The founders, Catherine Todd and Collin Ferguson, of Where Y’Art won us over on our visit to their gallery in New Orleans. Underneath their warmth and enthusiasm, lies a savvy approach to stimulating the arts economy in New Orleans by empowering artists and nurturing unique partnerships such as their long term curatorial engagement with The Old No 77.
Learn more about the platform mixing art, technology, and hospitality in this interview between Collin and our experiential partner, Ashley Lukasik. Our INDIE Confab: New Orleans Immersive Experience on January 13th will culminate with a cocktail party at the Where Y’Art gallery with spirits supplied by Seven Three Distilling Company.
Ashley: It would be great to hear about how Where Y’Art came to be.
Collin: Where Y’Art started out in response to a hole that both Cat [co-founder] and I saw in the New Orleans creative and visual art community. Cat was a graphic designer and I was a working artist. There was no online directory of art events. There was no way to purchase directly from the artist. So we built and tested a solution, which was the Where Y’Art online platform. Through that we found a lot of additional things that were also needed. One was a sounding board and a platform for entrepreneurial development for artists so their work would be seen and sold.
We pivoted a bunch of times by listening to the artists and to other partners who were looking for art but didn’t have the right connections to incorporate local artist into their projects.
Two different moments led up the Where Y'Art. Cat was at White Linen Night. Typically, thirty or forty thousand people come out for it–a very see and be-seen event. Standing there in that sea of white, she thought “I wish there was some way that I could look online or look at an app to figure out what is going on.” At the same time, I had been at Burning Man exploring what other purpose I had besides producing art in post-Katrina New Orleans to further strengthen the artistic community here. The community building was eye-opening. Sometimes the New Orleans art community seems very much like diverse pockets around the city with little overlaying support. There is Saint Claude Arts District, The Julia Street District, The French Quarter, and other small artist collectives and groups around the city.
One night on Frenchman Street, she said, “Oh my god. We’ve got to do something!” We met the next day and that’s how Where Y’Art was born.
AL: What did it look like at the beginning?
CF: We were working out of Cat’s mother’s house in an upstairs bedroom. It was just us and a computer creating mock-up website pages. We were everything–branding, sales team. Neither of us had run a business that had more than one employee. We hit the streets. We looked at artists we were really interested in and pitched them to join something that didn’t exist yet. Somehow we got thirty-five artists to take a chance on a totally new platform with two strangers. They believed in our vision and I think that, more than anything, our authenticity and passion.
We were coming at it as artists trying to make an opportunity for artists.- Collin Ferguson
Artists & NOLA's cultural economy
AL: Approaching it from the ground up. One thing I think is interesting as cities try to stimulate their economies, tech-based incubators get funded and get a lot of publicity and support in places like Chicago–I’m sure in New Orleans this is true, too. Yet, the artists I know are still working completely independently as businesses-of-one, handling every aspect of their own branding, printing, production, logistics, as well as making work and trying to get representation. It’s surprising there haven’t been more efforts to create infrastructures for artists that could be replicated in different cities.
CF: We were lucky because we started Where Y’Art as a tech platform and I studied business. We weren’t just a collective with a physical space. In fact, at that time we had no physical space. It was a movement that was all based on an online platform to increase connectivity in the New Orleans art community. We called ourselves an incubator baby. We also participated in the Catapult Funds Program, which is put on the SBDC [Small Business Development Center], The Jazz & Heritage Foundation, and sponsored by Capital One. They focus on elements of the cultural economy.
We were able to apply a lot of knowledge we gained to artists to give them a roadmap to grow their business.
We built out a list of resources that are available to artists. Most of the time artists don’t even know that they can go to the SBDC to work with a consultant on a growth plan or how to get a loan to fund an idea.- Collin Ferguson
AL: Is it fair to say that you’re a sort of mediator, having developed relationships with artists so they would go to you as a way to get to other resources? Because of the trust you’ve built?
CF: More of a connector with a larger referral network that has grown in different ways. For instance, after identifying a need for it, we launched a corporate art consulting arm, Where Y’Art Works, which is more than 80% of our revenue right now. We help artists have a secondary passive income related to the corporate art consulting venture where they produce prints and have all their artwork photographed high res to be produced as a high quality print. We have a network of photographers, printers, and framers that make the supply chain easier for artists to produce work for commercial clients.
AL: It makes a lot of sense. Part of what you’re hitting on is that with artists there’s a different language and culture that often feels very separate and distant from business and the tech world. So maybe your secret sauce is that you’re that bridge.
Partnerships in Hospitality
AL: Obviously the folks that are coming to Where Y’Art for the cocktail party after our immersive experience are hospitality leaders who are particularly interested in new ways of engaging community with their properties, so I’d love to hear more about the relationship that you have with The Old No 77 Hotel and Chandlery.
CF: I can’t say enough good things about The Old No 77. We work with their team here in New Orleans and parent company in Portland. They are a prime example of a company that has put culture at the forefront of development. They originally wanted us to curate their retail spaces. We ended up creating a gallery in an underused hallway.
The first curation we did was a Katrina retrospective. It was called X the Variable Progress - X being what was written on the houses during search and rescue as they were cleared, X being the roman numeral ten because it was the ten year anniversary of Katrina, X being a variable in algebra that affects change.
We did a small gallery. We had seven pieces from a small selection of artists. At this point, we manage sixty pieces or more throughout the hotel. We also work with them on artist suites, where artists act as interior decorators.
The exhibitions that we do all feed back to the original technology platform. They're also smartphone interactive. Sometimes people aren’t comfortable asking the concierge about artwork. If they just scan the placards with their smartphones, they can virtually meet the artist, read an interview about them. It's nice for people to have another avenue into the artist’s world.
We really believe that you may not understand art, but you can understand people so if we can make that person more approachable we can overcome a barrier for people to appreciate their work.- Collin Ferguson
AL: Amazing. How long have you been at this now? You’ve built a lot.
CF: In six years we've become more of an arts solution based company, where our platform is one of our products. We do art programming, consulting and rotations, and traditional turnkey arts consulting –from purchasing to installation. We've also worked on a variety of one-off experiential moments for brands and events.
AL: What's next for you?
CF: We’ve been doing some preliminary groundwork in Nashville, looking at it as a potential territory. We’re reexamining our growth plan and how we can make the most impact.
At the end of the day when an opportunity comes across our table, we really judge it on how is it going to maintain, sustain or grow the arts community.- Collin Ferguson
Everything comes back to that question.
AL: Very cool. We’re really looking forward to being with you all in your gallery on the 13th of January with ILC.
CF: Us too. We really love what you guys do.
Balancing preservation & development
AL: Thanks! ILC is an interesting network with vibrant folks who love to come together. The work that I do focuses on how we think about the current digital age - where we are missing opportunities for human-to-human connection? Where are the gaps? How do we make the most of the time we have together in person and make it more compelling, intimate, and conversational?
What you were saying about human stories resonates with me. I think about how to create something tangible that people can grab onto even if it’s outside of how they typically think about things. We’ve gotten into a habit of trying to push information on people that doesn’t penetrate.
CF: Yes, yes.
AL: This is the first immersive experience I’ve produced in New Orleans. It’s such an amazing city, so rich. It would be a shame if we weren’t out there getting to see some things on the ground with our own eyes and expose ourselves more directly.
CF: Yes, there’s so much growth and development here but there are so many developers who really want to do it in a way that embraces the old New Orleans style, and supports the creatives who live here.
We’ve seen other cities where their culture gets diluted because a lot of the cool, funky interesting parts didn’t get incorporated into the new growth. New Orleans is very aware that at the end of the day the reason people come here is because it is like nowhere else. If any of our growth starts disrupting that, the whole ecosystem can suffer.- Collin Ferguson
Whether it’s art, music or food--our cultural economy is the strongest asset that New Orleans has to offer.
AL: Absolutely, and you’re right to point out that it needs to be recognized and protected, not exploited or diluted. It’s a really hard balance. I know it’s something that the folks in the ILC community think about a lot. Are you introducing new economic resources that allow a neighborhood to grow or are you stripping away? How do you benefit the people who have been there who are really the purveyors of those deeper cultural elements?