Producing Culture: An Interview with Johanna Lasner
“To pull the art from the studios and place that art is very rewarding. It’s great to see three floors of empty office wall space suddenly filled with art.”
Interview by David Bernabo.
In the quiet, white-walled surroundings of Bloomfield’s Constellation Coffee, I met with curator and artist Johanna Lasner to discuss her work with CDCP, Casey Droege’s relatively new organization that collects Droege’s recent projects and collaborations like the SIX x ATE dinner and artist lecture series, the PGH Photo Fair, the new CDCP gallery, and CSAPGH, the art version of the traditional farmed goods CSA model.
Prior to moving to Pittsburgh, Lasner lived in the United Kingdom, Canada and the Caribbean. She recently curated the Ramin Project, by artist Aurora Zanabria, in Lasner’s native country of Ecuador.
CDCP’s next event is SIX x ATE: Memento Vivre on Oct. 5. Pick up one of the few remaining tickets here!
David Bernabo: I’ve heard a number of negative reactions to the term “cultural producer” since without context, the term can feel like giving oneself a fancy title for making things happen. But “cultural producer” is a more specific term, one that carries intention, reacts to existing cultural norms, and uses a point of view to attempt to influence society. Can you talk about your work with Casey Droege Cultural Productions (CDCP)?
Johanna Lasner: Basically, we have a set of goals that we try to achieve in everything that we do, especially through our Keystone programs — CSAPGH, PGH Photo Fair, SIX x ATE, The Residence. We aim to contribute to the Pittsburgh art community by not only offering quality programs but also diverse programming with focuses on female creators and empowering minorities. With these goals, we want to connect local with local, but also local with global.
We also want to build the arts economy in the city. If that happens, then creatives can produce more work and that work can leave their studios and be placed into private collections or at a law firm or dentist’s office.
DB: That idea of connecting an artist to someone who is going to buy their art is one of the main things that is lacking about Pittsburgh’s art scene.
JL: Right now, sales can be sporadic, but we want to create momentum for artists to sell their work. CDCP also acts as an art consultant. We do studio visits with artists so that we stay in touch with artists and with what they are currently creating. When a client works with us, we use our knowledge to link them to artists’ work, taking into consideration the client’s available space, their tastes, and price range. To pull the art from the studios and place that art is very rewarding. It’s great to see three floors of empty office wall space suddenly filled with art.
So far, we’ve managed to place close to 20 artists from all different backgrounds and mediums and different stages in their art career.
That mission — to expand the local arts economy — is also accomplished with our CSA program.
DB: So, the CSA has worked with 23 artists to place work in 170 homes, but the program has shrunk a bit since its inaugural year. The first year had 50 shares and this fourth iteration has 20 available shares. Is that decrease a symptom of the lack of an art market?
JL: Yes, absolutely, but still with 20 shares, we are seeding new art collections and helping to create awareness of the existence of innovative local art. We are happy with the program, because we want to provide an accessible pathway to art — to purchase art, yes, but also for people to not be intimidated by it. We want people to think that art is ok to be close to, and it’s not a thing that is untouchable or not affordable or not understable. We want to create awareness that art is powerful, but also very attainable. Artists are making a lot of work here.
DB: Yes, tons of work! One of the more recent complaints about Pittsburgh is that we don’t have enough galleries for artists to consistently exhibit work.
JL: Yes, and this goes back to the lack of an art market to sustain the galleries. Without an art economy, there are few sales, which theoretically is how galleries pay overhead expenses — by taking a commission on sales.
DB: So then galleries, unless funded by some sort of institution, become passion projects and live or die based on the owner’s interest. So, how does the CDCP gallery work? It seems like having a gallery space that is one piece of CDCP’s overall program is a more sustainable option.
JL: First off, the CDCP Gallery is being incubated by the Pittsburgh Cultural Trust. Our office space happened to have the gallery space [formerly, the Three Rivers Arts Festival Gallery], which is great because the gallery provides an opportunity to further our existing programs by collaborating with other groups and events. We hosted “BANNED,” a panel discussion about censorship and art with The Allegheny County Bar Association, ACLU, and City of Asylum.
Because of the many hats that Casey and I wear, Vicky A. Clark is the current Curator in Residence for the CDCP gallery.
DB: It seems like this job takes a special kind of person. Like, you and Casey and good at many things.
JL: You have to have a wide range of skills. My schooling in curatorial practice taught that curators are in the middle of the artist and the audience and need to bridge the understanding gap. Some audiences want more wall text and written content, some audiences just want to look at the art. Same with artists — some artists want the audience to simply experience the art and make their own conclusions. So, as a curator, I try to make sure that the audience that attends one of our events walks away with a clear picture of what they saw. It would be disappointing if someone left without having an “experience.”
Art is constantly evolving and often today’s art doesn’t look like it did in the past. So, it’s our job to convey the intention or message of the art to the audience.
DB: Do you think curation is a form of education?
JL: Yeah, part of the curator’s role is to convey the message and intent of the artwork. Especially nowadays where we live in a difficult time where people are afraid to discuss certain topics. The role of a curator should be a type of activist, to promote those conversations. We are are trained as researchers, educators — I used to hear that artists can become curators naturally, but curators have a harder time becoming artists.
DB: And you also started as an artist, correct?
JL: Yes, so that’s why I feel like I’m in a lucky position because I can understand both worlds. When the curator doesn’t have the background of having an art practice, then the curator may have a harder time negotiating with the artist and there can be friction on those relationships. Do you feel like there is a lack of curators in the city?
DB: I do think there is a lack of the curator as tastemaker in Pittsburgh. I don’t necessarily think that it is healthy to have a few tastemakers overrun a city, especially a small city like Pittsburgh where such a diversity of art is created. But there is room a for a few curators to help define this era of Pittsburgh art, which could make entry into our art world more accessible for artists or audiences on the fringes of the art scene.
JL: Yes, the curator identity is not strong enough. It’s not enough to put up a show that looks pretty or merely cohesive.
DB: Because that can border on design?
JL: In the arts, I think it needs to have more intention.
DB: When we talk about Pittsburgh’s non-institution-based gallery system, I think of Unblurred, which is great in that it brings hundreds of people to the Garfield-area galleries every month, but also how Unblurred creates a system where galleries need to have a new show every month. Curating a monthly show is extremely ambitious, and I wonder if the presented work suffers because of the necessary turnover.
JL: You need to ask: Is it working for the gallery owners? Is it working for the communities? I know for sure that the speed of the exhibits will affect the spirit of the gallery in the long-run.
Also, the city is bursting with events. I always say that I need three of me to attend to everything. We keep scheduling these events on the same dates. First Fridays are crazy. We’ve been talking about partnering with others to develop an arts calendar.
DB: Ah, the logistical nightmare calendar.
JL: But it seems like we are sabotaging each other’s programming.
DB: Switching back to programming, I’m curious about the SIX x ATE program. On one hand, it’s a platform for artists to discuss their work, but the primary goal feels like community building.
JL: A community provides a sense of identity, a collectiveness. New ideas emerge from the exchange business cards or phone numbers or ideas. For young people, we’ve heard that SIX x ATE acts as a mentorship program, because the events provide access to meet with a photographer or painter that they’ve admired and always wanted to meet. And now they can exchange ideas as peers. It’s a safe place where you can build your identity, make friends — art has the power to do that.
Casey recently did a talk about collaboration and she has a great phrase, “don’t hate, collaborate.” A lot of people in Pittsburgh are doing great things, but many are working in isolation. We’re hoping to change that.