Julius A. Karash on Business and the Arts | Monarca Art Space: Helping artist entrepreneurs take wing

Vania Soto at Monarca Art Space, a gallery, studios and boutique she runs at 1225 Union Avenue in the West Bottoms (photo by Jim Barcus)

The incident that led Vania Soto to an artistic/entrepreneurial career occurred when, at the age of 13, she and her family were dining in an East Tennessee Mexican restaurant.

Hanging from the walls of the restaurant, the only Mexican eatery in town, were artworks that filled Soto with revulsion.

“They were your typical Mexican portraits,” said Soto, a native of Juarez, Mexico. “Like cactus with a guy who is drunk with a big sombrero and empty tequila bottles. I thought, that’s not my father. That’s not how we are. There are so many other things we do in our culture that could better represent us.”

Soto convinced the restaurant owner, who also was Mexican American, to consider replacing the offensive art with paintings she would create.

But first she needed to learn more about her native country, which she left when she was 8 years old. She burrowed into the town’s tiny library and studied the works of Mexican artists such as Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo. She delved into Mexican geography and culture, including the country’s Indigenous culture.

“I discovered what Mexico truly was,” Soto said. “I painted six replicas of paintings that I thought were really powerful. The restaurant owner bought all six paintings, and that was the beginning of my entrepreneurship career.”

Today Soto is an established artist, art teacher and the owner of Monarca Art Space, a thriving hub of creativity and small business development. Formerly located in the Carnival Building at 8th and Broadway, Monarca moved last year to 1225 Union Avenue in the historic West Bottoms, home to a burgeoning arts scene.

Soto said she chose the name Monarca because the migrations of monarch butterflies convey “a great representation for immigrants like myself, who came to the United States for a better opportunity. I want to give artists the opportunity to explore whatever kind of career they want and give the community the opportunity to connect with the artists.”

Giving wings to the current Monarca space required a lot of sweat equity on the part of Soto and her partner, Danny Zamora. “It had been abandoned for quite some time, I think because of COVID,” she said. “It was in disarray. It looked like the floors had never been clean. We built the studios, painted the walls and put up a railing so we could put paintings on the wall.”

Monarca combines gallery space with Soto’s personal art studio, plus studios for rent and a boutique, called MÁS KC. “I wanted to give other artists the opportunity to create and have a gallery in the same space,” Soto said. “We have paintings from local artists for sale, and we have the boutique with items such as T-shirts, candles and earrings made by local creators. It’s not only a place to create, but a place for entrepreneurship.”

Soto also envisions Monarca as a place where artists inspire each other. “It’s awesome to be in a space where you’re painting and you kind of get frustrated and you walk around, and you look at somebody else’s painting,” she said. “That kind of drives you, it motivates you to continue going. You can play off of each other, talk about what you’re working on.”

Soto said budding artists who want to make a living from their art should search out artworks that resonate with them. “Look up the artists. See how they frame their artwork, how they describe it and come up with their titles. They should look at the pricing of each piece, so they can learn how to value their own pieces for sale.”

View of the boutique at Monarca Art Space (photo by Jim Barcus)

Soto urges artists to keep records of details such as the taxes they owe on sales. “Even if you get paid in cash, write it down so you can actually pay taxes on it. Think of yourself as a small business so the public will do the same.”

Soto also recommends that artists establish a brand for themselves. She cited the example of an artist known as Mo Ink, whose portraits of famous African Americans have been featured in the Monarca gallery space.

When contacted by KC Studio, Mo Ink characterized Monarca Art Space as “a place where Black and Brown people and cultures are celebrated. Working with Vania has been a great experience, and I would work with her again. Monarca Art Space has allowed me to display my artwork in a beautiful, professional establishment. The people that come to the gallery are great as well, and the events have a really good vibe.”

His brand is meant to “inspire other creatives who might be considering an art career or some creative endeavor,” Mo Ink said. “I represent underprivileged communities who are striving for more, and also positive masculinity.”

He said he didn’t create his brand to boost his sales, “although I knew that would be one of the results. This type of branding can increase sales for artists, by associating a certain level of trust and familiarity with potential customers.”

Soto urges those who enjoy visiting galleries to remember that the artworks on display are there to be sold. “I feel like we have to start educating the public that it is a product. When you go into a museum, you’re not going to buy anything, you’re there to admire. But when you go to a gallery, try to see if you like something and want to buy it.”

Soto said Monarca will lease studio space to artists for a year, for six months, or for the time it takes to do a project. “And when you’re done with the piece, you can hang it and sell it in the same space.”

Soto’s future plans for Monarca include finding sponsorships to pay for artist residencies. “Meaning if the artist is here for a year, instead of them having to pay each month, we can find a sponsor to cover their fee,” she said.

Meantime, a painting by Soto is on display at The Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art in an exhibition titled “A Layered Presence – Una Presencia Estratificada.” The free exhibition, which runs through Sept. 8, features artworks by 22 Kansas City-area artists who have cultural ties to Latin America.

Soto’s featured painting is a representation of her maternal family tree, extending back to multiple generations of grandmothers.

“They were all from the exact same place in Mexico, from Durango,” she said. “They were all Indigenous people. They made me the woman I am.”

For more information, monarcaartspace.com.

Julius Karash

Julius A. Karash is a freelance writer, editor and public relations person. He formerly was a business reporter for the Kansas City Star and executive editor of KC Business magazine. He devours business and economic news, and is keenly interested in the relationship between arts and economic development in the Kansas City area.

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