San Diego Art Institute launches a curated online marketplace

An art print of Frida Kahlo wearing a mask by Hector Silva.
This “Frida Knows Best” print by Hector Silva is available to buy at the RAM online shop.
(Courtesy of SDAI)

It’s been a challenging year for artists.

COVID-19 safety protocols have resulted in widespread closures of museums and gallery spaces, limiting both visibility for artists’ work as well as their ability to make a living from it.

Though some galleries have come up with some atypical means of operating — including show openings within the video game “Animal Crossing— the solution to disappearing art spaces has proven elusive.

But San Diego Art Institute (SDAI) has come up with one potential answer: the Regional Artists Market (RAM), a virtual space where artists can showcase and sell their work. RAM launched at the end of April, and features a selection of functional items like face masks, postcards and tote bags. It was created and designed by the artists themselves, with 60 percent of each sale going directly to them.

SDAI Executive Director Jacqueline Silverman said the organization had to quickly figure out how to continue operating despite having to close its doors to comply with pandemic safety measures.

“The first conversation was how do we do what we do without being open? How to create a place for artists to make money?” she said. “We reached out to artists we’ve worked with, many of them artists of color who were disproportionately impacted by COVID-19. We ended up with 12 artists and said let’s create functional objects that are needed and relevant to their own needs.”

Though it’s an online marketplace, RAM is curated to showcase a small and diverse group of artists rather than being a one-stop emporium. In a sense it’s almost like a virtual gallery, which currently features 11 artists including San Diegan Yasmine Kasem, Minneapolis-based Makwa Studio, Los Angeles’ Hector Silva and New Mexico’s Jolonzo Goldtooth.

SDAI has also provided assistance to artists through microgrants as a means of helping them pay for materials.

“We envisioned it as a boutique, curated market so it doesn’t seem so daunting as if you’re on Amazon,” Silverman said, adding that Director of Development Caleb Rainey worked with each artist to help translate their art into functional goods.

“The idea was for artists to maybe come on for three months and then give opportunities to new artists. It’s so new, but we see it growing to maybe 20 artists at one time,” she added. “Right now, if you’re part of RAM, what’s going on in your life and your work that’s moving you, we want to tell that story first. That’s the first step for someone to say ‘Wow, I want to see this artist’s work.’ It comes from the artists and the voice in the story.”

A self portrait of artist Texas Isaiah in his car.
Artist Texas Isaiah sells work through San Diego Art Institute’s RAM online shop.
(Courtesy of SDAI)

Kasem, whose offerings on RAM include hand-dyed cotton scarves inspired by the architectural design of her family’s mosque in Egypt, said that the pandemic had adversely affected her work and livelihood. Yet having this additional opportunity to turn her art into a business has made a significant difference.

“When the pandemic had really started to become a huge threat in the states and things started closing, I had been furloughed from all the employment I had,” she said. “And I was not having luck with getting unemployment benefits. [Being invited to participate in RAM] came as a relief, and they had given us a small stipend for supplies to help us get started. I was able to make products and to get some money back. I didn’t expect my scarves to sell as much as they did, and it definitely helped me down the line.”

RAM has also evolved in its focus in just a short time.

Many of the items for sale right now thematically coincide with San Diego’s Pride month, including a series of rainbow ribbon face masks created by Maggie Thompson of Makwa Studio. For every mask sold, she’s also donating two masks to the Southern Indian Health Council in East County. The demand has been high enough that production has become a full-time effort — enough that she’s even hired another sewer to meet that demand.

“It keeps me busy,” Thompson said. “To be able to support other artists while protecting the folks who purchase them by wearing the masks, and giving back to the community, it’s been very fulfilling. It’s been really great. I’m just a single business owner and having never hired people to work for me before, that’s where my largest growth has been happening. I guess that’s a good problem to have.”

Though the move into exclusively online spaces has been an adjustment for some artists, Los Angeles/Oakland-based artist Texas Isaiah — who has photo prints and postcards for sale in RAM — said he feels at home in virtual art spaces simply because they offer more opportunities to queer and BIPOC creators.

“I’ve always been tapped into virtual spaces,” he said via email. “I believe a lot of Black and Brown, especially queer, trans, and gender-expansive individuals tap into the virtual world for resources and support. My dependency on gallery and museum spaces is a little bit different in displaying my work because there are plenty of people who cannot access those spaces freely.”

RAM is still in its early stages, and in just a few months it’s proven successful in terms of sales volume.

As a curated online art space, however, there’s still more growth ahead, as well as a potential to evolve into something else.

Silverman said there have been discussions about other potential initiatives, possibly involving connecting collectors to artists. In the meantime, where RAM goes next will be determined by the public’s response to it, as well as when SDAI will be open full-time again.

“Are there enough artists who want to make functional art?” Silverman asked. “It isn’t crafts. It’s a fine line, but these are artists who are creating socially conscious art. The sales have been strong, but it does take a lot of work. The biggest concern is, is this is the best structure for artists? And if it is, how do we sustain it? We want to do it as genuinely and meaningfully as we can.”

Visit the San Diego Art Institute’s Regional Artist Market at