U-turn’s organizers reflect upon their “medicine for misanthropy.”

(The following interview took place Sunday, June 14, 2011 in U-turn’s gallery in Brighton. Attending were the five organizers of U-turn, in alphabetical order: Molly Donnermeyer, Matt Morris, Patricia Murphy, Zach Rawe and Eric Ruschman. All are graduates of the Art Academy of Cincinnati. For the sake of brevity, this article offers excerpts from the conversation. )

AC: Matt stated recently in CityBEAT of having “achieved the goals that you have set out to do.” What was your project, the goals that you were setting out to achieve? Were they preconceived goals? What emerged in the process of running the space?
Zach: When we had initially decided to run the gallery. . .we knew it would be a two-year run. . . There were certain artists that we wanted to exhibit. . .accomplished artists that we really wanted to bring to Cincinnati. . .The initial goals of the gallery were a specific interest in contemporary art and contemporary object making. It wasn’t so much specific hurdles that we [wanted to] jump but we had a loose idea of what we wanted to do.
Molly: I think we all had differing goals but we all came to a (shared) goal at one point. . .[The process] was getting to know one another in a group gallery setting. As much as you know people and you are friends with them, it’s a whole different ball game once you are in a space like this.
Patricia: I remembered spaces like Publico when I was young. I remember attending those alternative spaces and feeling really intimidated–not necessarily unwelcome but that I did not fit in. One of my (our) goals was to greet every new person into our space [with the sense that] “you are welcome here, welcome back.” We wished to create a casual and accessible atmosphere.
Matt: Especially the food: it is like hearth magic. The difference between what we have done here and cold-cut platters. (Note: U-turn concocted unique snacks to coincide with its openings, such as cotton candy and a special ginger-based exhibition.)
We wanted to create an unmediated experience. . .to privilege and legitimize empirical experience. . .That what we put here is valid. . .we made (the didacticism in curatorial statements and titles) optional, posting them to one side.
Some of the aesthetics that we talked about putting into the space were not represented in the city, such as someone as important art historically as Marcia Haffif. The closest she has shown is cities-and-cities away. . .
We believed in creating our own luck. We were enabled by the realization that we were able. This is possible and we were equipped to do it.
Erik: It was living on the third floor of the building that the space was in, and seeing it squandered for a period of time. The chance to do something in that space was definitely a personal goal to bring it back to life, to utilize it for what it could be utilized. To be a part of something, to create something the Cincinnati art community could come together in, to gather the art community. . .We refused to allow there to be something else to go into the space in which it would be closed off.
Zach: For me [also] it was coming out of undergrad disheartened as to where to show [my work].
Patricia: There was definitely a period (when I was a junior at the Art Academy) in which there was no Museum Gallery yet, Publico had closed, and Final Fridays were glum. We wished there was something exciting going on. We already had a vision of starting a gallery [back then]. The opportunity appeared later with this space.
Erik: As far as that line of thought goes, I remember early on when we were trying to decide what kind of gallery we wanted to be. Do we want to promote local artists like Semantics or throw our net a little wider? We could ask an artist that we had never met; it came through with us with Alex Paik, possibly the first show that we had “solidified.” We have artists out in the world willing to show and promote their work in areas that have not seen their work. That led to the confidence of approaching Marcia Haffif. . .a possibility I had not fathomed at the outset.

U-turn, June 2011
U-turn's founders and organizers. Matt Morris, Patricia Murphy, Molly Donnermeyer, Erik Ruschman, and Zach Rawe

AC: Let’s talk then about your “bookend” exhibitions, your first and last shows. How do they represent your vision and subsequent experiences?
Matt: They were the least ‘curated’ ones. They were organized based on who was involved and not what they make. They were about gratitude and thankfulness. The first was about thanking those that had equipped us for taking on a project like U-turn. . .At the end we reprised that initial exhibition by turning to the attention we received as a gallery, to the people that had supported us in material, conceptual, and spiritual ways.
Patricia: There was a lot of faith put into the first and last shows. The artists-as-people and the effect they have had on us. Both shows came together unexpectedly, whereas overall we have been very tight in the way we have curated shows.

AC: Of this latter group, many are/were also administrators and curators (such as Paul Coors, Justine Ludwig, Mark Harris, Bill Ross, and Keith Banner). Perhaps they appreciated the challenges of running a space, and this inspired their presence and eventual inclusion?
Tricia: I definitely think their understanding was a part of it. We did not look to them because of their curating. I had not thought about it now until you had brought it up. They empathized, they understand what we were putting into the space. We were appreciative of their support.
Matt: Our final exhibition is the “scaffolding” of U-turn. They are our network. U-turn is more than us, and expands to a network beyond us, and goes to other cities and other countries. . .the viewers that have paid attention to U-turn now get to know the people reinforcing U-turn; we have made that connection for them.

AC: Discussing the model that you used to make this happen–do you consider it a good one, in terms of your different roles? What worked well, and what would you change? Are there other models that you like or not like?
Matt: The spaces that interested us are The Suburban in Chicago and Minus Space in Brooklyn. We take no percentage off of sales and there is nothing like fees for artist calls. It is a pro-artist space. [As for directing one,]I can’t recommend it to someone. You will lose money, [but] you will support things you are passionate about, you will inspire and effect the city around you. It is a sacrifice that each of us had to decide we were willing to make on a personal level. . .There are lots of different kinds of spaces like this one that are affordable. . .None of us are bankrupt from it, but it is not economically sustainable. It is political activism in the art world. It is what the art world should be willing to make available to artists, with art-as-research.
Tricia: (who was living in the back of the U-turn space) I am paying a large chunk of the rent but I am also paying for my apartment.
AC: You are in effect the space’s patrons, would you say?
Tricia: Since (we do not have patrons, sponsors) we do not have to please any organizations. It is totally on us. We have our own freedom. . .I once worked at a space (2009) at the Cincinnati Art Museum with a $1000 budget (the 101 Space). Having to work under someone else’s umbrella, I felt confined and restricted.

AC: One of the issues that has come up [in our discussion here] is commerciality. Can you talk more about this philosophy? Is commerciality taboo?
Zach: I don’t even think it is complicated. We wanted to do something, we found a cheap space, we didn’t want to take a profit from an artist (a conversation at the beginning–do we want to be sustainable?). Would certain artists (such as B. Wurtz or Marcia Haffif) want to show with us if we were making a cut? We wanted to focus on the art. We did not want to deal with [commerciality]. I wasn’t thinking about it as activism but what I wanted to see in Cincinnati. The most logical way to do that is to have the big open space. It is a functional philosophy.
Erik: Even if this space was less affordable, it is activism. We are artists and know what it is like to be on the other end.
Matt: The question for me is not whether U-turn is sustainable, it is whether or not the Midwest or the larger art world is sustainable. We wanted to create an island/corner in the art world where the artist is empowered beyond the market, to be able to explore parts of their practice without the recourse of having to answer to sales. In that way it is for me “activist.” It also allowed us to be ambitious.
Tricia: We gave what we [as artists] would have appreciated. Some [of the artists exhibited here] were just out of school (graduate or undergraduate) and some were even still in school.

AC: In order for those artists not to have to make sacrifices, in essence you as artists have made the sacrifices for their sake, would you say?
Matt: Those sacrifices advanced our outlook socially and artistically. . .I don’t think of it as a sacrifice.
Tricia: I think of it as an equal exchange.
Erik: I don’t think it was a favor from us to show artist work. It was more a favor from them to bestow us with the ability to show their artwork. If anything it is their reward to sell work, not ours.

AC: What about advice to young artists, in terms of running a space or their personal art careers?
Zach: To run a space, find enough people to split up the responsibilities, find a job to pay the bills, it is not that hard. It was difficult in terms of endurance.
Erik: It is good to show [one’s art]. On a personal level, it keeps me working, also. [I produce work] on a [higher quality] level [than] if I did not have anything on the horizon. Now it is good to also show in places that will show what you want to show. It would be lovely and ideal [jokingly] if we could all put those early shows–especially when we are malleable–into hands that we trust. Alternative galleries are really good places to do that. So make those personnel connections on a realistic level with people that are running them. Mostly, they are in a similar boat. Get to know them and what their spaces are about; if it is a right fit then go for it.
Patricia: That feeling of sharing with some other artist with your work and your aesthetic, and finding other artists that also support that kind of work, is rewarding and beneficial. Those kinds of friendships that evolve are the launch point. From there you can keep going or not, and meet other people. . .We all have different tastes and different ideas as to what art is but that feeling you have when you find someone who feels the same as you is rewarding. Yes, it is hard, you will be bogged down at times.
Molly: I guess overall just don’t be afraid of things, just put yourself out there. You must be willing to make mistakes. You must be willing to do things that scare you.
Matt: Find a community to support what you are interested in. . .Put the work before sales, popularity, notoriety. Art is exploration, research, and pushing boundaries. Be willing to engage with loneliness, self-doubt, and fear, and the places where art can take you where you had not anticipated.
It is not about smarmy networking..it is about finding other people that like the stuff you like and you like the stuff together. It is making that connection. It causes ripples in the greater art world.
. . .
I could not run a project like this with less than five people especially if you have real-life responsibilities. It breaks down the costs and efforts. There are those with quite a few more, such as Semantics–at least seven are there, and Base Cooperative was large. Five seems to me even a small number.
Erik: In terms of efforts, monthly exhibitions are not a necessity. We did it here because Brighton had its monthly openings. Sometimes the amount of work that goes into an exhibition deserves a longer looking period.
Matt: Yes, sometimes it takes more than four weeks for a community to mobilize [to come to visit an exhibition] through conversation.

Erik: It has resulted in some incredibly rewarding relationships to have some artists who are willing to come into town that have never met you before and spend several days to install an exhibition. It is an interesting impetus to build a relationship upon.
Matt: The art world has a reputation to be full of a lot of assholes. We did not meet a single artist that was not generous. Some we had more work to do than others. There was. . .no one that was not nice or cooperative. We have shown about 80 artists in two years. Every single one of them was generous, eager, humbled that we were interested (and we were humbled that they were interested). It was a medicine for misanthropy to work in a space like this.
Zach: That is what I meant by it being easier than you think. . .Everybody has extra stuff that they would be willing to show in a small Midwestern city.
Matt: It speaks to the collaborative nature of our work. Each one of us was able to invest into each exhibition what we wanted to see in it. Some of those goals lined up and some of them had to rise and expand to accommodate multiple viewpoints. Pluralism in the interpretation of the art we showed ended up being one of the tenants of the space. I think it reflected the curatorial process that the final exhibitions were open-ended statements.

AC: What of your savvy with free media? You have used Facebook, blogs, Lulu print-on-demand, etc. Any recommendations?
Tricia: We did not function well with postcards.
Matt: We found that postcards did not change our attendance. [Eliminating them] allowed us to be greener. . .given that our budget was small, Erik, Molly and I [watched] Mad Men trying to reverse-engineer the marketing strategies. On ‘no-budget’ we had to be creative.
Zach: One of the things that helped was stability and consistency, [to have an] opening each month.

From the outset we strove for excellence in a situation that might present opportunities for sloppy curating and sloppy execution because of the budget and the setting.
Zach: There was never a show that I was not at lest somewhat excited about. I felt really proud of everything we put out. Everything has its moment.

A.C. Frabetti

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *