250,000 in revenues in 2003 and has three employees plus several outside vendors and contractors. Clients include the city of Philadelphia, the Greater Philadelphia Urban Action Committee, and a number of private customers including restaurants and small businesses throughout the city.
The road to Art Noir’s success is a familiar story with a few twists along the way. Both men grew up in Philadelphia. Simmons, 36, dabbled in a few jobs and did a stint in the military while raising three children. It wasn’t until he returned to Philadelphia and landed a job as an assistant manager at a retail framing store that his interest in custom framing, design, and artwork was piqued. He also began to think like an aspiring entrepreneur.
“That was when my framing and sense of design really started to come to life,” Simmons says. “I started to learn about the technical side of framing as well as the design sense.” While working at the store, Simmons began asking African American customers where else they shopped for framing and art projects. He learned that there were no African American-owned framing shops in the city and only a handful of minority-owned art shops. “When I brought this to senior management’s attention and recommended that the store expand its customer focus and include ethnic art, my suggestions fell on deaf ears.”
Shortly thereafter, the store hired Walker as an assistant manager in training under the direction of Simmons. Walker, 43, was an interior designer and had owned a custom framing and art gallery business that had folded a few years earlier. Walker retained most of his equipment, including draft boards, prints, tools, color tiles, and designs in the hope that one day he would revive the business.
The retail store furloughed a number of employees, including Simmons and Walker, after three years of employment. With a marginal to poor credit rating and meager savings, the two realized applying for a bank loan would be pointless. “We both figured that since we each had about six months or so of unemployment checks and an unused credit card from Home Depot, we could avoid the hassle and likely rejection of a bank loan by just [coming up with the funds] ourselves,” Simmons says.
After locating a small storefront unit in the heart of Philadelphia and receiving two months rent-free from the owner, the two opened Art Noir. A turning point came in 2002, when they were asked to join the Ogontz Avenue Revitalization Corp., a city-sponsored program that provides guidance and limited funding to small minority-owned businesses on or near Ogontz Avenue.
At Art Noir, the duo works with leather, suede, and silk mattes to enhance a piece of artwork. One thing that Walker likes to create is