Gettin’ Down With The Underground

February 17, 2015 · Archives, Artists, Essays + Reviews, Featured

“..this impulse of artists building spaces and communities for themselves and struggling with the relevancy of their discipline to a broader public has a long history.”—Abigail Satinsky, Introduction to Support…

“..this impulse of artists building spaces and communities for themselves and struggling with the relevancy of their discipline to a broader public has a long history.”—Abigail Satinsky, Introduction to Support Networks

“Meaning becomes compensated through its connection to an infrastructure. The infrastructure provides a chorus of intentions that facilitate a more robust interpretive model.”—Nato Thompson, Contributions to a Resistant Visual Culture Glossary,” The Journal of Aesthetics and Protest

In the above quotes from Support Networks, editor Abigail Satinksy and contributor Nato Thompson extol the legacy of DIY creative collectivity and resourcefulness. There’s an old saying that “necessity is the mother of invention.” In the spirit of that adage, I chose to have a conversation with three leaders in Chicago’s bustling experimental performance scene, each of whom has made their own way, their own way. Marie Casimir is the Associate Director of Links Hall, Latham Zearfoss is the co-producer of Chances Dances, and Kevin Simmons is the Founder and Acting Executive Director of High Concept Laboratories. I offer the following article as proof that the title “Gatekeeper” can indeed be aspirational for us self-producing artists, particularly since most of us produce content that doesn’t garner traditional support. These three individuals I chose for this interview aren’t just profiles in resourcefulness for themselves but for the collective creative community—as we underground folks know all too well, relationships are KEY for building a sustainable career in the arts!

Based on my own anecdotal assessments of needs as an artist and arts administrator, I compiled a list of the top five tips for the creative in Chicago’s experimental art world, and asked Marie, Latham, and Kevin for immediately actionable tips on each of these topics:

1) Best 2015 Creative Practice Tip (e.g Time Management, Collaboration)

2) Best 2015 Marketing Tip (e.g. Social Media vs. Email vs. Events; Redefining ‘Audience Engagement’, etc.)

3) Best 2015 Fundraising Tip (e.g. Crowdfunding vs. Grants vs. VIP Patrons; 501(c)3 vs. Fiscally-Sponsored)

4) Best 2015 Team-Building Tip (e.g. Nepotism vs. Board vs. Volunteers vs. Consultants)

5) Best 2015 Presenting Tip (e.g. RFPs, Residencies, Contracts, Tech Riders, Finding Producers/Investors, etc.)

Latham Zearfoss

Latham Zearfoss

1) Best 2015 Creative Practice Tip

Prioritize making and seeing work. I think it’s easy to get caught up gauging your success as an artist through the success of your career path—whether you’re working for nonprofits, or within academia, or just baking cupcakes. But financial gain is not, hopefully, why most of us choose creative practices. It’s easier said than done, but whatever your situation, make sure to get into the studio (whatever that means to you) and go out and see the work that is being made and shown in your immediate vicinity.

2) Best 2015 Marketing Tip

Pick the five people whom you’d most like to show up to the exhibition/opening/event in question and invite them directly—in person. But of course, you should do this in addition to using all the other tools you have at your disposal.

3) Best 2015 Fundraising Tip

I’ve always loved rent parties and secret cafes—social events hosted in someone’s home that have either a priced menu or entry fee. But those events aren’t always so profitable and are more helpful when you’re aiming to build an audience over time, perhaps even seducing them into a bigger ask down the road.

4) Best 2015 Team-Building Tip

Diversity has become a dirty word—a hollow ’90s concept tainted by neo-liberalism. But if you think of yourself as being invested in inclusivity and equality across lines of difference, then you should incorporate the intention of inclusion into ALL of your practices, wherever possible. Even if you’re putting on a Yiddish play with an all-female cast, you can reach out to transwomen in the Jewish community, cast curvier and/or older women in leading roles, etc. There are always ways for us to push for inclusion (and representation), and this should be at the center of any team-building effort in my mind.

5) Best 2015 Presenting Tip

My boyfriend Matthew has a saying that I really like: “If it isn’t a HELL YES, its a NO.” Basically make sure you aren’t saying yes to every single thing that comes your way. Or if you are, give yourself a time limit on that shit. It’s too much, and at some point you have to set the terms for yourself, set your worth and stick by it. This doesn’t mean you can’t be flexible. You should. If you have the opportunity to present for a non-profit fundraiser for an organization you believe in and a fancy curator or two will be there also, then that might just be worth the material and time costs of donating. If the MCA wants you to do something, don’t simply do it because its the MCA. Do it because you’re going to get paid and you believe in the premise under which you’re presenting. Oh yeah, and remember to trust yourself to determine these things. No one knows your limits better than you.

Marie Casimir


1) Best 2015 Creative Practice Tip

2014 was a difficult year for race relations in this country. I had to reevaluate my role in the arts community as a black woman and the relationships that I choose to cultivate and the collaborations that I foster. Many of my artistic projects have been with people of color, but working in the contemporary arts field in Chicago (on the North Side) it is really easy for me to become isolated and not work with POC. Luckily I work with a brilliant and conscious staff, and we openly discuss race, ethnicity, gender identity, disability, and how we can incorporate that into our decision making. Even so, I still often find myself as one of the few persons of color at the table or in the studio. So my “Best Creative Practice Tip” for ALL artists and administrators for 2015 is to be intentional about your collaborations without resorting to tokenism. Make connections that will enrich your practice, because the obvious choice will lead you to the obvious product. Have open dialogue about why it is that you are choosing to collaborate. Not everyone will be open, it may be a hot mess—you may feel uncomfortable, you may be offended or offend someone. It’s still better to engage your entire community than a sliver of it.

2) Best 2015 Marketing Tip

2015 is the year to target your social media efforts. Which platforms are actually working for you? How many more people are following you on Instagram or retweeting your brilliance?. Do you have a solid Facebook advertising plan? Do you get more views when you post a video on Facebook or YouTube? One thing I’ve learned is that it’s not about what the “right strategy” is. You can look into real analytics (most platforms offer easy infographics or simply pay attention to activity). At this point we’ve all had time to throw the spaghetti at the wall and see what sticks.

3) Best 2015 Fundraising Tip

For individual artists or any small nonprofit arts organization, the best fundraising plan involves a good combo platter that leaves room for creativity. The tried and true methods are always going to be important—apply for grants, cultivate relationships with individuals who want to support your work. The opportunities happen when you can take a risk and try something new. The folks at GYST (an artist professional resource organization) suggest many alternatives including hosting a backyard movie and charging a fee for popcorn and refreshments, a money-catching machine, block party, and the list goes on. Also check out some local sites for help: Chicago Artists Resource and Arts and Business Council of Chicago.

4) Best 2015 Team-Building Tip

I love volunteers, especially the ones that consistently show up. The NEA released a new study titled “Why People Attend the Arts,” and one of the top reasons was to socialize with friends or family. This is not groundbreaking. I am thinking DUH. But sometimes those of us producing the art forget about the social aspect of participating and supporting art-making. The same likely goes for volunteering. Find opportunities to engage your volunteers in social activities that also lead to supporting your work.

5) Best 2015 Presenting Tip

If you are looking to be presented by a venue the best thing you can do is develop a relationship with the people that work there. I don’t mean just the major decision makers, because you never know who can advocate for your work. Make sure you are authentic about the relationship and not looking for something that is transactional. Be generous to supporting the artists that are making work at that venue. Generosity goes so far in all aspects of production and #artistlife and #properlife (stole those hashtags from Janice Bond – her Facebook posts are stellar).

Kevin Simmons

1) Best 2015 Creative Practice Tip

For me, as well as for so many of the independent artists and curators I have worked with, I have seen time and again that strategic collaboration, development of structured partnerships, establishment of informal mentorship, and devising of some creative accountability processes are often of immense value to all facets of one’s creative practice.

It’s something people often shy away from for a number of reasons, including fearing it may be a drain on their time, or thinking it may be distracting or discouraging to bring someone who doesn’t “get it” into their process and goals. That can be true, if you’re not being smart about it, by not engaging the right partners or supporters, or, as is more often the case in my experience, by not sufficiently trusting the good partners and allies you have engaged—and therefore not bringing them into your goals or process or challenges in a way that enables them to truly support you.

Good collaborations and good allies shouldn’t create added layers of complication—rather, they help simplify and clarify your understanding of where you are and what you want to achieve. It does require the proper balance of being methodical and following one’s intuition/instinct. Sure, it’s important to have an editor’s eye, reign things in, keep your life and mind manageable and your goals in clear view, but don’t trample your own curiosity, imagination, personally authentic communication style, ability to dream, and drive to create for the sake of staying implacably “on-mission” in every moment of your day or in every interaction with a potential ally or collaborator whom you might somehow bring into your process. This a balance between methodology/discipline, and intuition/unmediated expression is one that artists are always navigating, and one that independent artists, especially, have a lot of experience sorting out for themselves in their creative work. Use those skills, because the rewards could be major, in ways that your current position may not even permit you to conceive of.

Having a sounding board and a couple people to stay current with about your plans is something that not only may lighten your load (you will always be surprised by how many people out there genuinely can and want to help, and who will commit to doing so in a structured way), but it also can be affirming and focusing to a degree that has further major material consequences. Improving time management, sustaining motivation, generating momentum, providing an imperative for longer-term planning, expansion of one’s horizons in terms of both the types of other support that may be out there, and the types of contexts in which to assess the meaning of your work—these are some of the things that can result.

Do not discount the value of encouragement and the contagiousness of enthusiasm, and the power that even one informed cheerleader can have upon your creative and professional trajectory; nor should you discount the likelihood that unexpected and very positive new ideas, opportunities, and working methods or motivations may emerge from a new partnership, even if the partnership is as simple as having another colleague or mentor or well-attuned and insightful friend whom you have a set lunch with, every week, two weeks, or month, to talk about what you’re up to and why, where you think you’re going with it, and the struggles or excitements you are encountering along the way.

2) Best 2015 Marketing Tip

Your cumulative online identity is a crucial thing, but as more and more attention is paid to online marketing, offline identity and “marketing” practice is something that people ought not lose sight of, as it is something to which people are responsive in important and different ways.

For example, this can include physical posters and flyers and merchandise, talking about your practice and projects, getting your friends and partners to talk about your practice and projects, in professional and social settings alike, and also outreach to print media. These avenues can generate different and sometimes deeper degrees of interest and awareness, develop new and unlikely audiences who haven’t necessarily been sorted by an algorithm or their anticipated/self-stated online preferences, and they also corroborate and balance the glossy images or composed statements that you put on your website or social media profile, with tangible, in-person authenticity. A well-selected glowing press quote on a Facebook page will draw my attention to something, or raise my conscious or unconscious opinion of an artist’s work, but nothing gets me in a seat or to a show like a friend, or even a friend of a friend, saying, in-person, with supporting detail and palpable excitement, “This thing is super interesting. Seriously, do not miss it.”

Also: document, document, document. Have great pictures, have them well-organized so you (or your staff or intern or friend who is helping you out) can find what you want, when you want it. Have some video of you and your work, in studio, in performance, in a short interview about who you are and what you do and why you do it. Take notes about the development of a project—even if, especially if it seems mundane—and go ahead and film or photograph those, because this is the stuff of your life, this is the stuff of your work, this is part of your identity, any many people may be interested in it. People’s fascination with art is not just based upon the impact that the art has on them, as an audience member, in a gallery or performance setting. It often has a great deal to do with their fascination with and curiosity about the fact of art-making itself, that murky and marvelous process, and the highs and lows and problem solving, courage, and fortitude and transformation that it entails. Edit and organize well, but do save your things and engage people who know what they’re doing to document, shoot, and edit for you. And by engage, let me be more specific: even if you are reaching out to your friends, roommates, etc, you must compensate them, and credit them, and thank them. I’m all about a barter economy, and there can be real value in other favors (cook them dinners, give them some of your work, give them a tutorial or class in something you know about that may be of use or value to them), but if you can, offer to pay them. Because those people are working artists too, and even if they’ll be happy to do it as a 100% favor, this is part of their own practice, so you should give them the honest unpressured chance to make that decision on their own about whether they’ll accept your compensation.

3) Best 2015 Fundraising Tip

This is a big and important topic; I’ll just address the 501c3 versus fiscally sponsored piece of it.

Unless you know, really know, that you want or need to start—and run—a 501c3, and then you have really questioned that sense of knowing and asked around for good advice on the question, do not launch yourself into that process.

However, for nearly any organization, or an especially-organized individual/collective with possibly-fundable work, get fiscally sponsored, ASAP. Depending upon the sponsor, it can cost virtually nothing and take virtually no time to set it up. More and more foundations and their boards are catching up with the times and changing their application requirements to allow for funding organizations that have fiscal sponsorship but do not have—and that do not necessarily have any intention of seeking—501c3 status. Our organization, High Concept Labs, is one great fiscal sponsorship option for Chicago-based artists or projects, and there are other benefits we try to provide to our fiscal sponsees, whether sharing research about relevant funders, grants and deadlines, a little bit of messaging or editing help, facilitating some introductions to funders, et cetera.

Fractured Atlas is of course go-to, but do not underestimate the benefits that could come from having the fiscally-sponsoring organization actually know you, be familiar with your funding landscape and peers and general community, and have some personal and not simply financial investment in your path. So I would recommend that you seek a fiscal sponsor who has some alignment of both geography and mission, i.e., an organization whose interest and work overlap with your field or thematic area of inquiry, and/or that generally is an advocate or resource for independent artists.

4) Best 2015 Team-Building Tip

Everyone is going to have their own process that works for them, and that will be deeply informed by their own experience. I would say, identify what your inclinations are, and trust them, but also challenge them, because the results will likely surprise you. If you’re inclined to only try to build teams among people whom you already know, make sure you do some sort of general (if still targeted) announcement, so that you can see what it feels like to draw in people who will have fresh perspectives and objective appreciation for your work, as well as, potentially, considerable experience in your field, and who will have resources and experiences and networks that vary from your own. If you’re inclined to do open calls for help or support, make sure you’re not overlooking the talented friend or friend of a friend who is between jobs and whom you trust, and with whom you have a communication shorthand, and with whom this could be a neat short-term partnership (assuming proper communication and mutual respect, compensation, and a no-fault ‘out’ clause if anything is feeling amiss). People often say don’t work with your friends, but I have some friends with whom working together is such a gratifying and deepening part of our relationship. It can be difficult to navigate, but just be honest and clear and respectful and take a step back frequently to ‘check-in,’ and don’t let the working part of things completely eclipse the other ways you like to relate.

It can be really hard to trust people. People will disappoint you and they will betray you, in ways that you cannot fathom and that can be hard to accept even when they are staring you in the face. It’s a horrible feeling and can have massive real professional setbacks in addition to the personal impacts. Don’t let this keep you from trusting and team building. Just let it just be a lesson in how necessary and important it is to build and sustain a good team and relationships.

On that note, my final tip here could go under any answer: gratitude. Never forget that saying thank you does not cost you anything, even if you say it 100 times, or really loudly, or to a crowd of people, or to a journalist. Showing that you have volunteers, friends, colleagues, staff, other supporters, etc., who have helped you with something does not dilute the value of your product. It shows that you’re not alone, that you have people who believe in you, that you have networks to bring to bear on the goals you wish to achieve, and that you know how to activate and sustain those networks. If people perceive the presence of a working team, of real respect and gratitude, that team becomes one they want to be on, and that holds for volunteers, staff, funders, and the friend who might do you a favor.

5) Best 2015 Presenting Tip

Don’t be afraid to do a workshop performance of something at an appropriate venue, if you’ve got a great kernel of an idea and have figured out how to transmit it, but don’t necessarily know where to go from there. And seek multiple points of entry to bring people into your process and into any presentation, whether associated panel discussions, working with a scholar or dramaturge, connecting with a community organization, cross-marketing, or simply finding an unlikely space to present that will appeal to your intended audience.

And, of course, check out High Concept Labs as an option for a residency, or a one-off event!

Felicia Holman

Lifelong Chicagoan Felicia Holman is co-founder/Communication Director of Honey Pot Performance, Marketing/Studio Manager at Links Hall, and curator of the 4th annual Columbia College Chicago student exhibition, Engage/Connect. With Honey Pot, Felicia creates and presents original interdisciplinary performance which engages audience and inspires community. Credits include The Ladies Ring Shout (2011), Price Point (2013), Juke Cry Hand Clap (2014), and current work-in-progress, Masking Her (2015-2016).

In addition to performing, Felicia writes essays & content for online outlets including Sixty Inches From Center Magazine, The Working House Blog, and This Is HCL (the High Concept Laboratories blog). Felicia is an admitted Facebook junkie and begins a five-month artist residency at the Washington Park Arts Incubator this April. Felicia sums up her dynamic artrepreneurial life in 3 words—“Creator, Connector, Conduit.”

Kevin Simmons is the Founder and Acting Executive Director of High Concept Laboratories (HCL). HCL is an integrated arts service organization and nimble cultural platform that supports the generation, presentation, and exploration not only of new artistic works, but also of experimental models for educational programming, artist advocacy, and cross-disciplinary partnership. HCL believes its strategies of innovation, incubation, and investment to be vital not only for the success of an artist’s practice (however they choose to define success), but also to the diversity, impact, and necessary evolution of a community’s platforms for individual and collective expression. The organization is now celebrating the 5th anniversary of its flagship Sponsored Artists Program.

Marie Casimir is Associate Director of Links Hall, produces Poonie’s Cabaret, and co-produces Links Hall’s Artistic Associate Festivals and NPN Residencies. She serves on the Audience Architects Steering Committee for Citywide Marketing/PR Initiative and has served on an AA Steering Committee for Diversity and Inclusion. She is the Arts & Culture Community Consultant at the Haitian Consulate in Chicago and Chair of the DuSable Heritage Association Haitian Film Festival Committee. When Marie is not producing art she tries to squeeze in her own performance and writing practice. In 2015 she will be touring with Sharon Bridgforth’s “River See,” performing her own work at North Park University, Constellation, and a couple small house gatherings. Marie holds a Masters in Nonprofit Administration (MNA) from North Park University and B.A .in Journalism from Ithaca College.

Latham Zearfoss is an artist and cultural producer living and working in Chicago. His artwork often centers on reclaiming historical and mythological texts, and revising them to incorporate radical notions of love and sex, possibility and probability. His commitment to art and activism has also manifested in the creation of sporadic, temporary utopias like Pilot TV and Chances Dances. Latham graduated from The School of the Art Institute of Chicago with a BFA in 2008 and the University of Illinois at Chicago with an MFA in 2011. He has exhibited his work internationally and all over the U.S.