I suppose that within the organizational chart of the art world Publico falls under the less-than-specific category of "alternative space." All that term really connotes is that Publico is neither a commercial gallery nor a more traditional nonprofit institution.
The joke goes something like this: "They aren't nonprofit, they're no profit." At least they were.
Beginning Saturday, Publico will embark upon its final project at its Clay Street exhibition space, a fifth anniversary celebration that doubles as the gallery's swan song. A summary of Publico's resume seems in order.
Over the past five years the various members of Publico have consistently generated and hosted the most compelling programming in the region. The gallery was the brainchild of brothers Matt and Paul Coors, and they enlisted the help of their friend, Dan Reddinger. After renovating their shared loft apartment in Over-the-Rhine into a space capable of hosting exhibitions, Publico opened its doors Jan. 31, 2003, with a three-person show by Matt, Paul and Dan.
Their ambitious program boasted 10 exhibitions that year, a seasonal mix of group and solo shows. Initially the program relied heavily, though not exclusively, on friends and colleagues from the Art Academy of Cincinnati with a few DAAP students and graduates rounding out the lineup.
The following year witnessed a turning point in the gallery's young life. In March 2004, Publico hosted and co-organized the exhibition Good World, which ran concurrently with the omni-present Beautiful Losers exhibition presented by the Contemporary Arts Center several blocks away. That exhibition was the first at Publico to significantly feature artists from outside the Cincinnati area.
The gallery founders took a pause after that show to assess their situation and re-emerged in late July 2004 with new commitments: to increase the role of artists from outside Cincinnati; to focus on performance events (specifically music events and poetry readings); and to fundamentally alter the nature of the gallery by creating a quasi-board of directors to share responsibility for all of Publico's functions and collectively set the creative agenda.
Essentially, they expanded gallery leadership from two brothers to a group that totaled anywhere from eight to 12 people over the years. That structure resulted in weekly meetings where work was done, proposals were made, project managers were assigned and, most importantly, friends discussed ideas and debated the finer points and broad topics of art, music and poetry.
A novel concept for an art organization, but that was exactly what kept the new structure from getting mired in petty squabbles or self-imposed bureaucracies. From that point forward, Publico hit its stride.
The gallery produced superb exhibitions, tough and uncompromised. It organized music and poetry events that rivaled any arts organization in the Midwest, regardless of size. It did all of this on something less than a shoestring budget.
Publico's shows reflected the type of effort that occurs when strategic thinking/marketing and audience building are not part of the equation.
Artists talking about ideas, showing art on its own merits, making collective decisions based on a shared vision -- it all sounds a bit idealistic and suspicious, to be honest, so I caught up with five of the current Publico members (Britni Bicknaver, Evan Commander, Paul Coors, Russell Ihrig and Dana Ward) as they finished up a three-day retreat deep in the woods of a friend's property on the west side of Cincinnati.
During an unseasonably warm evening I followed a crudely drawn map to a cozy campsite. I sat down to record a free-flowing exchange that delved into the brief but dense history of Publico.
After nearly eight hours of conversation, what I discovered was, in fact, a group of people who genuinely like being around each other, talking about what they've achieved, what they hope to accomplish and all of the reasons they think it might be interesting. I was glad I brought extra batteries and tape.
We started by discussing the end.
Publico is going out on a high note: It's not being forced to close by money or landlord, and there's a noticeable lack of internal strife. The past year has been, by all measures, successful.
So why close now? According to the group, it's a combination of factors.
"Logistically, it's the five-year anniversary, and that's a good, nice round number," Coors says. "Practically, five years is about as long as you can expect from an endeavor such as this with money concerns and keeping this many people together in one place at one time. Personally, for myself, I'd like to be able to refocus back on my own work because I've put that second, behind the gallery, for the past five years."
Others also cite the natural progression of a group dynamic.
"We've lost a lot of people to grad school right now as well," Ihrig says.
Most notably, co-founder Matt Coors left last year to attend graduate school at the University of California San Diego, and several others have plans to leave for graduate work either this year or next.
"It's kind of a dwindling group because of everybody else's lives taking over and people going their own ways," Ihrig says.
"And some of it, too, is an intuitive sense," Ward adds. "It's not like the energy is flagging in some dramatic way, but it's more like we've done a lot and it feels like an accomplishment in its own right."
Part of the strategy of expanding the leadership base of Publico was to prolong the inevitable burnout of running an art space in Cincinnati. It's a constant hustle, and a financial windfall doesn't even exist as a pipe dream.
During the early years, both of the Coors brothers lived in the building (Commander and Brian Nicely have lived in the space at different points over the years). That's about as close to a business plan as they ever got.
Rent on the gallery was virtually non-existent since it was wrapped up in their living expenses. Shifting to a collective approach spread out some of the labor, but those members living in the building still bore a somewhat disproportionate share of the installation work and day-to-day upkeep.
"As an artist," Paul Coors says, "I would maybe like to still curate one or two shows a year, but I don't feel like I need to be curating 10 to 12 shows a year anymore plus however many music shows. I feel like five years of doing this has been fairly taxing."
After Good World in 2004, "it was definitely a time necessary for some reconsideration of what we were doing," Coors recalls. "We had the idea that we could more with more than just us two. The first year or two (of the collective) we were sort of feeling out how everything was going to work and getting to know each other better -- more debate-centric meetings."
I sense that everyone in the group assembled around the campfire holds a special place for those gatherings.
"I do think there was a collective energy that peaked," Commander says. "Not in terms of the production, but we're talking about the meetings being more administrative and streamlined now in terms of how to get a show up. But in terms of the energy of a collaborative, it peaked then and maybe it didn't have anything to do with the product in the gallery."
The Publico collective cites several Art Academy faculty as a guiding force in its methodology, particularly sculpture professor Keith Benjamin. The group makes reference to the humble nature of both his art and his approach to teaching.
Benjamin also founded an exceptional and underrated exhibition gallery, Warsaw Project Space, which clearly had a profound impact on Publico's management. In the course of this discussion, I believe they coin a new phrase: "passionate humility."
At first blush that phrase certainly appears to be an oxymoron, though I start to take it as an antidote to the prevailing wisdom that Cincinnati (as a microcosm of the Midwest) has some type of inferiority complex, particularly when it comes to art and culture. It's a subtle yet significant difference.
Each member of Publico is an ardent fan of Cincinnati. They're unapologetic about running an art space in a mid-sized Midwestern city. They choose to see their geographic reality as a form of freedom rather than a limitation.
"Even if we didn't get that (external) gratification," Bicknaver says, "if we were happy with it, that was enough for us."
Ihrig summarizes: "We are our own demographic."
Of course, that thinking can be interpreted as being insular. In typical Publico manner, Commander turns that criticism into a positive: "We have all of these resources here. They were our resources because we were those resources. It allowed for a kind of insular development, which was great because we didn't have to deal with those sorts of ideas (commerce, media, style). Dealing with that can become very stifling."
Publico developed a strong, mature voice before the local press caught up with its program. This isn't to say that individually they don't each harbor some of the typical frustrations of being an artist in Cincinnati and trying to activate a broader community, but they honestly aren't bitter about any of that.
I give them ample opportunity to turn the conversation toward a bitch session about Cincinnati. Other than a few isolated stories, which are relegated to humorous grist for the mill, as a group they seem disinterested in dwelling on those frustrations.
In fact, as Bicknaver says, "We were always pushing on to the next thing. Because the shows were so close together we didn't have time to dwell on certain things that didn't go exactly as we hoped."
Time and again they choose to talk about what excited them about their effort rather than what disappointed them.
I can't really recall the first show I saw at Publico. I know I was working as a curator at the CAC at the time, and I know I invariably left their shows thinking about what I could do to bring some of the same energy and ideas back to the CAC.
I'm certain that Publico made me a better curator, and I believe the CAC's program benefited in some way as well.
As the campfire raged on and I left the Publicoans to their quality time together, I thought to myself about how the fates of the big institutions and the small spaces run by artists are inextricably intertwined. I hope that all of the "larger" arts organizations in Cincinnati understand how valuable Publico and its like-minded colleagues are to the region's overall cultural health.
MATT DISTEL was formerly a curator with the Contemporary Arts Center. He is currently director of the recently opened Country Club gallery.