In early 2021, Iris Nevins, a longtime art collector, officially devoted her career to uplifting artists.
Originally, she planned to create an online store with her co-founder, Omar Desire, where artists can sell their work. But when she learned about NFTs, or non-replaceable tokens, in 2020, she decided the technology would be a “much more profound way to help artists.”
“We thought we could do more, have a bigger impact and generate more revenue for the artists, for ourselves, [with NFTs] than trying to sell prints and paintings online,” Nevins, 29, tells CNBC Make It.
In February 2021, Nevins and her team launched NFT studio Umba Daima, which promotes artists and educates people about Web3. The Umba Daima team manages and consults with artists, earns a percentage of their sales and helps build online communities for marketplaces.
Umba Daima also launched a number of sub-brands, which it oversees. The first was Black NFT Art, soon followed by the NFT Roundtable podcast and virtual exhibition The Unseen Gallery.
“We noticed that the artists who had a lot of success had really strong communities around them that were promoting or reposting on social media or participating in their drops,” says Nevins. The studio launched Black NFT Art “in an effort to create that kind of experience for black artists.”
An example of the success of Uumba Daima is: artist Andre Oshea, who ran the company for about four and a half months. His NFT sales were low when he first started working with Umba Daima, but now “Andre Oshea is one of the best black artists in the space,” says Nevins.
In 2021, Umba Daima earned $140,000 in revenue from all of its brands.
Although it is a milestone, the team is still working on the bootstrapping. Nevins has not paid herself even though she has quit her job to focus on Umba Daima full time. Most of her team members are essentially volunteers, she says, although she pays them when she can. “We’re a good way to be profitable, but I hope it can happen soon.”
She is thankful for people like Tonya Evans, Pennsylvania State Dickinson Law professor, and Kyle Hill, head of crypto at consultancy platform Troika IO, who helped Umba Daima get started. “It was really nice, especially as a black woman founder, to have people have so much support and believe in me so much,” Nevins says.
‘Crypto, blockchain and NFT use are so important’
Passionate about equality and social justice, Nevins sees blockchain technology as a tool to close the wealth gap exacerbated by the Covid-19 pandemic, the latest data from the World Inequality Report shows.
According to the report, in 2021 the top 10% of the world’s population owned 76% of total household wealth, while the bottom 50% owned 2%.
That kind of inequality is “why I think crypto, blockchain, and NFT use are so important,” Nevins says. “It’s a technology that allows us to create a whole new economic system where power can be rebalanced.”
Nevins sees little opportunity to rework traditional financial systems and believes it is necessary to build something new to elevate those who are marginalized and underrepresented.
However, the NFT space is still not perfect.
When Nevins first started out, Nevins noticed a lack of diversity in the industry and saw an opportunity to create a more equitable space for creators of color. “There weren’t many black artists, or if there were they were really hard to find,” she says. “You didn’t see black artists selling much.”
Additionally, many of the best NFT marketplaces require creators to sign up or be invited to list their work. But Nevins says she’s noticed that some platforms don’t accept or invite artists of color.
The current application process for many NFT marketplaces also enforces a culture where only those with an “in” can succeed, Nevins says. “That’s problematic because if you’re not actively building relationships with black people in the space, how do you get black artists on the platform?” she says.
Nevins hopes that one day those same NFT marketplaces will change the way they work and work more closely with community builders, such as Black NFT Art.
“The marketplaces all benefit from the work people like me do,” she says. “It’s disappointing when many of these platforms don’t make an effort to work with us. [They] can do more to partner with local organizers.”
Looking ahead, Nevins is excited to see the growth of Black-owned NFT platforms, including: The well and Disrupt art, this year. She is also excited to see more film, music and dance NFTs in the market.
“We want to be able to help all the artists we work with to get their flowers and grow through that process,” she says. “I think most people with NFTs deal with CryptoPunks. They haven’t really looked at what mainstream artists are creating.”
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