Crusade for Collecting: A Controversial Experiment Meant to Create New Photo Collectors

Published August 23, 2013 via

Earlier this year Jennifer Schwartz, a gallerist and the founder of the non-profit arts organization Crusade for Art, traveled to cities around the country in an effort to create demand for the work of emerging photographers by encouraging people she met on the street to consider collecting art. Working with five photographers in each of the cities she visited, Schwartz organized street-side exhibitions, asking the photographers to talk with passersby about their work, and to give away signed, non-editioned prints to those who wanted them. The project drew both criticism and skepticism, but it also, Schwartz says, created positive dialogue between artists and would-be collectors. PDN invited Schwartz to explain the motivation behind the trip and recap her experiences.

Nearly five years ago I began a journey to cultivate audiences for art, specifically the work of emerging photographers. By creating innovative programs that make art immediately and affordably accessible to new audiences, both online and through special events, my goals have been: to promote and develop the careers of talented, emerging, contemporary photographers and to educate and cultivate a new crop of collectors.

Working with emerging photographers, I recognized from the beginning that the challenge is to find an audience for these artists. Too often as gallery owners, we hang the art and then wait for an audience to come. With that in mind, I created Crusade for Art, a non-profit organization dedicated to cultivating demand for art by creating opportunities to introduce new collectors to artists and their work.

In my Atlanta gallery, I have discovered that the most successful programs to get new people interested in art involve meeting the artist and making a personal connection. They give people who have had only a limited relationship with art a unique, fun experience where they engage with photography and the artists in a thoughtful way. These programs also give photographers an opportunity to interact directly with an audience and advocate for themselves and their work.

In April 2013 I took this concept on the road with a special project, the Crusade for Collecting Tour. Traveling to ten cities over the course of three months in a 1977 VW bus (affectionately named Lady Blue and purchased through funds raised on Kickstarter), I staged spontaneous pop-up events to give away original, signed photographs and bring grassroots art appreciation to the streets, moving outside the traditional boundaries of the art world.

I felt that if I could give people a fun, disarming arts experience in an unexpected way—that if they had an opportunity to meet artists, learn about their work and connect to an original piece that became theirs—it may be transformative and put them on a path to loving, supporting and collecting original art.

It was fun. It was a blast. It was also incredibly challenging. A lot of people have asked: How is giving away photography going to encourage collecting? That is a completely valid question, and there is no real way, at present, to determine how many of the people we met might become collectors of the photographers’ work. But the goal was to give people an opportunity to connect with a piece of art, own it, hang it, to recognize value in that experience, and to want to replicate it going forward. The hope was that the engagement would be transformative.

The other side of the same question addressed concern for the participating photographers: Won’t giving away work have a negative effect on the photographers? Not every program or idea is the right fit for all artists at all stages of their careers. None of the photographers were coerced into participating. On the contrary, I had photographers reach out from all over the country wanting to be a part of the project, and most were selected as a result of submitting to my open, free call for submissions. For an artist who is trying to get more exposure and get more eyes on their work, participating in a project where they can connect with potential new collectors in their hometowns may be worth a try.

Could I promise the participating photographers any specific, tangible benefits from participating? Of course not. The hope was that they would connect to ten new people in their community with whom they could follow up and continue to build the relationship, and who may in the future purchase work from them. But I suspect the photographers chose to participate not because they expected any concrete benefits, but because they also believe in art and artists and wanted to be a part of something that was trying to make a difference.

As it turns out, it is really difficult to give away something for free. In each city (Los Angeles, San Francisco, Portland, Seattle, Chicago, Cleveland, Brooklyn, and Washington, D.C.—Atlanta and New Orleans happened in late 2012 as “test” cities), five local photographers (each of whom were curated for the project to participate in the pop-up in their city) and I pulled up to a high foot-traffic area and, armed with photographs, Crusade-wear, and a lot of enthusiasm, tried to get passersby to stop and talk to us. Each photographer had ten small (between 6 x 9” and 8.5 x 11”) signed copies of an image to give away over the course of the pop-up, which typically lasted two hours. Saying things like “we are five local artists here to encourage art collecting in our city” and “become an art collector today for free,” we got both the hand and high-fives.

We were not asking for money or requiring email addresses (although exchange of contact information was highly encouraged, and each photographer included information about themselves and their work in the envelope with their print), just the participant’s attention. All you need to do is look. The art will do the rest. Some cities were more challenging than others, and the day, weather, and type of location were all important factors. It was significantly easier to engage people on a beautiful Saturday in a trendy retail area in Los Angeles than in Chicago on a windy downtown street corner on the Friday afternoon of a long weekend.

But no matter the city, the quality of interactions between the artists and the people who did stop to participate was consistent. Most people wanted to see each of the five images, listen to the story of the photograph from each photographer, and make a thoughtful, informed selection. The artists and I both received great feedback in person and through follow-ups from people who really connected. There were hugs and amazing moments on the street, and also emails, phone calls, and photos of the newly framed pieces hanging on the new collectors’ walls. These were powerful and eye-opening moments for everyone involved.

The best example of witnessing an “aha” moment happened at the last pop-up event in Washington, D.C. A young woman was talking to us after selecting Hannele Lahti’s photograph. She said this was her first piece of art to own, and when I asked her why she selected that image over the others, she said it was Hannele’s description of what the image was about that really moved her. When she heard Hannele describe the photograph, she realized this art was about an experience she was having at that exact moment.

In city after city, the same lesson emerged: People value connection. A lot of established collectors buy art because of the artist’s reputation or the proven value of the piece—the art world as we know it is driven by trends and price tags, not experiences. But the status quo is not cultivating new audiences for art. To attract people who are not already connected to art, we need to provide opportunities to facilitate a personal connection between the artist, the collector and the image.

This is not to say I am anti-traditional gallery. Not at all, and I think that has been one of the common misconceptions about the project and about me personally. Helping emerging photographers get a foothold in the art world is just one piece of the puzzle, because that is exactly what it is—a foothold. Once that foothold feels secure, and the artist begins to gain traction—exhibitions, collectors, positive exposure—they need to take the next step.

The same is true for collectors. Helping someone start on a path of appreciating and collecting art is incredibly exciting and rewarding. But as they continue farther down this path—the more they look and buy and hone their tastes and collection—they will feel more comfortable and confident about engaging with traditional galleries and museums and cultural institutions. It will be a regular part of their world.

The other question I received several times caught me off-guard: Isn’t this whole project just a way to promote you and your gallery? All I can say is that I am 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? Maybe. But this tour was altruistic. We were 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 on a shoe-string budget, crashing on couches. . . well, that may have been smarter. But I would not change it. The opportunity to make a difference does not come around every day.

I knew this project would be a challenge—logistically, financially—but I could not have guessed it would have pushed me so much personally. I never imagined I would spend so much energy defending an idea that was solely meant to do good. Emails and online comments from people I did not know, questioning my motivation, process, and intentions, were upsetting and unsettling. I wish I could say handling these criticisms thickened my skin, but my skin only gets but so tough. What it did, however, was help me hone in on what exactly I was trying to say and do and why. It forced me to critically and objectively examine every element of the project and make changes that dramatically narrowed and improved the focus.

For example, my original plan was to partner with museums and arts spaces and stage the pop-up events in front of their facilities. But it became clear that if we did that, we would be directing our outreach at people who were already connected to art. If my goal was to give an arts experience to people who were not currently seeking one, then I needed to truly go to them.

I also added the Local Photographer Showcase component to the tour. I had planned to only bring photographs from an online project, The Ten, which features photographers from across the country. But the more I was asked to explain the motivation behind the project and the generation of the tour idea, the more I realized that if my experience had shown the most significant and transformative connection point to be the interaction between the audience and the artist, then it was important to create an opportunity for people to meet, engage with, and potentially continue a relationship with photographers who lived in their own communities.

I am proud to be known for being a champion and advocate for photographers, especially those who are at the beginnings of their careers. I am passionate about the ways individual artists can advocate for themselves and for creating ideas and programs to help them find the people who will best appreciate their work. I am an idea person and also a doer. I am not just complaining about a problem with the current art hierarchy, but I am actively trying to do things to create a more sustainable arts ecology—openly sharing successes and failures with equal parts laughter and tears and a whole lot of heart.

I believe in art, and I believe artists. I am happy to shout it from the rooftops. Or from a VW bus. Every interaction makes a difference, and I feel so fortunate to have had the opportunity to be a part of so many. Let’s keep it rolling. . .

Jennifer Schwartz is the owner/director of Jennifer Schwartz Gallery and the creator of the non-profit organization, Crusade for Art. Crusade for Art educates, inspires, and supports artists to create unique, approachable programs that bring new audiences to art and allow them to engage with art in a meaningful way.