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For and against RAW: natural born artists
Are the group's loud, colorful art parties a clever way of exploiting young creatives?
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Credit:Christian Frederiksen

On March 12, City Beat newspaper in Cincinnati warned readers that an organization for artists had relaunched a "dubious pay-to-play operation" in the city. The organization in question, RAW: natural born artists, has chapters in cities all over the world, including Madison.

Make the rounds on Gallery Night, and you'll probably hear at least one young local artist singing RAW's praises and another questioning its mission to "encourage the creative success of the many visionaries and storytellers of our generation." These two artists will probably agree on at least one thing, though: that RAW gigs are expensive. At the top of its FAQ page, RAW states that its events are funded solely by ticket sales. But read on and you'll discover that each artist is required to pay a $300 fee to exhibit work at a given show. Those who can't shell out that sum must sell tickets at $15 a pop -- 20 of them if they can't pay any of the booth fee.

I am reminded of the many Thin Mints I sold so I could go to Girl Scout camp. I am not reminded of an art gallery, or even a craft fair.

RAW showcases are part concert and part carnival, with bands, body painting and, in some cases, aerialists. Many visual artists hang out on the borders, hoping their displays will catch someone's eye, and some booths feel like boutiques, with smiling women peddling handmade jewelry. Though RAW organizes these parties, the artists pay for much of the fun, and they're also the entertainment. So some are disappointed when RAW doesn't deliver concrete benefits such as merchandise sales or job offers.

RAW often scouts artists at craft fairs, but several people from this community have declined to participate. One of them, Jackie Matelski, is a ceramic artist who co-leads the indie craft marketplace Handmade Madison. She insists that a $300 booth fee is exorbitant for a local event, especially one that hasn't established a reputation for helping vendors sell their wares. A small booth at a local or regional craft show typically costs $40 to $80, she says.

"RAW is charging an incredible amount of money, even though they are not very well known compared to something like Renegade Craft Fair. Plus, they don't seem to put the same level of resources into promotion," she says, adding that RAW should better explain to prospective participants how event revenue is being used.

Danni Trester, a local tailor who sells wallets made from found materials, was contacted when the local chapter's leaders saw the items in her Etsy shop, *Innad*. She says they seem like "very nice people" but admits that something "didn't feel right."

"I don't think it's my responsibility to get people through the door [of events]. I understand paying a booth fee, but it seemed like RAW wasn't doing anything for the artists, and it's not really a selling environment," she says.

Creating an environment

So what kind of environment is it? RAW says it's a gauntlet of networking and publicity opportunities. Your work appears before a big crowd, and you'll get professional photos and video taken, says Molly Waseka, RAW's director of U.S. events. But selling artists' work isn't the top priority.

"We try to create an environment where someone can sell their work, but the first step is getting it in front of people," she says, noting that RAW doesn't take a commission of artists' sales like a gallery typically does.

Cultivating new audiences for art is also important, Waseka notes.

"RAW is trying to bring art to people who may not normally be put in front of it, people who come to the show to support a friend or family member," she says. "They might see something they like and buy it or see a performance they like and hire that person for an event."

"Might" is the operative word, according to several local RAW participants.

Sarah Rose Smiley, a UW student who won RAW's Madison photographer of the year award in 2013, says she hasn't sold any prints at her last two RAW shows.

"My expectations were probably a little too high," she admits. "The shows aren't really designed for selling product."

She'd also hoped to acquire more contacts and job opportunities.

"That wasn't necessarily the crowd that came to the event," she notes.

Smiley is aware that big events come with costs, such as venue fees, so she isn't shocked that there are fees associated with RAW participation, even if she doesn't sell much.

Jewelry designer and Bohemian Bauble owner Tami Reschke stresses that there's a lot more to organizing a RAW show than casual observers might realize.

"The organizers have expenses for putting the show on, and they should be compensated for their time. RAW is a big show with many layers," she explains.

When Reschke joined RAW, her business was new, so she found the events valuable for increasing name recognition.

"I don't buy into the idea that RAW is ripping off artists. They are upfront about the fees.... I got some great pictures for my business out of the deal, and an interview. I made sales at the shows and, more importantly, new customers."

But are other artists aware that RAW events are designed to make money for the organization, not for them?

Not a nonprofit

RAW may look and sound like a nonprofit, especially when spouting phrases like "an independent arts organization, for artists, by artists," but it's not. A 2013 document from the U.S. Patents & Trade Office shows that RAW: natural born artists is actually RAW Artists Inc., a corporation from Laguna Beach, Calif. One of its primary services, according to the document, is "arranging and conducting trade show exhibitions."

The Madison chapter gives off a bit of grassroots vibe, but there's a slickness to it as well. Samiera Kookasemkit, its director, has a background in public relations. RAW events she's organized have packed the High Noon Saloon on weekday nights, which is no small feat.

The national organization pushes chapter directors to organize events that bring in big bucks.

In their City Beat article, Danny Cross and Maria Seda-Reeder note that an anonymous individual took to the web and posted more than 80 internal documents showing how the national organization is run. They range from monthly revenue reports to memos urging employees to attend a corporate retreat in Mexico. This is hardly the stuff of a tiny, humble nonprofit. "[Founder Heidi] Luerra says RAW has never turned a profit...though her willingness to finance employee retreats to lavish Mexican resorts suggests the company's financial outlook is less than dire," the reporters comment.

Cross says City Beat took a closer look at RAW in early January, when "a bunch of weird things started happening." The internal documents surfaced, and the Cincinnati chapter suddenly shut down. There were lots of questions. Was RAW trying to profit off its target market: artists in the first 10 years of their careers? If so, was someone trying to bring down the organization? (City Beat shared a collection of the leaked documents with Isthmus for this story.)

It's unclear how much revenue from RAW events goes toward necessities like venue-rental fees, and how much benefits the participants. One leaked document shows that RAW's April 2013 event in Madison sold 537 tickets. That translates to more than $8,000 of revenue. Even if RAW spent $100 on each of the event's 28 artists, there would be more than $5,000 left to cover other costs.

What might these other costs be? An internal report itemizing expenses for an October 2013 show in Phoenix documents how the chapter spent $400 for a professional photographer, $400 for a videographer, $500 for a video editor and $2,000 for licensing. About 850 tickets were sold, generating nearly $13,000 in revenue. Though some of this money probably went toward promotion, Matelski's call for financial transparency seems warranted.

But that's not all: RAW asks the community, as well as local media outlets, to fund some of its activities. The leaked documents show that the organization has run Indiegogo crowdfunding campaigns, including one that raised more than $24,000 in 2012. And the organization asked Isthmus to sponsor an event last year. According to Isthmus advertising director Chad Hopper, RAW's request wasn't typical: The organization wanted free advertising. Most sponsorship agreements involve some sort of financial commitment from the event host, he says, but RAW representatives told Isthmus their budget was too small.

Kookasemkit was unavailable for comment, but Waseka, her boss, assures that the money is being used to help artists.

"We have to fund and sustain ourselves as an organization in order to provide tools and resources to the artists," she insists. "If they pay the booth fee, they also get to showcase in another city outside of their home state for free. And selling tickets is a way to make sure we can pay for the production."

Goods versus services

RAW's usefulness seems to depend on the type of work an artist creates. Though a few local participants, like Reschke, have found a way to turn RAW events into successful sales outlets, artists who peddle products like photos, jewelry and pottery sometimes go home with a carload of unsold items.

Jewelry maker Barb Easton, of Pink House Designs, exhibited at one RAW event in hopes of expanding her customer base.

"I had no idea what kind of sales to expect. With most of the attendees being younger, with limited disposable income, it was not one of my better money events," she says.

Easton says showing her work alongside different types of art was fun but wishes the event were better organized.

"The background music...was inappropriate for the type of event, way too loud," she comments. "It was frustrating trying to hear and talk about my work."

Handmade Madison's Matelski sees RAW events as more of a networking opportunity. But she still doesn't want to participate.

"I value networking, but I'm not necessarily going to pay for it," she says.

Smiley is waiting for her networking efforts to pay off. She wants an experienced mentor for her photography work and hasn't found one at RAW. But she says she has gained a great deal of support and assistance -- plus some business acumen -- from Kookasemkit.

What about artists who provide a service, such as hairstylists, makeup professionals and body painters?

Christy Grace, RAW's Madison artist of the year for 2012, found a professional mentor for her runway work through RAW, and she's become a mentor herself. Relationships like these keep her coming back to the events.

Some of these collaborations do lead to assignments, or people who can provide paying work. For example, RAW helped Grace connect with Project Famous, a local artists' collective that runs an online magazine. Positive experiences like these outweigh the negative aspects of RAW, according to Grace.

"I think they are a business, so money will be made, but they also promote art, and I think that is fantastic," she says.

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