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Photographer Dawn Roe Uses Storefront Windows to Engage Her City

Dawn Roe is a mover and a shaker and a photographer I have enjoyed getting to know over the past couple of years.  We first met at a portfolio review, and then she participated in the very first Flash Powder Retreat.  Her work is unique, and she has done a great job working her angles and getting her photography in front of people, making her a rockstar in my book. She recently launched a project called Window, utilizing a storefront window in downtown Asheville to exhibit work from national and international artists.  Here's a little Q&A with Dawn about the project:

What is the arts community like in Asheville, and what has been your experience there?

There is definitely a vibrant and diverse arts community in Asheville, which is one of the reasons I choose to live here part-time (during the academic year I’m in Florida where I teach at Rollins College in Winter Park).  But, because I’m only here some of the time, I want to acknowledge my status as somewhat of an outsider.  I realize this aspect might diminish my experience of the community somewhat, but I’ve been fortunate to form relationships with a fantastic group of artists, local business owners and others over the last 8 years.

The arts and crafts tradition the region is known for definitely still dominates in terms of overall presence, but there is a burgeoning contemporary art scene that is beginning to thrive as well.  And, of course, the two are not mutually exclusive - nor should they be. Distinctions made between these poles are just as meaningless as those arbitrarily placed upon pop/low-brow and “high” art practice.  But, I have noted a disconnect in terms of how “the arts” are conceived of in Asheville that relates pretty directly to this type of confused categorization.  (I should note this complication is certainly not exclusive to Asheville, as many smaller communities struggle with this as well).

You mentioned wanting to start an artist collaborative.  What was the impetus behind that?

In large part, it had to do with a certain amount of frustration with what I was beginning to get at above.  Even though Asheville is often described as having a strong arts community, it is difficult to bring together the scattered groups of people who want to have thoughtful, critical discussions about art and culture.  Many in the community share this concern, and finding ways to bring these people together is a challenge.

I was part of a small group of likeminded artists brought together by local photographer Scott Hubener last spring.  We had some excited discussions where we tried to think of ways to promote the serious discussion of contemporary photo-based practices in particular.  A lot of us were discouraged by the dominant public conception of what photography should be or what it should look like, so Scott organized and curated an exhibition at a local gallery called Coop that showcased our work and diverse approaches to the medium.  We talked about the possibility of renting a collective studio space, or finding some way to host regular pop-up style exhibitions around town, but ultimately these things weren’t economically realistic. 

What made you seek out an alternative exhibition space?  Do you have openings and hours, or is it meant to be viewed "on the fly"?

Realizing that a collaborative studio or small space rental wasn’t going to be feasible, I started thinking about what I might be able to do relatively simply and on my own at first, just to get the ball rolling.  I thought about what other platforms might work, which led me to consider local storefront spaces in the downtown area.  The partnership with Henco Reprographics (the local business that hosts the site) has turned out to be a perfect match, as they print the works on site each month and apply them to the designated portion of the storefront (a side window, angled toward passersby on the street) as well as vinyl lettering with the artist’s name and dates of exhibition.  A permanent logo with the project’s website is always on display in the lower corner of the window, and informative press releases are available inside the shop, during regular business hours.  The public is encouraged to pop by anytime throughout the month to see the work, as it’s on view from outside the building all hours of the day.

But, we do have openings the first Friday of each month from 5:30 to 7 p.m. as well.  I’ve been working to get more people out for these as this is a great time to have informal discussions about the current month’s installation and the issues and questions this kind of public art can bring up, as it’s counter to the way many of us are used to engaging with artworks.  I’ve recently implemented a new strategy that involves placing small pads of handouts around town that include prompts for discussion related to the current and/or upcoming exhibitions.  The hope is that people will be intrigued enough to come to the opening and chat, or that they will go to the blog and comment. 

What goals do you have for this type of exhibition?  Are you trying to get more exposure for the artists you are showing, engage new audiences, or both?

For this project, it’s really not so much about exposure as generating dialogue.  The artists I’ve shown so far are all invested in the ideas behind the project and are essentially donating their work to the cause. I’ve been amazed at how generous and flexible people have been in allowing me to display their work in this manner, and for no monetary compensation, as the project is not funded at this time. But yes, engaging new audiences is certainly a primary concern.  Ideally, I’m hoping to add something to the mix of ongoing conversation in the community and in some ways challenge the viewing public to reconsider some of their preconceived ideas about what a work of art should be, or how it should be seen.  Although the inaugural exhibition season is by invitation only, in the future, I plan to have an open call extending the opportunity to new or emerging artists to enter this conversation with their work.

How do you think this model is being successful?  What challenges have you come up against?

Because the artwork is decidedly not for sale, the viewing audience can engage with each installation without the preoccupations that sometimes accompany commercial gallery exhibitions.  As well, placing the artwork in plain view in an exterior space makes the work accessible to everyone and allows the public to engage with it at his or her own pace.  This model seems especially suited to photo-based works as they lend themselves to reproduction and experimentation with various modes of representation.  But, I want to emphasize that this is not a photo-specific project.  One of the most exciting things about this project is seeing how artists who work in various media (sound and video, zines and photobooks, digital imaging and coding, installation based practices, etc.) actualize their work within the conceptual and physical parameters of the space. 

The primary challenges have to do with educating the public about the space in terms of the mission of the project (engaging with issues of representation and reproduction specifically) and encouraging people to take part in discussion at the openings or via the on-line blog, which welcomes both authored and anonymous posts and comments.  I’m optimistic that with each successful installation, word will spread and people will be encouraged to become contributors or participants.

Is this something you think could be/should be replicated in other cities?  Why or why not?

Yes!  In fact, that is precisely what I am hoping for.  I have visions of this first incarnation becoming Window:Asheville, followed by Window:Portland, Window:Orlando, Window:Atlanta, Window:YourCityHere, etc.  It could be easily replicated, as all you really need is a business in a (hopefully) prominent area of town willing to give up space in their storefront and the means to print and install the work (which can be done at minimal cost, even if you are not able to partner with a reprographic company).  In fact, there are window projects in existence around the country and internationally already, and this is not an uncommon method of display (off the top of my head I’m thinking of the Window Project at PDX Contemporary in Portland and the window exhibitions at Mixed Greens in New York).  Those that I know of are affiliated with and/or adjacent to brick and mortar spaces though.  The difference with Window is that it is not an offshoot of anything other than itself, and the specificity of the mission differentiates it from public art window projects that are more general in terms of the kind of works that are displayed.

So there you have it artists - start shopping for your window!

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