Susan Myrland‘s career is difficult to put into a box. Her resume includes stints with both for-profit and non-profit organizations. She has done TV production, interactive video communications, internet and management consulting and has her own consulting firm, Silvergate. The most recent chapter in her career was marked by her completion of a Museum Studies class she took at San Diego’s Mesa College taught by Alessandra Moctezuma. Myrland may be one of Moctezuma’s most high profile disciples, having gone on to curate and organize this year’s Art San Diego’s Art Lab project, an at large series of events that brought the community together under the umbrella of creative collaboration. It’s an understatement to say she is continually searching for the next big challenge that will test her experience and expand her knowledge of the world. After taking a couple months off from the recently completed Art San Diego 2011, Myrland was ready to look back on her experience and offer her opinions on the state of culture and capital in San Diego.
Can you begin by giving a sense of the scope of the Art Labs? How many artists were working in how many venues across the city? How long was the process of curating from beginning to end?
The process began last fall when the Art San Diego team met to debrief about the 2010 Fair. Last year’s Art Labs were a combination of exhibitions that were already underway, like MCASD’s Viva La Revolución, and events planned specifically for Art SD weekend, like the block parties and art walks held in Barrio Logan and East Village. Ann Berchtold, Executive Director of Art SD, wanted to expand the latter and asked if I would curate. We exchanged ideas over the holidays, and things really got rolling in January and February as we developed the Request for Proposals. In the spring I spent a lot of time building relationships, going to shows and meeting new artists. That was one of the high points for me. We have a lot of good people here.
By the time of the Fair there were 18 sites from North Park to Tijuana, with some locations hosting multiple projects. Approximately 250 artists, curators and volunteers were involved. It grew organically as artists recruited their friends and mentors. You often hear “there’s so much going on in San Diego that the public doesn’t know about” — and that desire to show who we are helped drive the growth. Plus it was summertime and it was a fun thing to do.
What was your mandate for the Art Labs as it was handed down to you from the organizers of Art SD? Was the model based on an existing fair?
There was no mandate other than the Art Labs should activate the urban space and showcase local art. As a starting point for discussion Ann sent me a link to Art Basel Miami Beach’s Art Public project. They staged nine installations near the Convention Center intended to “interrupt the daily routine of passersby in poetic and surprising ways.” I’m sure they worked well in Miami but the idea of doing only nine projects didn’t appeal to me. San Diego is spread out and fragmented. Our region is composed of many distinct nodes, whether you’re talking about our political system, economic base, art scene, geography or habitat. I felt that our Art Labs needed to show this diversity, and it was important to do it on a big scale.
The theme of the Art Labs was for each lab to have a response to the identity of San Diego, why was this chosen and do you think it was a successful theme and why? Why not?
I chose it for several reasons. First, it picked up where MCASD’s Here Not There left off. On a panel at last year’s Fair, MCASD curator Lucia Sanroman said, “San Diego is defined by what it is not, and a place defined by what it is not is constantly slipping towards ambiguity.” This contributes to our well-established second city syndrome. If we are not L.A. and we are not Tijuana, what are we? The Art Labs presented the perfect opportunity to outline the space and let local artists fill it.
It was successful because it motivated artists to respond and put to rest the stereotype that we are bland and conservative. None of the Art Labs were in-your-face controversial but some had a quietly witty, subversive streak while others were simply unusual for our city.
The theme also helped draw media attention, and that was part of Art SD’s end of the bargain with the Art Labs. The local media really got it right – especially Voice of San Diego, CityBeat, KPBS and the U-T. They understood that this was a rich, complicated story with lots of different aspects, and they did their best to cover it all.
Where the theme was less successful was that, in order to get the big picture of “what San Diego is,” you had to see all the Art Labs. You had to experience the high-tech skill and social commentary of Xavier Leonard’s With These Hands… the messages about binational cooperation and complexity that were built into Twins in Twain… the delicate beauty of Stephanie Bedwell’s sculpture, Firmly Afloat, referencing coastal geography and her ties to the community… the SoCal imagery of Anna Stump and Ted Meyer’s Exploding Tattoo… the ambivalence about our Navy heritage that Andrew Oslovar tackled in XO has the Conn… the subtle conceptualism of Claire Zitzow’s And Forth… the audacious, ballsy, “swing for the fences” experience that was Space 4 Art Cubed… and many more. Several of the events required being at a specific place at a specific time. If you missed it, you missed the message. The Art Labs structure became a metaphor for our art scene with the same strengths and weaknesses. We continue to grow and spread and become more diverse, and it’s hard to get your arms around it all.
How was the traffic flow between Art SD and the satellite events? How well did the audiences overlap?
Not surprisingly, the Art Labs at the Hilton saw the most foot traffic, with (In)Visible Project getting about 3,000 – 4,000 visitors. (In)Visible was sited between the Indigo Ballroom where the commercial galleries were located, and an exterior terrace used for donor receptions. In other words, we placed the homeless people right in the path of VIPs headed for the bar. I was afraid that the message might come across as heavy-handed but Bear Guerra’s portraits and Jessica Jollett and Rebecca Rauber’s audio interviews were so captivating that they easily drew you in.
At the other extreme, Twins in Twain had hardly any foot traffic, which broke my heart because it was a wonderful concept and a beautiful, minimalist installation. A lot of people worked very hard on that Art Lab. When Casa Familiar submitted their proposal, we discussed the issue of getting visitors to San Ysidro – but we all still believed that they would draw a larger crowd than they did. (Ed. note: They are selling the t-shirts online. You can buy them here. )
Besides location, another major factor that determined attendance was the program catalog. We went to press in June but several of the Art Labs didn’t take shape until August. As a result, critical information wasn’t in there – like the addition of the multimedia aspects at Art Produce and the start/end time of performances at Agitprop and the airport. Plus we had to scale back from last year’s catalog that had three pages for the Art Labs, including photos and a map. This year we had one page without photos, no map, and a very short description that was two months old. We tried to compensate by highlighting a few events elsewhere in the catalog and promoting the Art Labs website. The Union-Trib generously donated space in Night & Day to run an updated schedule and they brought 3000 copies to the Hilton. But for folks walking into the Fair and getting their first exposure to Art SD, that catalog is their bible.
So attendance varied, with sites reporting 50, 100, 300, 1000 visitors. Several things have to fall into place in order to get people to climb out of their comfort zones and go to a new event: a compelling photo and description, the time of day, what else is scheduled, distance, traffic, and parking. The Padres games made parking difficult for East Village and Hilton events, and might have deterred tourists from leaving the hotel and driving through the Gaslamp.
As for overlap between audiences, there’s no way to know. That would require surveying a representative sample at all the sites and we didn’t have the resources to do any substantive evaluation.
I have heard there was an issue with some of the exhibitors who criticized the Art Labs for drawing crowds away from the hotel and suppressing sales. Is that true? And if so how does one reconcile these two competing interests?
I wasn’t involved with the commercial side this year so I can’t speak firsthand, but what I heard is that the dealers had strong sales. It seems unlikely that anyone who visited the Fair decided not to buy something because they got distracted by one of the Art Labs. Miami’s example shows that it’s definitely possible to have simultaneous events in multiple locations — in fact, it helps brand the city as an arts destination. That’s part of the maturation of San Diego’s art scene. Rather than scaling back out of fear of competition, let’s focus on growing the audience, broadening awareness of all the events taking place, and creating an environment of arts and culture supporters.
Were you able to deliver everything you promised in terms of logistical support to the participants of the Art Labs?
Yes. Art SD’s commitment was to promote the Art Labs as a key part of the Fair and Arts Month. In the RFP (request for proposal), we said that artists who were confirmed by July would be featured by name in the program catalog and on the website. When the list of artists grew to more than 100, this posed a problem for the catalog. We had to choose between giving more room for a description of the Art Lab and mentioning people by name. We decided to stick with what we’d promised but it could have gone either way. We used the website to give more detail, and reinforced the Art Labs through the Art SD Facebook page, Twitter feed, multiple email blasts to 8,000 subscribers, and radio/television/print/online editorial coverage. We also promoted the Art Labs in advertising placed in San Diego Magazine, Art Ltd., Art in America, The Art Newspaper, and others. The only place where we were unable to include the Art Labs was an iPhone app developed by an outside company.
This year’s Art Labs were fueled by enthusiasm on the part of the artists but no funding was offered to them. How do you sustain such a high level of participation in the future based on this model?
There will always be artists who want to exhibit in exchange for exposure, but it’s unlikely to get the quantity and quality of people we had this year. However Art SD isn’t intended to be a volunteer-driven organization. Relying entirely on volunteers isn’t sustainable. Art SD is a for-profit that isn’t making money yet due to the economy, the time needed to establish a reputation, the nature of the San Diego market, and as of this year, a competing fair. Ann Berchtold and Julie Schraeger, the Managing Director, are still paying for many of the expenses out of their pockets. They can’t continue to do that so they’re rethinking the business model and looking for ways to create revenue.
Let’s say they find a corporate sponsor, private foundation, or government agency to underwrite the Labs. The question then becomes “what are the implications of getting paid?” A funder has the right to put restrictions on what gets created. This year artists had free rein to do whatever they wanted as long as they could make the case that it related to San Diego’s identity. They were free to explore whatever avenues called to them and make it as simple or complicated as they desired. They were free to change their minds at the last minute (and some did). I think that helped contribute to the enthusiasm – but at the end of the day we all have to earn a living. The point is, there will be benefits and drawbacks to any approach, and this is still a very young venture that is attempting to figure out what will work. That’s the ethos of Art SD: experiment, take risks, try a lot of things.
Will you be returning next year? If not, what valuable lessons did you learn that you’d like to pass on to your successor?
Although I had a great time, I won’t be returning. I want to move on to bigger challenges. I’m not sure how many of the lessons from this year will apply, as next year’s Fair and Labs will probably look very different. But in general, the tips I’d give to the community are:
1) Simpler schedule with fewer events = greater attendance. Complicated schedule with more events = less attendance.
Duh, right? It’s so easy to see in hindsight but when we were accepting proposals back in April, our expectations were skewed by the 2010 Barrio Logan Block Party which drew 1000 attendees and several collectors. This year we learned the magic formula. To get the most attendance, be located within 1-2 miles of the Fair + have little or no competition + employ extensive, repeated promotion by the site as well as Art SD + a clear, consistent concept that can be explained in a few words + a compelling description and photo. Any deviation from that and headcount starts to drop off.
2) Ignore #1.
Too much focus on attendance and luring collectors makes the Art Labs just like the commercial galleries inside the Hilton. In the months leading up to Labor Day Weekend, people buzzed about the excitement of working with their colleagues and feeling part of something that was big, creative, wide-open and artist-driven. We started to link those nodes together, see the commonalities, learn our landscape, try out new skills, and make an authentic statement about our city. To me, that is the success of the Art Labs, and I was proud to be part of it.