JK: We know you as a photographer and teaching artist who just received a PhD in Interdisciplinary Arts. You’ve spent time studying and working in Washington DC, Virginia, and Ohio, can you talk about what drew you to Pittsburgh?
MC: The reason I moved here was my partner received the first job offer out of graduate school at Ohio University. That was in 2006. But truthfully I have been coming to Pittsburgh since 2001 to visit the Mattress Factory. I would do day trips up here, maybe once every 2-3 months to see the exhibits at the Carnegie or the Warhol driving from Virginia so about 5 hours each way. But that’s really what sold us on Pittsburgh, and convinced us that this was the place to move to.
JK: The Museums?
MC: Yes, the cultural life.
JK: Recently, you’ve been working on some exciting new projects in Pittsburgh, like Start with Art. This is a program that gives every baby born at The Pittsburgh Midwife Center, St. Clair Hospital, and UPMC Mercy in 2015 a photograph by a local artist. What inspired this project? Do you consider it an artistic endeavor or a community outreach program? And why do you think it’s important for every child to “begin life as an art collector”?
MC: I’ve thought about this a lot and when I share this with artists that I want to include in the group, or talk about this project, I still have a tough time giving a direct answer. Part of it begins with my own teaching experience, where I teach media arts at Robert Morris University. I have students that have never been to the Carnegie Museums let alone the Mattress Factory, or Space Gallery or Revision Space. And the idea of collecting art is a completely foreign concept to them. So i’ve had that bouncing around my mind for the past few years now. What really initiated the project was Jennifer Schwartz, who had a gallery in Atlanta, bought a VW minibus and drove around the country. She would stop in certain towns where she curated 5 photographers and they would give away their work, 5 prints. I went to her pop gallery in Cleveland and I saw how it was somewhat difficult for some very great artists to give away their work to engage an audience. That even offering to give a gift was met with … I’m trying to think of the word here. People are in their daily lives and they want to get from point A to Point B, and they don’t want to interact with someone else or that made them feel uncomfortable. So when Jennifer founded this non-profit called Crusade for Art, and started this $10,000 prize grant for audience engagement, I realized that it wasn’t just enough to give away art, that if I was going to succeed I would have to almost force it down someone’s throat. And that the only group or demographic that it would be possible to do that with, are babies because babies can’t say no.
JK: That’s true. Their parents can say no though right?
MC: They can, and it hasn't happened yet, thankfully. But I just had this idea that if I was going to give away art it would be to babies who could grow into it. I could support emerging artists, and give them an audience that was exponentially larger than any they have ever encountered before. Whether they were on Facebook, or have their own website, or even if they’d had a gallery show. The way I sold this to the artists I included was that you start off with one baby as a collector, hopefully that baby has two parents, those parents have family, an extended family, and friends and neighbors, and if that picture is hanging in their living room this entire audience, this gigantic audience, have become aware of their work, without them doing anything. But I give every artist an honorarium they sign and number every photograph, and I think so far we’ve created more than 1200 of the world’s youngest art collectors here in Pittsburgh through April. I’ve already got plans for 2016. I’ve already got artists for 2017. So I think it’s a project that can continue as long as I get the funding for it… I’m only going to be able to effect 3500 babies this year at these 3 hospitals, but those 3500 babies are going to live their entire lives with art. And that’s something that took me about 20-25 years before I actually bought my own piece of art. So to think that I could effect an entire generation of children in Pittsburgh, I don’t know of any other way I could have done that without engaging them in this way.
JK: So this is multifaceted in that, it’s an artistic endeavor for the artists that you’re featuring through the program, but it’s also that community outreach?
MC: I think that both are, maybe not equal in importance, but every print is 8 1/2 by 11 inches, so no one is prevented from framing it. Anyone can walk down to the dollar store, Target, Walmart, or the nicest frame gallery in Pittsburgh and have this framed on their wall. There is no socio-economic barrier to that. But it’s also for the artist to engage these new audiences and for the PR that’s appeared for some of them. So I see it as a service to both the artists, and then newborns and their families.
I think this really is a gift, it’s not diapers, it’s not a baby bottle, it’s not a terrible towel. It is this gift of art.
JK: Looking at your CV, you’ve shown work in galleries all over the country, including cities rich with contemporary art such as Los Angeles and Miami. Can you talk about some of the similarities and differences between showing your work in Pittsburgh vs these other cities?
MC: I think that Pittsburgh, in the 9-10 years that I have been here, continues to keep growing every single year with alternative spaces and non-profit spaces. Every time I go to the Carnegie, or the Warhol, or the Mattress Factory, I keep telling myself that this is the best show that they’ve had there… showing my work in other cities, it’s a very different sense of the art market. There’s an idea that… people would rather go to Chicago and buy someone’s art that lives in Pittsburgh, than buy it when it’s up at PCA [Pittsburgh Center for the Arts], Revision, or Space Gallery. It’s the fact that it’s in Pittsburgh they won’t buy it, but when it’s in Chicago it’s fine.
JK: ... we’re also thinking in terms of selling, so showing and selling your work. It is easier for you to sell your work here or in Chicago for example?
MC: Let’s talk about the money first. With the three odd years I spent on my MFA and the 9-10 years on and off years I spent on my PhD, I got very adept to writing grants. So I could write a grant for almost anything….I had made much more money from apply for grants, for opportunities than I have from selling work. Selling work on a small scale is easier than selling in an editioned work or a larger photograph. In relation to Pittsburgh, I think Pittsburgh is probably like a lot of cities in that if people are going to buy work here I think sometimes might be drawn to outside work. Work from artists outside of Pittsburgh rather than inside Pittsburgh, I don’t think it’s a matter of not supporting artists from Pittsburgh, but I think it has to do with that whole idea of the art market where someone is then validated by selling or showing outside of their hometown or home city. I think Pittsburgh Artists are very successful outside of Pittsburgh, and I know many that do well in New York, Chicago, or LA. And I don’t think that’s any slight on Pittsburgh collectors or Pittsburgh artists showing in Pittsburgh. I just think it has to do with that aspect of finding something new, and not something that you see several times over the year. Whether it’s at Unsmoked in Braddock, or Space Gallery, or one of the other galleries in town.
I think that there so many spaces and people competing for a finite group of people actually buy art, which is one of the reasons I started this Start with Art Project, of gifting art works to newborns. To instill in them that artwork is not a privilege, it's a right. That owning or buying artwork shouldn’t be a foreign concept to them. It should be a natural activity for them to want to have original artworks on their walls.
So I think when I have bought artwork in the past it's a relationship that you take on with this artist. and It might take a year or longer before you actually end up buying the work. Just being able to to realize that you might not get luck and sell something on opening or closing night, but just cultivating that relationship with collectors or your audience.
[Flight School] told us, not to expect to make a living solely as an artist, that you’re going to need multiple streams of revenue coming in. I think that was a breath of fresh air for us, that there is this pressure, that if you want to be recognized as an artists, that’s the only way that you are supposed to be making money. I think realizing that whether it’s from teaching, or whether it’s from having rental property, that there is always going to be other money coming in. That doesn’t detract from the fact that you are still an artist… we aren’t any less of an artist just because we have to have another job. Thinking that way, Pittsburgh is unbelievable with its resources, with its depth of cultural opportunities, with its cost of living, this is probably one of the best places to be an artist today because you can live here, as you mentioned before, I can show in multiple cities, or have multiple shows in other cities, and still be here. And not have the pressure of having to work 60 hours a week to be able to support myself in New York.
Check out more of Matthew's work at www.matthewconboy.com