Program at Contemporary offers professional guidance to local artists

Art of the Gala Oct 23 Austin

Austinites support the arts by buying art and attending locally-focused exhibits. But who supports the artists?

Alone their studios, even the most ambitious artists can feel adrift and alone. Enter Crit Group, an innovative program created by The Contemporary Austin and targeted specifically to local artists at a critical career juncture.

Free to participants, Crit Group not only offers entrepreneurial and business skills training, but gives artist one-on-one critical feedback from curators and art historians. And the program creates community, linking artists to each other and to arts institutions.

“Once out of art school, or facing a turning point in their career, it’s easy for even the most ambitious artists to feel like they’re in a vacuum,” says Andrea Mellard, the Contemporary’s director of public programming and community engagement.

“More than anything, we heard that emerging artists wanted to feel a greater sense of community as well as professional development guidance and some constructive critical feedback,” she says.

Now entering its third year Crit Group began after the Austin Museum of Art and Arthouse merged to become the Contemporary in 2011. The newly re-framed, museum embarked on an ambitious effort to establish Laguna Gloria as a sculpture park and launch an exhibit program focused on internationally recognized contemporary artists.

And while for decades the museum’s art school has employed local artists as instructors, how else could the Contemporary serve emerging and career-oriented artists in its own community?

The eight-month long Crit Group program is free to those who are admitted through a selective application process. Artists must have more than three years of post-university professional activity to be considered.

Crit Group culminates with participants featured in a group exhibit at Grayduck Gallery, a professional yet indie-minded gallery in East Austin.

“Artists are very resourceful and many have experience staging their own exhibits in alternative venues,” says Mellard. “But we give them a show in a professional gallery, and leading up to that, a series of focused interactions with curators and art historian.”

Recently announced this year’s Crit Group lineup of just eight artists typifies the program creative inclusiveness, with participating artists working in a range of media.

There’s photographer Sandy Carson and painter Sara Vanderbeek and also sculptor Amy Scofield, whose portfolio include a temporary public art installation in Austin. Also on the roster is Steve Parker, a musician and composer who works at the intersection public installation work and community art happenings.

Crit Group takes its name from the often trying ritual of the university art school critique, when students show their finished work to professors and peers for a public review. A ‘“crit” can be emotionally and socially brutal, known to derail some young artists.

And while offering critical feedback on an artist’s work is part of the Contemporary’s program, the Crit Group sessions also cover a range of practical topics from grant writing strategies to maintaining a healthy work-life balance to effectively working with other art world professionals such as curators, critics and gallerists.

There’s even a module on how to give the so-called elevator pitch.

Says Mellard: “Being able to clearly describe your work to donors or collectors or people not in the art world is so important. Sometimes opportunities can happen for an artist at social events. So we actually do a little role-playing.”

Andy Campbell, now assistant professor at USC’s Roski School of Art and Design, was co-leader and a co-creator of Crit Group, along with Mellard.

“Art-making is a part of being an artist — the biggest part — but there’s also the work of being an artist and creating a life from it. And that’s not always addressed thoroughly (in most art school),” he says. “But for an artist being able to sustain that mix is critical to success.”

Even in its own practice the Crit Group program models how the arts ecosystem functions.

The Contemporary pays Grayduck Gallery a fee to host the Crit Group exhibit. And the museum uses its own professional art installers for logistics.

As part of the exhibit, the artists give a public gallery talk, a way for them to put new public speaking strategies to work.

Artist Rebecca Marino said that while receiving constructive feedback on her work in Crit Group proved an invaluable, so did strengthening her professional skills. And that’s something she can leverage in her role as director of the artist-run Pump Project Gallery in East Austin.

“I always describe Austin’s art community as one that’s collaborative as opposed to competitive and this program helps to elevate that,” Marino says. “Crit Group is also important to Austin because these types of opportunities and programs are so few and far between here.”

Currently the Crit Group program receives no outside funding nor has any philanthropic underwriting.

As Campbell points out, the common clarion call to support local artists by buying their art is of course valid and necessary. But a direct transaction is only one of what must be several components that sustains a creative eco-system.

“Supporting a program like Crit Group is a small investment that nevertheless might be the difference between an artist in Austin flourishing or not flourishing,” says Campbell. “And when individual artists flourish, so does the every level of a city’s art community.”

Art of the Gala Oct 23 Austin