Between The Pen and The Brush
An Interview with Dawn Delikat
For our second interview, The Other Side of the Desk presents a focus upon professionals whose efforts support artists in their careers. In this case it’s not an artist-run alternative space, but an established nonprofit that exhibits female artists predominately. The story of someone who comes to such a role interests me greatly. The path is personally different for each individual, though the choices one makes, to pursue a degree in Art History, to take on professional positions in art galleries, work for artists, and so forth, these choices define our in- progress and future self. Depending upon the degree of happenstance and the attitude and drive that motivates each person, will partially dictate where one ends up. The specific reasons one gets into the art world dictate attitudes that form our persona, and direct us to focus upon either the living artists, the culture of its appraisal, or the big money game that pushes the industry forward. Each of these are of equal motivation; none are superior to the others.
My subject is Dawn Delikat, the Executive Director of Pen+Brush, who started there eighteen years ago as an intern, and was mentored by then Executive Director Janice Sands, who is a person of my acquaintance. Ms. Delikat’s story is one of many but I found it compelling simply because it speaks to the path of the creative-minded person who finds themselves confronting the need to study art history and apply their minds to a sort of in-progress ambassadorship that leads to a position of authority in cultural institutions like Pen+Brush. As the Executive Director of Pen+Brush, now since early 2020, Delikat has been essential to the progressive shaping of its vision.
DAVID GIBSON: Let’s start when you were in your undergrad. It’s really the beginning of the beginning. You were painting? How did that lead to art history?
DAWN DELIKAT: In thinking about this question, I’m going back a step because how I came to study painting is not really a simple straight forward jumping off point before I turned to art history, so it might make some sense to talk about how I got to painting, and ultimately realized that a switch to art history was what felt like a better fit for how I came to understand things.
I am a first generation, college grad, born and raised in Newark, NJ. I was not exposed to a great deal of “fine art” growing up, but music was omnipresent and really even worshiped in my house and somehow through my parents and some extraordinary inner-city teachers, and a lot of strong women, I was empowered to know that if I didn’t know something, I could definitely learn how to find out (funny thing to say now having the internet, I am gen X born in 1974 for context).
I went back to college after working full time in the office of a car dealership for 7 years during high school and after graduating high school. I was already in a bit of an existential headspace when I lost a dear friend to a crime, which sent me into a downward spiral; finding meaning is frankly what saved me. Trying to err on the side of memory that is more philosophical then psychological, when I was really faced with a point of grabbing onto what life meant for me, and how my work, my life, could become something I felt was purposeful and I could be passionate about - I kept grabbing onto what made me feel most connected to life and against any sort of automatic living. Music always resonated deeply, post-punk new wave, rock, pop, disco, and having grown up on the Beatles, and all the oldies, (I am named after the Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons song) and even my older brothers love of hard rock. Then thinking back to grammar school when I had the good fortune of studying William Shakespeare for a year (incredible story of teacher refusing to give up hope that young people could love Literature) and being part of a festival that felt like a very significant thing to have done. This all drove me to read more and my love of Shakespeare led me to the Renaissance and next thing I was obsessed with Michelangelo, reading his letters and poetry, and I thought I wanted to be a writer, but art and looking at art and understanding why people created what they created began to just feel like a harnessing life or something, and it fascinated me.
I started what then felt like a long climb to a degree at Union County College and all I knew was that I had to find a way for making a living, to not control my life choices in this regard. This, these studies, would stay as pure as I could manage, and I would follow what I knew/felt to be true and as I grew through it, the degree itself was sort of an aside of the point of the learning with structure and really re-learning what I skated through in high school.
I learned how to bartend and started waiting tables, so I had the financial part of life covered while I figured out a direction, without pressure. Luckily, I was still young and even though it felt late in the game, I had the stamina. I began my studies with a basic literature class, art appreciation, and Drawing 1, on top of a few core classes. I could not get enough of learning about art, literature, fiction and film studies. The art appreciation class taught by an artist named George Hildrew, was extraordinary. I found the build-up of movements, whether intentional by the artist, or coined as such after, just incredible. It was as though the world made sense and was clear to me in a way it had not been to me before. And the democratic capacity, this aspect of history and the experience of lives being told not through those always in power - it just blew my mind, (after later learning the severity of issues with the canon). With the same Professor, I struggled to learn to draw and paint, and spent all time in between class and before bartender gigs just in the open studios, or going to galleries, and museums, and in Hildrew’s other classes that I wasn’t even taking, just to get the time in and push myself further. But the history and movements in art and within how I was seeing it all new within the other humanities classes, and connecting those dots with core history classes and science really excited me while I grappled with facing a blank canvas/paper and learning the basics. I never called myself an artist, even as I shed the idea of majoring in literature, I always said I’m studying drawing, painting, and art history to see what’s happened and maybe have an idea about what’s possible.
I continued on this way into the second half of what started as a BFA at Union County College. During this time, I also became a public-school substitute teacher. It was also flexible. I could explore if I might want to become an art teacher. I later was offered a position as a TA and was considering becoming a Public-School art teacher, which had the perk of potential student loan forgiveness. I might have just slipped back into having the basic comforts covered. It was a tough area and even though I grew up in Newark, these kids I was teaching had no support at home, foundation, or structure to help, and I as an adult who knew they deserved more and better from the system that couldn’t support them—I began to be crushed by it, and ineffective to help them.
Meanwhile, at NJCU I was always falling in love with every class I had in the studio - if it was 3D design now, I’m fascinated with that, B&W 35mm film photography, I am captivated over the magic of creating in a darkroom, and it just went on and on. Halfway through the BFA degree while in a 700 level art history class on Renaissance art with an extraordinarily passionate professor, Dr. Jose Roderio, it hit me, “I am an art historian,” I am not able to create a view on the world with just my one fingerprint, direction of media or aesthetic to space and develop my voice, because I am an art historian and I love speaking about all the fingerprints and their intentions, their meaning and what matters through so many different ways of seeing and creating. It was at this time that this same professor started encouraging me to write a review of a campus exhibition for the school as well as on a group he was part of called the Neo-Latinos. Professor Roderio later introduced me to the Ultra Violet whose studio I ultimately managed, and he introduced me to a former NJCU professor, Dr. Elaine Foster, who was on the board of The Pen and Brush.
At the same time NJCU hired Dr. Midori Yoshimoto who began teaching art history with a more global perspective and a course dedicated to women artists and Dr. Dennis Raverty whose specialization was in African Art and the diaspora. Within all of this, meaning being lost became a great offense to me and something I started to take on. I left teaching and decided I would try to find my way and path working within the art world, what I saw as the front lines so to speak.
DAVID GIBSON: Tell me about working for Ultraviolet and Claire Oliver. These are two very strong-willed women.
DAWN DELIKAT: Yes, two very strong women indeed. Strong willed, sharp, tough, and wise experienced women, but both are also nurturing once they know you are respecting the work and the terms of the work.
Ultraviolet, on any given day, had no idea what end of the spectrum of her life, work, home, or studio we would be immersed in, it all just generated from her quest and mindset and trajectory for the moment and I was willing to hustle for whatever was needed just to be around her and learn anything I could. As we carried out even mundane tasks, seeds of things she learned or something Warhol, Dali, Picasso, or Duchamp once said in a certain situation would just come out.
During the time I worked with her and helped her get her studio in Chelsea running with everyday business and engaging/reigniting her lifetime of peers, colleagues, collectors, press. Ultra was absolutely driven to make up the time in post 9/11 NYC to sort of reclaim her position as an artist hinged on her earned legacy as part of Warhol’s factory. She was specifically aiming garnering a solo show (which she ultimately did with Stefan Stux).
I’m not sure if this lesson is fit to print, but it really is one of the most valuable lessons I learned and worth sharing with a fellow advocate - I was always frank with my view of it in working with Ultra. Even with her level of status she was grappling for new recognition - she was producing works that were meant to play directly on Warhol’s aesthetic with an added present-day tick of commercialism and world events - but underneath there was this artist, Isabelle Dufresne, who knew how to draw and had ways of expressing what she really wanted. Ultra showed a real humanity in her work, with a layer of pop, and of commercialism that really packed a punch in their juxtaposition. When we had our footing, I saw this one particularly powerful drawing and suggested that perhaps this was the authentic direction to go in. She was offering something real and honestly special as I saw it. Ultra was receptive to what I said and allowed me to feature this work on a round of outreach with her name (“formerly known as”) as a subtitle. She cautioned me that no one would want that. It sort of kills me to this day that, because of her authentic voice, and having worked with Warhol and Dali, so many greats—that had come back out in the art through her voice. This was certainly accomplished in her book. I wonder what could have happened for her, or maybe more importantly, within her? But that’s from my perspective. She also saw the world from what Warhol yielded and somehow still thought was possible.
Ultra had an incredibly absurd sense of humor, I remember that on several occasions after we had really gotten comfortable with each other, going into fits of laugher over her take on some everyday life stories or meetings we had together. I will also never forget sitting on her roof talking about Warhol’s funeral. She sincerely loved their friendship, which in later years seemed to have been a trusting one between them.
Claire Oliver is utterly compelled to do her work for each and every artist to the fullest extend humanly possible. Driven is an understatement. I think I really learned the level of commitment it takes in this field and in this city to truly represent an artist and attempt to support them, grow them, and get them supported by the primary market and institutions. Claire and Ian really mentored me and exposed me to every aspect of running a gallery, what I learned from them is immeasurable. I remember being able to ask them literally anything about the business, no matter how naive it may have seemed in hindsight and they would always take the time to be frank with me and offer their knowledge and experience, the straight story from the inside of their depth of experience.
The responsibility of managing a successful ground floor Chelsea gallery and traveling for art fairs is rigorous, but also incredibly rewarding. Ultimately, it is what led me back to grad school as I wanted to learn so much more, but I also wanted to enrich my understanding of counter balances within the field to the commercial gallery.
DAVID GIBSON: 2008 seems to have been a great turning point in your life. Not only did you start working at Pen+Brush but you began your graduate studies at City College as well. What was that period in your life like? What were your strongest influences? What were the short- and long-term results?
DAWN DELIKAT: It was. I had stayed in touch with my mentor and now predecessor, Janice Sands, after a series of internships I did at Pen+Brush from 2004-2006. I remember when I first was introduced to Pen+Brush it was from the viewpoint of deep roots of women’s history and advocacy in the arts and letters, “you know Eleanor Roosevelt and Pearl Buck were members.” I interviewed with Janice and she was not speaking in that vein at all she was a very straight forward, life force really, and was very in the headspace of what’s next. She gave me an assignment to review a performative art and musical composition piece for a newsletter they published at the time. I passed that test and was given the internship. I remember after spending two weeks in the basement office with Janice, feeling the world of Pen+Brush cracking wide open - this woman was entrenched in re-igniting this resource based on its formative roots and carrying it forward into the 21st century, on her back if need be. I was enthralled and I remember thinking, “I am going to learn how to fight alongside these women”, I meant it and believed it though not in the literal sense - but I knew this form of art equity would become my fight and the work I wanted to do. And I knew I had a lot to learn and really could never imagine my fight would LITERALLY become alongside her at this very institution, for one cause things are just never easy and the institution was also facing a financial and existential crisis in the mist of this battle for its relevant future.
So, after my internship we always staying in touch while I was at Claire Oliver. In 2008, after my commercial art gallery experiences, when I knew I wanted to attend graduate school and continue to explore other facets of the art world, Janice and the board had structured things to bring on a professional gallery manager. I was honored to be offered the position. They knew I was going to grad school and were supportive with a flexible schedule that could suit my course needs, I also continued to bartend and wait tables along the way to make it all work and be able to take the position and further grow my knowledge of the nonprofit sector, but I was also eager to apply relevant experience from the commercial gallery space and in any and all ways that were productive.
One of the first shows I had the honor of working on was juried by Roy DeCarava. Working with he and his daughter through the review and selection process was a master class in itself. The time he dedicated to considering every submission and sharing his thoughts on the works was a truthful and almost sacred process. It gave me a different soul and pace of dedication that felt right. Janice was the guardian of that, and always made sure she gave me access to the richest sides of this work, along with the massive and tedious challenges.
I had just applied to Hunter’s MA program in art history and remember getting the acceptance letter on the day we opened Roy’s show. He spoke and offered advice to all the artists and those in attendance, it was a transformative night for all who were lucky enough to be present. Words really dipped Iike honey and were devoured by young black and brown women artists and all of us fortunate enough to be in that room.
I did half my degree at Hunter, passed the required coursework, and struggled greatly with the language translation examination, but felt the straight academic track of art history heading for the PhD was not what I wanted - after my work with Claire and now with Janice I wanted to be the boots on the ground. There started to be a disconnect between theory and practice in class and studies from that work I was doing and had done. So, I took a break and then started looking into degrees with art history MA with a parallel track of museum and curatorial studies. I remember looking at Rutgers and City College. I had the good fortune of calling Dr. Harriet Senie’s office at City College and she picked up! I explained my mindset and she invited me to sit in on her museum studies class to see what I thought. Then we can talk. After that one class I knew this was a woman I needed to study with. How she shaped this program was exactly what I was looking for.
As things back at Pen+Brush took off with reshaping the future of the institution I was getting all that I needed in this regard in my studies, diving deeper into contemporary art history, to be really helpful to Janice in research and future mission strategy development. It was extraordinary. I remember just sucking the marrow out of all of it, all the time. And working with Janice, I mean a once-in-a-lifetime mentorship without a doubt. The pressure was also on to keep Pen+Brush afloat, I remember Janice and I working with fingerless gloves because the space was bitter cold when we couldn’t afford heating oil-- but we refused to go down without a fight.
DAVID GIBSON: You seem to have had a lot of different gigs in a short period of time, many of them simultaneously. I know how this is, to get a start you just say yes to everything, and then make sure it works out. I'm asking about curating shows for Union County College, installing exhibitions at The Morris Museum, and working as an exhibition facilitator at The Metropolitan Museum. Let's put all this other experience into your story.
DAWN DELIKAT: Yes, exactly right, pack it in, make it work, and learn as much as you can from any opportunity. So, once I was working in the field my professors at Union County were really proud because it was like frankly such a small percentage who ever went on to really have a profession in the field, so they would invite me back as both an alumni success story to select awardees among the students for different competitions that they had award budgets for, and a few exhibitions in the gallery there become tied to this as award shows, "best of”, the semester, graduating class. So for that I would also curate and actually hang the shows.
The Morris Museum: I was a freelance preparator when their staff needed extra installation help with too many shows flipping at once. I was later invited back by curatorial colleagues there as a juror on an exhibition. It was actually very validating and I have met some great colleagues there as well and get to talk shop with them from their more regional museum challenges and concerns.
The Metropolitan Museum of Art: So, my advisors at City College, Dr. Harriet Senie and Craig Houser, knew me well. The professors there really are hands-on and will give and engage as much as their students do. In order for me to graduate, they demanded that one of my required internships be at a major museum. I pleaded with them “Listen, I know what I want. I’ve done all these gigs. I’m working so many jobs to piece together the cost of living. Can you please just accept Pen+Brush as the full internship requirement?” Luckily, they knew better and said “We will not allow you to graduate if you do not do an internship at a major museum in NYC. It would be wrong for you not to experience working inside one of them in any capacity before you are sure you know what path you want.” So, I find this ad on NYFA, something to the effect of part time temporary 6-month position, $10 Per hour, 25 hours per week working as an exhibition facilitator on Tomás Saraceno’s "Cloud City” participatory installation on the Rooftop. Position is through visitor services in conjunction with the modern and contemporary art dept. to ensure both safety and explaining the work to visitors as they walk through it. I emailed it to my advisors and asked, would this count - they said absolutely, I figured $10. for the time helps and the experience is certainly there. I applied, interviewed and got the job. I am severely afraid of heights, so this was something I immediately had to work on overcoming and always had to mentally work through to climb ladders installing and for lighting ., the irony is ridiculous but I was just determined to a foolish degree probably. What An Experience. I am grateful to this day always for them forcing me. When we went through the training, safety, curatorial, meet the artist understanding all aspect of how the Met was jumping into the swim with Saraceno’s work, knowing the mass of visitors are there for traditional work, tourists who “have to” see the Met, was part of why this exhibition facilitator position full of budding art historians was created, coupled with having people in the structure to regulate safety because of the many institutional insurance policy concerns of having an elevated artwork on the roof that intentionally disorients a viewer while they walk through the work, they also really did want the visitor to understand the experience - enter the exhibition facilitator.
I was fascinated because making conceptual art accessible and understandable to the general population became a sidelined interest of mine. Having grown up with family and friends who would really challenge me on the validity of work they didn’t understand and would too easily dismiss, and "art speak” and posturing layers often make these matters worse. I could tell so many stories about this experience but I will try to just consolidate the lessons:
The honor of walking through the Met as staff first thing in the morning or last thing at night is a sacred experience.
Speaking to a volume of visitors, hundreds in a day, about an artwork is intense in all extreme ways, ultimately all valuable for perspective as a cultural worker, mostly such great and rich engagement, some infuriating.
When it rained, we had to close the structure for safety and visitor services would sometimes offer us our hours working in the Great Hall fielding visitor’s questions. I once did this on a holiday Monday that they were open for when the Met broke an attendance record, I don’t think I am exaggerating by recalling that number to be 40,000. Total chaos in the great hall with nothing but questions from every direction. Astounding experience as you come to learn the vast array of reasons for the visits, and how exciting that many people care about art on any level. Get them in the door and there is always a chance to enrich even the most passive/causal viewer. The more I did this, the more seriously I took it because you can’t believe how many people walk in and want you to tell them what to see. They will say “We have one hour, what do you recommend?” Talk about power.
The level of bureaucracy that is the way of a well-meaning exhibition facilitator, making sure a visitor has a great experience is sometimes infuriating. Timed tickets and rules really annoy visitors. Working the line in that role for my shift, nothing was more useful than my bartending experience. Friday night rooftop bar and a structure that disorients people is a nightmare.
Ultimately, I was actually offered a permanent job once the exhibit closed, which I declined because for one thing I had already drunk the Pen+Brush Kool-Aid--and this experience, while so very important and rich, confirmed what I wanted: that I am much more effective as a bigger fish in a little pond, and not a tiny one in an ocean. Even though it was magnificent, it was not for me.
DAVID GIBSON: What are some of the major accomplishments you’ve helped bring about at Pen+Brush? Also talk about exhibitions you loved making and their specific logistical challenges. How have you and Pen+Brush changed since you became Executive Director?
DAWN DELIKAT: The biggest sort of accomplishment that I have been part of at Pen+Brush is working alongside Janice and the board to bring the mission and resource forward. Research, discussions with peers and colleagues, prudently analyzing the stakes of making space and fostering dedicated professional artists/writers, and what other arts advocates have faced on all sides of the field (commercial, small auction houses, publishers, literary agents, fellow nonprofits and co-ops .), how do they get work that deserves it through the system that exists — weighed against Pen+Brush’s organizational experience/memory - how the past programs did or did not support them - analyzing how significant work that reflects our time gets supported and grows into the next great work that gets into the canon. How equity and the market are tied to this. All these massive questions, and how to chip away at them from the purview of our mission, now historic but very much always morphing and adapting to the time period, and who was at the helm, for better or worse. Looking frankly at the resource we have, and taking the best of tools to be effective as supporting, growing, and getting more deserving voices into the field writ large. How do we support them, give them some access, and ultimately grow them out of the nest while we take the next batch in.
Launching this 21st century version of Pen+Brush in 2014, to take submissions for the next format and then our grand re-opening in the new space in 2015, has been both grueling, rewarding, and is the honor of my life. It’s the type of work that you can’t walk away from. After all the years of remaking Pen+Brush, it has from day one felt full of possibility, but also as if we were standing at the bottom of another massive mountain. Every day, week, month, exhibition, publications, each wave of new submissions, and artist liaison community building work, was really a revelation. A small nonprofit can be nimble, learn fast, and adapt, which we continue to do.
Our retrospective of Lola Flash which ran in early 2018 was and remains a pinnacle of my work, our work, and the capacity of our programs. Every part of our work since we threw this new gauntlet down in 2015 really grew us to this moment of taking on remediating exposure for an artist who had been going at it strong for 30 years, had showed alongside all the “right” people, knew so many titans of the field, was loved and well-regarded, but couldn’t sell her work regularly, for fair equity, or get on a path in the field that she frankly earned and deserved. Like so many, a full art historical focus on the significance of Lola’s lifetime of work had never been done.
There is so much to say about the details of this process and working so closely and intensely with Lola on curating this show along with Parker Daley Garcia, my protege since 2015, things that we came up against together and worked through to make both the show and its catalogue a success. Parts of it are deeply personal and intense. They are the most critical aspects, because without that authentic willingness to meet the artist and the work where they are, you can’t get there. If you can’t face that you have never done or accomplished what is called for in a situation, you can’t step up to the need for you or your resource to meet the challenge. You know, it’s not just the person who was kept out who meets their match of a resource and we all move forward together - we do, but in between that we must all really come to see each other, build that trust, undo the dripping of society keeping a voice out that has taken a toll - that foundation needs to be built before we walk it out into the world together and work to make space for it. But, perhaps best to writing about the show and what we accomplished while it was on view and what our support of Lola’s work has accomplished since then which so perfectly illustrates that capacity of Pen Brush’s work.
While each show just seemed to get better and better while we raised the bar for ourselves each time hitting what felt like our mark more consistently (thinking of a 9-year survey of Michela Martello and the catalogue which preceded Lola Flash’s show). The power, beauty, and intensity of this Lola show did us and her proud! The retrospective did the heavy lifting that her lifetime of work needed. It tied Lola’s early, visually explosive and historically important little known cross color works (taken during the height of the AIDS crisis) to her later highly refined portrait series’ taken with a 4 x 5 camera through the foundation of the artist using her lens to dismantle stereotypes. We teamed up with what I would call the right fit of public relations agency run by April Hunt, who has recently retired her role at Pen+Brush, and we got a number of press placements including The New York Times, Aperture, and The Brooklyn Rail.
Part of our process in working with an artist is evaluating fair equity for their work compared to comparisons with other artists; their accomplishments; the work itself, with being realistic for the market and what collectors of emerging art can understand. With Lola’s work our advice was increasing considerably from where she was priced. We didn’t sell robustly, but we did sell at this new price level both from the show and from an auction through Paddle 8, and so the new pricing was validated. A foundation who purchased a piece made a bequest to the Brooklyn Museum, and they accepted it. Exposure from the show garnered the Smithsonian Magazine to hire Lola to travel for a photo expose. We had accomplished a lot to move Lola forward during and following the show, but our continued support and advice mentoring over the years that followed led to an acquisition by The Museum of Modern Art, by The National Museum of African American History & Culture, and she just recently, for the first time in her life, committed to formal commercial gallery representation with Karen Jenkins, who will feature Lola in Frieze LA next month. We stepped up to the plate to support in any and all ways big and small that Lola Flash needed. All these moments are a bit surreal while being very real when I think of the grit that each one took - also even as I type them know I kind of can’t believe it - I always knew she deserved it. For us to have accomplished this level of support also blows my mind. I also know the truth of how hard it was, and how much we have poured into many artists and have gotten results that are just as important and key for where that artist is in their life and work.
Our programs are democratic, open, but objective and structured based on standards of the field (we do no one any favors for equity if our limited resources is not always taking our “best” shot with significant works) within that internally how we have developed a way to work within that structure that honors the strength and intention and strategy of it of it, but organically works artist by artist, show by show, and the same with writers and our publications so that we are able to bring tailored support just as galleries or agents do. Within this, we also have continued building a welcoming, supportive community and safe space for our writers and artists. Publishing IN PRINT #5 in July 2021 - with guest editor Novella Ford from the Schomburg Center. I am so proud of the new level that we hit with this 5th volume of our journal in finding, harnessing, and publishing some of the most emerging and fiery writings that truly reflect the 2020/post 2020 climate. The merging of our visual and literary artists in this edition hit a new high bar of how they can come together to higher meaning in a powerful way.
We have accomplished a wide variety of exhibition formats, from massive groups shows, to solos, and ones in which we feature 3-5 artists in depth, some of whom have connections to one another and some don’t. We have refined this to show the breadth of talent available, such as “The Now” and one featuring Katelyn Kopenhaver, Paola Martinez Fiterre, and Renee Cox.
We have worked with outside curators on exhibitions which is strategic and achieves a cross pollination of resources for all parties to make more space for under-represented voices. This can be very challenging but when it works it can bring so many new things to bear in service of the mission. When it doesn’t succeed, it can take you off track. With limited resources over the course of a year and so much need, you have to be careful. A great partnering exhibition and catalogue of ours was “Women’s Work” with Grace Ali.
Another ironic note on our major Lola Flash accomplishment that speaks to a challenge side of things. Even though we do sell work (75% to the artist 25% to feed the organization) and as a nonprofit our work fund raising crosses over with building relationships with collectors, and we do want to grow that to keep sustaining artists and keeping them working and growing - we do not have the capacity to dedicate full time staff to collector base building or take on costs of art fairs participation, or consistently have professional public relations for every show or publication— yet we leap frogged with Lola in getting her into a major institution - which is something to ponder, understand and think more on from my perspective as we continue to develop our approaches.
What could be better than finding Generations of women who meet on the common ground of a vested interest in art and literature and supporting, protecting, and fostering people who are absolutely compelled to create and make meaning and reflect something of this experience of being alive in our world. Part of this is mission based, but part of this is because of who has come through, and how it took shape; how they set this tone, and guarded it. It’s very special. We all honor our reasons and keep carrying this torch and doing the work. Of course, we don’t always agree on the details, but we respect the work and bring rigor, experience, and perspective to the table to make the best use of this resource, and never doubt each other’s commitment or intention. The same premise is really true in every facet of our work with our artists and writers. We are clear about our values, respect, and commitment to their work, their voice, and this mission-based ground we are meeting on with the best of intentions for them individually, and how these feed into over progress overall. So that when hard truths, growing pains, constructive criticism is a needed part of the process, we all know that we have each other’s backs and we are saying it because of utter commitment to the work and sheer respect for their work.
I have had years now to see the breath of this responsibility as someone who was the beneficiary of being mentored by so many extraordinary women from every facet of the field and esp. over the last seven years training new staff and growing into the role of a mentor myself for the next generation of staff, interns, and to our artists/writers through our work together makes me evermore aware of the power and importance of fostering community support and kind of in awe of the legacy of 128 years that we carry it forward not only in the big shifts forward for the mission, but in the everyday love of, respect and advocacy for the work that we are all sharing in a commitment to and this runs right through to our work with donors, collectors, supporters, allies, and partners.
Even though I had been in the role of Associate Executive Director alongside my mentor Janice Sands for about eight years before taking on the role of Executive Director, the transition happened in the wake of all that 2020 brought us. The intensity of the times coupled with the existential and financial challenges we all faced as individuals, professionals, and as leaders of cultural institutions was a perfect storm that frankly ignited an even deeper fire in me to summon every bit of resolve and experience to make hard decisions to ensure that Pen+Brush could survive it and still remain critically supportive in all ways possible to our community. Janice Sands had taught me extremely well and as challenging as the period was, I was prepared and succeeding in this task certainly took all members of our community through all forms of support. Our small nonprofit is no stranger to challenges and as advocates who are always working in the uphill direction in the work of gaining traction and ground for voices who are underrepresented, I felt well prepared to adapt. By adjusting our programs and budget during the lockdown and then in stages as we transitioned into re-opening in space in the fall of 2020, we continuing to scale on a reduced budget and frequency of programs to compensate, this has helped to mitigate the reduced traffic, support, and sales during the lockdown period and this prolonged period we continue to be in. Within this, it has been critical to retrench into the most critical and effective aspects of our work illustrated through our programs as well as the work we do mentoring, advising, networking for, and supporting our artists and writers even when their work may not be currently on view.
Looking to the future of hopefully post-pandemic era towards more stability within the city, field, and globally--my goals, which are our goals, continue to be shoring up our short- and long- term financial stability, while raising our institutional profile in the field and continuing to grow our larger community of supporters, art appreciators, collectors, and readers as well as congruent partnerships. We will continue to stay focused on artists and writers support and strategic actions through our programs. Supporting and growing as many deserved artists and writers as possible so we can get to a point where our galleries, publishing houses, museums, and libraries ultimately reflect the makeup of our society. The horrors of 2020 cracked open a new level of open conversations about systematic biases and necessary remediations, I can only hope this continues, and the ultimate reward would be that organizations like Pen+Brush are no longer needed when the playing field is truly leveled, but in the meantime - we will continue and aim to build it strong enough to sustain another 128 years. Let’s hope it’s not needed!
Please press the “Like” button at the top of this post. Helps a lot!