Christine and Brigette Bethea standing in front of store windows
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This mother-daughter artistic duo wants to diversify Oakland’s business district

Tags
  • Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion
  • Our City/Our Campus
  • Community Impact

Argyle Studio was initially designed as a temporary pop-up shop to showcase diverse Pittsburgh artists. After a year of building connections, however, the dynamic Forbes Avenue retail space seems to be here to stay.

"The mission is to bridge, build and transform," said Christine Bethea, an award-winning mixed media artist and current president of Women of Visions, a collective of Black female artists in Pittsburgh founded in 1981. In May 2021, she launched Argyle Studio in the heart of Oakland with her daughter, Brigette Bethea, to combat the lack of Black and brown representation in the Pittsburgh arts — an issue the co-founders say is an intergenerational concern.

The gallery and marketplace houses artwork from over 30 local makers who range from 14 to 80 years old, and their vendors are more than 50 percent BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, people of color). Argyle Studio, which doesn’t take commission fees, was set to run through to May 2022 but, because of its success, funding has been extended to May 2023.

Their goal for the additional year?

"We would love to open up the space to more Pitt student and faculty groups," said Brigette. In November 2021, they hosted their first Friendsgiving for the Graduate School of Public and International Affairs' Students of Color Alliance. The duo hopes it’s not the last such partnership.

“I see us a being part of the greater Pitt community,” Brigette said. “Plus, I'm sure there are students on campus who are artists as well — Pitt makers — and we’d love to support, connect and collaborate with them and any aspiring artists in the community. We want the Pitt community to see us as a resource and community asset, that can not only be visited but also engaged with.”

The idea for the studio was born when the mother-daughter duo learned about a grant designed to help diversify Oakland's main business street. The initiative is supported by Oakland Business Improvement District (OBID) and InnovatePGH and funded by the City of Pittsburgh, Allegheny County and the Urban Redevelopment Authority.

"We care about people, their projects and success," said Christine, who has more than 20 years of experience in arts administration. "We were told to find a BIPOC consortium and build a brand. We've never done a project like this but are fortunate to be already winning awards and having our story told because it means people recognize that these kinds of initiatives work."

Argyle Studio isn’t the pair’s only dealings with the Pitt community. In fact, Christine described the studio as a natural next step, given their prior success with ULEADx — a leadership consulting firm and the parent company for Argyle Studio that’s provided services to the University.

"ULEADx operates in two sides of the house," said Brigette. "One side is leadership training and development, and the other works more with community organizations to support their strategic projects and initiatives."

At Pitt, ULEADx has assisted Ready to Learn, a Center for Urban Education (CUE) after-school and summer math mentoring program, and the Frances Hesselbein Leadership Forum by offering workshops and coaching to students, faculty and staff.

"I get as many faculty and staff for professional coaching as I do students," said Brigette. "I find people want somebody to talk to without the expectation of performance. They come in and talk. I'm not grading them, I'm trying to get at their inner leader, and that's one of my favorite things to do."

Other ULEADx clients include Business Professionals of America and East Liberty Development Inc.

And an upcoming welcome event for Oakland neighbors will see yet another Pitt partnership: this time, with the Office for Engagement and Community Affairs.

“There’s a lot of opportunity in this model,” said Executive Director of the Engaged Campus Jamie Ducar. “Lots of people are thinking about how we can encourage entrepreneurs that would otherwise be priced out to join a thriving business district here in Oakland. I’m hoping Argyle can grow with Pitt’s support — I’ve shopped small myself and gotten Mother’s Day gifts for my grandmother and mother there.”

"What's most rewarding is that we're able to support others in pursuing their dreams," said Brigette. "We're also opening doors for ourselves and, why not? There should be no cap on the entrepreneurial spirit."

How the pair got started

Before working full-time as the owner and lead strategist for ULEADx, Brigette was a project manager for the Wilkinsburg School District in Pittsburgh Public Schools Educational Partnerships. Reflecting on her career path, she cited ULEADx as the catalyst behind her decision to even return home to Pittsburgh.

"I never thought I’d come back," she said. "ULEADx was the major motivator behind my shift."

In 2012, she left the military as an officer and moved to Washington, D.C., where she simultaneously worked for the Defense Intelligence Agency and obtained her master’s in leadership at Georgetown University's McDonough School of Business. Inspired by her own experience at David B. Oliver High School, Pittsburgh became ground zero for her research of factors that influence student outcomes.

"I asked how effective student outcomes happen in places considered failing environments and became interested in creating environments and experiences where positive connections and outcomes occur," Brigette said.

In 2015, she moved back to Pittsburgh and launched ULEADx, formally bringing her mother on board as a creative strategist in 2019.

"I had this dream to create initiatives and space for students and people to connect," she said.

For her and her mother, ULEADx — and Argyle Studio — are forging impactful connections.

"There was always a sort of dismissiveness of the Black community and what we bring to the table, but that's changing now," said Christine. “Support of the Argyle Studio shows growth in the city and a change of mindset.”

 

— Kara Henderson