Tuesday, August 14, 2012

The Food Truck of the Art World: An Interview with the Founder of Art Cart

Posted By on Tue, Aug 14, 2012 at 11:05 AM

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Founded in 2010 by Hannah Flegelman, Art Cart NYC is a mobile exhibition space that encourages people to think imaginatively about exhibiting and experiencing art. Art Cart works with emerging artists to stage contemporary art installations around the parameters of a truck.

After participating in the Fab! Festival and Block Party and the New Museum’s Festival of Ideas for the New City, Flegelman teamed up with sisters Liz and Genevieve Dimmitt, founders of their own mobile spaces Etta Place and El Camino ARTRV, to organize Truck Yeah™: A Mobile Meet Up. Truck Yeah events bring together a group of trucks (art, fashion, music, design, and of course, food) to celebrate mobile arts and culture in NYC. Truck Yeah recently hosted a mobile meet up at Pine Box Rock Shop as part of Bushwick Open Studios 2012, featuring artists Allie Pohl, Ann Liv Young as Sherry, B. Thom Stevenson, Brooke David and the Brooklyn Art Library.

THE L: Could you tell me about how you got the idea for Art Cart and what influenced your decision to go this way with an art entrepreneurship project?

Hannah Flegelman: I came up with the idea entering my senior year of college. I had just spent the last 3-4 years interning in the art world, primarily in places that were heavily involved with the art market, like Christie’s auction house, Paula Cooper Gallery and a corporate art advisory firm that managed the art collection for Goldman Sachs. I found that by the time I reached my senior year, I was getting very frustrated with the art market and how art-making was, in my opinion, feeling cramped or stifled because young artists were compromising their practice by inhibiting their work so it would look like others’. We’re at a place in the art world where there are so many artists and so many galleries, that to make it as an artist is such a difficult process that a lot of artists don’t have the opportunity to show their work in respected places, and respected places can’t take on a new artist unless he or she has shown their work.

By the time I hit my senior year, it was the economic downturn and I was reading a lot about mobile food culture and pop up shops because so many buildings in the Lower East Side at the time were doing pop up shows to fill all the empty spaces that nobody could afford to buy or rent. They used these exhibitions to fill vacated real estate space, and I realized what I wanted to do was create an opportunity for emerging artists to show their work so that they could continue to build their resumes and do something that wasn’t expected—not make a single painting that was hung on a wall in a gallery that would get sold to some collector, but instead to think about people, about the environment, about external factors that aren’t going through your head when you’re isolated in your studio making something for a white gallery space.

That’s how Art Cart started. I wanted to find a way to give new artists a chance to show their work, and on the flip side, to give young people like us a chance to appreciate art without the assumption that art is a closed world and that if you really want to see good art, you have to get into the Christie’s auction or you have to get dressed up to go to Chelsea and expect that the girl at reception will be rude to you. I wanted to break that down so that young people can realize that appreciating art and all aspects of culture doesn’t have to be such a high-brow thing, that it’s really something that we can all share, and should share.

THE L: Do you know if there were art trucks or anything similar before Art Cart?

HF: I couldn’t find one. I’d heard that there was something in San Francisco that in some way involved art in a truck, though I didn’t know much about it. My inspiration mostly came from food trucks. I had wanted to create a scavenger hunt where I would tweet where I was and people would come find me and I would tweet again if the truck moved, which is exactly what the food trucks were doing. I hadn’t heard of any other art trucks, but now there are maybe 10 or 15 of them.

THE L: So where do you take the truck? Do you have a place or an area that you prefer?

HF: So far, I don’t own a truck. Whenever I host an Art Cart event, I’m renting a truck. The easiest way to put on these shows is to participate in larger festivals that have already taken out permits.

The show in October was the first time we did a show that was solely ours. It was really difficult. I’m learning that being in Brooklyn has been better and easier for us. Not only are the communities here really receptive to these kinds of shows and events, but it is also logistically easier to be here. In Manhattan there are a lot of regulations, for permits, everybody’s on heightened awareness—will the cops come find us? Are we going to get kicked out? Or fined? At Bushwick Open Studios, that was the first time we parked on a street that wasn’t shut down for us.

THE L: That’s a big step.

HF: Yeah, we spent two nights prior to the event putting our own cones out and constantly checking on the spots, and bringing our truck there and back, moving things around, making friends with the neighbors to smooth everything over. There’s a lot involved.

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THE L: I think of Truck Yeah as one of the stronger parts of Art Cart’s repertoire. When you were coming up with the idea for Art Cart, did you have Truck Yeah specifically in mind? Something for it to be centered around?

HF: We came up with the name for Truck Yeah and the idea for Truck Yeah later on. I think the way I envisioned Art Cart was that I wanted to take certain steps to grow it, and Truck Yeah was step 2 or step 3. My first goal: put on an art show in a truck—successfully install it, have people come, see what happens. If that worked, I always had in mind a sort of truck fest.

THE L: Truck fest!

HF: I remember I used to call it a mobile army—we would all just show up. That’s why we call it a mobile meet up; we want everyone to come together. Instead of having a club house, we would be making it.

So I did always have Truck Yeah in mind, but I knew I wasn’t going to go from 0 to 60 immediately. We would have had to have a couple shows where I was managing one truck, one artist before I could take on everybody. What I hope to do next is have Truck Yeah in other cities, then ultimately have a day where we have these events going on at the same time, and some kind of system is set up where the events are being recorded and people in one city can see what’s going on in the other city, who can see another city on another screen, so it’s like a Truck Yeah day.

THE L: Which is in line with the social media approach.

HF: Absolutely, and also—I know this is cheesy—art, that is a language that everybody understands and that everybody can connect to. It doesn’t matter where you are, because all the events will have something people in another city can relate to, even if they don’t speak the same language. I’ve been talking to Barbara Low, an Argentinian painter, about having her set up an Art Cart in Buenos Aires. It would be her art or she could oversee it. How great would it be if the art scene in Bushwick could be connected to the art scene in Buenos Aires through a video screen, each seeing what they would do with an art truck. It’s just another way to have a conversation. You don’t need to have some fancy curator fly to the Guggenheim to stage a show, all you need is a video camera and people who want to show up.

THE L: When you talked about it being 2009 as you started and the economic issue being a big factor, I wonder, is it the biggest factor? If this project has potential in places that are totally different with all sorts of artistic interests and styles, places that may have been in economic crisis long before this problem, or in different kinds of crises altogether, is it due more to a development in art rather than a reaction to developments in external factors?

HF: A little bit of both. What I’m doing or people are starting to do, is more a reaction to a development in technology and simply being the millennial generation. This is what we expect these days, that everything can be brought to you. But sure, it could be a development in art itself. There are still many artists who are making art in what I’m calling a “traditional” way, plenty of artists who make installations in museums and galleries. I think, no pun intended, the vehicle is what’s evolving. The economic downturn helped, because it reminded people that we might need to get creative about how we make our art, how we distribute it, how we want to go experience it. Does some twenty-something just out of college want to pay $25 every time he or she wants to go to MoMA? Or do you want to check twitter and see that this art truck is here, and all they have to do is get on the subway or walk? I think art evolves depending on what it’s being made for; if some artist is still making work for a gallery or auctions, that isn’t changing. But if the artists decide they need a different method of distribution, then they do their work that way.

THE L: If we talk about social media and technology putting its footprint on art, we should talk about Defaced. Could you describe how you met Allie Pohl and why you went this direction?

HF: I met Allie Pohl in a very unexpected way. I first met her mother in line for coffee.

THE L: How great art relationships are born.

HF: Yes! I saw her while visiting California, she was wearing an Ideal Woman necklace, Allie’s most well-known image. I commented on how cool the necklace was, and she told me she was in town visiting her daughter who was an artist and made these pieces.

THE L: Did you recognize it as hers?

HF: No, it was the first time I’d ever seen it before. She directed me down the street, where one of Allie’s neons were up. I blindly reached out to her after meeting her mother, introduced myself, and said “I’m very fascinated by your work and would love to talk about doing a show together.” She wrote me back immediately, saying she looked up the projects I’d done and loved them, and that even though she lived in LA, she wanted to come to New York to do this with me.

Defaced evolved out of our initial plans for our show. We were originally thinking about doing something which involved the Ideal Woman directly, but at a certain point we realized, because Allie had an intense fascination with media and how—for women primarily, but it can go either way—the media shapes the way we define ourselves. She had spent so much time looking at traditional media with airbrushed models in magazines and pop culture, TV shows, celebrities, and what that does to us. She said that the game has totally changed now that we have social media like Facebook and Instagram, because we have the ability to curate our entire persona. Your online persona can be completely different from who you are in person. That’s were Defaced came in; we were asking who is the ideal woman now? It could be anyone, or whomever you decide. Defaced basically confronts the ideal woman of the social media age. Allie wanted to survey as many people as possible and ask how you curate your online persona. What influences you to curate it a certain way? Do you read certain people’s blogs, follow certain people’s tweets, and do you take that onto yourself and do the same thing for yours? How do you pick your profile picture? What do you put on your profile, what makes something facebook-worthy? These are things we think about all the time, whether we address it or not.

THE L: I thought Defaced was a particularly appropriate and relevant choice for Art Cart, insofar as it was very careful about talking about social media—you get the hint that it’s suggesting we be wary, but not so naïve that it rejects it completely.

HF: The project would be impossible without it. Allie’s goal was just to make people aware of what they’re doing, positive or negative. But the point is to recognize that something’s changing.

THE L: The way Art Cart went about that project at Bushwick Open Studios seemed just in line with that. It was bringing social media to people, almost putting it in their face, or even having it put themselves in their own face. Do you see yourself taking on projects in the future that play in this way to the potential strengths of Art Cart? As in, projects that bring art to people can happen on the internet alone, but this is bringing art to people to have them participating, involved in and confronting it.

HF: I think this is the first show we did that really accomplished what Art Cart’s mission is, which is to get people to interact, to participate, to define what they’re looking at and listening to and experiencing. People were surprised, asking, ‘where’s the “art” part?’ and I said it’s not just about fine art, we’re actually doing something this time, and we are getting you as visitors to actually be enablers and to be defining what it is that we’re seeing and talking about. I agree that this is the first time we executed what I want Art Cart to do, and I hope that we’ll take on projects like this. That’s not to say I don’t also want to show the work of artists who I really like, but I really felt that we were doing something with this show in a way that we hadn’t done yet. Doing something rather than showing something.

THE L: ‘Doing something’ is a topic I wanted to talk about with Art Cart, since it’s an issue that has to come up when you do something that is so much more active in terms of medium, and it lines up with a project that is so much more active and—maybe not confrontational—but certainly challenging. Art Cart seems to have the potential to be a form of social action, meant in some way to have an impact not just on art, but on people and society. When you came up with Art Cart, did you have in mind a more socially active undertaking involved in getting itself stuck into society?

HF: I did in theory, in my ideal vision of what Art Cart was going to be. With any venture, it’s very rare to reach your ideal vision on the first try. We really nailed it with this show, and as I take the next step, it will be an interesting process to see how we can build on what we’ve started since I do think that this worked in a different way from how my other shows did.

THE L: Did you make an entry for Art Cart in Defaced? It probably has a take on how social media shapes it.

HF: Not consciously! I submitted many comments to Defaced, especially in the beginning. But they were mostly my personal feelings. It’s like your diary. That’s what excited us about the website, you can really write anything you want, and it’s fun when you read comments on the Facebook page or Twitter stream that you wanted to write yourself but realized you didn’t write it and it was somebody else feeling the same way.

THE L: Reading the archived comments, you could see some of the people who wrote weren’t quite ready to let go and be honest, and others felt safe to say anything true and real.

HF: Some people were being just being polite and contributing.

THE L: Some were being trolls or spammers.

HF: But then you get to the people who were really there. And those are amazing to read. I did put a lot of personal things, which are affected by Art Cart in a profound way. I curate my Facebook page to reflect all of the art things that I do, and I’m always promoting Art Cart on my personal page.

THE L: Interesting, because a gallery is in so many ways like a Facebook page of art, in which you’ve got the ability to think about what you want to do with the paintings you’ve got, what kind of paintings you’re going to show, when people will be allowed to see it, who will be allowed. But thinking about Art Cart not just commenting on gallery or museum art, but being more confrontational by putting things out there so people ask questions like they do in this project about social media—do you think it gets viewers to ask questions about galleries, or the legitimacy of art in galleries versus this more imperfect, natural form?

HF: In my other professional life, I manage a private art collection and work with an art advisor and galleries every single day. I love going to galleries and shows, but there’s something always a little too perfect about them. There’s a veil. It shows among the people who work there; people you see at the front desk set the tone for your entire experience. You see someone who is tight-lipped with you or ignoring you altogether, and suggesting he or she serves a world that is above you, or beyond you. That’s a different experience of art when you go in, and you can immediately identify, if you work there, who’s a student, who’s an important person in the room, who’s trying to make you believe he or she’s an important person but isn’t.

There are so many social factors involved in that world, and I don’t want that to be the only image of what the art world is. Art Cart, instead of having this veil, is very straightforward, you might be able to see how we put an exhibition together, see all the work that’s gone in. In some ways it’s more honest.

THE L: And it seems more communicative. I love paintings, but I’ll admit to having gone to a museum and the purity of an exhibition or the behavior code you have over your shoulder going in to look at paintings loaded with deep, raw emotion, dulled the power of the experience.

HF: And there’s an implication that it’s above you. In some ways, art is, because you’re constantly trying to work through something when you’re experiencing it, but for this project I wanted it to be very clear that it’s not above you, it’s a part of you and you are partly making it.

THE L: Before we finish, any future plans?

HF: Taking steps to get closer to having this ultimate goal of having this city-wide/world-wide, truck yeah!

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