Sean Starowitz is a visual artist, activist, and civic leader currently based in Bloomington, Indiana where he works for the City’s Arts and Culture department. While in Kansas City, Starowitz spearheaded and oversaw a large number of community centred art projects including Bread KC, The Drugstore, The Talk Shop, The Speakeasy, and The Laundromat. All of these functioned as spaces to pose questions and create opportunities for growth, social change, and to address the lacks that existed in corners of the kc art scene.
Melaney Mitchell: You were involved with a lot of spaces in KC, you were a founding member of The Drugstore, you ran Bread KC — more of a funding model than a space itself— and then you also ran the Talk Shop. Do you mind giving a brief history of the three?
Sean Starowitz: It is probably the easiest for me to talk about them in chronological order than anything else. Bread KC started in response to a couple of things, I did a residency in Chicago and I got to meet some of the founders of the Sunday Soup network; mainly InCUBATE, a space which was inspiring to me while I was in undergrad. I was into what they were doing and was inspired by the idea of artist-run spaces and what that means to a community. At the time, I felt like there was not a whole lot of that going on in KC (in 2010/2011) The scene around KCAI at the time was trending toward people leaving and getting an MFA. I graduated at the peak of the recession (we were all broke) with a core of folks who all started spaces like Ayla Rexroth who started Subterranean Gallery, and Andrew Lyles who started Spraybooth Gallery in the back of a bike shop. We were all broke and couldn’t move anywhere.
With Bread KC I wasn’t sure if I wanted to do a “Sunday Soup” thing. With all the funding cuts for the arts happening in Kansas, I reached out to Andrew Erdrich and said “we should start this.” Andrew came in with a specialty in food, he had a lot of service-industry experience and I was more in charge of marketing and PR. After we got started, we eventually met Erin Olm-Shipman and Bread KC became this alternative roaming space. It occupied an in-between zone for art communities, neighborhoods and residents. Because we didn’t own a store-front we could be responsive to the needs of the community. We could also figure out how to create opportunities when there were funding gaps, anything from a curatorial project to what was needed by the community.
Then leading to The Drugstore, we had just wrapped up the Speakeasy project at Charlotte Street and Gregory Kolsto and the folks at Redeemer Church invited me to be in the studio space in the old Katz Drugstore building. After that, The Drugstore residents at the time just started meeting once a month and the church just asked us after the end of the first year to come up with a concept which is now The Drugstore. It’s amazing after being gone for a couple of years to see what has happened with the space now that it has flourished and evolved to a much larger residency for artists. I was involved with the very early stages of curatorial direction and programmatic approaches.
Lastly, the Talk Shop concept came up right when I started to take on more responsibility at the Drugstore, which was kind of stupid as I really overextended myself. The idea of the Talk Shop was something that I will always continue to revisit in my career and my life as a studio artist. A revolving store-front model that was made to be responsive to the community. We succeeded and failed in a lot of different ways. What ended up happening formed a core group, similar to the other projects, with collaborative partners. The Talk Shop had a Librarian, an Educator, a Graphic Designer, a Storefront Designer, an Artist, and myself. We were thinking about how to be responsive to what Midtown Kansas City was becoming at the time. There were a lot of changes happening in the community and we thought The Talk Shop could be an anchor space for that. Our programming was a little overly ambitious, happening every six weeks. So we got a lot of good events and concepts out of it. I think it was a project that I failed at but I am really happy that I did. When I walked away from it, I got something valuable to where I am at now after leaving Kansas City.
Bread KC went on for five years of my life, Drugstore for four years and Talk Shop another year. It’s quite a lot of my life to wrap up.
So now you’re in Bloomington, Indiana working for the city?
Yes, I am essentially living in the “Lawrence, Kansas” of Indiana if that makes any sense. I am running the Arts and Culture Department for the city, under the umbrella of the Department of Economic and Sustainable Development. I have a full-time city staff position which is awesome. I manage all of the arts and culture programming from the city’s point of view including festivals, the 1% for the arts program, commissioning public art and fundraising, and managing a cultural district designated by the state. I work toward making sure the voices of artists and artist-run businesses are heard in civic decisions and I am also the go-to guy for random things like aesthetic treatments for highway planning.
I’m essentially an artist-in-residence in City Hall.
The framing for why I chose to do this job and what I am trying to accomplish has a lot to do with the question of what can artists do to change, shift, challenge, and/or create opportunities within government. This is what I have been working towards for a long time and it is really amazing.
Do you mind talking about the supposed “failure” you discovered in attempting the talk shop project and how that relates to what you are working on now?
Part of the problem was being overextended, running three different projects at once, and being on the road all the time. I got the Charlotte Street award and then freaked out because I was on the road 40 to 60 percent of my time. I hadn’t realized at that moment what focus, integrity, and actual engagement really was. So for me, it was important to fail. When I had done other projects in the past, like the Laundromat where working with Adewale was really grounding, what happened with the Talk Shop wasn’t that. I knew something was off and learned about overextending oneself.
What is really great about the work I do now is that I can only see ten feet in front of me. It’s grounding because I am not constantly looking for another strategy. I was always looking for the next thing because I was self employed slightly (but the bakery was always happy to accommodate me when I needed some cash). When you do that you can actually appreciate the things that you’re doing. I really appreciate when I can focus on the work, the craft, the labor that goes into every project, and the people that you work with. In a community context, if you are not doing that, you’re failing your constituents, your collaborators, and the people you claim to be working with. It’s really important to dive deep and be super invested. There are advantages to being an outsider and being brought into a community. You can navigate local politics differently, you can build relationships that have been segmented due to past politics. At the same time, if you’re a community artist and your neighbor doesn’t know who you are, thats inherently unjust in my opinion.
The Talk Shop was a very social-practice-focused project, which is great in its own terms. You’re pointing to a problem or situation and having a dialogue around it. What I am trying to do now is more about civic practice which is addressing the problem and also solving or creating a solution around that problem. I am not interested in just pointing and having the same dialogue we have been having for ten or fifteen years. What are the outcomes and benchmarks we can use to overcome this challenge. My experiences in Kansas City were invaluable experiences to my practice now and where it can go.
That reminds me, I forgot to ask about The Laundromat project. Was that something you did with the CSF Fellowship funds?
No, that project was funded by a Rocket Grant. Still Charlotte Street, just a different part. I would say the portfolio that came out of the Laundromat Project informed the decision of me getting the award. I was in the middle of that while doing the studio visit for the CSF award. It came before Talk Shop and it was a more successful project, mostly because it was the only thing I was doing. After doing Talk Shop I moved to a town of 1,800 because I was completely burned out.
Right, you left Kansas City for an Americorps program?
Yes, I was working through that program with the Rural Policy Research Institute and then also working with Apple Shop which is one of the oldest art and community development organizations in the United States. It was founded in 1968 and launched with “war on poverty,” it started by giving coal miners 16mm cameras and having them tell their story. So, it was the ultimate social practice/civic practice foundational building blocks. In order to properly learn from this group, you had to be there. Elizabeth Barret made a film called Stranger With A Camera that I show in every class I teach, which talks a ton about social change and exploitation. I wanted to learn from her about that process and what it means being an artist working in communities. How do you have social change without social exploitation?
How are you considering that idea of social change without exploitation working in a civic role?
There are varying ways to answer that, but the main challenge is that with social practice in general, there isn’t a level of change attributed to it. That makes me super uncomfortable. It often points to the problem, documents the problem really well, and shows what we already know. Then leaves whatever it was critiquing in the same place before the artist got there. For me it’s about what are the challenges, opportunities, models, and frameworks that change something.
It drives me crazy. Over the past ten or fifteen years there has been tons of work, academic papers, books, and other works on the term “gentrification” and we know every reason why it happens yet we have no models to solve the problem. We keep pointing at it and we keep saying it’s a problem, then why don’t we start talking about things like community land trusts? I also ran for city council here, and as a civic public administrator there are things that I can take on. A big thing that I pushed for in my campaign was a community land trust. That way a municipal-led land trust could control property value while not displacing folks for the sake of economic development.
Indiana has state caps on property tax increases, so this idea of increased property value is limiting here. It is a matter of thinking about how we can create new models and new systems that reinvent the wheel. I think that these land trusts would really help prevent displacement in these communities. You would be able to control the land value and since it’s controlled by the city, they’re not trying to increase the property value quickly. It takes a really wide set of imaginations to make this possible. All the more reason why artists should go into government.
Luckily, Bloomington is really progressive as a community and really appreciates this progressive approach to values. I have been fortunate enough to be in a civic environment that allows me to be very critical. There are always varying levels of interest that exist within a community. It is a question one must always ask, “who pays, who decides, and who benefits?” That’s the fundamental part to this civic-engaged approached.
What do you feel are the most memorable moments from your Kansas City based projects?
Hah, it’s almost better to answer what isn’t memorable, because almost all of it. I think especially the partnerships I was able to form with an organization like Bread KC. Finding partnerships with restaurants and food providers. The community coming together to share a meal was important.
The best thing about the Drugstore is that it flourished when I left. It was great to see it grow and become something entirely different and knowing you helped influence a catalyst for that. It became everything it was intended to be. I talk with Adewale (the owner) of the Laundromat on Walnut every time I am in Kansas City, that relationship was incredibly important for me. For me it is always about the relationships and the mentorships that I have had.
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.
Artist Run KC launched at PLUG Projects on NOVEMBER 12th 2017 alongside their revised PLUG book! If you are interested in a copy email firstname.lastname@example.org