November 2008, Interview with Claire Breukel of Locust Projects
Locust Projects. Mural by Ed Young. Wood sculpture by Graftworks/MoB with Aaron White.
Tom Hollingworth interviews Claire Breukel, Executive Director of Locust Projects
What defines a project space? Is it space that ideally facilitates a possibility for an artist to experiment? Is it a space that pushes artists to create a new set of parameters for the execution of their work? Or is it a space that simply shouts that it's time to role up the sleeves and get down and dirty? For Locust Projects—one of Miami’s leading projects spaces—the answer is all of the above.
Founded in 1998 by COOPER, Westen Charles and Elizabeth Withstandley—three artists who were looking for a space to make and exhibit work that they felt was not being facilitated by the community at the time—Locust Project’s humble beginnings set a precedent that many artists today rely upon for development. At the genesis of what is now one of Miami’s hottest alternative galleries, all three of the founders actually lived and worked in the space and began simply by showing their own work and the work of their friends. With the exception of Dorsch Gallery, Locust Projects was the first to arrive in what is now known as the Wynwood Art District. Ten years later the area is currently home to around 40 galleries, but at the time of Locust’s inception cultural venues were sparse and the imposing grid of grey storage warehouses and dark, deserted streets far from the vivacity of Miami Beach was not the kind of area that anyone would want to visit.
In the year 2000 Dennis Scholl came on as Locust Projects’ first Chair Person and pulled together a board of Directors; the space became incorporated and acquired its current not-for-profit status allowing it to apply for the funding that assisted in the scheduling of a more diversified program. Up until two years ago co-founder Westen Charles ran the space together with an assistant—co-founders COOPER and Elizabeth Withstandly left some years previous; COOPER to New Mexico and Withstandly to LA, though all maintain strong ties to Miami. Locust Projects’ current Director, Claire Breukel, was hired in 2006 as the spaces’ first official staff member and was soon joined by Susan Lee Chun who fulfilled the role of Assistant Director. The advent of Breukel and Chun meant not only the beginning of regular opening hours but also the augmentation of the space as a professional venue for the experimentation, development and ultimately exhibition of cutting edge contemporary art.
Installation view of Diego Bianchi, an exhibition by the artist of the same name.
In a recent interview with Claire Breukel, Locust Projects’ operations together with the individual constituents of the spaces success including the importance of a prescient local contingent were explored:
Thomas Hollingworth: Locust Projects as a non-profit exhibition space has survived in Miami where other similar spaces (such as the Moore Space) have not. What do you think is the main reason for this?
Claire Breukel: Despite running the risk of cutting my own head off I want to be completely open about this. I think it is because Locust has maintained that it isn’t run by one specific person or one specific collector; it’s really a group effort. Financially we are supported mostly by grants and our annual fundraising events which means that there is not one person that overshadows the space, so its not personality driven which has really allowed us to be flexible and really keep true to the mission without being steered off in any other directions. I think that above all has really maintained our identity in the fact that we are able to sustain ourselves. In a similar vein, our budget is really small which has allowed us to do things in a much safer manner than a lot of the other spaces. The Moore Space was a great venue with an amazing track record and it was a real shame for Miami that it decided to close.
Installation view of DREAM-CUM-TRU, an exhibition by Clifton Childree
TH: How does Locust Projects today stand apart from other project spaces such as Twenty Twenty Projects?
CB: I think Twenty Twenty Projects is doing some amazing programming, I think Scott [Murray – owner of Twenty Twenty Projects] has got some amazing artists doing work. I think Twenty Twenty Projects is what Locust Projects was a few years ago. We are in the process of professionalizing but without losing our organic and flexible program, which I think is a very precarious balance at times. I think Locust Projects has filled a very big gap in the Miami arts community for a very long time by showing the kind of work that no other space can show and I think the recent DREAM-CUM-TRU exhibition by Clifton Childree was a prime example. We are able to put in a bit more funding and provide artists with both time and space and also bring artists from around the world to come and live and work here which is an amazing asset. Looking forward, our biggest goal at the moment is to be able to start an exchange program where we not only bring artists to the Miami community but also take artists from Miami elsewhere; it’s a very important next step.
TH: How does Locust Projects decide which artists it will work with?
CB: We have a selection committee, there are six of us. We all receive submissions but we also go out and ask artists to submit to us. Nothing is selected ad hock, it all goes through the committee which consists of Gean Moreno, a fantastic artist and help who has been with the space for about six or seven years; COOPER who is a founder; Westen Charles who is a founder; artist Susan Lee Chun who is our Assistant Director; myself, and Rene Morales who is the Associate Curator from Miami Art Museum. These positions are designed to be rotating so we are going to be changing that up quite soon and might even be considering having at least one of the selectors be from outside of Miami, which will hopefully spice things up, especially as the role of the selection committee is not only to review submissions but also to supply submissions as well.
Locust Projects Smash n Grab. Photo credit: Jipsy
TH: In addition to regular and diverse programming, Locust Projects also hosts a number of annual events. Can you speak a little bit about those?
CB: We do two fundraising events. The first is an artwork donation event called Smash & Grab that we have done consecutively for the past six years. For this we have over one hundred artists that regularly donate work to us; we then sell tickets to the event. This year its 425 dollars for a ticket to attend and you get to take home an artwork which is a pretty amazing thing. That’s one of our biggest fundraises for the year. The second one is our spring fundraising event which is a much more accessible event which in that it’s not geared so much toward art but rather a thank you event to say thank you to the artists who donated in the fall. At this event we have a silent auction where we auction off things like cosmetics, holidays, books, all kinds of strange and wonderful things that people in general can buy. So we try and get funding from a diverse group, which really helps generate interest for the space.
Locust Projects Smash n Grab. Photo credit: Jipsy
TH: How important, in Miami, do you think it is for a project space and its coordinators to be actively involved in the broader Miami context?
CB: I think it’s incredibly important. I think that’s probably one of the toughest parts of a Directors position here [in Miami]. You’ve really got to get out and see what’s going on in order to be informed. I think Miami has a tendency to look within itself and while I think that it’s very important to show and support local artists I think it’s also very important to provide the kind of comparatives to what is going on in the rest of the world. So, absolutely, you have to keep yourself informed you have to get out there and also bring things from out there here in order to create a dialogue and open up the communication between communities.
TH: The current exhibitions and exhibitions in the foreseeable near future, what do we have?
CB: Our current exhibition is a really fun one. Gean Moreno and I got together and we were discussing how to do a ten year retrospective exhibition and saw the potential to do something horrible and re-hashed so what we decided to do to avoid that was to invite ten artists that had showed with us in the past to select ten artists that they thought are making interesting work now. So we didn’t really know what we were going to get when we started to get the names in but it turned out to be an absolutely fantastic selection of artists, ten new artists from all over the world: Tampa, Greece, London, all over. And the work is very disparate so it was great to try and make sense of it all within the space and create some kind of dialogue between the works. In January, Loriel Beltran, a Miami based artist represented by Fredric Snitzer Gallery is showing in our main space and simultaneously, Mike Swaney, a Canadian artist currently working out of Spain, is showing in our project room. Our main March exhibition will be New York artists Richard Metzgar and Paul Bartow and in our project room will be Viking Funeral who are two local artists that will be doing a really amazing sound piece, which has a great sense of humor to it too.
Ronald Cornelissen's New Sun from the current 10 year anniversary exhibition.
TH: What other projects are you personally involved in?
CB: Personally I have just curated Mario Cader Frech and Robert Wennet, they asked me to curate their home so I have just done that. Also, PULSE art fair this year has asked Locust Projects to curate their outdoor art work so I am involved in that or rather I am basically representing Locust Projects for that so I get to select all the art works that will be on view which is both a great opportunity and a lot of fun. I have done a lot of juries this year as ad hock things that I am asked to get involved in but those two projects that I just mentioned are the main things right now.
TH: What does Locust Projects represent for you?
CB: That’s a good question. Locust represents a space that gives both time and a place for creativity. For me this is an absolute dream come true in terms of being given a place with both such an established name and such amazing artists associated with it and being given the chance to work with these people in very free and very open way. The unique thing about the space is that you can basically say anything you want to; we’re not in a position where we have to answer to anybody specific. We have a board of twenty three directors but there is no overriding authority deciding where things need to go which makes for a very organic place to work which I really enjoy.
Installation view of Polymorph, an exhibition by Magnus Arnason
TH: What defines a project space for you?
CB: Project is such a specific word but I guess a project space is a place that enables an artist to hone in on their own creativity and have fun and I think it’s really about taking risks. Something I have been trying to emphasize to our board of Directors is that we are going to have bad shows; it’s just part of the game. A portion of our shows are bound to be bad and that’s completely fine. Also I need to stress very strongly that although Gean [Moreno] and I have curated this current show, this is not a curated space. My position is a Director position, not a Director/Curator position and I am very adamant about that. An artist can come in and have a ‘conversation’ but it’s not a curated show, it’s really about them and going through their own process.
TH: I feel that there is a lot of love within the Miami arts community for Locust Projects. Can you evidence this?
CB: I think the three founders have established an absolutely amazing past; the kind of shows that they have had, the kind of programming that they have done. I think it’s illustrated in the fact that 100 plus artists give us work every single year that is underpriced when we sell it and keep on doing so. We try and keep the lines of communication open with the Miami community and it means being self reflective all the time. I really enjoy it, for example, when an artist comes in and tells us that what we are doing sucks because it really helps us to grow and develop. It’s about being constructive and open to what is needed out there.
TH: What is the one thing that you site as a personal goal for Locust Project’s development?
CB: I think my biggest personal goal is to be able to get the infrastructure of the space to a point where we are able to select any artist to come down and have fun and free rein. At the moment we are restricted by both space and funding. I would love to get us to the point where the back of house is so tight that an artist can come and have a really great experience. And its not only about the show, its about the kind of experience that we provide in Miami itself. That goes for both the artists here and artists coming to visit. So I would love to schedule more programming that is actually about the experience not just the end result which is the show. And hopefully by providing a great experience, the end result becomes improved as well.
Ivan Reyes Garcia’s De-enchantment of the Balzak Boy from the current 10 year anniversary exhibition.
Assistant Director, Susan Lee Chun adds: When Wes, COOPER, and Elizabeth came together their impetus was to fulfill the need of a space that would have artists create work that not only challenged themselves, but also the community and how they engaged with art. Ten years later, much of the love in the community comes from the history of involvement and participation of the local artists- drawing in crowds and creating an energy and presence here that still exists today. For many of the local artists, having been involved in Locust Projects' growth, gives a sense of ownership and attachment to the organization that keeps us going.
Chris Beuning’s Untitled from the current 10 year anniversary exhibition.
Unlike many ‘project spaces’ or ‘project rooms’ that exist as profit generating annexes to larger galleries, Museums and even artist studios, Locust Projects is an entity all to its own, with no figure head, protected from the distracting grind of the art market economy by a ever thickening, conjoined protective layer of local solidarity.
Miami, home to a growing number of international galleries is kind of an annex itself. A place that the heavy hitting dealers of Europe and New York come to test their weaponry; and for artists, a wonderful springboard from which they can fall a few times without anyone noticing before the very intimacy which protects their fledgling blunders from the eyes of the wider world thrusts them and their reputations on to the world stage.
This unique confluence of eagerness facilitating importance and what appears to be a locale with a genuinely high concentration of talent is however not always a conducive atmosphere for success. For while artists may find that those that support them are not only accessible, but in this small pond rather powerful, it seems that those who help make careers oftentimes fail to recognize the potentially stunting effect that their attention can have on an artist’s development. All too ready to make sure that their mark is the one that finally asserts Miami as a culturally important city, many a hand of a local collector, dealer, director/curator or even writer is scorched by the flame of an artist who burned up too quickly; their output forced into an unnatural imbalance with their relative experiential input and the all important measured guidance of old father time.
Thankfully places like Locust Projects prove that contrary to the arcane suppositions that the art world and its minions have artists literally dying to understand, there are other, perhaps better and ultimately more rewarding ways of approaching art making.
As long as there is an art community in Miami who value the freedom to be expressive, Locust Projects is assured to prosper; in doing so it will always be among the few spaces in this rapidly developing city that place the importance of space to think above space to sell. Having matured through a variety of incantations the space has always remained true to one guiding principle—that of play. That the spirit of artistic expression should at all costs always have a refuge, somewhere that artists, unencumbered by notions of value or pressures from outside influences can spend valuable time and energy nurturing the very creativity that the art world can ironically stifle.
Locust Project Founders (from left to right) Cooper, Elizabeth Withstandely and Westen Charles, 1999.
Noah Becker: Editor-in-Chief