The following post is part of "The Conversation Project" - a series of interviews with influencers in the contemporary art world.
Brett Wallace: Where did your passion for art begin?
Cara Ober: Growing up, my brother and I were raised on music. We both took classical piano and violin lessons. Creativity was always important in our house; there were art supplies and tons of books. As a kid, I spent most of my elementary school years writing and illustrating original books, so that was really my passion. Often times, I made collaborative books with my friends, and this is what we did for fun. Art and performance and creativity was always something that was emphasized in my house. When I went to college, I knew that I wanted to study art, although I did go to a liberal arts college. I went to American University in DC. I wanted to go to art school, but my parents thought liberal arts would be better for me. I majored in art but did a lot of photography and poetry and literature and art history. Art was always there. It wasn't really a choice. When I look back at what I'm doing now and what I was doing as a kid, I'm pretty much the same, which is kind of funny and kind of weird.
BW: You’re a talented visual artist and a writer. How does text and image come together for you?
CO: Blogging is the ultimate combination of image and text. It’s also in my visual work - paintings, drawings, mixed-media pieces – I've been combining image and text for about 15 years. I love visual communication and appropriating decorative imagery, but I need the duplicity of language to hold it all together. I'm very interested in language and how it functions as an image, how it can be understood and misunderstood. In graduate school, I had professors who said, "You need to get the text out of your work – it’s a distraction." And I really tried, but it didn't work.
BW: Which had a greater influence on starting BmoreArt? Was it the writing that you were doing? Or, was it the actual artwork that kind of led to this?
CO: For me, it's more about passion, not a conscious decision. I think a lot of artists are like this; you get a big idea, and it’s, "Bam, this is my idea. I'm doing this." And everybody around you is like, "What are you doing? Why are you doing that?" And you're like, "I don't know. I'm just doing it. I don't know." I have a lot of ideas, and in this case, it was very easy to start a blog. After I finished graduate school at MICA in 2005, I was exhibiting my work a lot in Washington, DC and getting reviewed on blogs there. People were taking them seriously.
I was already writing reviews for a few local publications and I got a good response from the writing, so I just thought, "Baltimore doesn't have an art blog, so I'm just going to start one." I had some colleagues from graduate school that said they would do it with me, so it's always been a collaborative thing. I've always worked with different contributors even before we had any funding because being a part of a larger conversation is so important. And it was a way to do that.
BW: Did you find that that came natural to you – being an arts writer or writing about art or did you feel you had to actually learn how to write about art? I remember when I sat with John Yau, one of the things that he mentioned was when he started thinking about writing about art, he really didn't know how to write about it, but he was going to learn how to write about art.
CO: I think that's interesting because John Yau has a background as a poet. Taking something visual and describing it well, putting it into words, is a completely abstract and poetic thing. A lot of our earliest famous art critics from the '50s, '60s were poets, before they started writing about art.
CO: It was pretty organic. For me, the process of writing is pleasurable; it's exciting and fun. There's a canon of art writing that exists, and I find most of it really dull. I don't think that the academic art-speak jargon that exists in the contemporary art world is helpful to artists. I think it is designed to exclude. The art world is cloistered enough, whether it's in New York or Baltimore, the art world suffers from a lack of inclusion with audience. People are finding art to be less and less relevant, and I think language is part of that, so it's always been my goal as a writer to have empathy for my audience and to consider, what do they want to know? Why should they care? Why should this be important to them, and how can I bring them into this world?
BW: How would you describe whom you're writing for?
CO: It's a diverse mix, and I want it to be that way. With BmoreArt, obviously a majority of our readers are artists, but it's all different kinds of artists. Artists of different ages, backgrounds, educational levels, races, and that's a specific goal of the publication. Baltimore is a diverse place, which makes it so unique and special, but the art communities tend to divide around age and race and education, so our goal is to cross those boundaries. I want to be able to write something that's challenging, but also conversational. We want to be inclusive and to encourage an audience within and around the arts in Baltimore.
BW: Your tagline is critical, creative, daily. Could you talk about this approach?
CO: I think it's really essential to have a critical dialogue around the art. Once you're out of school, you don't get that feedback, and I think it's also essential in developing an audience. One thing that I'm doing at BMore Art is working with a team of writers to present different ideas and opinions. Some are experienced writers who have published academic books and write for other publications, some of are professional journalists, and others are younger writers that we mentor. No matter who the writer is, a story or review needs to offer the reader some tension. Imagine reading a novel where everyone is happy and nothing bad happens... No one would read that. The same is true for an art review and good writing in general… We have a responsibility to the reader to build tension into the writing.
There needs to be a little excitement, maybe a little bit of fear. I'm not in favor of writing critically in order to be snarky or in order to get page views. We don't want to create sensationalized garbage or click bait. What we do want is to be constructive and honest in our criticism. And it's really a challenge because journalism is very weird these days. If you're a commercial publication, what do your advertisers expect from you? If you’re not, how do you pay your writers? Having an independent publication and funding that and keeping a balance is a huge challenge.
BW: How did your system and structure evolve at BmoreArt?
CO: We publish original content every day. I think the landscape of cultural journalism is definitely more democratic today, since the wide proliferation of blogs in the mid 2000’s. However, at the same time, I think ten years ago there were actually a lot more blogs. There were a lot more independent artists that were using a blog as an extension of their practice, and they dipped a toe into reviewing shows or interviewing other artists or doing studio visits – creating press coverage for each other – offering professional development. I think like Joanne Mattera has found a great balance in featuring artist-centric content, focusing on her own practice and balancing this with an insider’s view of her peers… she has managed to keep it going and got a Warhol writers grant to do so. I think Sharon Butler, who writes Two Coats of Paint has been successful at this and also got a Warhol writers grant for her blog. Two Coats started as an extension of her studio practice, but it's evolved. I think the majority of these more personal blog-type blogs have been abandoned because it takes a lot of time to do this well. You have to publish on a regular basis to develop an audience, and that costs money. And most of these blogs have not gotten funding, so there's a lot of abandoned blog spots out there floating around.
BW: This happens all the time in other areas of business - when a new market opens, lots of folks rush in, and then people sort of figure out over time, well, maybe this isn't for me; maybe this is going to take a lot more resourcing; maybe I'm just not as passionate about it.
CO: They get tired.
BW: How has BmoreArt developed over time?
CO: It's been organic and grown in different intervals. I started it not thinking about what it would be a week from the day that I started it. All I knew is I wanted to do two things; one was I wanted to help create one cohesive source of information about the art that was happening in Baltimore because the art community is really in a phase of rapid growth. There is so much art going on and there was no cohesive source to find out about events and openings. I wanted to create an online site so that people could more easily show up in person and participate. And then the other thing that I wanted to do was create an archive of the work that was being made just because it's ephemeral, and once a show comes down, it's basically gone and I thought Baltimore’s artists deserved a collective archive.
It's led to all sorts of other things – exhibits of my work; it's led to writing for a number of other publications. Sometimes the publication has been more of a central focus, and other times, it's been sidelined. In 2010, I got a job working for The Urbanite, a local Baltimore-based magazine as their art editor, and I was producing weekly content for them for about two years, and I kept BmoreArt going during that time, but it was a side project. And then when the magazine closed in 2012, that was when I made a conscious decision that Baltimore needed this publication, and that I was going to build it into something professional, funded, much more than it had been in the past.
BW: What lessons have you really learned as an entrepreneur?
CO: That's a good question. I think right now creative entrepreneurship is the new thing. People talk about what's going to “save the arts.” And I think anytime we get this plan that's going to work for everybody, we're kind of doomed right there because artists by our very existence, we don't do things by the book. We don't follow the rules. We come up with our own solutions – sometimes it works; sometimes it doesn't work. For me, this has been very much trial and error. I did it for free for like five years just as a project that was important to me, that professionally gave me other things besides funding.
But after I became a parent and decided to build the publication into a daily funded professional publication rather than a blog, I realized that I did need to get paid, that I had an obligation to myself and my family, so I think that's something you always hear: "Make sure you pay yourself." It's amazing to me how many artists don't pay themselves, and then their projects are not sustained. They burn out because they put everything they have into it. Money equals time. It's not about buying a nice car or… maybe a nice cup of coffee every once in a while… but it's time. It's the luxury and the resource of time, so I think whether you're funded a small bit, whether you're funded a lot more, you have to sustain yourself first. Paying yourself fairly is really important, and being able to pay our editors and contributors was amazing.
BW: I think that’s important.
CO: Our writers are doing professional work. But, at the same time, our content is free so figuring out a funding model was really important. I spent about a year trying to do what the larger commercial publication I worked for was doing and was mostly unsuccessful. We do sell advertising and handle that independently, but most of our funding comes from grants and foundations.
BW: Awesome. So you figured out a sustainable model that didn't compromise the business.
CO: At this point, we have attained that. There's no guarantee that it will last – things constantly change. I try to be prepared for the next stage and the next step ¬– whatever that is, and that's partly why we've made the decision to go into print this past fall.
BW: Oh, I don't think I knew that actually, so is this what you were showing at Basel? Could you share more?
CO: Yeah. We released our first ever print publication, so the BmoreArt Journal of Art + Ideas is a full color, professional publication. It features a number of Baltimore artists, creative professionals, administrators, projects, and it basically addresses the issue of what it means to be an artist in Baltimore today. And because Basel is such an amazing international audience, we wanted to have magazines there. Our first issue had just come out in November, and we are continuing to develop distribution partners in Baltimore and other cities… and we had it in three locations during Art Basel Miami Beach week, which was amazing and insane. We had magazines at the Rubell Family Collection, and it was pretty great to be there during Jennifer's performance, and it's in their bookstore. We had it at Prizm Art Fair, and then we were part of a Baltimore-centric exhibit at the Betsy Hotel in South Beach.
BW: Awesome. As much as it is centered on Baltimore, the content in BmoreArt resonates with artists all over the world. Could you talk a little about that?
CO: Most of the artists in this country don't live in New York. Most artists live in smaller cities and smaller towns that don't have New York's art market, so I think anything that's working here in Baltimore is going to work in other places. We don't have a robust art market, but we have a robust and growing art scene, which is significant but New York art gets 99% of the art press coverage! That's how it works right now. So at a certain point when we were expanding the publication I made a conscious decision to keep our focus on Baltimore rather than going national. I felt that developing a local readership beyond the art community and emphasizing the value of local and regional communities was a revolutionary thing.
BW: I love that. It's a great takeaway I think for anyone who's trying to launch something and think, "Oh, I'm just going to go global with this." It's actually the counterpoint to that conversation. Ok, time for a speed round.
CO: Sure. Local food costs more… why not value local art more as well?
BW: What's the best advice you’ve received? Is there a question that you always wish that you got asked more often?
CO: I was reading the Conversation Project earlier, and I noticed that question in Sharon Louden’s piece, and I thought Sharon's answer was fantastic. She said she wished more people asked, “What can I do for you?” This is the key to developing a good relationship and she excels at this. You need to have something to offer, and honestly, spending time with Sharon, I always learn something – she's a great mentor. Sharon did a book talk with us in Baltimore last fall that was fantastic. And after that talk, a few artists reached out to her and asked for advice. One artist reached out to her and said, "Can you recommend some galleries for me? Look at my work online." And Sharon’s response was interesting. "I don't do that because you have to do this work for yourself,” she said. “Even if I did tell you a gallery that I thought would be a good fit for your work, it wouldn’t be worth anything because that's something you have to figure out for yourself." And she was super nice about it, but I thought it was interesting in terms of drawing a boundary. Maybe that's the advice – say no, especially when it’s helpful to others. Say no to stuff and explain why it’s better for others this way. Artists bend over backwards for some attention. We feel like we need to do everything for everybody because we're just so happy to be doing the work that we love, and I think we're almost programed to think, it’s never enough.
BW: I think that's great advice. If you're everything to everyone, you can't actually add as much value as just doing a few things really, really well. I love that.
CO: As a young artist, I think it makes sense to do more things in order to find out what feels right to do and doesn’t. In my early 30’s, I ran a gallery with another artist in Baltimore, and we did this for about two years, with monthly exhibitions. And I knew it wasn't the right thing for me. It wasn't returning my energy. Based on this, my advice would be to only invest in projects and people that gives your energy back. If it's working, you're putting everything you have into something, but you're getting it back. If it's not working – and the same is true for a romantic relationship -- if you're putting everything into it, and your energy is being zapped, that’s a bad relationship.
BW: A colleague of mine says, "Don't be like an energy vampire”.
CO: Exactly. Consider whom are you speaking with. We all need stuff. Everybody needs stuff, and that exchange of energy, that exchange of resources is what makes the world go round.
BW: What is on your art world horizon?
CO: I can't say enough good things about the Contemporary in Baltimore. This was formerly the Contemporary Museum, and they produced Fred Wilson’s Mining the Museum, which is a seminal art history institiutional critique exhibition that was part of their original programming in the 90’s. The organization changed over the years and, after funding issues a few years ago, The Contemporary has relaunched into a nomadic, non-collecting museum that is young and nimble. They curated two projects this past year: a Victoria Fu a video installation and Ghost Food with Miriam Simun. Both were fantastic.
I am also very excited that the Baltimore Museum of Art is bringing the Guerilla Girls to do an exhibition this spring. And then next fall the BMA's also going to exhibit show of Diebenkorn and Matisse together, which is just golden for painters. That's a show that's coming from California, and it is coming here because the museum has an amazing collection of Matisse because of the Cone sisters, who were his earliest and most devoted patrons. Combining that with Diebenkorn should be phenomenal.
BW: Let’s delve into your own work. What is your work about?
CO: Poetry is at the center of my visual work. I love language and writing, but my visual work is composed and harvested from a variety of different sources, but around poetic principles. I love crafting a specific narrative that's also oblique. I appropriate from popular culture. I am most interested in moments that are simultaneously funny and sad. There's no such thing as a 100% sad moment. There's always something ridiculous that happens, the secret laughter, and you're not supposed to laugh, which makes it worse and more inappropriately funny… you find yourself laughing and crying and people are giving you weird looks and these are the sorts of moments that I'm interested in capturing in my work. They feel authentic to me. I pull images and text from all sorts of pop culture, art history, decorative arts, textile and pattern design, the history of painting.
BW: The Tchotchke Series struck me.
CO: That was my attempt to pare things down. I tend to pile everything in without much editing. I have zero restraint. The Tchotchke Series is just India Ink on watercolor paper and very simple: one image, one quote, and an examination of cultural values. I'm fascinated by the way that we assign value and the way that certain objects and ideas are precious, treasured, preserved, and others are thrown in the garbage. It seems really arbitrary. If you consider what things actually are and who made them, it seems just – again, funny and sad and weird and a mirror of how culture operates. That series was inspired by a show I was doing at a college that has a random permanent collection of art in a back part of the gallery. It featured African and Oceanic and Native American objects, and I made these drawings in response to the collection because my show was going to be next to it, but also because I found out that about a third of the pieces in the collection are fake.
They found this out many years after the work had been donated and the person who donated it made them agree to keep the collection on display permanently. It’s in a small niche off the main gallery. And to me, it’s hilarious and bizarre and made no sense but also perfect sense. What is it that makes us value something? Who gets to decide and what is that worth? What is it that makes people fall in love with an object, or a person? As an artist, I'm constantly harvesting observations from the world around me. I think real life is an interesting and bizarre place and even my house, where I spend every day almost, is a great source of this inspiring weirdness. Does that make any sense?
BW: I like the way you're sort of collapsing time in these as well.
CO: Yeah, that's how memory works. It's not a chronological, accurate recording. It's more a jumble of the stuff that stood out to us at one moment in time based on how we were feeling that day. It’s arbitrary. After writing about art and looking at art in this way for over a decade, it really has changed my relationship with my own artwork. It's changed the way that I look at art, and it changes the way I assign value. In many ways, it's made me less judgmental but also less interested. At this point, I'm happy that people are making art. I'm happy when people make cultural institutions or exhibitions. I'm happy when people start a gallery. I applaud the effort involved, but I'm not necessarily as interested in the products anymore. As an artist, I have always been interested in making things and, for the first time in my life, I find myself interested in creating performance and also working in sculpture and video, which I never thought I would do.
BW: Oh, that's interesting.
CO: My media is changing. My thought process around media is changing. Maybe the narrative is staying the same but my work is becoming more temporal, dynamic.
BW: Perhaps, this is how BmoreArt has impacted your studio practice?
CO: I have learned it's no fun to do it by your self. Art is a team sport. The audience’s active involvement is part of the purpose and process. I think forming connections is the purpose of art. I'm okay with that at this point. It's not about winning.