If you've ever met me or read anything I've written, you would know that I am incredibly open and transparent. I am open to ideas, criticisms, advice, knowledge - I take it all in, and it's hard to offend me. I may not always agree or take the advice, but I would always rather know than not know. All of the information I take in informs how I act, what I think, and I believe in always trying to do good and trying to do better. Over the past year and a half that I have been planning the Crusade for Collecting Tour, I have fielded a lot of criticism, both constructive and otherwise. Some of the most challenging and harshest of which caused me no shortage of tears and despair, but ultimately it was the most helpful in making me take a fresh look at what I was doing and make some really important adjustments.
This whole project started like this:
I think a lot about who buys art and who does not buy art. As the owner of a gallery that shows the work of emerging photographers (artists who are just starting to make a name for themselves but are not really collected yet), I was trying to identify who my target collector was. If I had opened a blue chip gallery, in a lot of ways the collectors would find me - I had a piece they were looking for, and they understood the value and moved forward with a purchase (not to simplify, all gallerists work very hard). But I was showing work that people were not yet seeking out. It was (is still) my job to get these photographers more exposure and recognition and to start building their collector base. But how? Who are these would-be collectors?
I figure since photography is contemporary and accessible (both from a price perspective, relative to other fine art mediums, and in understanding how an image is made), it is well-suited for a younger, engaged, person. This person may just be starting to think about buying art, or more likely, hasn't thought about it at all but would if the perceptual barriers to entry (thinking original art is not affordable, thinking they don't know enough about art to buy it, thinking art in galleries is out of reach, being intimidated) were lowered. Generationally, this target collector is interested in the things in their world - where their food came from and how their coffee is roasted - and they seek out new and interesting experiences.
But there are also obstacles to reaching this person. Places like Target and IKEA offer "wall art" - mass-produced pieces that sit on an aisle directly across from their matching throw pillows. So this was my thought: What if I could stand at the register of every IKEA, and when a person came up holding a gallery-wrap canvas of a tulip, I could say, "Hey, that is lovely and the colors match your couch perfectly. But look at this piece. It's original, and the colors are also great. Here's the artist - let him tell you about his work. Wouldn't you rather be one of a very few people to own this image - something you can have a deeper connection too, especially after meeting the artist - than one of thousands to own the IKEA image?". I feel that put into that context, most people would choose the original.
Since I cannot stand at the register of every IKEA, I had a different (although maybe just as crazy) idea: Why not drive around the country and pop-up in high-traffic areas and engage with people on the street and give away photography? The idea shifted, and I made tweaks and changes over time as a result of feedback and some experiments, and eventually the final vision of the tour emerged. I will show work from national photographers (all from my online project, The Ten) and also curate a selection of five images from five different local photographers in each city. Each local photographer will give away ten small (approx. 6x9) copies of their photograph to anyone who approaches the pop-up. People will be able to speak to the photographers about the work and select their favorite to take with them. Instant collectors. And each local photographer will have ten new collectors in their hometown to hopefully follow-up with and continue a relationship while I drive on to the next city. We will also give away a handful of images from The Ten in each city (these are larger, 13x19, and the artists still get paid their commission for the photographs that are given away, so the amount we can give away is directly related to the amount of money the tour can fundraise). If a person falls in love with one of the Ten photographs, they can give a heart-felt plea about why they should be able to keep the image. Tables, turning. Instead of a dealer convincing a collector why they should have an image, the person convinces us. This is so fun to me.
I would also like to say here that the Local Photographer Showcase component of the tour was heavily influenced (although I realized it later - the subconscious is awesome like that) by a brilliant public art project that Beth Lilly created for Atlanta Celebrates Photography in 2009. Beth gave away 1200 small, signed photographs by local photographers over the course of a month by going to different places around the city and talking to people that walked by. I volunteered for one of the hand-outs and was profoundly affected by the experience. Sounds dramatic, but clearly it's true.
So you have the background, now to addressing the criticisms. Here are the two major things I hear:
1. How is giving away photography going to encourage collecting?
Valid question. Totally. Last week I wrote a blog post responding to an email I received asking this very question, but I realized I did not really answer the question. So here goes. . .
My goal is to create an exciting, engaging, transformative experience around art. I hope people will interact with the pop-up and get a taste for the value art can add to their lives. I want people to meet the artists who are out creating great work in their own community and make a connection to them and their work. Hopefully this connection and introduction will get them over a threshold where they will begin to participate in arts programming in their city and will eventually lead to patronizing and collecting original art.
Despite how it may seem, I am realistic (idealistic and realistic) and realize that we are not going to convert every person who walks away with a photograph into a collector. But this tour is an opportunity to start a conversation about art - not just with the pop-up participants, but also with larger numbers of people through press and social media.
Which leads to the second criticism. . .
2. Isn't this tour just a big opportunity to promote Jennifer Schwartz?
This one is tougher to address, other than to say, I'm just not wired that way. I believe in collaboration and community-building and doing whatever I can for the greater good. Even writing this sounds ridiculous, but I do believe that doing good is important, and it drives me. Will there be some side-effect benefit to me personally - my reputation or my gallery? Maybe, it's hard to say. But this tour is altruistic. We are giving art away, not selling anything. If I had spent the last year and a half working on something with the potential to make money and did not involve leaving my husband and three kids to drive around the country, crashing on couches with a shoe-string budget. . . well, that may have been smarter.
All in all, I'm just excited to begin this great adventure, and my hopes are high that I can make a positive impact in some way. Art is awesome, and I'm happy to shout it from the rooftops. Or from my bus.