Get Loud!: An Exclusive Interview with Fine Artist and Curator Jen Williams Dragon
Welcome back to the Echo Sixty6 interview series, Get Loud!, featuring remarkable professionals known for their distinctive work, and their use of social media and digital marketing to spread the word and enhance their brand.
In our inaugural edition, we interviewed Chef Ric Orlando, pioneer of the world-famous Hudson Valley farm-to-table movement.
Today, we speak to Jen Williams Dragon, an artist-turned-curator who directs Cross Contemporary Art, a fine-arts organization currently operating in tandem with 11 Jane St., an installation and performance arts center in Saugerties, NY. A well-known figure in the fine art world, Jen has been teaching, curating and promoting art in the Hudson Valley since 1984, when she graduated from Purchase College with her Bachelor of Fine Arts in printmaking and painting.
In addition to leasing artwork to corporations and staging art in private homes, Jen opened Cross Contemporary Art Gallery on Partition Street in the Upstate New York arts mecca of Saugerties in 2014; its closing in 2019 made headlines — but it didn’t deter Jen from doing what she does best: representing and showcasing mid-career and established Hudson Valley- and New York City-based artists.
In the last five years, Jen has curated more than 58 exhibitions, exhibited nearly 90 fine artists, presented three Saugerties sculpture festivals, and installed 945+ artworks. Many of the artists who’ve shown with Cross Contemporary Art have exhibited internationally and have works in museum collections.
In this exclusive interview, we ask Jen about the closing of her gallery, the lessons she’s learned, what she’s been doing since, and what it means to be a female business owner in today’s still-male-dominated society. She also outlines how she uses marketing and social media to expand her reach, and that of the artists she represents.
1. How did you end up as a fine art curator and artist representative? What were you doing previously and how did your past lead you to where you are today?
The summer after my dissatisfying freshman year at a liberal arts college, I summered with my older sister in Woodstock, NY. I had a waitressing job in the Village but was driving her crazy on my downtime. She insisted I go up the road to Byrdcliffe and take an art class offered by the Byrdcliffe Guild. It was there that I discovered oil painting with Nick Buhalis.
At the same time, at the restaurant, I frequently waited on Rolly Guild, who owned the famous Bluestone Patio and showed work by all the Woodstock artists, including Ethel Magafan, Bruce Currie, Eduardo Chavez, Raoul Hague, and so many others.
Rolly was intrigued by my newfound art discoveries but was appalled at how little I knew about American art history, so he insisted I come work for him. He made me read tons of books, and we’d discuss what I read while learning about managing a gallery.
I later transferred to SUNY Purchase, joined the visual arts department, and studied painting with Nicolas Marsicano, a Woodstock artist, as well as woodcut printmaking with Antonio Frasconi.
The road to eventually opening my own gallery and curating art was circuitous — and 30 years in the making — but it all stemmed from that one summer when I discovered what I loved to do and found a way to do it.
2. What is it about art and, specifically, contemporary art that appeals to you?
It’s the courage — the courage to make artwork even though there may be no platform to exhibit it, or no collectors to buy it.
Although I am an artist, my abilities are immersed in the 19th century. I love to paint and draw, but I am only capable of representational art making. I don’t have the courage to put myself on the line the way most artists do.
The mid-career artists I represent have been wrestling with their vision for decades — often, with little economic benefit. What I love about contemporary art are the metaphysical and spiritual underpinnings that make the artwork sing.
We are so fortunate to live in a time where this visual freedom is flowering, and I am grateful that the artists I show entrust me with their work and their vision.
3. Intriguing take, as it focuses less on the art’s aesthetics and more on the soul of the artist herself… And it’s probably more than coincidental that we’re featuring you in our Get Loud! interview series, in part, for the very quality you claim to lack — your courage. It takes a brave individual to not only put her reputation on the line every time she invests in an artist but to open her own gallery and run her own business, especially in such a male-dominated field. Tell me about Cross Contemporary Art Gallery — why did you decide you wanted to open a gallery? What differentiated it from other galleries in the area, and across the country?
Cross Contemporary Art arose from a long-simmering idea that had its origins in curatorial projects on which I’d worked since the 1980s. I would hear of an opportunity to put together a show, and I’d do it.
When the Kleinert-James Gallery was built in 1998, they put out a call for shows. Even though I had never professionally curated a show before, I entered my proposal — “Space and Being with David Chambard, Ford Crull, Ric Dragon and Melinda Stickney-Gibson” — and they accepted it… on the condition I was ready to install in 2 weeks.
That was my bath of fire and, since then, my specialty has been swift installation!
Another opportunity came from the Emerson Resort and Spa. They had two huge underutilized conference spaces on their premises, and I proposed an exhibition of 12 area artists called “Another Circle.” I borrowed the title from the writings of Ralph Waldo Emerson.
This 2010 show spotlighted the then-unknown community of mid-career contemporary artists who’d moved from New York City to the Catskills, which later formed the backbone for the niche I carved out with Cross Contemporary Art in 2014.
Most of the artists I work with have either shown in a museum or are in museum collections. This means they have a higher price point than a younger artist, but it also means they have stubbornly been “in the game” for a longer period of time. Their work is more developed, their concepts more thought out — and we’re fortunate to have them in our midst.
4. Why did you decide to close the Gallery in Saugerties?
That was a tough — but necessary — call.
The main reason was financial. Since mid-career artists have a higher price point, it’s not easy to sell their work in this area. My theory is that the generation that collected art and invested in their home environment are older and have acquired all the artwork they want to acquire. The younger generation, meanwhile, is more interested in experience than acquisitions.
Millennials and Gen-Xers are a strong audience for galleries and art events, but they prefer to spend their money on travel, and not necessarily on creating personal environments.
However, since closing the gallery I’ve been discovering the potential of growing my audience outside of the brick-and-mortar gallery space, through the internet. For example, my sister, Ann Singer, and I have been building Cross Contemporary Art as a virtual presence on Artsy.net.
5. On that note, how else do you market yourself and your brand? To what extent do you leverage the more traditional avenues, like hosting and attending events, and how much effort goes toward newer methods, like building an online presence?
While marketing myself and the gallery still depends on one-on-one interactions, the key is to amplify my reach to attract those who, for whatever reason, cannot visit an exhibit or attend an opening event — and that is where digital marketing comes in.
By posting videos of events and images of artworks, as well as reposting articles that are relevant to the art world and my artists, I am further positioning Cross Contemporary Art as a meaningful resource for art enthusiasts in the Hudson Valley and Catskills.
I have invested an enormous amount of time on social media and have used that as my marketing strategy because I believe that is where you’ll be able to engage the largest and most engaged audience.
6. We certainly agree! Can you extrapolate? How do you use social media, and what results have you seen?
I probably spend most of my energy on Facebook and Instagram. Since I have a background in digital marketing and have built pages that actively leverage Facebook’s algorithms, my posts are regularly seen by about 75% of my audience.
But, do I enjoy doing all of my own marketing? Absolutely not. In the future, I’d definitely prefer to engage Echo Sixty6 to manage it all and take it to the next level.
7. That’s exciting! We look forward to the opportunity… Looking back, what lessons did you learn from opening and closing a brick-and-mortar fine art gallery in the Hudson Valley?
When you start a business, you are creating a brand. This brand goes with you whereever you go, and it must be maintained very carefully and cleverly.
Even though I closed my brick-and-mortar gallery, I am still tapped to promote artists, serve on arts committees and curate shows for other venues. I put my artists and their interests first, and therefore I have great relationships that matter to me and to them. My ability to curate or represent good artwork is based on these relationships and I am nothing as a curator if I can’t show art that matters.
But, in spite of having amazing artists that are willing to show with me, I made the mistake of doing everything myself — from the installation to the curation and openings, from the shipping to the transportation, and from the bookkeeping to the marketing — and it’s just too much!
In the future, I would delegate more of the responsibilities, and especially the digital marketing. I think it’s crucial to have a top-flight local social media company like Echo Sixty6 working for you, because only a local company can understand the subtleties of your business and community and know how best to tell the story of your brand to the local community and greater world.
8. We find that to be true, as well. While some of our clients are based in other parts of the country and world, there’s definitely a benefit to working with brands and people who live and work nearby… Beyond growing your business on Artsy.net, what have you been doing, art wise, since closing up shop in Saugerties?
A couple months ago, I was pulled out of my semi-retirement to curate in tandem with Jennifer Hicks of 11 Jane St., also in Saugerties.
Jen has restored this amazing old brick warehouse to museum specs, and we opened our first show, Millicent Young’s “When There Were Birds,” at the end of March.
Jen also invited me to curate and install the 3rd International Sculpture Day Saugerties Show, ISday Saugerties, which showcases sculptors from around the area and is part of an annual worldwide art celebration every April. That show is in a different building, adjacent to 11 Jane Street, which, at 8,000 square feet, is possibly the largest space I have ever installed!
9. “Semi” being the operative word! I’m sure the area art community is thrilled to have you back, especially working alongside another prominent local female art figure like Jen Hicks. What’s the significance, for you, of being a female business owner?
I’m part of a larger community of rural small-town business owners the predominance of whom are women. Just look at any village, like Saugerties, Woodstock or Phoenicia — I’d wager 85% of them are owned and/or operated by women… not to mention the nonprofits!
10. In your storied and diverse career, what has been your greatest achievement?
My greatest achievement so far was the exhibition of monotypes made especially for my gallery in 2017 by two lions of American art, Richard Bosman and Gregory Amenoff.
In fact, some of these prints will be featured in an upcoming book about the art of monotype, Singular & Serial, due out in June 2019 through Schiffer Publishers.
11. What’s been your biggest hurdle?
My biggest issue is that, as a woman entrepreneur, I am hampered by less access to credit and other financial resources than many of my male peers.
12. And yet, as you said, more women than men own the businesses around here, which, of course, takes courage. When was the last time you were in awe?
Just this morning, when I went into 11 Jane St. to pick something up and saw the morning sunlight radiate through Millicent Young’s installation of horsehair and grapevine.
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