How have collectives become the current business model for success? We have seen the success of collectives with the Guerilla Girls (1985), the influential feminist artists pressing to change the gender and political inequalities that continue to dominate Western culture, and Marcel Dzama, founder of the Royal Art Lodge (1996), who devised collaborative drawing events that helped bring the medium back into the center stage of high art. These artists helped to bring the model of contemporary collectives back to the mainstream. Craft artists are simultaneously joining the ranks of these established collectives, by stepping outside of the traditional studio model and singular creative visions to engage and interact with national and global public communities.
Embracing the global collective mentality, we visit two groups that are already reaching impressive levels of achievement. London-based Studio Manifold’s work spans beyond the dialogs between craft, digital technologies, and sculpture. Its members have been recipients of the prestigious Jerwood Makers Award and have participated as ceramic artists in residence at the Victoria and Albert Museum in the UK. In the US, members of the Kansas City Urban Potters are researching and re-contextualizing the role of traditional pottery and social engagement. Having raised capital for their start-up through crowdfunding and arts organizational initiatives, they are now an established LLC with an art gallery, studios, and a growing educational clay center in the heart of Kansas City.
Studio Manifold, London, England
Edith Garcia: Describe Studio Manifold. When was it founded? What were the driving forces behind your mission as a collective group? How do you
Studio Manifold: Studio Manifold began at The Royal College of Art. We began the MA course in 2008, and the original nine members—Zachary Eastwood-Bloom, Ellie Doney, Hanne Enemark, Amy Hughes, Sun Ae Kim, Ian McIntyre, Hanne Mannheimer, Matthew Raw, and Bethan Lloyd Worthington—were a group of artists and designers wanting to evolve. In the summer of 2009, we embarked on a site-specific project at the Sigmund Freud Museum in North London. The project was very rewarding and as a group, we were exposed to the broad range of skills and sensibilities that we possessed collectively. It sparked conversations about setting up together after graduation, and the nine of us eventually came together in search of a workspace.
We put all of our work and equipment into storage and started to scour London for suitable spaces. It was vital for us to find a blank canvas for a studio in order to create our own layout and identity. In August 2010, we became aware of a railway archway space in Hoxton, East London, that was big, malleable, and within our price range. There was no business plan or strategy, just enthusiasm and a will to move on together. We divided the space into nine equal spots, and crucially designed large areas for communal gathering and making. We immediately saw the power and potential of the group, as everyone assisted in rebuilding and organizing, and every bill was equally divided. We also came together and decided on the name Manifold, which, in our case, means many hands. Our mission grew as we settled into the workspace; we supported each other’s work and knew that we could work well communally in a shared space.
EG: Each member works in such diverse ways, exploring experimental pottery, large-scale installations, and digital technologies. How does this level of cross-disciplinary work affect Studio Manifold?
SM–Matthew Raw: The fact that we all initially came from the ceramic and glass department of the Royal College of Art was critical. It meant that we all had a similar foundation when we set up the studio even though we all did very different work. But that core of materials, making, and process ran through all of our practices regardless of whether we considered ourselves artists, craftspeople, designers, or sculptors, etc.
Since the beginning, experimentation and pushing each other to expand our ideas has been crucial. Because we took on speculative, collective projects, there was not the pressure to sell or stick to a particular style. The studio is now established, and things continue to change, but the essence of that encouraging, innovative environment remains and those qualities are what we look for in a new member. Ben Pearey (our newest member) embodies this attitude and has made a bold, exciting start to his career with us.
SM–Zachary Eastwood-Bloom: One thing that I particularly like about the studio is the constant informal critique, support, and advice that occurred from day one. Because we all trust each other, I can turn to Ian, Matt, or Amy and say, “What do you think of this? How would you make this?” and get an honest and direct response that, even if it might not be the answer I want to hear or like, it is not personal and is highly informed and genuinely well meaning. Our support of one another is one of the most valuable things about Manifold.
EG: Studio Manifold members have received the prestigious Jerwood Makers Prize, and residencies at the Victoria and Albert Museum. Has the collective structure helped you reach this point in your careers?
SM–Amy Hughes: I think so. It is easier to get noticed as a larger group than individually. I think being part of Manifold has helped to shape our careers in the same way that it has maintained healthy competition within the group. We bounce concepts off one other, which feeds productivity, as well as motivates and encourages us. Different opportunities are right for different members, but there is a collective push and strive to achieve them. We work well and are a strong supporting network for each other’s practices.
EG: Can you share some of your experiences or tips that have allowed you to continue to grow and succeed as a collective?
SM–AH: Communication is vital. Everyone has their strengths and weaknesses, but we know we work cohesively when we come together as a team. We each take on different roles and responsibilities, ensuring that everyone is accountable when it comes to day-to-day and project-oriented tasks. There is no space for selfishness. Our studio is a very social space, and it has been kept as open plan as possible; no one here wants to be an isolated maker working in solitude. Across our desks is where the best and most interesting conversations happen and these lead to exciting developments in our work and even collaborations. We support and respect each other, which is fundamentally crucial.
EG: Do you find that you have been more successful in terms of receiving support from funding bodies as a collective group?
SM–MR: For some reason, we have never actually applied for funding as a studio. We always focused our time and efforts in submitting proposals, getting projects, and executing them. We have received lots of attention due to our ability to produce cohesive, innovative exhibitions where we can deliver the whole package/process. There have been paid projects, and payment in different ways (publications, skill swaps, etc.); however, not going for substantial funding as Studio Manifold is something we look back on and would probably change. That said, the studio’s reputation has helped us individually. Lots of us have received different amounts of funding throughout our careers.
Kansas City Urban Potters | Kansas City, Missouri
EG: Can you describe Kansas City Urban Potters and when and why it was founded?
Kansas City Urban Potters (KCUP)–Meredith Host: Kansas City Urban Potters is a collective made up of seven ceramic artists: Chandra DeBuse, Paul Donnelly, Jana Evans, Rain Harris, Meredith Host, Erica Iman, and Alex Watson. We initially formed in 2014 at a coffee shop while discussing Kansas City and the unique ceramics community here. We realized that each of us was individually looking to make greater connections and wanted to find ways to unify and promote many of the potters who live and work in the region. The idea of working together to advocate for studio pottery interested us because we could pool our resources as a group to make a more significant impact through different types of programming. Ultimately, we wanted to continue to cultivate the already active and supportive community in the region and continue to build on Kansas City’s rich ceramics history.
EG: Social engagement has a strong presence in your members’ practices. Is this the underlying agency within your collective?
KCUP: All of our members value social practice. This takes on many meanings and forms to our group, including demonstrating for youth groups in elementary schools and universities to spark interest in young audiences, and sharing techniques with current ceramics students. We also regularly have one or two interns who can learn what is involved in being part of a collective and how we each approach the studio work/life balance. It also inspired us to host a significant annual event in the heart of Kansas City where we educate visitors about contemporary handmade ceramics as well as host a ceramics potluck to strengthen the clay bonds within Kansas City and the Midwest region.
Our mission is to expand the visibility of contemporary studio pottery to local and regional audiences through invitational exhibitions, public lectures, and community-based events. We developed our mission after considering what was necessary to each of us individually and how we could accomplish our vision as a group. Coming together as a collective happened organically, and the idea of working as a group made sense because we shared common interests and goals, such as engaging with the community, doing workshops and lectures, hosting events, promoting and selling work, and having a shared studio space and retail shop. There is strength in numbers, and each of us brought different and distinct skill sets to the organization.
EG: Can you share any impactful learning experiences you had as you set up the collective?
KCUP: Initially, we were going to have one or two sales a year and thought about how we would have to handle the finances. We realized pretty quickly that the group needed to become a legitimate business. We decided to become an LLC, filed the proper paperwork, and opened a business bank account. Initially, each member put in a capital contribution so that we had a balance in the account to start out. We hired an accountant to help with the LLC tax filing as well as to file the proper paperwork to get a business license, pay city taxes, etc. Each member is issued a K1 form to include with our individual returns, so each one of us is personally responsible for paying a portion of the LLC’s taxes. Making everyone official owners of the organization certainly keeps us committed to its success.
EG: You market yourself as a collective on social media and the website. Can you share the process of deciding on the branding of your organization?
KCUP: The branding of Kansas City Urban Potters was very important from the beginning. We wanted our collective to identify in a more contemporary way to reach a broader audience that might not already be aware of contemporary handmade pottery. With the logo, we wanted elements that were pottery centric, unique to Kansas City, and sophisticated. After some initial discussions about our branding, we hired a graphic designer to come up with some options, which then led us to the concept of our current logo. It includes the Kansas City skyline, a cup, and our initials in a contemporary design and font. This branding extended to the design of our website, our Kickstarter campaign, newsletters, t-shirt graphics, and even the design of the exhibition furniture we use for the annual Midwest Pottery Fest.
Honestly, the process of branding was arduous at times, mainly because we wanted to make sure that we were thoughtfully approaching everything and capturing the vision and identity of the collective correctly. This took a lot of planning and decision making, which can be challenging with so many members involved. In the end, it was worth it, and as a group, we are proud of the decisions we made with the logo, website design, and other promotional materials. Looking back at what we were able to accomplish is exciting, but the process involved a lot of discussion.
With a collective, there is a lot of time and commitment involved. All of us have an equal stake in Kansas City Urban Potters and therefore each of us has many different roles to fill like programs manager, studio technician, carpenter, treasurer/accountant, photographer, graphic designer, marketing director, gallerist, and the list goes on. It is beneficial that we are all local to one city, so it’s easier to meet, plan events, and identify which members can contribute or take on different tasks throughout the year. One aspect that is important to our growth is that we are continually evaluating and discussing our goals, our role as a group, and the events we plan. This helps us to make sure we are maximizing our efforts and not taking on too much, because everyone has a separate career outside of the collective that also needs time and attention. It is imperative that we make decisions as a group and have open discussions about our endeavors. Everyone has to be committed and giving of their time. Communication is also essential, and often there are a lot of decisions that need to be made every week about everything from invited artists, to shop leases, and card designs. It’s not uncommon that we are group texting and emailing one another daily.
EG: Can you describe one of your first successful funding initiatives?
KCUP: Our first group endeavor was a Kickstarter campaign aimed at raising financial support for our first holiday sale event. We needed funds to help us buy the materials and equipment, as well as new business startup costs. We reached our initial goal and were even able to stretch our goals, which was exciting. It meant so much to have so many supporters from the clay community at large.
When we found the opportunity to lease a space for retail sales and events, we applied for a local grant, The Rocket Grant, which “encourages and supports inventive, under-the-radar, and public-facing work in non-traditional spaces.” The program is funded by The Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts and is implemented through a partnership between the Charlotte Street Foundation and the Spencer Museum of Art. Initially, we received a research grant allowing us to open a brick-and-mortar shop in the heart of Kansas City. The following year we were eligible to apply for a second round of additional funds that allowed us to develop the Midwest Pottery Fest event. It became apparent that focusing energy on one big event would serve our purposes better than two smaller events. This has allowed us to create an opportunity to also feature demonstrations, artist talks, and community engagement with other clay artists. This outside community support has been crucial to our growth.
Studio Manifold: www.studiomanifold.org
Kansas City Urban Potters: www.kcurbanpotters.com
the author Edith Garcia is a professor at the University of California, Berkeley and the California College of the Arts in Oakland. Garcia is actively engaged in the critical research of contemporary art and design through curating, publishing, and the realization of creative productions. To learn more, visit www.edithgarciastudio.com or Instagram @edithgarciastudio.