On May 9th at 9 am sharp, I sat down at a table with Jamie Smith, Michael Schwartz, and Zoe Mackoff de Miranda at THRIVE Studio. We had a wonderful, memorable, and vibrant discussion on the upcoming collaboration between Kafka’s and the Vancouver Art Gallery’s Art Rental and Sales program. The collaboration between Kafka's and ARAS will be the first joint participant in ROVE, a biannual art walk in Mount Pleasant, as well as on the concept of collaboration as a whole. During our conversation, these three different representatives (and connection-creators!) of three very different organizations spoke naturally about their common denominator: art with inclusivity and hopefulness. Though representing their own perspectives, they spoke of one another admiringly and with respect, with familiarity.
Jamie Smith started ROVE because she was tired of asking family and friends to show up to the opening nights of her shows. Two years ago she went door to door to places that looked “cool” to see if they would participate in a free, local art walk. Now, she is the coordinator of a biannual event that draws more than 300 attendees. ROVE is not curated; whatever’s happening at the gallery/studio becomes part of the event. This year will be her first time participating in her own event, roving instead of showing her artwork. Jamie is also the founder of THRIVE Studio, where she hosts monthly events and workshops for creatively minded women.
Michael Schwartz has been the curator at Kafka’s Coffee & Tea since their very beginning, six years ago. He is a passionate supporter of the arts and building the stepping stones for emerging local artists.
Zoe Mackoff de Miranda became Program Manager of the VAG Art Rental and Sales program six months ago. The program supports BC-based artists and is a not-for-profit organization; they are separate from VAG and do open calls for submission. With the help of their selection committee, they feature artists on a quarterly basis at their “showroom” (as opposed to a gallery). It was created by the Women’s Auxiliary—women to support the VAG—in 1952 and was voluntarily run for 60 years.
Katherine Chan is a regular contributor at SAD Mag and the facilitator of this conversation. Check out more of her work at sadmag.ca.
J: ROVE started as a way to bring people together and it’s worked with the map. THRIVE Studio will be open; I have an artist taking over THRIVE to do her own work—Tara Galuska, a paper artist. So, for the first time, I’m actually roving around. I’ve actually never been to my own event. I’m always doing the event, and I’m always in one place, getting feedback from people and seeing what it’s like, so this year I’ve decided instead of doing a show, I would actually do the social media and go around.
Z: We’ve (Zoe, Michael, and Kafka’s founder Aaron Kafka) all known each other for a really long time. When I started working with Art Rental and Sales, I really wanted to think about, as a program, how we could get out more into the community. We’re super connected to the artists in the community, but our Showroom is tucked away in the back of the VAG—
M: That no one knows about.
Z: Yeah. One of our biggest obstacles is actual, physical visibility within the building, and then general awareness of the program, or art rental as a concept. You have to go through security to get to the Showroom. So because I already knew Michael, Kafka’s, and what they’ve been doing, we already had this natural connection. It makes sense to do something together. Michael was the one who said ROVE would be the perfect dovetail to the collaboration.
J: In the last couple of ROVE, we had about 300 people out. So it’s awesome, the idea of 300 people seeing that Art Rental and Sales is a whole other part of the art community—that’s when it’s nice that collaborations come together.
M: ROVE has really served its purpose in building a community and creating attendance that none of us galleries alone can achieve. The galleries are so tightly packed together that people naturally would go from one to another.
J: ROVE’s purpose is really to be a one-night experience that is not overwhelming: only eight galleries and a little map. The walking time between galleries is very short. You can do it in an hour, but from 6 to 10 pm a lot of people stop and go to a brewery, actually experience the neighbourhood, and then the after-party at 10 pm is at the projection room. People bring their map and get in for free. So it’s really a full circle experience of this area.
K: Collaboration appeals to me because it’s a way to make use of a community of people who are doing the same thing. I was wondering, what does collaboration mean to each of you? Or what do you want to get out of collaborating, aside from building onto the community that you are already building right now?
Z: Obviously, I have independent goals about bringing more visibility to our program and to the artists in our program. But also, in the same way, because Art Rental and Sales is part of the VAG, which is a really well-recognized organization in the city, I know that to be able to bring that collaboration to Kafka’s will help bring that cache into the venue; for Michael to be curating a show from our selection is great for Kafka’s, and for that participation to be part of ROVE— there’re a lot of aspects of that collaboration that are mutually beneficial. We have eighty artists in the program, nine having been selected to be involved, so I think to be able to tap into our community of artists that we work with, who might or might not already know about ROVE, Kafka’s, and the work that Michael’s doing. It’s a cycle of bringing attention to what each other is working on, to hopefully help grow all the different pieces. So for me, that’s really exciting and aspects that will help our program, but also to be able to support Jamie and Michael. I also really like what Jamie’s doing at THRIVE. Initially she started the studio and worked with women artists; she wanted to build this idea of women artists collaborating and creating more of a culture of community instead of a culture of competition. We’re not working against each other, we’re all working together—that really resonated with me.
M: I’ve been thinking about collaboration lately. [All laugh] I think collaboration is like in a relationship. We each bring something different and together we’re better than we are alone. And I think that’s the same around this table, you know, any collaborative circle. You wanna be in a collaborative relationship where each person has their own expertise, and they’re able to fill in your gaps, the things that you aren’t as good at. As a result, you reach a certain magic; whether it’s an event or a program, it’s bigger and better than you can ever achieve alone. I think THRIVE has been that, the work at Kafka’s has been that, so to be able to bring them together…who knows? Who knows what we’re gonna do? [All chuckle]
J: The story of ROVE and THRIVE and everything that I’ve worked on is that it’s quite lonely being a freelance anything—you know, from artist, to writer, to curator. That’s been my biggest thing: I left a 9-to-5 job where I had people around me for the dream of being an artist in a studio, and I found it quite lonely. You’re expected to wear all these hats: now you’re supposed to know your accounting, you’re supposed to know marketing, you’re supposed to know how to make connections to get your work out there, plus how to make the work. From an artist’s level, I realized quite quickly: I had to collaborate, I had to connect people, because it’s for my soul to be excited about what I’m doing. I saw the minute I started creating things that gave more than I took, people just wanted to give to it. That feeling is the reason why you even make art; you wanna put it out there. It can become quite daunting as an artist to feel like you’re not getting anything back and I think that’s how a lot of artists burn out. It’s all reliant on if someone buys it or writes about it, but when you start to build connections and stories, it goes bigger than just that piece of wall. THRIVE is a big part of that: to connect artists in a way that becomes less emotionally based on this one piece of art; it’s about the lifestyle and the collaboration, really.
K: Makes it more human, more real, right?
J: Yeah, it’s supposed to be fun! You’re choosing to do this! It won’t be sustainable if other people aren’t involved.
M: I think we’re trained in some ways to be individualistic. But when you break past that, you realize, Vancouver’s tiny. You’re only two steps away from each other. Very quickly, if you can build alliances, we’re all gonna get better, go further.
K: Now, I have a question about collaboration in the artistic or performative sense. When you have collaborations in an art show, or an exhibition, the participating artists work well together because they share something in common, but there’s usually a magic that emerges from the dissimilarities, from the contrast. In this case, what’s the shared element between the VAG Art Rental and Sales program, Kafka’s, and ROVE?
J: I think the similarity is that we’re all trying to make Vancouver, as a city, better, but we’re doing it in such different ways. The collaboration is magical because they are so different. Art Rental and Sales is a VAG program; that is as legit as you get. Then we have a coffee shop which has taken art very seriously. And for me, mine is just the most grassroots. It’s a one-night event. We have a huge history, six years; starting with me, two.
M: But similar history, right? Kafka’s is the same: one guy, Aaron, true start-up. You build a foundation and it builds up. I mean, when the VAG started, it wasn’t an institution, it became an institution.
Z: Similar with our program, it’s connected with the VAG, it’s an institution within the city. As I started by saying, Art Rental and Sales was a voluntary-run program for over 60 years. It’s only within the last five years that it’s become more part of the organization with a full-time team dedicated to managing the program; the call for submission has only been implemented within the last five years. Even for the Art Rental and Sales program, it’s only recently that there’s been a push to make it a little more structured and formalized, and maybe more representative of a certain spectrum of the community of artists. In the same way, we have a long history, but we still have so much work to do as a program.
K: Especially with the Art Rental and Sales program, it just sounds so different from the institutional element of the big VAG. By doing this collaboration, do you hope to refresh the idea of what people think of VAG? Do you want it to be separate from the VAG?
Z: It’s really interesting because there’s a dichotomy. In one way, we’re really separate, we’re an autonomous program, but we are 100% part of the VAG at the same time. The mandate of our program is to support artists in the community. The majority of all the fees that come in for rentals or sales go directly to the artists, so we give more of the income generated to artists than the traditional, commercial galleries do. We are part of an organization with lots of parts, and we’re a small piece of that, but from my perspective, as the Manager of the program, I really want to refresh, or as you said, remind people: as much as the VAG is this big organization that brings in huge shows, we’re also an arm into the community. We’re super connected to over 80 artists in the community. We’re working really hard to support those artists. At the same time, the artists that are participating in the Art Rental and Sales program are also giving back to support the organization. I really do want to remind people, or for people who don’t even know, that there’s this big piece of the VAG that is super connected to the community.
M: I think the commonality between all of our organizations is the goal of building personal relationships among the public so they can have a direct connection with the art. I’ve known about Art Rental and Sales for a long time, but I always thought it was for law firms or for accountants who have big budgets. Once Zoe started working there and invited me down, I came to see how affordable it is.
Z: People have this misconception that because it’s the VAG, it’s super expensive. It’s extremely affordable. When Michael first came here, he looked around, turned to me and said, renting a piece here is like renting Netflix! We want it to be accessible, but people have to know about it to access it.
K: Perhaps the title of the department is misleading? It sounds almost like an operational or financial department of the VAG. That’s why I was so intrigued—like, what is it doing with Kafka’s and ROVE?
M: Well, we’re just putting a bunch of budgets in frames. It’s a commentary on the institutional structure of the major galleries. [All laugh]
Z: That would be a different show, which would also be really interesting!
J: Which artists do you have on your list?
M & Z: Hugh Kearney, Bill Wilkinson, Jocelyn Fisk-Schleger, Aimee Brown, Melissa Mercier, Nancy Boyd, Desiree DeRuiter, and Esther Rausenberg. Eight artists in total from the program.
K: Have you, as a program, collaborated with anyone else before?
Z: Not that I know of. The department’s been doing our own thing within the walls of VAG and within the limitations of what we can work with, so I’m only starting to think about ways that we can branch out more to get out there and collaborate with likeminded people and organizations.
K: I’m wondering, individually, outside of what you’re representing, what are you most excited about this event, project, collaboration?
M: Exhibits in general. Why I keep doing them at Kafka’s, why I started and why I continue, is because of ideas and community. To get people together, to talk. Opportunities to meet people you don’t usually meet, make friends, connections—that’s the essence of community, one of the many purposes that each of us serves. I know from my experience with the hundred of exhibits that I’ve been to that when you go to an exhibit and you start to draw connections—you see a connection between this and that, between a period of time or style or idea that you might not otherwise have, and you really walk away thinking. I’m stoked to be able to do a little bit of that. Even if it’s not some vast social commentary, you might see something that takes you back to another place in your life or something you’ve seen before. If that happens, then I’ve done my job.
K: You can’t really predict what will happen during that experience.
M: I think of exhibits like a great dinner party. You get some stimuli, something delicious; you didn’t think those flavours could work together, but they do. And you get into great conversations with the person beside you, often from an area of specialization or profession that you would never encounter, and your mind goes into new places. I think that’s very healthy. That’s what living in a city should be about.
Z: You asked the question of whether or not we’ve collaborated with others before, and the answer is no. So it’s really exciting that we’re doing this. This is a first and it’s really exciting to be part of ROVE, to be part of an art walk—which you would usually not have the opportunity to participate in—and to have our artists at Kafka’s. It’s exciting to get out of the walls of VAG and to collaborate.
Zoe recaps how she met Jamie: she had been hearing about ROVE and THRIVE Studio constantly, vice versa for Jamie. They finally got in contact via email and decided to just meet. It was getting ridiculous that they were amidst conversations about each other’s work and the similarities between them, yet had never met in person. They truly felt it: they had to collaborate.
J: You don’t get the kind of energy or momentum that comes from collaboration on your own. Each voice promotes one another and it’s so much better to have three other people talk about you than to keep talking to people about who you are.
Z: We can only independently do so much.
M: You run out of energy! Because you do the things that you have to do, and then there’s lots of stuff that you want to do.
K: And so often, others have different perspectives about what you do than everyone else.
J: ROVE is a good way to see what artists are doing. Most artists’ studios, you can’t just walk into, so it’s nice to have a night to check in on what local artists are working on. I’m really excited to rove and listen to conversations and see the work, to just see the magic of the project.
The next ROVE will take place on the evening of May 27th, 2016, in Mount Pleasant. For more information about this free event, visit roveyvr.com. This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.