Interview with Writer/Curator Matt Wagner
Matt Wagner of Hellion Gallery and Portland’s Forest for The Trees mural festival joined us for our City of Saints episode. This is our full interview on patronage, curation, and art.
Matt: I’m Matt Wagner. I own Hellion Gallery. I write art books, The Tall Trees of series. I’m one of the producers of the Forest for the Trees Mural Festival here in Portland and I art direct labels for Gigantic Brewing.
WHAT IS A PATRON?
Kandace: Something that you were talking about is encouraging everyone to be patrons in an artist economy.
Kandace: I find it really interesting how we can encourage business to be patrons. How can they do that if they’re interested?
Matt: I distinctly remember that day talking about patronage and it’s the interesting part about that is that at the end of that day, a person who works for a famous ad agency here in town took me aside and said, “I loved your talk.”
We talked about this and she says, “I love your ideas about patronage. The new contemporary patronage for art is Instagram and Facebook.”
I was like, “What?” and she was like, “You know, that’s the new patrons.”
I was like, “No, no. There’s no money involved.”
She goes, “Well a patron doesn’t have to be money.”
And I’m like, “Yes it does.”
Not to be argumentative but I’m like, “A patron of the arts isn’t a fan. They’re not a fan, they’re someone who is supporting it. Not supporting it by clicking a like or patting someone on the back. They’re supporting it by giving it money in order to keep the machine going.”
It was just funny because that was the thing about patronage that I thought I don’t want anybody to think it’s like a social media construct that patrons are patrons.
You know, if you look at the Medici and those people, they were patrons of the arts. The Roman Catholic Church was patrons of the arts. They paid for it, but they paid for what they wanted. I think they actually did value the art.
We’ve gotten away from that to where you have this really small group of people, sort of like the Peggy Guggenheim type of people who are private, wealthy patrons. I feel like there’s more of this middle class patronage that can come around.
I think with Gigantic, with the labels I do for them, that is the start of that. Like what you were just talking about with the coffee, with Gigantic, everybody who works there are all into independent music and record labels.
I used to play in bands a lot and I was on independent record labels and I always liked the way it worked because you didn’t get paid a lot, but you did get paid. People didn’t screw you over.
There wasn’t all this funny business talk about ways to screw you out of 50 cents. It was more real and small. It was like this basic level of understanding of, “I need to pay rent. I need to buy groceries. This is an amount of money that will contribute towards that.”
Gigantic, when we started doing the labels, I thought the one thing I dislike about products are the idea that you go to someone who’s not familiar with your product and you say, “Make my product cool with some sort of art thing.” Then that person … You’re expecting them and you’re paying them to be in love with your product.
We kind of wanted to flip it and make it where the company is in love with the art already. So we’re going to take advantage of the art we already like to brand ourselves and say, “This is something we like.”
If you like The Jam or Gang of Four or something like that, you kind of get a lot … You know about that person from their music taste.
If you have these really cool art labels, you know the beer is going to be quality and you know the people behind the beer are going to be quality.
Then, we just picked a flat fee instead of doing percentages, because nobody wants to wait forever to get paid. As soon as you deliver the art, you get a check. It’s a limited edition. These beers are made one time and when they sell out they’re gone. You get a flat fee one time.
We don’t own the art. We don’t own the image to it. We don’t have any license agreement, so you can resell the art or license it to someone else, but you get paid for it.
I wish more companies did things like that, because Gigantic is a small company. They’re not a big. They’re called Gigantic, but they’re quite a small company. They’re able to put more money towards art than any company that I’ve ever worked with. These guys are just like, “Let’s write the check. That’s cool. That’s awesome.”
How many labels are we at right now? Wow, that’s a tough one. 47 I think.
Kandace: Yeah. You could say almost 50.
Matt: Yeah. Might even be more. They’re all numbered because they’re all limited edition so they each have a number. In the back of the brewery on the cooler, every time we finished one we put a label up so we’d know where we’re at with the numbering. Yeah, I think we’re around 47.
I haven’t done all of them because the other guy that helps with the labels at Gigantic is Rob Reger, who created the Emily the Strange in the comics. He’s also a good friend of ours and a good friend of the brewery.
Between me and him we usually get together and I’m like, “I like this artist. I like this artist.” And then we show it to the guys at the brewery and they’re like, “Oh yeah. This is cool.” Then between the four of us we decide on who gets on a label.
FOREST FOR THE TREES
Matt: The mural project is interesting. It’s one of those things where this was our 4th year, it’s called Forest for the Trees, and to be honest the first year we did it I didn’t know what was going on.
Me and my partner, Gage … I’d done a show with him in Tokyo and he really fell in love with a lot of the murals in Tokyo and he came back and he came to my gallery and he said, “We should do a mural festival.”
I was like, “What do you mean?” and he was like, “Like these guys. This mural festival.”
I was like, “We have people come in and paint murals?”
He’s like, “Yeah. Would you help me with that?”
I was like, “Yeah. Why not? Sounds like something interesting even though I really don’t have any idea what we’re going to do.”
In the first one, it was just seat of our pants. We were just like, “Well, what are the rules?”
So we looked around and figured out how to do it and how to get around local laws and figure out how to fill out the right paperwork and all that stuff. T
he one thing we didn’t figure out was how to make money and how to pay for it. That first year was just me and him doing everything and driving people to their walls.
We had great artists. They came in and I think that was my job, was curator, because I run a gallery. I could get a little higher caliber of artists to come in.
It’s funny how in our 4th year and now this last year it really has struck home what we were doing. I never really thought about it as an important thing or as a big deal. I just thought, “Oh, every year me and Gage do this festival for one week and we fly people here from around the world, then we do it.”
But, then this year we were being interviewed on one of the local news channels and the interviewer said, “This year you have over 60 walls total.”
And I remember just thinking, “Is that right? Do we have 60?”
I was like, “Really?” Then I thought about it and I was like, “Wow. Holy shit! We’ve done over 60 walls in 4 years.”
Then I was talking to her and she was like, “Yeah. I drive to work every day and I pass 4 or 5 of your murals.”
So I guess we did sort of affect the landscape of the city. Then it kind of made me feel like, “Oh, this is kind of an important thing.” I never really put much thought into it.
I just thought it was cool art to put up and instead of having these buildings with blank walls or really crappy graffiti on it, these businesses get to interact with an artist and have something beautiful on the outside of their building. Even if it’s not technically beautiful, it’s a conversation piece. People come in and want to talk to them about it.
Businesses benefit greatly because people show up, especially if you’re like that little bar in Morrison which has a Josh Keys piece. People stop there every day and take their picture with that piece because they’re like, “Oh, it’s a Josh Keys mural.” He’s never done a mural before. It was his first one for us.
Matt: I don’t really think the city appreciates it very much to be honest. Last year, me and my partner got recognized by the city council as contributing to the culture of Portland, but then I felt like everybody in that chamber was like, “Who are those weird long haired dirty people? Why are they here? What, they’re doing some art thing?”
I felt like we were really out of place and I’m thinking … Then when everybody’s thanking us, I’m like, “You know, as opposed to thanking us it’d be great to just get funding.” You know? “It’s great you guys love this and all of our travel bureaus use it on their ads to get people to come here, and you guys put it on your posters, but what would be really awesome is just a check.”
Right now we get most of our funding through RACC. They fund us. At this point, the last 2 years were almost completely funded by RACC (Regional Arts and Culture Council). They’re just over here in the Pearl and they give all kinds of grants for art and things. With us–usually people go and they get a grant for one wall–and we want a grant for 15 walls, so you’re asking for a lot of money. They’re awesome.
Some cities, I don’t know how arts works in other cities, but RACC is a very cool local thing. If you’re an artist and you need funding for a project, they are the people to talk to. You may not get the funding, but they can steer you the right direction and they’re super eager and open to anything.
UGLY, BEAUTIFUL ART
Matt: I’m always amazed, because sometimes we’re not … especially this year we’re getting away from just beauty. It’s too easy when you look at Instagram and all these art blog sites, like these magazines. Everything is about beauty and a cool picture.
Art isn’t always about beauty and a cool picture. We have murals that definitely test people in this town. Those sometimes are hard to get approved for funding because they’re like, “Oh. This is really ugly.”
And we’re like, “It’s not ugly. It’s just different. It’s like somebody else’s interpretation.”
They’re like, “Okay. Whatever you say. Ugly.”
I’m like, “Yeah, my definition of ugly is different.”
If there’s something controversial and they don’t want that. Yeah. It’s a public art gallery. Those murals become property of the city. We have a public art collection, like the Portlandia Statue, and all these things so those murals are now part of that.
Part of us getting the grant money through RACC is it becomes part of the city’s art collection. I like that because our art museum is too expensive. It’s ridiculous. I love our museum but there’s no way a museum should cost that much money when I can go to the Pompidou for 7 euros and here I have to spend 25 dollars. That’s ridiculous.
This is a way for people who can’t afford to go to these kind of things and to see well known artists in public for free and get to get up really close on it.
Faith47 travels around the world. She’s from south Africa. She has murals in cities. She has murals in probably over 40 or 50 countries.
I think that’s … Josh Keys. You might never get to go see a Josh Keys. There’s a ton of different ones. I like the free aspect of it for the viewer.