THE INDEPENDENT VOICE OF THE VISUAL ARTS

 

Carlos Flores

 

New Art Examineer: How are you handling the whole social distancing/lockdown situation?

CF: Work at CAD is very social and dependent on sharing space and community with other people so space is really important and will continue to be. Outside of work, I mostly keep to myself so it hasn't been too different on a personal level. I also like to bike to work so it’s not like I'm taking public transit. I haven't felt those kind of changes.

There have been a lot of changes as there have been for everyone but things have stayed close to what they were pre-coronavirus. I've been doing good. I've been doing a lot more like outdoor activities. I've always been a fan of the outdoors, but I've taken up mushroom foraging. That’s been helping me get out of my regular headspace and relax.

 

NAE: Are you still actively working at Chicago Art Department, or are they closed?

CF: Actually, we have remained open to our residents. We have had to put a lot of exhibitions and programming on hold and cancel a few of them. Per my executive director Mike Norris, his instructions have been ‘you don’t have to come to work’, but honestly, I've been a little bored. So I'm coming in consistently wearing a mask. We put up signage. We have 17 resident artists, most of whom continue to come in. A lot of them have been affected by the changes and losing a lot of opportunities, but at least half of them are still coming in.

On our end it’s been a bit slower as far as programming and events, but there's been a shift to actively seek a new funding because of the losses of revenue that we would have had from events. We had to postpone a fundraiser that was actually supposed to happen on the 16th a few days ago. We are celebrating 16 years old being here in Pilsen and that was going to be a celebration but also our biggest planned fundraiser for the year.

 

NAE: What other funding resources are you looking to as an alternative? Is it like mostly grants?

CF: So far we received good news of continued funding from the Reva and David Logan Foundation. They are giving us the opportunity to seek funding for a second paid staff position for development. We haven’t had someone dedicated solely to development before so that will be a gamechanger, hopefully. We are hoping to maintain current funding but as many other small nonprofits are right now we are going after relief funding. So far we have gotten two relief opportunities and we also got the PPP loan from the government.

We're having our rent go up a little bit so we are specifically going after new money so that we can cover overhead cost.

 

NAE: How are you and other artists you know reacting to this crisis and what do you think is being lost for the arts community as well as the local community?

CF: The effects are pretty substantial. Last year we organized over a hundred and fifty free events for the community including exhibitions, residence led workshops and other community events. The arts community is losing a lot of that community building. There is already a strong sense of connection here and people have transitioned to digital venues but at the same time people are quickly burning out and realizing nothing beat sharing physical space. And us being really dependent on space, having three exhibitions for up to twenty resident studio artists. People miss that connection. I personally believe that sharing space or a platform is an empowerment for everyone, for anyone. We work a lot with POC artists. We also share our spaces with the people in the Pilsen community who can’t afford or don’t have access to space for events. Everyone is taking a hit in that sense.

 

NAE: I'm only somewhat familiar with your work but it seems like your practice is so much about space and interaction. Would you say in your own practice that you are facing new challenges artistically?
     And what kind of like Creative Solutions have you come up with? Are you thinking differently about your own practice about new forms anything like that?

CF: Community building is at the center of my practice. That's been put on hold for the time being out of like limitations from public health guidelines. It’s been a bit of a rush. My work has taken over my art practice in just the past three months, at first from just the initial scrambling, cancelling of events, and overseeing so many events here that we needed to postpone or cancel. Both on the end of being with community and organizing work, but also like the wave of added work from having to shift gears from my work here at CAD. I’ve been kind of a bad artist in the last couple months just from that.

I'm honestly still in the phase where I'm like wondering how to evolve my work. One thing that we did recently, we painted a mural on Halstead. It was covered by Block Club Chicago. Essentially, every opportunity becomes important and as an arts administrator but also as an artist I'm aware of like my influence to create opportunities but also to be responsive to all that is happening right now. So one example is that mural, we have a resident artist, her name is Shelby Roddeffer is a sign painter and muralist. I saw the opportunity to work with her and put out a message via the mural to, at the very least, inspire people and express a little solidarity with all that is happening. The mural reads ‘We will figure it out. Aqui juntos.’ Which translates to here together in Spanish.

I guess overall to answer your question there is a lot of uncertainty. I’ve also lost several opportunities that I had coming up. So I’m still in the re-thinking phase. Not discouraged at all.

 

NAE: Just one more thing on that topic. Would you say that your own artistic practice was very much tied to your position at CAD or do you see them is separate entities?

CF: The more I think about it the more I see an overlapping connection, but what I've always loved about this position is again, my role in creating culture and creating opportunities for other artists and especially considering myself a socially focused artist cultivating activity for other socially focused artists as well. The more I think about it the more I see my position as an extension of my practice.

 

NAE: You are a very deep thinker about culture. It says on your website that your work deals with displacement, class, and gender. Zooming out from local culture how are you thinking about like the larger cultural context that we’re and the condition of the moment right now?

CF: Well I think a lot of weaknesses are coming to the surface. The virus is putting a lot of strain on what was visibly or invisibly not working. All that was weak is breaking with a strain on it right now. They are being foregrounded as things that need to be addressed and looked at. I mean that generally. I could give you twenty examples of that.

One thing is just like how much public spaces and art spaces are connected to public health. There is this big need to shift funding to arts because art is what brings us all together and it's crucial to community building and getting people into healthy headspaces. I mean right now we're all hyper relying on the arts and entertainment whether it's film or movies or virtual museum tours. It's evident now more than ever that the arts are important, but also a lot of arts organizations losing funding it's tied to a weak, fragile connection to money. So that needs to change. I think more money needs to go into the arts because of that weak connection.

Something positive that is coming to the surface as well, and I'm thinking of CAD like everything that we are doing right is also more evident right now is that we have a really strong community of artists that are very communicative and very together. Every resident here is very connected to other communities in their own kind of mini ecosystem. It's kind of reassuring that artists here are very connected. We may have a monthly zoom meeting and we continue to have like a strong following. We’ve received support on social media and an increase in followers and supporters.

Recently we had an exhibition I actually curated for one of our resident artists having cancelled the fundraiser we had planned for May and putting the other shows on hold I decided to curate an exhibition here showcasing a resident artist’s work. It was her first solo exhibition. Her name is Macus Alonso. We decided to make this a curbside and virtual exhibition. I didn't want to make this entirely virtual because there is so much already that is virtual and people are honestly tired already of just solely experiencing work digitally. What curbside means is  that we shifted focus from artwork being entirely on the walls to some of it being on the windows and to coincide with that concept we planned workshops and talks that happened in the storefront as well. So people passing by who are in the area can look at the work almost as if they were in the gallery space. Of course, we are taking all precautions and we are offering gallery visits by appointment with the artist. It's one artist at a time and they both have to wear masks. We're just slowly trying to go back to normal, being mindful of safety of course.

 

NAE: The way we experience art is definitely changing. How do you think that experience is going to of carry over into the future? I know it's all hypothetical but do you think the way the public engages with art will have a lasting positive or negative change?

CF: I think will be multi-faceted. People are embracing digital venues so that’s going to carry over for a while. But also at the same time, again, people are realizing that nothing beats physical space and experiencing work in person. So I think that smaller art venues and galleries, places where more intimate sharing takes place will also grow, become more important, and people will realize the importance of small art spaces.

I think for museums and larger institutions it's going to take a little longer for them to get back to where they were just looking at numbers and exposure to hundreds of people at the same time. I think this small art galleries are going to grow and in that growth their influence is going to be much stronger and they are going to hold a stronger role in communities.

 

NAE: Yeah, that's something we can hope for is that people will have a greater sense of value in the future and there will be more public engagement from a wider audience, but we'll see.

CF: It’s been small community organizations for the most part that have been the biggest advocates for all kinds of like mutual aid campaigns, organizing, and pulling funds to help people that are going through unfortunate things right now. At least that has been my experience. I think all of that is coming to the surface but also, (in regards to) art museums, I used to work for the Adler Planetarium so I am quite familiar with the museum and exhibitions world and I just found out that the Adler is letting go of a hundred and fifty people. That comes to mind in this moment because in a lot of the larger galleries, museums, and institutions there is a lot of bureaucracy, and I know that myself having been an Adler employee so I think larger places like that are limited in their actions and what they can do and how they can help communities. Bringing it back to smaller organizations like CAC or CAD, especially just because I happen to be the voice right now of CAD and I can tell you directly that there is much less bureaucracy here and we are much more able to shift our funds be a lot more flexible to help artists and also create opportunities for them. We’re currently working on relocating money so that we can support ten mural artists in Pilsen and give them small microgrants. It speaks to, hopefully, small art organizations becoming stronger as people realize that its the small nonprofits that are really helping people the most.

 

NAE: Are there any other outside creative projects that you sort of found inspiration or solace in?

CF: I found really helpful a few artists talks virtual works out from Creative Capital. A few artists that I follow on social media that are making flyers and screen printing work that is related to the whole situation right now. A lot of people are still in the figuring out stage. We would need maybe a couple more weeks or even a few more months to see (what happens).

 

NAE: A lot of things are being revealed in the crisis whether they were visible or invisible before. I think those of us who are engaged in the art community are maybe already aware of a lot of the issues, but do you think or do you see a lot of these less visible issues emerging on a more public level? Or have things stayed the same?

CF: I think both. I think there's some perspective as an art administrator I’m just now finding out that I don’t think most of the public is aware of, nut there are also larger issues that are coming to the surface that most people are finding out about. One example is that there was this planned demolition of the old coal powerplant chimney in Little Village. Essentially, during a public health, breathing crisis, they decided to demolish this giant  coal plant chimney in the middle of a pandemic that releases a giant front of chemicals that covered all of Little Village and even Back of the Yards, and Pilsen. So that comes to mind as an example of how desensitized the government is to everything that is happening. Little Village happens to be one of the most effected areas by (case) numbers right now so that to me was pretty appalling. This was something that was public that a lot of people responded to and are aware of now. I shows a lack of fine tuning in politics right now. I think the protesters ended up going to the mayor’s house over the weekend and had a small little rally there. I think they had done something with a contractor's permit, but now that whole thing is on hold because they went to her house to demand Justice because. It's just crazy.

 

NAE: Just so I understand, they did go through with the demolition?

CF: As of now, finally, the demolition is on hold. The mayor gave really vague reasoning for it. But after the Demolition and the cloud of smoke the mayor did have some investigators look into the chemicals that were in the air and it turned out to be, according to them, nothing toxic. Although you really have to wonder, what is the integrity of that? It was a city run investigation and it was dust, I mean any kind of dust is toxic.

 

NAE: Yes, I always thought whenever a building is demolished the dust is inherently harmful.

CF: Especially during respiratory crisis. I think at that point, after the investigation, I think they gave HILCO, the corporation funding this, permission to continue. So it took the protesters going to her house to finally have her put more of a solid hold on the project. So I believe that's where it is now in the hope for these communities that it doesn’t continue. The whole thing is also to bring in a shipping company that was it increase air pollution significantly. It would be a shipping center. Aside from the disinvestment in the area it is just unacceptable to hit a community so many different ways.

 

NAE: This is a really important story and it's so similar to things we’ve been seeing play out on the national level for the past couple years, particularly with people becoming more aware of air quality in marginalized/disinvested communities. It's something that this virus is bringing more attention to and I think people are going to have to do a lot of work get government action, but it's good to hear that, people in the Little Village area decided to take action.
     Is there anything else that you want to share that you think needs to be discussed or that isn't being discussed enough?

CF: I just want to reiterate the importance of moments like these because socially minded artists are kind of at the center attention because of their intrinsic ability to connect with people and unify people. They go strictly to the center of problems to address those issues and organize around those issues, so I think there might be a shift in socially minded work coming from this cultural moment.

 

NAE: Yes. There's been such a convergence between creative practice and community-building and then socially engaged creative problem solving. And this moment could really reinforced that and drive that aspect of artistic practice into new territory that is potentially more potent more substantive.
     On a lighter note, have you taken up any new activities to help you get through this? Is there anything you would like to share that you think people could maybe be inspired by?

CF: Like I said, I've been doing a lot of biking I've taken up foraging. It hasn’t been too successful but it has really gotten me to like decompress and be somewhere else. I think a lot about sustainability. I guess in part, I’m like ‘there are so many issues going on in the world, there is kind of a secret drive to get off the grid and sustain myself and if I needed to, just be independent. But mostly it's been just like biking around and. exploring new natural areas, following streams, foraging for mushrooms. This was actually my first year foraging overall, but especially like foraging for morel mushrooms. I was pretty lucky. I was surprised to find my first-ever morel foray, so that was really exciting.

 

NAE: Nice. If things were to go back to normal or mostly normal, what is the thing that you that you miss the most that you would want to do right away?

CF: Being with family, like all family at once. Also with friends and even like here, having in person meetings with all of our artists. I miss those things the most.

 

NAE: Have you been distant from your family for safety reasons?

CF: Ya, my parents are in their 50’s and I've been just Skyping them or FaceTiming them. Something else I miss is our family dog that is at my parent’s house. Out of anxiety I did feel, I don’t know if I was sick but there were two days where I just felt off. I didn’t have a cough or a sore throat but I did feel kind of feverish so those anxieties played into me and they still are, making me not want to see them in person out of fear that I might be infecting them or something.

 

NAE: Absolutely understandable. Thanks you so much for speaking with me Carlos. Stay safe and Take care.

 

 

 

 

 

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