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Liz Devlin: Traditionally the gallery used to be sort of the goal and the dream for everybody but in Boston especially, I mean, I kind of– I wouldn’t necessarily recommend an artist to sort of tie up their portfolio in a gallery, because there’s a lot of sort of contractual things that are involved with that relationship. It’s not just I’m represented. It’s sit back and they do the work for you.
Anita Walker: Hello, welcome to “Creative Minds Out Loud.” I’m Anita Walker at the Massachusetts Cultural Council and our guest today is Liz Devlin. She is a curator, an art consultant by night. By day she works in private equity. That’s an interesting combination, Liz.
Liz Devlin: This is true.
Anita Walker: And I’m just getting to know you for the first time as we’re sitting here together. So how do those two pieces of yourself come together?
Liz Devlin: Well, thank you for having me. I was a marketing major in college and I thought that that would sort of be a nice arts and business blend and sort of being creative and thinking of these really interesting advertisements and laughing at like a board room table. And all these really great visions in my head of what that sort of career path would be. And then I graduated and it was not kind of anything that I had dreamt up and I ended up having an opportunity to join a financial institution in Boston. I went to school in D.C. and that brought me here. And it was just nice to have a job but then, once you’re in finance, nobody thinks you can be creative ever again. Your resume doesn’t read as anything complex. And so I found myself having to find a way to satiate the creative side of myself, which is what I’m actually passionate about and driven by. And so, I started my site Flux and so– and then everything kind of carried on from there. But it’s really important for me to sort of have these left brain/right brain worlds working together, because I don’t think I would be happy in either realm on it’s own. So it’s a nice blend.
Anita Walker: Tell us more about Flux.
Liz Devlin: Flux is a website that I started in 2008. I consider it a resource for artists and art enthusiast in the Boston area and beyond. I focus primarily on New England artists. It was a site that started from my walking around the city and picking up postcards for events that looked really interesting but they had passed, and so realized that there wasn’t really an online aggregate that had that sort of information that I was looking for. So I, in the beginning, started putting this together for myself and then I figured maybe there’s somebody else out there that would be interested in this too. And so it really started off as an event site and then that’s– as somebody new to Boston at that time, fairly new, I didn’t really know anybody here when I moved here and I was looking for ways to be connected to the arts community. So I just started going to open studios and talking to artists and learning about their exhibitions and then including that online. I say that I talk about everything from the MFA to a show in your grandmother’s basement. So there’s kind of that whole spectrum. And then, in talking to artists, I just would hear about the lack of opportunities to show in Boston and New England. And so, instead of just writing about their work I thought, “Well, why don’t I create opportunities for them to show,” and so the first show I did was called “Offline.” So I took these artists I thought were great, brought them offline and then I realized that, over the years through curation, you’re not always going to sell out a show. And I was trying to think about financial sustainability and sort of celebrating these artists that live here and that’s what kind of brought me into consulting and actually getting these artists work into homes and businesses and trying to make it so that there isn’t just hotel art all over the place. And really sort of from a ground up way trying to find my own way to help artists to feel like this is a place that they should stay and create.
Anita Walker: This is a really an important need. I’m sure you’ve found that as well. I mean, so many artists are– I mean, they’re so passionate and so diligent about their art. But then, when it comes to marketing or getting it out in the marketplace, that’s difficult for a lot of artists.
Liz Devlin: Sure.
Anita Walker: So this connection between the art and the artist and the consumer or the audience, that’s a real necessary bridge.
Liz Devlin: Yeah. I think that it’s– being an artist is a very sort of solitary act in many respects and it sort of has to be for some people to really get your sort of creative juices going and things like that. But you’re sometimes so holed up in the studio and caught in your own head that you have all these sort of self-imposed creative blocks or sort of there’s a disconnect between the art that you’re creating and talking about or speaking about it or reaching out, and intimidation and things like that. And that was one of the important things that I wanted to make sure I kind of drove home with Flux is I’m one person. My email’s firstname.lastname@example.org and I’m not a team of people. So I try to, with everything that I do, make the arts feel accessible, so like really bring it down. You can email Liz. Liz will talk to you and help you sort of navigate these waters. And I think that that is really something that’s important. I kind of– any given day– that’s what’s exciting about my inbox and the arts community versus finance is that every day it’s something new or it’s some artist having a question and then I feel like, after being here for 10 years, I can actually sort of be helpful at this point in making these connections.
Anita Walker: What are some of the common questions you get?
Liz Devlin: A lot of it– there’s a certain degree of therapy with a lot of the– I think there’s a lot of self doubt in abilities and things like that. And I think that also sort of ideas related to parts of artists’ career and where they’re at, where they should be at caught in their head sort of stuck like, “Where do I show? What should I be doing?” I think something there’s– and maybe this is facilitated by technology too. There’s almost so many options sometimes it becomes a non-starter for people and they feel like they don’t know what they’re doing. A lot of the questions are just about how to get their art out there, how to find opportunities like things that might be a good fit. Just looking for ways to figure out their own sort of personal careers and where there might be a place for them.
Anita Walker: Do artists need an intermediary or are there some of them just do it on their own?
Liz Devlin: Oh, I mean, I think anybody can do it on their own. I think it’s just kind of identifying that you do have the tools within yourself to do so. I mean, everything that I’ve done has been in the arts community, has been built in a very non-linear way. And it’s just through my own efforts that sort of– like running across the city for 10 years and meeting somebody for coffee and just saying, “I think what you do is really interesting. I’d love to just chat,” is how everything is sort of come to be my career path, I suppose. And, in doing that with every person I meet, it’s sort of filling in a piece of knowledge that I don’t have or an area I’m interested– or how do you run a gallery. Meet with a gallerist. And then, well, what happens with shipping. “Talk to an installer.” That’s just– I love learning about how people do different things and through that, there’s sort of a natural evolution of this sharing and support system that grows with all these sort of tendrils and different pieces. And it’s not sort of quartered off to the arts community because there’s a lot of businesses that are interested in supporting artists too and they don’t know how to connect. So I think sort of you have that piece of it too, these sort of two separate worlds that actually can be this overlapping diagram. And finding ways to connect those two universes together is important in addition to artists connecting with galleries and institutions. And one thing that I think is great and is one of the reasons I’ve stayed in Boston is I do think that the hierarchy, it’s pretty flat. I say that you can be like a watcher or participator at any given point. And I think that you can be somebody who’s an artist starting out and feel free to send an email to the director of MFA or somebody– yourself, hopefully. Unless that’s going to get you spam email or something like that. But I think that there’s not a lot of barriers that you’d find in other cities where you have to be a coffee fetcher…
Anita Walker: Work your way up through…
Liz Devlin: Yeah, and do all these sort of admin things to grow. It’s really just a– comes from a genuine interest of just getting to know somebody. So I think an artist can do that just by reaching out.
Anita Walker: Do you think that people are being more creative in terms of the places where their work can be shown or the places that the public can interact? So it doesn’t have to be a gallery, per say.
Liz Devlin: Sure.
Anita Walker: I mean, what are some of the non-traditional places where an artist might think about showcasing their work?
Liz Devlin: I think it comes from different sources sometimes. I think traditionally, the gallery used to be sort of the goal and the dream for everybody. But, in Boston especially, I mean, I kind of– I wouldn’t necessarily recommend an artist to sort of tie up their portfolio in a gallery because there’s a lot of sort of contractual things that are involved with that relationship. It’s not just I’m represented. It’s sit back and they do the work for you. I think that it’s actually more beneficial in some cases for an artist to be doing sort of the self-hustling sort of thing. With artists looking for opportunities, I mean, there’s some artists that are also curators themselves. And so they can kind of conjure up these opportunities. I think a lot of it is, in Boston especially, is sort of identifying an untapped area that you might be interested in and kind of exploring, “If I were to do something here, how would this happen?” Like you have the Dewey Square Mural that came up a few years ago with <inaudible> “Boy in Pajamas” appearing. And I work across the street and I remember looking at that and thinking, “How did this happen? This is so different from everything that is around. What pieces came together? How did this happen?” So you’ve got the property owner. You’ve got the arts community. You’ve got– and so thinking about ways to sort of create an opportunity where there was none before. So it’s– I think it’s more than just kind of like finding a rouge warehouse. It’s kind of like creating opportunities to have art in unexpected places and really sort of thinking about if you have a great idea, what would it take to get this to happen. And I think you have the Parks Department in the D.C. area and you have these people that are interested as well in helping. And so, it’s just about thinking outside the arts community itself, of like really sometimes just a site and then thinking about how can I make something happen here. What permits would I need and how do you– which I guess speaks to the public realm too. But, in terms of gallery spaces, I mean, sometimes you can just ask somebody, like a storefront or a gallery. I mean, there’s a lot of co-op galleries. There’s places that are looking, doing calls for artists to show work. There’re juried shows. I don’t know. Just getting your name out there in as many places. I think there’s no shame in that.
Anita Walker: Are there any cautions that you would give to artists? Artists notoriously are taken advantage of.
Liz Devlin: Sure, oh.
Anita Walker: To have their art– “I’ll hang your art for free to decorate my business or place. And it’ll be a benefit for you because your art will be seen.” I mean, how do you help an artist navigate that scenario.
Liz Devlin: I think that’s where I’m actually really helpful in what I do, because I think that’s a sweet spot of sort of being a buffer between these situations. Whether it’s an artist and a city official or an artist and a company, I think that, when you’re an artist and this is your life and this is your passion, your career, it’s all bundled up. I think it’s sometimes scary for you to try to push things or say the wrong thing. And it makes you almost retreat in this position where you feel compelled to just accept whatever comes your way. Even though you don’t feel great about it, you feel, if you said no, then you’re kind of black listed and you close yourself off from opportunities. So I can kind of go between and say, “I’ve got this great artist. You should probably pay them. Let’s do this.” So I think that that’s really important, even just sort of the language that you use with these sort of organizations. I did a project in 2015 called the Isle Arts Initiative on the Boston Harbor Islands. And that involved the D.C. area and the National Park Service, and I think, with– and we brought out, in that case, a visual artist’s work, eleven installations out on the islands. And so, when you have an artist with a really big idea, when you’re talking about that with the Parks people, you don’t want it to be a non-starter off the bat. So I was kind of saying to artists, “If you want to do something with lasers, let’s say lights.” Let’s like– it’s the same thing but just the language that you’re using would really– you need sometimes a facilitator. Any time you’re talking to your friend versus a teacher versus a mentor, you have to sort of approach things in different ways. So there’s that nuance that it’s sometimes helpful to have somebody advocating for you and kind of– and translating both ways too, so.
Anita Walker: When we started the conversation, you were talking about really exploring everything from art in the MFA to art in grandma’s basement. Tell us a little bit more about grandma’s basement. What’s going on in that part of Boston?
Liz Devlin: Well, I mean, I just mean that as in we have limited media outlets and media outlets open and close, and publications. And sometimes there’s advertising that’s really expensive and cost prohibitive and galleries that might not have a good relationship with a publication. So an artist’s solo exhibition never gets seen. So it’s just– when artists reach out to me directly, I do a monthly wrap up, which I should probably start now for next month but– where I talk about everything that’s going on in the city. A lot of that is fueled by artists themselves sending me information on their exhibitions. So, when people– if somebody’s doing something in their home, that might not be mentioned in The Globe or highlighted on a marquee. But, if somebody tells me what they’re doing, it’ll go on the site in the same listing that’s with the ICA and the MFA and everybody else. So I think it’s a good way to sort of give exposure to artists as well, because you have a city like New York where there might be thousands of things happening over a weekend. And, with the wrap up, it’s usually about 50 really solid things that are going on and that’s– and I include images so there’s a way to visually scan of what you might be interested in and then learn more about it, so.
Anita Walker: Are you your own jury? I mean, do you have a certain quality control of what you’re putting in the wrap up? Or just anybody who comes you’ll put it up?
Liz Devlin: Yeah, anybody. Yeah, I’m not– with everything I do, writing and curating and sharing information online, I’m not trying to– I don’t think I need to tell somebody what’s good or not. I mean, that’s so very subjective and, even as an arts writer, I kind of don’t like the wordsmithing and sort of the getting caught up in negative criticism. I just feel like it’s kind of not really productive to what is happening here. And I’m more of a person that’s just coming from a place of I want to let you know this is going on. And then you can go and then you can make a decision for yourself about what you think. I’m not– on the other side, I’m not going to also say, “This thing is great,” if I don’t think so. So, I mean, I balance it in different ways. I think, in that way, I can still be like a trusted resource but people can also reach out to me without thinking they’re going to be buried or that I’m going to say terrible things about them, so.
Anita Walker: So curator and art consultant. I’m also going to call you art therapist.
Liz Devlin: Sure, yeah, I like that.
Anita Walker: Liz Devlin, another one of our creative minds out loud.
Liz Devlin: Great, thanks so much for having me.
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