Tucked in the corner on the 51st block of Penn Avenue in the cultural section of Garfield is BOOM Concepts. But you have to look–really look for it. If your eyes aren’t peeled, you might just pass it by.
Immediately as you walk inside the building, a sofa with a large black curtain behind it, serving as a backdrop, sits across from a TV and faces out of the venue’s glass front. The rest of the main floor of BOOM is empty.
The empty gallery with bright white walls is interrupted only by yellow sticky-notes revealing instructions for the placement of photos, posters and portraits in preparation for the arcade event taking place that Friday night.
BOOM is always changing, allowing for different events, ideas and themes within its walls. Normally, the venue serves as an art gallery, but also plays host to spoken word, poetry, music showcases, community outreach, public forums for social action, film screenings with discussions, and yoga classes.
Like BOOM, Thomas Agnew wears many hats. He is a writer, web and graphic designer and event curator. “I’m all over the place,” he says. “I put my hands into everything. I like to help in all areas.”
Agnew has been a driving force behind-the-scenes of Pittsburgh’s art and music scene for the greater part of the last decade.
Hailing from humble beginnings in the blue-collar town of Fremont, Ohio, Agnew, 31, would seem an unlikely candidate to own an art gallery. “We had two or three high schools. It was nothing really big.” His parents were factory workers like the rest of his family.
Agnew says that he would have ended up working in a factory like them had it not been for his exposure to art in Pittsburgh. “No disrespect to [factory workers] and the people who are doing that thing, but I’ve gotten the chance to grow in what I love…art.”
For Agnew, art has always been the focus. “I decided on art as a small child. It went from drawing and coloring, to checking out photography. I’d draw art all day. That’s all I was really about.”
A high school teacher pushed Agnew toward the Art Institute of Pittsburgh where he was drawn to graphic design. None of the computers from his high school had had software for graphic design technology. “Seeing that on a computer…really changed my life,” he says. “Utilizing vectors and [Adobe] Illustrator is one of my favorite things to do. That’s my number one thing when it comes to art.”
During his second-to-last year in art school, he met Brian Tolbert, an artist from Wilkinsburg who was into fashion and wanted to start his own clothing brand called Jenesis. They connected through a shared desire to create something successful on their own as opposed to falling into the typical 9-5. Two years and many fonts and designs later, Jenesis magazine was off the ground.
Agnew credits Kaaren Terpack, one of his best friends, with showing him the basics of marketing and networking in the outside world at a grassroots level (passing out flyers in the street), and then transitioning to a larger scale by spreading the strength of the brand through print and digital media. His experience working with the now-closed, long-time East Liberty favorite, Shadow Lounge/Ava Lounge, allowed him to display his prowess in marketing. And he incorporated that experience into the magazine.
“Jenesis is more than a publication,” Agnew says. “It’s a movement.” Jenesis prides itself on giving many artists either their first exposure through interviews, or first portraits on the cover of a publication. These artists include Wiz Khalifa, Mac Miller, Big K.R.I.T., Freddy Gibbs, Devin Miles, Jasiri X and Curren$y. An online youth lifestyle publication, Jenesis is published quarterly and receives thousands of page-views nationwide.
“Most people go with the safe path of who’s already in now, but I’ve always been searching and looking for who’s next,” Agnew says. He praises his staff for spotting talent by searching the web, going to shows, and following artists to create bonds that allow for the coverage opportunities.
One of the underground hip-hop artists who received exposure from Jenesis is Ft. Worth, Texas, native and University of Pittsburgh grad, Nick Pratt. The rapper was known for competing successfully in freestyle events around Pittsburgh. He now lives in Los Angeles and has traveled the country to open for Wale and perform at Global Coolin’, an all-ages block party Earth Day event. To date, Pratt has released three street albums, three extended play albums and is slated for his commercial album debut in the coming year.
I'm quite fine with watching, observing and appreciating.
Beyond Jenesis, Agnew wanted to find a way to help artists from a variety of disciplines express themselves in Pittsburgh. Many of the creative minds in the city are transplants like him. Some have come from small towns in an attempt to gain greater exposure, while others come from bigger cities where they might have been drowned out amidst the multitude of artists in the area. In both cases, the BOOM gallery in Garfield has provided the opportunity for many to be seen. Rapper Nick Pratt says, “Thomas was always passionate and focused on redefining the arts culture of Pittsburgh, as if it was his sole purpose.”
BOOM Concepts was birthed from Agnew’s desire to have his own space for creative growth. Turns out, artist Darrell “Tuffy” Kinsel had the same idea. Kinsel needed a space to work on his personal art, while Agnew needed private office space. “The stars kinda aligned for us,” Agnew says.
A grant from Heinz Endowments gave Agnew and Kinsel the opportunity to occupy the space on their own. The vision morphed from an idea about a simple work space into a venue that facilitates freedom and expression through art.
“Pittsburgh is growing up and building into something new. The Pittsburgh from 2002 is totally different from 2015 Pittsburgh,” Agnew says, noting the differences between the city from when he first moved here, and the present day. “[The city] has been run by relatively old thoughts and ideals, but there are young individuals building entrepreneurial ventures.”
Agnew notes that technology brought new life into East Liberty and the local colleges and universities, and he credits the successes of Wiz Khalifa, Mac Miller, ID Labs, Rostrum Records and other locals on the national scene with bolstering Pittsburgh’s music scene. He feels that artists in Pittsburgh do not receive enough credit across the board for the art scene here being a major factor in attracting people to the city. He says the foundation grant system “helps out immensely,” and he finds that it’s possible to build a reputation through collaboration with other artists.
BOOM is an ideal facility to keep up with the pace of Pittsburgh art, Agnew believes. “I think people really needed BOOM Concepts. A community space with like-minded people. People that look like them and share similar ideas.” Witnessing the change in art through the endeavors of young people in the city has comforted Agnew, and he looks forward to the continual progress of Pittsburgh’s already-flourishing art scene.
Agnew ties the growth of Pittsburgh’s art scene with the growth of the city’s social consciousness. He sees in the Steel City’s future a return to the status of being a major city, but he wants to see equality happen within art as well as outside of the realm. “We understand that gentrification happens when a city wants to grow, but they can’t just displace people unfairly, or not get the community’s input on how they’d like to see change with their community. That’s one thing that’s great about Garfield. They’ve been very vocal about changes here. Hopefully in the next 20 years, it will stay art-based.”
A mannequin stands just outside the entrance to Agnew’s office. It sports an orange shirt with red, green and blue splotches, and “#BlackLivesMatter” etched across the front of it. Children from local schools made this and other prints for t-shirts to represent the cause. Agnew says, “Darrell has used his voice to support the movement through his artwork, and he allows space for community discussions and a gallery for youth. We have to let people know we do matter. We are of importance.”
In Agnew’s office, on the wall directly beside his desk, looms a larger-than-life headshot of the controversial hip-hop icon and entrepreneur, Kanye West. “I love Kanye,” Agnew says, “I look up to Kanye. From his forward-thinking to the amount of effort and detail he puts into his work.”
Agnew says that those who label Kanye West as a “wild and crazy radical” fail to realize the amount of passion and belief that West has in his skill set. “Push it to the limit, or it’s not worth doing. Everyone should put in the extreme effort that Kanye does. It’s not always about being better than the next person. It’s about being the best you, you can be.” That attitude has helped propel Agnew to the point where he is unafraid to take calculated risks. He says he enjoys observing and appreciates Kanye’s process and tries to implement it within his own structure.
After eight years of publishing, Thomas Agnew calls Jenesis his heart. The publication helped to create opportunities for large projects such as BOOM and has made a way for Pittsburgh art, music and culture to surface worldwide.
Agnew says that he appreciates the opportunity to serve as mentor for the people who work on his magazine, and he appreciates the networking opportunities that come from working with artists who visit BOOM. He wants to maintain his supportive role where he can push others forward, and he’s quite alright with not being at the forefront. “Me helping others will get me there. I don’t have to place myself there. We have exposure and people are hip to what I do.
“I’m quite fine with watching, observing and appreciating.”