Being part of an art collective


Starting when I began undergrad college and continuing for 15 years I worked in small non-profit arts organizations: these were small art museums or art and performance-presenting organizations. After graduating from undergrad I joined a new residency program with individual studios and shared gallery. I was living at home so the studio and gallery gave me independence and gave me a meeting space and community. A few years later I began working with artist collectives. These were generally groups of 5 - 10 people that collectively had studios and a gallery space, or maybe just the gallery space. The kinds of collectives I've been part of:

1. Let's call this one LB, an artist-run space (about 5 - 10 floating organizers) with monthly exhibits, weekly parties/raves, performance art events, community garden, BBQs, zine library and more (in Philadelphia). I first learned about it when I was on a first or second date with someone and she took me there. I met the organizers, who said they really needed help, and I was game. Soon it came to take over a large part of my life. While running a 'professional' non-profit I put an equal amount of time into organizing the space. But sadly, the space is now closed under the pandemic, and I haven't been part of it for many years since I left that city. Lately I've been in touch with past members and we've been talking about how to 'archive' and preserve the activities, zines and documentation of exhibits. Not technically a legal entity. We did have a shared bank account, kind of like if we were a local baseball team or club. We lived in an area where we as DIY and grassroots artists contributed to a process of gentrification, and soon found ourselves surrounded by new construction, families moving in who couldn't tolerate our late night events, and conflicts with new property developers and the warehouse owner we were located within. The organizers (we called ourselves 'members' or 'curators') were all close, lived within a few blocks of the art space, and it became like a 'third location', our community living room. We met up there every few days at most, even sometimes would sleep there, host bands from out of town. It was a thrilling and fulfilling scene and community. I did everything from curate exhibits and events to writing press releases, killing rats, cleaning the bathroom, painting get the idea. At this space, most of us understood what we were doing as being part of an anarchist, non-hierarchical space where we had to figure out how to work together and get consensus. We would occasionally have conflicts but ultimately were a pretty functioning and successful space, and had a lot of visibility as an art space in our city. This space / collective existed for about 11 years before it closed.

2. An underground radio station (I'll call it KRadio) that had dozens of DJs and half a dozen rotating volunteer organizers (in Los Angeles) - still going, but I'm not part of it any longer as I live in New York. I found this organizational model intense and beautiful. A different model of organization and anarchy in action. Due to its huge size in this group many people would float in and out, with many different levels of commitment. There were no elections. You self-nominated for a position. All leadership/organizational positions were rotating or in flux. If you thought something needed to be done, you did it, or talked with others about it and worked together at monthly meetings. Usually 5 to 15 people (out of the 100 or so total DJs / organizers) would show up for monthly meetings. Over time we started also having bar hangout nights. When bands rolled through town or DJs they could come play a live set on air. The radio programs were unpredictable, experimental, like nothing I've heard elsewhere. Interview shows, noise shows, meditation shows, call-in shows, electronic music, reggaeton, tarot readings, a show that re-broadcast found atmospheric radio, etc etc etc. We used email and a public wiki for organization, and some google spreadsheets that fed our website's program schedule. I served as the "Manager Manager" (which also had other names at different times). We generally had a system where program managers would sit at the station for a few hours and help individual DJs get on the air, archive shows, handle technical needs, etc. So I helped organize the calendar so that there were always managers at the station or that we had individual DJs that knew how to self-manage. At first I thought I was going to get frustrated by how certain issues or needs would sometimes get dropped and not dealt with, but I learned to appreciate this anarchist form. Some things didn't need doing, or if they would roll into larger issues then people really would manifest and deal with them. The constant flux of the organization could be un-mooring, but the ability to step in and organize, or to hang back and just be a DJ was a really beautiful process. This group seems to have been mighty affected for the first half of the pandemic, but it seems to be gaining its steam back now, and I tune in occasionally to folks' programs. This collective is about 15 years old.

3. An artist-run collective in New York City that I'll call FSpace. This is one of the most 'legit' of the underground DIY groups I've been part of. It's 27 years old, is a non-profit with a functioning board, has a prominent artist residency program, 1 or 2 full time employees and a couple part time employees. Everyone else is a volunteer but often paid for work or receives stipends for art projects or exhibits or workshops. This group's model is really nice. You can become a short term or longterm artist-in-resident or you can float in and out depending on occasional yearly exhibits or programs. As a group, we have a 'family' email list, do at least one in-person monthly dinner and performance night and have public exhibitions. During the pandemic we did online karaoke, figure/life drawing, fashion shows, talks and had exhibits viewable outdoors. In the summer we had block parties. And right now I'm typing this up while being on a residency within a residency. A bunch of us are in another country (Denmark) doing a residency together at a museum. We are staying at a hotel nearby. So even though many of us live in different cities now we have these yearly meetings of intense hang-out and art-making and organizing together that keeps us really gelled as a group, and in many ways it feels like an art family, especially as many of us are in our 30s and 40s and elected not to be part of traditional family structures with children. The org has a director, but we also have many group-led decision-making, and there is a commitment to making things work out financially for the org and for us as individuals, and a lot of transparency. People float in and out as their lives change. We do sometimes have larger challenges to tackle, (issues of inclusion, transparency, normal interpersonal conflict issues) but generally have a positive working method and no bad blood. It's the most 'functional' giant group I've been part of. Most recently this org has purchased its own space, a major accomplishment in such an expensive city.

4. I'm part of an experimental new media art/video game collective that I'll call BCake. Located in New York City, with a rotating leadership and fairly non-hierarchical leadership model, though there is a separate nominal board of the non-profit entity. There are no full-time employees, maybe a dozen volunteers that help run the space and put together our public programs. This organization has a large online presence through streaming programs throughout the pandemic, and when in-person had weekly exhibits, concerts, performances and other public programs. With this org I've helped write grants, put together educational workshops and an art residency program. We're in the middle of a difficult pandemic with major challenges and some people less committed / interested as we've been online-only for almost a year and a half now. But I think we'll make it through in one piece. This org is about 12 years old. One small but consistent thing we've been doing: holding weekly hangouts for organizers and any other members of our community. No clear agenda other than hanging out, showing what we're working on, watching youtube videos together or making memes.

And these are my crews. As someone that has largely chosen to not have a family I've put my energy into being part of these communities, and feel a ton of support and strength from them. I had a fear that as I got older I may be aged out and feel alien in alternative and DIY spaces but at least so far that hasn't been the case, and I have other people growing older with me as well. Especially as I soon enter my fourth decade it's important to me that I have a supportive chosen family, and while these groups are always in flux it feels like the right amount of family that I need and want. Outside of these groups I have close friends that are not necessarily parts of these groups, but they come to my events or organizing, or come together when I recently had a birthday party picnic for example.

Beside the 'family' feeling part I also value being part of creative communities. Sometimes we work together collaboratively on art projects but more often we serve as sounding boards, emotional support or in intergenerational mentoring. There's also the aspect of trying to create the world that we want to see exist: the building out and living 'prefigurative politics' of creating the groups/world that we want to be part of. These are generally medium size groups where we know some people closely, intensely, but there are also past or tertiary related folks that we can meet or connect to in more loose ways. The community feels small enough to be close but large enough that there's room for growth and exploration. Importantly, none of these groups are organized around an individual or longterm position of power, and 'founders' or leaders rotate in and out. In many ways they demonstrate anarchy in action. That said, we have to decide how we relate to the wider society and even fit within capitalism and a structurally far different society than the one we want to be located within.

Despite these being art collectives I've said little about art. The secret is that the art, while important, it's really the ingredient for us to be drawn together. We are all working on our art, sometimes together. But it's the shared creativity, the shared 'scenius' and shared commitment to supporting each other that binds us. Some of us make video games. Others make experimental 'walks' as performance art. And still others make paintings or zines or films or musical instruments. We will always do this. And we will always (try to) show up on a freezing cold and raining Thursday night to watch 10 people in an iron kitchen chef battle featuring the secret ingredient (cheeze wiz? i can't remember) while a naked announcer MCs from inside a cooking pot-and-makeshift-bathtub.

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