THE BLOG
01/24/2017 05:01 pm ET Updated Jan 24, 2018

Rachel Wilkins, Arts Crusader: "When Words Fail, Art Speaks."

"Dictators are threatened by artists. That makes them extremely vulnerable now," says Rachel Wilkins, the visionary founder and CEO of Conception Arts, LLC http://conceptionarts.com. She adds, "It is no secret that artists are very outspoken and many have felt compelled to respond to his actions and words, the way that they know how; through their art."

A woman-owned LGBT corporation owned by Ms. Wilkins and her wife Jennifer Blum, Conception Arts hosts pop-up art fairs and exhibitions that showcase the work of artists who are under-represented in the predominately white male world of major art shows and galleries. (A pop-up event is an "in and out" 24-hour art show that Conception mounts, promotes, hosts, and breaks down. An art fair is a four to five-day exhibit where exhibitors build out walls to resemble galleries.)

The Conception Arts website states, "Our award winning art events and festivals take place throughout the U.S and Europe and have been featured in The Wall St. Journal, Paper Magazine and ABC News. Our exhibits offer collectors a unique opportunity to purchase and network directly with the artist. A 'greenhouse' for creativity, we foster and nurture relationships within the arts community." Says Ms. Wilkins, "I want to shake things up. My goal is to give a platform to women, LGBT, and ethnic minority artists." "We don't just show white men," says Ms. Wilkins. "We want everyone to have an equal seat at the table."

An equal seat at the table is a radical idea. Citing statistics from Maura Reilly's Taking the Measure of Sexism: Facts, Figures and Fixes
Ms. Wilkins noted that between 2007 and 2014, male artists accounted for 80 percent of solo exhibits in New York City. 80 percent of art shown at the Museum of Modern Art and 70 percent at the Whitney Museum is produced by men. "Misogyny is rampant in the art world. We need to educate collectors because we are doing them a service by giving them access to talented people who are not represented by galleries," she says. To her, big art shows like Art Basel feel "so clinical..a supermarket for the one percent." An artist herself, Ms. Wilkins feels strongly that "we are losing what art can do and how it can serve society."

As the Trump administration prepares to eliminate the National Endowment for the Arts and National Endowment for the Humanities that means valuing the power of art as a medium of dissent. "It is a shame that he is cutting these programs," she says. "It demonstrates the bigger issues surrounding Trump, specifically that he wants to silence his critics and those he perceives to be a threat against him." (Last year, the National Endowment for the Arts' appropriation was $148-million, only 0.003 percent of the federal budget, according to ArtNews.)

The threat to turn artists into an endangered species means "not shying away from political or social issues that artists are working with." But sponsoring edgy political art is risky. As a businesswoman and an artist, understands the need to attract sponsors. "People don't want to align themselves with something that could upset their client base. What we are doing is financially risky for us but I hope people value what we are trying to do."

Becoming a thought leader in the white male-dominated art business comes with challenges and rewards. Ms. Wilkins was named a Woman of Influence by the New York Business Journal. Other honorees who were cited for innovation and "paying it forward" included Girl Scouts CEO Anna Maria Chavez and Yahoo's chief revenue officer Lisa Utzschneider. "I met amazing women who believe in themselves who are the next generation of leaders. It felt honored to be among them," says Ms. Wilkins who was invited to participate in a program called "Mentoring Mondays." Organized along the lines of speed dating, 25 mentors from different industries sit for five to ten minutes with a flow of women of different backgrounds and levels of education. "The most important factor in being a mentor is listening," she says. It's a skill she learned early. At the age of 12, she started working with her father, a milkman in Liverpool. She says, "We went door to door to collect his payments. It taught me the importance of human interaction and listening with respect." She believes these traits, often overlooked, are necessary for success.

Founded in 2011, Conception Arts started to address a need that Ms. Wilkins personally experienced as a struggling artist in New York City. "I found it very difficult to get my work shown unless you had that kind of elite background or you had personal connections. You had to be of a certain pedigree or you were not admitted into any of the galleries," she says, remembering what it was like to have doors closed in her face. In 2011, a few artists got together and started a small show in a Tribeca basement. From there, it grew to a 20-artist show and then bimonthly shows featuring the work of 60 artists. After a couple of years, she realized that she could probably take the concept global. She says, "I was personally motivated because I didn't want people to go through that rejection. I wanted to use my experience to help other artists show their work and feel validated."

In the present climate, art challenges us to face our fears and get stronger. "Art is the great connector," says Ms. Wilkins. "When words fail, art speaks."