This interview took place in the new West Bottoms studio of Caleb Taylor, a PLUG Projects founding member and alum. PLUG is a curatorial collaborative artspace run by a rotating group of working artists, writers, and thinkers. All of these artists also have active studio practices and full-time jobs outside of the gallery. The existence of the gallery is a feat of professionalism and night work, but the key to its success, now more than six years as a space, is its focus on collaboration and the trust that is built with the core team.
Melaney Mitchell: Who was involved in the original founding and what were some of the founding ideas?
Caleb Taylor: The original founding members were Amy Kligman, Misha Kligman, Cory Imig, Nicole Mauser, and I. I was the last member of this group to be added to the mix – I have always said that the group needed a tool man, someone experienced in installing/handling art while being an equal contributor to all facets of curatorial projects. The founding ideas still exist within the foundation of the business: curating exhibitions of local and national artists together to place our city in greater conversation with national dialogues. It remains important that PLUG is not a venue to share the work of its members, which is different than many artist-run models. We believed that if we were actively pursuing our work and our own opportunities adjacent to PLUG, we wouldn’t need to present our work as part of the program. And we operated out of mutual contribution – everyone contributed equal amounts of time, energy, money and research into the business – our responsibilities were
designated based on our own expertise and experience, making for a well-rounded business model.
What improvements or changes were made while you were there, both to the space and to the mission of what PLUG did for the community?
Being there from the start, the first five years saw nothing but improvement – programs changed, our own lives changes and although some ideas didn’t create a spike in opportunities, funding, or possibilities, all changes eventually led to a greater understanding of how the business model needed to function. The building where PLUG resides was completely uninhabitable (no electrical, running water, security from the elements, walls, etc.) when we inquired about its availability, and through a collaboration with its landlord and the vision of our own needs, we were able to negotiate its renovation into a viable venue to experience culture while removing an eyesore from the neighborhood.
Before we even curated our first show, we had supported a significant improvement to the appearance of the Stockyards District, and it allowed us to focus on what would eventually happen in that space. From that point on, we have altered the space in many ways to support studios for the members, adding a second venue (Local Solo) that supports local projects by Kansas City artists, built and removed many false walls, commissioned artists to building installations between PLUG and our neighboring buildings, and more. As for the mission and its relationship to the community, we approached projects with a sense of inclusiveness to all people and disciplines. We felt that if you were working on something, you should let us know – if there was a place for it in our program or programs to come, we would find a way.
You received the CSF Award prior to starting PLUG, correct? Did anything about being a CSF fellow influence your decisions to become a PLUGGer?
Yes, I was a 2010 CSF Fellow. Consciously no, but I think upon becoming a CSF Fellow, I felt a need to give back to a community that was investing in me. With any acknowledgment I receive from my professional work, I feel indebted to one’s generosity while also feeling a greater sense of expectations. PLUG was one way to grow while remaining committed to the community.
What was your favorite exhibition to put together? Favorite PLUG program?
Between 2011 and 2016 when I left PLUG, our collaborators curated over thirty exhibitions in our space and in cities including Chicago, St. Louis, Omaha, and Philadelphia – including the countless public programs, we have made it difficult on ourselves to identify a favorite. Carrie Scanga’s “Breathe: The Emergent Colony” was a remarkable installation. Carrie collaborated with several local artists and a chef to transform the gallery in the most beautiful and delicate way through paper, color, sound, poetry, dance, and candy. Looking back, I think we should have charge people $100 each and done rapid-fire wedding ceremonies in the space, it was that stunning. This exhibition became a strong Conduit program because of its investment in collaboration.
At the gallery’s inception, what was your biggest motivation for starting the space and getting involved?
The initial members of PLUG realized we were all exploring curatorial projects individually through opportunities existing in KC (Charlotte Street Foundation open calls, small venues, etc.). Our motivation was to create a venue where these efforts could be explored collaboratively and where the public could begin to gather and have discourse at a venue that was not commercially dependent or institutionally-directed (museums). Also, the opportunity to create a space that could draw voices from other parts of the country as a way of influencing and highlighting KC was important to us all.
When we started talking about the space I personally didn’t think there was much of a feasibility behind it all. I was looking at it from a limited perspective overly influenced by my current understandings of the Bottoms – at that time, I had a studio space in the West Bottoms, it was an incredibly rundown, isolated warehouse with no HVAC that felt isolated. I knew others who worked in the Bottoms, but they all had an elusive existence. The buildings down here were so complicated with zoning and the antique trend hadn’t started yet. So, the Bottoms were still in this relatively quiet mode. At this point, Dolphin had moved down from the Crossroads, and we had even approached John O’Brien (founder of the now-defunct Dolphin Gallery) and said “Hey, we’re thinking of starting a space, in the vicinity of Dolphin – would that be a good idea and do you see a greater community on the horizon?”
We saw the Bottoms as a place free from the historical weight of First Fridays. We would have to build our own crowd, but the idea of PLUG wasn’t geared towards commercialism in any way. It was going to be a destination.
The Bottoms became that possibility, at the time there were a lot of things that didn’t exist in the Bottoms, R Bar was still open (where Voltaire is now) and our only other neighbor was Grandma’s (the bar next door). The idea of making a creative destination seemed really untapped. The Bottoms let us maximize our space and create a community that was going to be drawn to what we were doing based on the quality of what we were producing. Early on, it was both a studio and a gallery so those practices spoke to one another.
When you think about viability, how was that structured for PLUG? That being a challenge with artist-run spaces in KC. Funding is limited in its capacity.
Funding is limited, and we were also limited in our ability to pursue that funding. We were all young professionals who had full-time jobs, active studio practices, and PLUG. Most of our time was
directed towards planning and crafting exhibitions, connecting with artists, building public programs, writing blogs, starting publications, and the list goes on and on. Funding is another responsibility. Not only is it the most challenging aspect of running a business, it’s also the most unenjoyable although absolutely essential.
In terms of seeking funding, we were initially funded by a Rocket Grant ($4000) from Charlotte Street, The Spencer Museum, and the Andy Warhol Foundation. That grant supported us along with a small Kickstarter worth about $2000. That is a very small amount of money in the grand scheme of running a business. So, our model always relied on the fact that members were contributing to the business through their own income. Financing and managing a budget was always a challenge (as it would be in any business) and placed a lot of pressure on the collaborators to both establish funding and realize that the success of the business is run both on one’s ability to promote fundraising, seek funding, grant writing and so on.
We were also supported during my time by small grants from the Francis Family Foundation and Arts KC for specific projects. Those funds supported us for a short period of time but the need to establish a group of long-term patrons was a different and larger responsibility.
Patrons are hard to get when you’re an artist, because those people could also be buying your work.
When I discontinued my membership with PLUG, the collaborators were not committed to becoming
a 501c3 because of the amount of work it was going to entail, and the cost involved. The reason PLUG works and continues to work is because the skills and the expertise of the members themselves sustain any expenses that PLUG would have to carry. Preparation, design, writing, PR and so on. In the monetary forms of shaping and maintaing budgets, there were many in-kind services donated that made the business possible. At the same time, it completely confused funders. They couldn’t figure out how we ran a business on $10,000 a year. We were able to do that because rent was covered by our own earnings and we provided the expertise across all aspects of the gallery. We hired a lawyer to review a contract once or twice. The idea of in-kind donation was easily misunderstood by corporate sponsors, they were confused about why someone would make these choices. They would think, “Why would someone contribute professional labor with little to no payback aside from contribution to the community, intellectual fulfillment and personal enrichment?” We all felt the depth of conversation and engagement with so many intellectuals was a greater reward than profits. Sustainability and personal fulfillment do not always mix.
The other weird thing I felt, as a PLUG member, is that we had to contend with our polish, presentation, and good design — and it remains so good — that people perceive that PLUG is well funded. Even in other interviews in this publication, folks have been like, “yeah, it must be awesome to have a well funded space like PLUG Projects.”
We understood how the public perception of us and our financial stability was formed because of the caliber of art we presented/continue to present, the quality of design, presentation, and our attention to detail. It’s challenging for some to realize that a business as thorough as PLUG could be run through the evening efforts of 4-5 people – it’s the project we created adjacent to our employment and studio practices. I suspect that PLUG has been looked over for funding because of the quality and professional appearance we created. It built a sense we were already far more funded than we actually were.
People should know that! I think there is a huge misunderstanding about how PLUG functions – financially, collaboratively, and more. It truly is a collaborative model – every single show is collaboratively curated, budget and fundraising is managed together, writing is formed and reviewed by all, the mission of the program in all aspects is touched by all members.
Artists are not always the best at forming collectives. What was different for PLUG?
Exactly. But we weren’t a collective, we really were a collaboration. Those who were willing to listen to the diversity and possibilities that were in our model, where everything revolved around curation, would get it. People would often call us a “non-non-profit” and I didn’t care for that – PLUG is a curatorial collaboration. The idea of creating a model that was artist-run but solely focused on collaboration was so important. At the time we started our business, filing as a non-profit would have influenced the dynamics of this mutual collaboration and prevented us from hitting the ground running in ways we were able to from the start. I was always an advocate for finding a way to reduce the financial burden of the members, because the labor itself is significant and the expectations of time commitment are a real weight for one to carry. It’s an ongoing factor in the business to be considered when designing for the future.
Yeah, unfortunately due to some health care costs, I couldn’t afford to stay.
Right, and this is a real factor to be emphasized when thinking of running an artist-run space. If we didn’t evolve the model, we ran the risk of driving members out. For many reasons, the PLUG members have moved on and engaged in other opportunities – in all businesses (artist-run or not), one has to look at sustainability and its influence on the larger growth of the organization.
Why did you choose to become unPLUGGed?
All the founding members matured while building PLUG; we started families, bought and renovated houses, acquired new jobs, got married (I was married in the PLUG gallery and didn’t tell the other members until the ceremony was done!) moved studios, and more. In June 2016, my wife and I welcomed the birth of our son Bridger and I had been appointed to a leadership role in the Foundation program at KCAI. Additionally, I entered a phase of my life where my studio practice was asking for more time and I felt that I was no longer able to contribute fairly/equally to the collaborative model of PLUG. Additionally I personally realized that PLUG had it’s own life and destiny; by continuing on I would influence that future but I couldn’t guarantee its life.
Best learning experience from PLUG?
The depth of conversations the members had at PLUG as we planned and reasoned through the years remains remarkable. As a bundle, those were the best experiences. The countless hours spent with members was a large experiment in human dependence and independence. We needed each other to succeed and yet we were responsible for voicing our opinions in order to achieve the maximum outcome for all of our programs.
If you had advice to give to someone who was starting their own space or arts organization, what would that be?
Don’t place limits on your plans. Say yes more than no, but be protective of what the mission needs in order to succeed. PLUG continues to do exceptional things for others because they are open to new possibilities. At the same time, art is a critical discipline – the attention one/many give(s) to finding quality may be the difference of complete success, minimal impact, or total failure. Always air on the side of highest quality.
Artist Run KC will launch at PLUG Projects on NOVEMBER 12th 2017 from 12-2 alongside their revised PLUG book! Stop by to get a copy of our limited-run publication!
Artist Run KC is a print publication from Informality that encapsulates a partial history of artist-run spaces in Kansas City.
Artist-Run KC features interviews with former Charlotte Street Foundation Artist Award Fellows who have managed spaces or contributed in a meaningful way to Kansas City’s artist-run scene. This zine was produced by Informality in collaboration with PLUG Projects and commissioned by the Charlotte Street Foundation for their 20th anniversary celebration, Every Street is Charlotte Street. Artist Run KC features interviews with David Ford, Tom Gregg, Peregrine Honig, Mike Erikson, Madeline Gallucci, Erica Lynne Hanson, Garry Noland, Glenn North, Dylan Mortimer, Sean Starowitz, Caleb Taylor, Heidi Van, Jaimie Warren, and Davin Watne.