Artist United interview with William Cunningham, artist and curator of The Orphanage Gallery, 73 N. Dutoit St., Dayton Ohio 45402
DAU—So, Bill, are you from Dayton?
WC—I am. I lived other places, like Atlanta back in the early 90s and I travel a lot, so I get to see many different things.
DAU—What do you like about Dayton?
WC—I’m kind of funny about Dayton. I know a lot about Dayton and its history. I used to run Gallery 257 back in the late 80s, it was located where Press Coffeehouse is now.
But Dayton frustrates me. The Dayton art community frustrates me. There is so much potential there and it languishes as it has no supporting infrastructure for artist cultural production.
DAU—Talk to me about that. What do you mean by infrastructure?
WC—Mostly, I mean exhibition space. There is not enough open exhibition space for the artists we have, and we have a tremendous number of artists here in Dayton. As artists, we need places to see lots of various styles of art. We don’t get to go see each other’s work as it evolves over time, unless you drop by another artist’s studio, which are usually not open. Most artists have to get a show for their work to be seen. It’s hard here to get shows.
There are few galleries that will show newer artist work or even established artist work for that matter. Let’s say an artist creates say 30-40 works, maybe 5 of those are actually show-able. Art is a process, and not everything you turn out is your best work, work that as an artist you would be willing to show. Sometimes you have something to say and it doesn’t come across in the first 20 attempts. Or in 20 works the language for the work is not developed enough to be understandable for the viewer. But if you could get those five-good works into a group show for example, you could start to build up to something in the form of a conversation based on the viewer feedback of the work.
DAU—So, if someone came to you and said “Bill, we want to foster the arts in Dayton, and we need some guidance.”
WC—I’d tell them 1) Set up an exhibition space that is open for emerging artists. A pop-up sort of thing. Something that turns over rapidly, once a week or once every two weeks. Just a wall with two works on it would work to increase visibility of an artist work. By alternating the space so there is something new every week, say 50 weeks a year this way there is always new energy in the art space. 2) Have a looser curatorial process, don’t try to control what hangs to much let other people sign-up to curate shows of other artist work. This really helps as one person should not be allowed dictate what is good or bad. 3) Don’t control the artists. Don’t put your finger on them and tell them what kind of art they have to show. But do guide them in matters like pricing. Every gallery is different every art space is also different over time pricing patterns will develop which provides a range which art sells well at that venue.
DAU—I’m hearing that you don’t like to be told what to do.
WC—Hell No! Anybody will tell you that. I’ve been called a renegade. I’ve been called worse than that. I speak my mind. I’m not going to say I like something if I don’t and there are a lot of things I don’t like. Some of the things I don’t like are based on my experience. Like, I’ve got a bias against juried art shows. I hate all juried shows.
DAU—Why is that?
WC—Most of the juried shows collect submission fees and then they give out a prize that’s worth a fraction of the money they collect. The rest goes to paying for the show usually in a space that is already paid for. It’s a cash machine that exploits the artists. It’s really nothing more than a cash grab scam that preys on artist. And the jurors are laughable in most cases. They get someone that’s high profile, not high profile in the art world, but someone that people recognize, or a person in the government to walk around and give out a prize to the winner based on what? And then the emerging artists have to explain to that person about the value of their art and what it’s about. Then the show just becomes a personality contest.
Some time ago, I had a work in an abstract show. The juror comes in, he’s all pompous and talking about “post-modern abstraction’ in this way that showed he has no idea what he was talking about. He walked around and talked down to all the artists. Then, he awarded the prize to landscape painting. A landscape, a plen air landscape at that, with a duck at a pond. A landscape painting won in an abstract show! Turned out the person who won was related to the juror, go figure.
Most jurors are friends of the curator—it’s a scam to make money as they oftentimes get paid as well. How does a young artist know which juried show is legit? At the galleries I run we will never do a juried show.
DAU—No juried shows ever?
WC—Well, there is an exception. We were in ArtFest in Beavercreek last year. That was a juried show done right. The judges were people who knew what they were about. Michael Roediger; Director and CEO of Dayton Art Institute, (3rd year as a judge), Lisa Seibert; with Dayton Local (4th year as a judge), and Amy Kollar Anderson; Internationally recognized artist, MCACD 2018 grant recipient. Samantha was one of the staff members for ArtFest. And, in my opinion, this show was fair in its judging.
The booth I worked with won Best Interactive. We showed Front Street artists and had a second half that gave away spun art t-shirts. I ran the gallery side, which also had a little gallery that was interactive. All the works inside were free, provided by artists in the area. It was a good event.
DAU—Samantha? You mean Samantha Mang?
WC—She’s part of ArtFest. She’s good people.
DAU—She’s co-curating the Artists United group show with you. Thank you for that. I really liked what happened at the Artists United gathering where you offered The Orphanage for a group show.
WC— You wanted a show. I have an art space. I like what Artists United is doing. It’s like what The Orphanage does in some ways. Artists United doesn’t charge a fee to be a member, right? The Orphanage has a zero-profit gallery model: $0 submission fees and $0 commission fees. Our mission is to provide a place for artist to show and sell work. Sales of any work from an artist help support the artist. Our rules are simple: the artist must be present at the show’s opening. The artist, especially emerging artists, needs to mingle with other artists and art patrons. See there’s the network thing we have in common. Artists need to meet people in the public places away from the art studio. How else are they going to sell art? The gallery is supported by the art community attending the shows. We don’t handle any sales of artists’ work: the artists sell their work. But last year, at the galleries, artists sold over 600 works. We don’t take a cut all of that money, it all went into the pockets of the artists.
Let’s say you’re an artist, and you have your work in a group show, like the Artist United show that is coming up. You meet people, maybe you sell some art. If people like your work, they’ll come to your studio. When you’ve built an audience, you can host an open studio event. People buy more art at events. Group shows at The Orphanage broaden the exposure for everybody involved. This Artist United show already has 45 artist signed on and I expect a few more before it opens.
Also, when you have your work in a group show, like the upcoming Artists United show on March 6, you see the work of other artists. You get to talk to each other about art. I love to talk to other artists about art. When artists talk about art, they don’t put a value on it, like “Hey, that could win a prize at a juried show with that work.” No, they talk about the work. The process. What brush did you use to get that effect? What inspired this thing? These sorts of things. Which helps artists expand what they are already doing. As they gain new information, their work becomes better, even if they do not use the ideas they learned about. The conversations, the exposure to other artists still had an influence on them.
When artists participate in a group show they learn how a gallery operates. How to interact with the public. How to price their work. They watch what sells and what doesn’t. They look at how the show is put together—why did some works hang together? There are a lot of things that aren’t being taught. We have great art programs here. Sinclair has a strong art department, so does Wright State, so does the University of Dayton. The University of Dayton is the only one that teaches the business in some of its art classes.
The starving artist concept is a myth and based in propaganda. We need to stop selling it. Let’s stop charging $80,000 per year to teach kids how to copy some dead artists. We don’t need more academic art that says nothing. I want to look at art that says something. Art that says something I have never thought about before. Even if the work is reductive, I am looking at art. Folk art, unschooled art, raw talent with things to say. These are the works that end up in museums. Original thoughts. Fun art. Art should be fun. It should be interesting. It should have something to say.
Art schools should teach how to mount a show, how to preserve work, how to pack and ship something like a painting. How to pay the bills as an artist. Every artist has a market. How do you find yours? This is what The Orphanage is exploring. It’s an entirely new gallery model.
DAU—How did you come to start The Orphanage?
WC–We had the space, in between the studios the hallway was just wasted space. We decided to treat those walls as pop-up art space in the beginning. The early shows at The Orphanage were all new local painters who had never shown work before. Those early group shows let more artists gain the art showing skills and gallery skills I mentioned earlier. These shows let them meet each other and broaden their networks. People coming to the gallery got to see some stuff they’d never seen before. We showed some of the Front St artists who hadn’t shown before. We introduced them to each other and the public. Since opening Front St. has energy. People are coming to see what’s new each month. There was a time when first Friday had only 20 people walking around now some of the shows have almost 1000 people. It’s growing all the time.
Front St. used to be a factory, the space where The Orphanage is was the daycare center, so it seemed right, you know, to start showing new artists here. We do 12 shows a year, one a month. We’re open, technically open, not just unlocked, three days a month: First Friday, Saturday After First Friday and Third Sunday. Last year we sold 600 works, and that doesn’t include the Christmas gift show. Most of those 600 works sold during First Friday, and the rest for the most were Third Sunday. This year we have some big Saturday events in the works. I expect that day will pick up as well.
All in all, I would say around 450 plus works sold during those 11 First Fridays last year. This year, since January and February are slower, I can say the number of works sold has doubled from last year. The Gallery is actually two galleries The Orphanage and Us and Them. Us and Them also contributed to those numbers and sold about 150 works last year. Us and Them only shows new artist work. But look at those numbers and tell me people are not buying art in Dayton.
DAU—Those are impressive numbers. You’ve talked about The Orphanage, let’s talk about you for a bit. Tell me about your work.
WC– Me? I do a little of everything. I’ve done sculpture, painting, writing. I’m well known in stage magic and mentalism. I’ve been an artist all my life, I have been doing art all my life. I didn’t study art in school. I studied history, philosophy, psychology, anthropology and archeology, but I couldn’t walk away from art. I started buying and collecting art before I was 18. Art has always been there, in my life. Art makes me ask the question – why? Why spend your life thinking about whether you should do something or not? Art says, “why not?” So, do it. Art is all about doing stuff, as an artist. Doing, not talking about it.
DAU—Tell me some of your favorite artists.
WC–Peter Gallo, Mike Cockrill, Chris Martin, Thomas Nozkowski, Stanley Whitney. These are NY painters for the most part. I also like the work Sharon Butler, she writes a great blog called “Two Coats of Paint,” you should read that.
I like NY for art. The cost of living there is astronomical. That’s one thing about Dayton, you can live here. Of course, it effects your thinking. If your living in NY and have to make 8-12 grand a month to pay for your studio and living expenses, you don’t mess around. You work in your studio; you network and talk to people in the industry. Art is a business, there’s no way to take the money out of it and still eat.
But art is more than a way to make money: it’s a cultural commentary, its documentation, its ideas in action. That’s why I love The Little Gallery, which is a micro gallery movement that is free to use by anyone who likes art. The Little Gallery motto is make art, take art, leave art. I built these galleries with two other artisans, Greg Seitz and Cayman K. We’ve placed eight in the surrounding communities. These galleries are helping people by giving them an outlet for small works and getting people to collect art. All of the works at The Little Gallery are provided by artists for free.
DAU—Greg and Cayman K are artists here?
WC—Yeah, Greg Seitz is here in The Orphanage, Cayman K is across the way in The Front St complex. Anyway, the first Little Gallery is hanging outside The Orphanage on the building.
If you want art, it’s around and some of it can be found for free. A small work by a local artist you picked up at a Little Gallery is way better than going out and buying some formulaic painting that looks like something Picasso did, something that has been copied for 90 years. The work does not always need to be big to have importance and wall power. Some of the works I have seen in The Little Gallery have these traits.
DAU—But, just a bit of argument here. Sometimes people want something that is just pretty, and maybe matches their couch.
WC—No! If you start down that road, you’re done, and it will cost you more in the long run. Let’s say, you have a gorgeous oriental rug, you don’t put a crap coffee table on it. You get a better table. Don’t just put something pretty on your wall to fill a space. Put Art on your wall. Look at art, not pretty pictures. I am not saying art can’t be pretty. It can be pretty, but it shouldn’t be a pond and a duck pretty. It has to be authentic. It elevates you, having art around you makes you better, more thoughtful, more a part of the world. If you surround yourself with crap, all you’ll be able to see is crap. You won’t be able to see the difference. Treat yourself as something valuable, surround yourself with art.
85% of people think art is expensive. This way of thinking needs to be changed. There is work you can buy, here at The Orphanage gallery, at every show, that is not expensive. The sale of those works helps local, emerging artists. There is work you can take from The Little Gallery that is free and you’re welcome to take it just because you like it. People can have real art in their life. Speaking of which, Samantha Mang, who we spoke about earlier, just added a dozen of small salt paintings to the Little Gallery. Those are available right now, for you to just take if you like them.
DAU—Bill, how can people find you?
DAU–William Cunningham, Thanks for taking the time to talk with me. Thanks for the work you do for emerging artists and for hosting The Artists United group show, March 6 at The Orphanage.