Interview: Sara Estes, Guest Editor, No.83 – Collaboration

Photo: Lisa Dunn
Guest Editor Sara Estes; Photo credit: Lisa Dunn
Guest Editor Sara Estes (photo credit: Lisa Dunn)

Sara Estes is a writer and curator in Nashville, Tennessee. She is the guest editor of Number: Eighty Three. She is the lead visual arts writer for The Tennessean and contributes a weekly column over at BURNAWAY in Atlanta. She is involved with David Lusk Gallery and contemporary exhibition space Threesquared, both in the Wedgewood-Houston neighborhood of Nashville.

The first time I met Sara, we started talking about what it means to be a writer involved in the visual arts. She was enthusiastic about ways our short conversation might become a collaborative effort: a discussion about arts writing and it’s genres, and the creative act.

With Estes the guest editor of Number:83 – Collaboration, I had the chance to ask her a few questions about the collaborative process itself.

So, for the record, why did you choose the topic?

For me, collaboration is an absurdly interesting facet of society, and more specifically, the art world. We exist in a unique time where there is an ever-present notion of being a part of a vast, interconnected web. We are always connected; and we know it. So, how we choose to formalize those connections interests me a lot.

While I love the solitary mind, and all the romanticism that goes along with the “lone creator,” I do think it get can get a bit too much attention when it comes to professions like art or writing. So much of what really fuels artists and writers is the community they create around their passions—the real human connections made. Whether the community is three people or a thousand, it’s a very important part of keeping one’s head above water.

So I wanted to explore all of that in this issue. The points where our solitary lines intersect, or rather, the points at which we choose to have them intersect.

Collaboration is an innate pull; the motivation for it often comes from wanting to do something bigger than us. That desire can be a really beautiful thing. I’ve always liked the idea of acknowledging our own limits and asking for someone’s help or input—it’s a great act of humility and love and trust. The world can feel so insanely competitive at times, like it’s a full-sprint rat race: each man for himself. So it’s nice to be reminded that our peers don’t have to be our competition all the time; we can help bring each other up if we work together.

Over at Burnaway you speak a lot about art professionalism. What would you say is the basic rubric for engaging in a new collaboration?

When you engage in any kind of professional collaboration, it takes a great deal of self-assurance to know that your voice won’t get “drowned out” or “lost”. I’d say a major part of the rubric is, in short: be cool. You can’t try to micromanage or push your singular vision. Also, understand that the resulting product is going to get credited with multiple names, so don’t try to claim more than your share of the pie.

What would you consider to be the most successful group initiatives, in recent memory?

Locally, some of my favorites have been COOP Collective, Hans + Gieves (Hans Schmitt-Matzen and Gieves Anderson), Phillip Andrew Lewis and Kevin Cooley’s Harmony of the Spheres project at Zeitgeist, and more recently the art collective Creek’s murals and book publications.

Non-locally, one of my favorite collaborative projects is with photographer Alec Soth and writer Brad Zellar. They’ve produced several stunning art books together. Big, big fan.

You’ve been writing since college, but you also got into curating when you worked with Dane Carder to program for his in-studio gallery, Threesquared. Did you see that as a collaboration?

Definitely. I started curating Threesquared in 2011, and it was one of the first long-term collaborations I’d ever taken part in. It really meant a lot and opened many doors for me later on. Dane and I brought different, complementary skills to the table and it worked beautifully. Like all things, it took time to figure out the best ways to communicate and sort out which aspects of running a gallery we each enjoyed and excelled at, but we grew as professionals and met countless amazing people in the process. Not to mention, after a few years it lead to us both working together at David Lusk Gallery! So what started as just a fun, collaborative side project evolved into great jobs and an expansive network for us both.

And since we’re talking about your own work, how do you see writing and arts writing fitting in to this conversation?

I’ve always seen arts writing as a strange kind of collaboration. I feel very connected to the artists I’ve written about, partly because I spend so much time in their world when I write about them: researching their trajectory, interviewing them maybe, mulling over images, re-visiting their shows, reading statements, etc.

If I can see that the artist spent a lot of time on the work, I want to give as much back in my writing. So there is a kind of call-and-response there, which feels really great, even if I never actually talk to the artist. My work is being created from something they’ve created. And hopefully, some of the insights I’ve made can help the artist in a constructive way, too.

I feel that the motivation behind building arts communities is this desire to engage in a broad, on-going conversation about what it means to be here and now. I’m most familiar with the Wedgewood-Houston neighborhood of Nashville, which is populated by galleries, pop-up spaces, and co-working spaces, so I’ll use that as my touchstone. Do you see that kind of group mentality benefiting the conversation, the “arts discourse” in a positive way? 

I do, yeah. I think there are pros and cons to all of it, but being a part of an arts community (whether tight-knit or sprawling) keeps us engaged in a way that feels present and tangible and real. There’s an unmistakable alive-ness one feels at a crowded opening where everyone is talking about art and making new connections.

Not to mention, a community of artists/patrons can make things happen on a macro level in a way that a single artist could not. Especially in terms of community development and government support.

In a panel discussion last year, Frist Center Chief Curator Mark Scala said that yes, community and collaboration are all desirable, but that they shouldn’t be pursued for collaboration’s sake alone, that artists shouldn’t feel successful just because something took place. I think that was his way of telling artists to not forget to pay attention to the end product. Do you think this is an important message for artists to heed in our current moment?

Of course! Whether you are a visual artist, writer, architect or choreographer, whether you are working alone or with a group, one thing always stands: make good work. That is all that really matters in the end.

Andri Alexandrou has worked in the visual arts in Nashville since 2011 as an administrator, photographer, writer, and studio assistant. She is the Program Director of Seed Space, the programmatic arm of the Nashville Cultural Arts Project. She holds a BA from Vanderbilt University.