Drew Austin is a positive thinker. The 22-year-old recent art-school graduate is already making his mark as an interdisciplinary artist, curator, community-builder and collaborator. His latest curatorial accomplishment, Thread/Bare, a group exhibition opening on Friday, August 3, at ReCreative Denver, comes with an altruistic twist: Austin invited five women artists – Robyn Frances, Erica Green, Jordan Lyn, Emilie Luckett and Kaitlyn Tucek – to give their all for the show, with a hopeful promise that he’d be able to offer them stipends for their studio time.
But as an artist in Denver looking for new avenues in art-marketing that better support fellow creatives, he’s learning the hard way that there’s only so much he can do. Usually that kind of recompense is reserved for established artists in conjunction with commissions or museum exhibits; Austin is working with emerging artists finding a foothold in a vexing and misunderstood vocation. And he is another struggling artist, after all, without the means to easily do this out-of-pocket.
That’s why he’s trying crowdfunding to cover stipends for the artists and himself, as well as marketing and general costs in mounting an art show. The results have been mixed as his Kickstarter drive draws to a close. We asked Austin to explain everything about the Thread/Bare project and how he might do things differently in the future.
Westword: Can you talk about genesis of Thread/Bare?
Drew Austin: The whole idea started from my own practice as a gay artist using stereotypically gay imagery to talk about my experience. I wanted to better understand why I do that, and I noticed that women do that, as well – especially fiber artists using stereotypical mediums to talk about the female experience.
I sought out artists who used fibers as the primary or second material in their work. It’s been growing – I’ve been learning so much about these five artists and what it means to be a woman, mother and artist at the same time.
Was the idea of paying the artists for their time always part of the plan? How and why did it come up?
From the very beginning of the show, it was one of my goals. I want to pay them for their time in the studio.
It’s something artists are not paid for, let alone gain recognition for, even. They spend time in the studio –failing, thinking about the work, testing materials – and that part of it is never shown in the whole gallery process.
Time needs to be paid for. We work, we work and we work, and then we hope to the gods we get paid back for it. A doctor has a medical practice and gets paid, but the creative intellectual is one of few who don't get paid for time spent in the studio. Even performers can sell tickets to a show and get some form of money back. After all those long hours, we hope to at least get paid back for the expenses.
How’s the crowdfunding campaign going?
It’s not going as well as I hoped. I’m realizing that the hard thing is to convince other artists to pay artists. To me, that makes sense – they don't make a lot of money. As soon as you bring up a potential way to change things, they pull back.
The concept of patronage is really what we’ve adopted. The conflict in it is the idea of paying someone in advance for something that doesn't yet exist. The accepted idea of supporting artists means buying their work; the concept of paying for it before it's made can be hard to take. And my immediate network is all artists—people who can’t afford to pay other artists. I’ve exhausted my network. I somehow need to ask for help from other people.
The whole idea of the Kickstarter is what can artists create if they don't have to worry about selling. If they can make up their costs, their level of creativity goes up. The value of what they might potentially make skyrockets.
You’re asking for a pretty large sum. Is that wishful thinking or positive thinking?
A little bit of both. Looking back, I couldn't have been less ambitious – if I'm gonna go for it, why not go big? In my mind, I’m not just paying them. I’m shooting to give them $200 each. That’s not much. Most of them will spend over that in materials alone. Asking them to pay for photography, framing, marketing, et cetera, doesn't equate. I need to support the entire exhibition by eliminating those costs.
Are you disappointed by the results so far?
A little. It’s more of a mixture between disappointment and frustration. Everyone has the same goal and supports the idea, but getting them to act on it is not so easy. I'm hopeful. Just starting a conversation about it is more than we’ve been doing. Maybe it will begin to percolate.
What else can we do to change the public attitude that artists don’t actually work?
I’m not sure I can answer that. Bringing the process to the forefront illuminates what goes into an artistic practice – how much we do. The idea that getting exposure as an artist is like getting aid instead of money is complete bullshit.
Look. I’m one person. I do sixteen different jobs as an artist: I make art, I curate art, I handle the marketing and the finances. It’s all me. Some of the women in Thread/Bare do all of this, but they’re also mothers, have other jobs or are just out of art school, too. We don't ever talk about talking about it and showing it and highlighting it to bring more people into it. Kaitlyn Tucek’s recent show at ATC DEN was about being the mother of a child with congenital heart disease. Pushing that story, practice and person helps bring the public into the art.
Will you try this again?
I think I will, but I need to approach it differently. I’m not sure crowdfunding is the best way to go about it. Since my network is mostly artists, I think the route to go is to find partnerships – working with bigger donors and organizations with the same goal in mind.
My goal is to continually figure out how I can do this. I don't want to curate without paying something to the artists for their work, to be able to say, “I appreciate what you're doing. I want to support you.” I’m going to continue to figure it out. I’m passionate about it, and if I want it to happen in some form or another, I have to follow through in order to change the norms of taking advantage of artists and give them better exposure.
Thread/Bare opens with a reception from 6 to 10 p.m. on Friday, August 3, at ReCreative Denver, 765 Santa Fe Drive, and runs through August 31; come back on August 12 for a free expanded artist talk, "Connecting the Threads," from 1:30 to 4:30 p.m. Additional programming includes a contemporary embroidery workshop with exhibit artist Emilie Luckett on Sunday, August 19, from noon to 3 p.m.; register ($25, and space is limited) at ReCreative’s website. Learn more about Thread/Bare at the Facebook event page. Donate to Thread/Bare at Kickstarter, through August 1.