As a lifelong lover of puzzles, New York City actor Mandi Masden became disenchanted with the artwork used to create them and saw an opportunity to help solve the lack of representation of people of color as artists and subjects in the puzzle world. A recent study found that artists in 18 major museums across America are 85% white and 87% male. When institutions, such as museums and art galleries, only serve certain demographics, it severely impacts other artists from cultivating capital and generating wealth.
In December 2019, Masden started Apostrophe Puzzles to showcase the work of contemporary artists of color.
“Puzzles are a wonderful way to bring fine art into people's homes that is super accessible, sustainable, and can be very inclusive if we focus specifically on artists of color,” Masden said.
COVID-19 brought on immense challenges for anyone starting a new business but also afforded some the opportunity to pivot and grow a new vision. As cities first entered lockdowns at the start of the pandemic, many consumers were looking for additional avenues to spend time with family and explore their creativity at home. Puzzles consequently exploded on the market, which provided a window for Apostrophe Puzzles to build on.
However, the future became uncertain when Masden’s manufacturer closed their account due to Apostrophe Puzzles’ size. Masden called every other U.S.-based manufacturer, and no one was willing to take on their account, which forced her to look overseas.
Beyond the six-month challenge of finding another manufacturer, Apostrophe Puzzles, like many small businesses, struggled to accumulate capital. Concurrently, Masden’s acting work during the pandemic was paused, which placed pressure on her financially as she tried to invest in her business and manage everyday expenses, such as rent.
“Any business needs money, but Black and brown businesses get such a small percentage of new business funding, limiting the opportunity of these entrepreneurs; people with amazing ideas and amazing drive and amazing vision,” Masden explained. “That's the number one thing we need. We need financial support. We need investors. We need grants.”
The Coalition to Back Black Businesses (CBBB) – a multi-year initiative founded in partnership with the U.S. Chamber of Commerce Foundation, American Express, and four leading national Black business organizations – provides critical support and immediate financial aid to Black-owned small businesses through grants, mentorship, and other resources. This initiative will continue through 2023.
Along with running her business and being a full-time actor, Masden strives to give back to her community. All artists whose work is featured by the business receive 12% of each purchase, well beyond the industry standard of 7.5%. She also partnered with ProjectArt, which works with public libraries throughout the country to offer free afterschool classes in historically divested communities and hires emerging artists to teach art classes for the students.
“We're making sure that we're supporting our own artists and the next generation of artists,” Masden explained. “We're trying to work that into the ethos and the mission of the brand, to make sure that Black and brown people’s work is both appreciated and encouraged.”