I spoke to Gustie (co-director of Teen Art Gallery) in late March, while she was busy preparing for their upcoming exhibition. We chatted for nearly half an hour in what was my first real-time, over-the-phone interview. Gustie is the most lovely, excitable human I’ve ever met, and I am entirely in love with this New York grown girl and everything she is doing.
Teen Art Gallery is a stunning example of the capabilites of youth. This is what happens when a group of teenagers figure out their potential, their dreams, and break away from every expectation.
How long have you lived in New York?
I was born on the upper west side, and I’ve lived in this neighbourhood my whole life.
It’s a lot of fun growing up here. I feel like I have a lot more independence than friends that live in the suburbs. Since I was 11 I’ve been taking the public bus, and it’s really easy to spend time with friends and see cool places.
Do you think NY influences what you’re doing with the Teen Art Gallery?
I think it definitely does. In terms of TAG (Teen Art Gallery), being in a place that has so many art galleries and museums really influences a lot of NY teens to become involved in the arts, and we get a lot of support from local galleries.
When we were trying to find a place for the upcoming show, we reached out to 15 or so different galleries in the downtown area, and a lot of them (while they weren’t able to hold our show due to time constraints), offered to come see it or write about it in their newsletter. So there’s just tonnes of support in the art world and people are really encouraging teens to get involved.
Do you think that’s especially in New York or a lot of cities?
I think it’s probably a lot of cities, but New York is home to a huge number of famous museums like the NEW Museum, MOMA, The Met, all these amazing places. There’s so many teens that are exposed to art in a way that you aren’t in other places.
For a lot of kids that aren’t from NYC or similar cities, there isn’t as much exposure to art and it’s more of a touristy thing to go to a gallery. But to constantly be around it … even when you walk down a street here, you see really cool graffiti. 5 blocks from my house there’s a Banksy, just cool things like that that are constantly around you. I don’t know if that’s especially NY, but there’s definitely a lot of it in NY.
How did Teen Art Gallery begin?
It was started in 2011 by Audrey Banks, who was a high schooler at the time. She started up TAG with a group of about a dozen teens, and since then it’s been passed down from generation to generation, year to year.
A lot of siblings stay in it, and people that go to the same school. It’s been really fun to see it evolve; when it started, it was a lot more about photography and it’s really changed since then. Two galleries (three years) ago, they started incorporating dance and theatre and singing into it. I think there was a performing artist, a guitar player … that sort of thing.
Are live performances common in a lot of art galleries?
It’s not common in most galleries. Ours was one of the only galleries I’d seen that had that. We’re not doing it in the upcoming exhibition, but we are doing a film night on April 8th, and we’re going to show several teen films – it’ll be fun!
Why did TAG begin? What was the thought process behind it?
The idea of TAG was to create opportunity for young people to be able to share their art in a wider and more professional setting. A lot of time, teens are told ‘oh you can do this when you’re older’ or they’re asked ‘what do you want to be when you’re older’. The purpose of TAG is to say – you don’t need to wait to be an artist.
With your exhibitions – do you do them at specific times or do they happen more organically?
We’ve had several shows since TAG began (book keeping is one thing we don’t do well! [laughs]) at a bunch of different places in the city. We try to put one on every year, but our last gallery was August 2015. We took a year and a half off, and now we’re doing one in two weeks! It really depends when and where we can find space.
Is it difficult to negotiate with galleries, or does there tend to be a lot of space available to you?
It totally depends. The last gallery we did we paid for a space in Brooklyn, but for the current gallery we’re working with an organisation called chashama. They’re amazing – they provide studio and gallery space for artists for free, and they’ve provided us with space before. They’re so helpful; they assist with PR and marketing and everything too.
You’ve been talking about how TAG is passed down through the generations – why is that?
We want to keep it entirely run by teenagers. We’ve had a bank account at various points, and so legally it’s been under a parent’s name. We actually just created TAG as an official company and it’s signed as my dad’s name (laughs). But it’s entirely run by teens, and we do all the work, including organising and curating the shows. It’s been an amazing thing to see.
The alumni from TAG – people who are now at college or have recently graduated – are constantly checking in with us, and we can always reach out to them and ask for help. Last night I was writing up a contract to send to our artists, and I was having trouble with it so I asked one of the past heads of TAG and they helped me within 3 minutes! So though it’s entirely run by teens, we have tonnes of support from alumni.
How has the reception been over the last few years? What sort of reactions are you getting?
In previous years we’d been covered by Teen Vogue, the New York Times, the Huffington Post, and other magazines. It’s been really great.
I don’t think anyone doesn’t like teen art. Everyone’s really excited about it. Our current show (called TAG – do you mind?) really tries to deal with a lot of political and mental illness messages. So we’re trying to bring topics that are considered adult topics into the world of teens, and bring teen art and teen issues into the adult world. I’m excited to see what people think of that.
So far, from all the galleries and people that we’ve interacted with, the world seems very welcoming and encouraging of diverse voices. It’s very helpful towards teens – maybe because there’s very few teens in the art world, people get really excited about it.
Even today, we see so many women, minorities, and people of colour being allowed to get more involved in what’s considered a very exclusive world. For example, at the Whitney Biennual (which is considered one of the bigger art shows in America), over 50% of the work was by women and minorities. So I think the art world is definitely shifting and incorporating different voices and being more inclusive over all, and that same community has really embraced teens in art too. This might just be in New York, it’s kind of a bubble! (laughs)
Where do you source your funds from? It sounds like a lot of money to put all this together!
Yeah! (laughs). We’ve gone into a little debt so far, but the space is free and I think the only cost is a little for our website and a little for various promotional materials. All the artists are responsible for shipping their work to the gallery. We are expecting to make some money at the gallery through selling some of the art (we take a bit of the profit from each piece sold), and also selling merchandise like buttons and tote bags.
It sounds like so much work! How do you fit it into your life?
I just do it at odd times. Sometimes if school is really boring, I’ll work on it. But for the most part we divide the work really well, especially among myself and the other two co-directors, Amelia and Jonathon. It is a lot, but it’s really manageable. We all take on the things we’re best at.
You had over 800 submissions for your last gallery in 2015. How did it become so well known? Was it just the press coverage?
A lot of it comes from our ambassador program; we have 7 – 12 ambassadors (I don’t totally know, we’ve had quite a few in the past few days!). We saw a huge spike in submissions when we started getting ambassadors, from the places where our ambassadors lived. Half of the work for TAG: Do You Mind? came from the New York area, and the other half was from the rest of America and other countries – I think we had submissions from 5 countries.
People have these crazy networks where they know someone from art camp, or someone from pre-school who’s now really into art, or they know someone who knows someone who knows someone … we’ve really been able to build a great network that has helped to get this huge array of diverse people and work.
People also reach out to us wanting to start TAG in other cities, and we’re currently working on ways to make that work. Hopefully we’ll get that started up.
So you can see it working in other cities?
I think we definitely can, judging from how many submissions we have from other places. I really expect they’d be able to start various organisations. I think that’s one of the cool things about it.
There are other teen art groups around; in LA there has been similar shows and similar groups. We’re one of two groups in New York that does this type of thing, and I think having these groups in New York is so helpful. We have so many submissions from rural areas, and I think being able to have your work featured somewhere with such a thriving art scene is something a lot of teens dream of. And to do it at 16, 17, 18 … it’s an incredible experience.
What’s the process of choosing from all the submissions?
It’s different every year. We got over 400 submissions for the upcoming gallery, and they’re all attachments, which can be really hard to go through. The current team is comprised of 16 teenagers, so ten of them came over to my house with the two other co-directors, and we sort of organised ourselves into teams of 2 and ranked pieces from 1-5 on a spreadsheet. After that we had about 150-200 pieces. Then we went through the 3s, 4s, and 5s, and narrowed it down again. We were able to pick 50 pieces and cut it down again from there.
Judgement of art is super subjective, and we didn’t want to put our own judgement of certain things onto what would go into the gallery. It’s really hard to rank someone’s art by a number, so we went through every piece and double checked them all. There were some pieces that surprised us, in that we didn’t expect them to be made by teens. It took us almost 3 hours because we spent a lot of time reviewing our choices, but it was a really fun process.
Tell me a bit more about the new exhibition.
It’s called “TAG – do you mind?”, and it’s between April 7 and April 12 at a gallery on West Broadway street, which is in downtown Manhattan, close to a lot of other really great galleries. It’s a somewhat small place, but we’re able to feature a lot of diverse work. So we’ll have a film night, a few sculpture pieces, and lots of painting, drawing and photography.
The overarching theme of the show is issues of mental health and the political climate. As you know, we kind of elected Donald Trump (laughs). And that really highlights how many issues there are, and how much racism, sexism, misogyny and homophobia there is in every aspect of our lives. We really wanted to talk about issues of mental wellbeing and our current political state. The way we decided to tie it all together is to choose pieces that were (a) focused on one’s inner thoughts, identity, mental state and wellbeing, and (b) the political climate. We have a few pieces on events of 2016, a few political pieces, one about abortion, one about race … that sort of thing. Political issues affect people at a personal level; their identity, mental being, fear … and it can be interesting how those two things play together.
Are you yourself an artist?
I did a lot more art in the past than I do now. I used to take classes and go to an arts summer program, and after those programs, I’ve found that one of the hard parts of creating art in New York is the limited space. Apartments are small, studios are expensive. I don’t think I would ever be able to really pursue art as a full-time career, but I really love it (even though it frustrates me to no end). But I really love the art world and being involved in it. I love artists, and I love the way that artists have this unique perspective. Even though I don’t personally plan on pursuing a career as an artist, I really hope I’m able to stay involved as much as I can. It’s an amazing world full of amazing people.
So there’s not a lot of room in NY for artists – do you think one day that might be a goal for TAG, to provide studio space as well?
I think that’s a super interesting idea. There is another group in NYC called the Teen Art Salon that does an amazing job providing space, in Long Island City (which is right across the river from Manhattan). They provide space to teens just to create art, and it’s really popular. It’s definitely an idea TAG would like to pursue, but there’s a lot of things we want to go for before that.
We’re actually looking at using any money we make (through sales, the gallery or donations) to work with an NYC art education group. We’d like to be working with underprivileged kids in schools with little funding to the arts (lack of arts funding to schools is a huge problem, don’t even get me started), or provide arts programs to incarcerated youth. The age of incarceration is low in New York – you’re tried as an adult from a young age. So various organisation work with teens at risk of being in prison, or awaiting trial, to use art as a means for coping or self-expression.
Wow – you have huge goals!
Yeah (laughs). It’s really interesting here in New York.
[FOUR MONTHS LATER]
SO – HOW’D IT GO?
It went really well! We’re guessing that over 400 people stopped by the show in total. A bunch of people from galleries or the art world accidentally stumbled into the gallery, which was fun. We’re really looking forward to our shows in the future!