A “Family Day” visitor with Charles Simonds’ installation Mental Earth, which was part
Visitors admire the 600 tiles made by 175 artists in the
Museum visitors with Ann Agee’s installation Boxing, part of Katonah Museum
Clay Art Center artist Lily Schor helps a student
How does a small nonprofit ceramic art center make a large impact on its field and its community? Collaboration. Over the past eight years, I have been involved in the planning and completion of two highly successful multi-organizational collaborations around a single medium-clay; first in 2005 when Baltimore Clayworks hosted “Tour de Clay” during the 2005 National Council on Education for the Ceramic Arts (NCECA) conference, and this past fall with “All Fired Up! A Celebration of Clay in Westchester,” a consortium project led by the Clay Art Center, Westchester Arts Council, and eight cultural institutions. For both events, I was the matchmaker between participating venues and clay artists, and had the opportunity to see each event blossom from a concept into a collaboration with a far-reaching impact.
Both events encompassed museums, multi-art centers, colleges, libraries, galleries and alternative sites. Multiple venues simultaneously hosted exhibitions of regional, national and international works of ceramic art meant to explore the breadth and depth of ceramic expression.
Both initiatives also included a wide-range of related activities that provided the public opportunities to deepen their appreciation for ceramic arts and to engage in art-making activities. Symposia, workshops, films and other activities took place-some geared toward the general public, others to students and educators, still others for specialists such as artists, art historians and collectors. Most importantly, the scope of activities-from introductory workshops to master classes for established artists; from in-school artist residencies to a teacher’s institute-reflected the range, diversity and expertise of the consortium members, therefore educating at a broad level.
Both initiatives started with a single spark-a vision, really. But a great idea only becomes reality if it is shared with the right people. For each event it was essential to connect with an organization that already had a relationship with the cultural arts community. The Clay Art Center’s Executive Director Reena Kashyap had a moment of inspiration in March 2005, when she was in Baltimore for the NCECA conference. Deborah Bedwell, Executive Director of Baltimore Clayworks, had attracted NCECA to Baltimore and, with the help of several partners, coordinated over 200 simultaneous exhibitions, promoting them separately under the name Tour de Clay. Not only did NCECA attendees reap benefits from the exhibitions, but so did residents of Baltimore and the surrounding areas. Kashyap left Baltimore thinking it would be extraordinary to do something like that in Westchester. She brought her idea to the Westchester Arts Council, which happens to be the largest nonprofit arts center in New York State.
The Westchester Arts Council had spearheaded other smaller collaborative arts events in the past and the organization was immediately intrigued with the idea of engaging the community under one medium. Executive Director Janet Langsam then contacted the county’s largest cultural arts institutions, including large museums and several others, to see if they would come on board. Their participation was essential to make it work. Everyone said “yes,” and the date was set for the fall of 2008, allowing for over two years of planning (see “What to Do When” on page 28).
Once the initial partnerships for All Fired Up had been established, four things happened right away. First, as exhibition scheduling is often planned one to two years in advance, we drafted and sent a letter to all of the cultural arts organizations in the area, inviting them to participate in this collaboration, and asked them to reserve a spot on their calendars for clay in the fall of 2008. Second, we formed a steering committee of eight participating cultural institutions, which was responsible for establishing and meeting goals, and set a date for our first formal meeting. Third, we placed a call for exhibition proposals in the field of ceramics, and set a deadline for the spring of 2007. Fourth, we applied for an National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) grant to help fund the project. The (clay) ball was rolling.
The first steering committee meeting was a time for introductions, celebration and a discussion about our goals for the event. Right away, it was clear that, like Tour de Clay, this initiative could be a catalyst in bringing the cultural community together, enriching both the public and the institutions, while simultaneously highlighting the ceramic arts and Clay Art Center, which was about to celebrate its 50th anniversary. It would provide opportunities for people to engage in an exploration of clay and, most importantly, build greater awareness of the county’s cultural resources among local and regional audiences. By promoting all exhibitions and related activities under one umbrella, the project would reinforce the fact that there is critical cultural activity in our area. We also wanted to underscore the fact that one didn’t necessarily have to go into New York City to find great art.
In the monthly meetings that followed, we formed several committees to plan this event. Clay Art Center was to be the “clay resource” for the participating venues, many of whom had never exhibited ceramics. We formed marketing, education and fundraising committees, which would take an active role in tackling the bulk of the work ahead.
One of the most important things in putting together a series of exhibitions is to take measures to ensure that the quality of artwork is high while remaining as inclusive as possible. In April of 2007 (eighteen months prior to the event), roughly 150 exhibition proposals came in from artists and curators. We had three jurors from the field review, discuss and rate the exhibitions, and from there I took the strongest proposals to the venues that were interested in having assistance in matching their space with a ceramic exhibition. More than thirty gallery directors requested help selecting exhibitions and artists appropriate for their spaces, missions, clientele and budgets. Matching artists to the venues also allowed the opportunity to diversify the exhibitions and ensure that we didn’t have too much repetition among artists or formats.
By the fall of 2007 (one year away from the event), 90% of the exhibitions were sited, and we were ready to start promoting them. We ended up with roughly 70 exhibitions featuring over 600 artists from around the world, well above our initial goal of 30.
Using Tour de Clay as a model, and basing our actions on the lessons learned from Baltimore Clayworks, we then separated the exhibitions into clusters based on location and encouraged the clusters to coordinate their opening receptions and events to happen on the same day, creating the opportunity for visitors to gallery hop. The clustered events were very successful, and took advantage of the fact that attendees could see more than one exhibition at a time in an area.
One way to ensure that the project would have a lasting impact in the community was to put clay into the hands of local teachers. As exhibitions were being sited around the county, the education committee was hard at work coming up with programs that would engage the public, the schools and the teachers. We created a Teacher’s Forum, which met monthly to coordinate a K-12 exhibition, share ideas and plan clay art initiatives in the schools for 2008. The education committee also formed a Teachers Institute, a workshop for art teachers that took place the summer of 2008 at the Westchester Art Workshop, which focused on developing thematic lessons for clay while fostering aesthetic awareness of ceramic art. Each enrollee received hands-on clay experience and a complete curriculum guide with lessons, images and technical information on setting up a clay studio in their schools. They were also given a list of selected All Fired Up exhibitions appropriate for fall school field trips.
The education committee also felt it important to engage area artists, art enthusiasts, college students and educators in a meaningful way. Hence, Clay Art Center took on the role of coordinating and hosting a day-long symposium. Beginning with keynote speaker Chris Staley, “Why Clay? A Symposium” asked questions such as: What role do objects play in the daily choices we make in how we live our lives? Why have past generations been so passionate about clay? What current developments in the field will keep artists passionate about it in the future? Speakers Julia Galloway, Jeff Shapiro, Judy Moonelis, Ulysses Grant Dietz, Lois Hetland and John Perrault captured the audience’s attention as they assisted in tackling these questions from several different angles.
Other educational programs included workshops, lectures, gallery talks, a claymation film series and several community hands-on clay activities.
Without a doubt, neither Tour de Clay nor All Fired Up would have been as successful as they were without a comprehensive marketing plan, team and budget. All Fired Up’s marketing committee, led by Westchester Arts Council’s Marketing Director Mara Rupners, put together an expansive marketing plan that was backed by an impressive budget. In a two year period, the council’s staff secured grants from the National Endowment for the Arts, the New York Arts and Business Council, Explore New York as well as funds from Westchester County, New York State, the New York Office of Tourism, and Chase Bank. These funds, in addition to monetary participation from each exhibiting venue (based on a sliding scale), supported the marketing plan, which encompassed a website (www.allfiredup.info); advertisements in ceramic-art publications, the New York Times, and other local and national publications; a brochure with a map of participating venues, exhibitions and events; posters; a bus-shelter poster campaign; press kits; press events; radio advertising and direct mailings. We also secured in-kind media sponsorships from Ceramics Monthly, Westchester Magazine and other local publications. The marketing campaign topped $200,000. This number would have been impossible without partnerships and active fundraising by the staff of those partners. In addition, the participating venues promoted the events through direct mail, e-blasts and more.
In another effort to promote the events and introduce Westchester’s public to the transformational qualities of clay, Clay Art Center spearheaded Clay Day, which was held the Saturday before the official event. We gathered artist-volunteers and placed them in high-traffic locations across the county and had them engage the public with hands-on clay activities. With donated clay in hand, we were at farmers markets, in parks, in front of libraries and at village fairs. Hundreds of children and adults touched clay, many for the first time. Simultaneously, we gathered names, passed out brochures and postcard mailers for upcoming area exhibitions, and spread the buzz about what was about to happen in their neighborhoods and around the county. It cost very little, was a lot of fun, and worth the logistical challenges we had in preparing for it.
It is too early to tell what long-term impact All Fired Up will have on Westchester County or the field of ceramics (see “Impact Stats” above right), but Baltimore has had four years to reap the benefits of hosting Tour de Clay. Deborah Bedwell states, “When we were organizing Tour de Clay, we were certainly breaking new ground in Baltimore. With more than 200 exhibitions, featuring the work of 1200 plus artists, inspired by the phenomenal presence of the 2005 NCECA conference, ceramics and clay artists were on the civic radar screen for a month and longer. The lasting results are that Baltimore Clayworks has enjoyed heightened visibility, respect and inclusion in the cultural community in our region. That, in turn, has assisted us in recruiting arts-appreciating trustees, as well as artists who seek to live, work, teach and exhibit in Baltimore. The only downside is that folks are constantly asking us, ‘When are you going to do it again?'”
Here in Westchester, we are already getting the same question-a good sign that our efforts were well received. My reply, after a laugh, is, “maybe in five years. Maybe.”
the author Leigh Taylor Mickelson makes ceramic sculpture in Ossining, New York, and is the Program Director at the Clay Art Center in Port Chester, New York.