Introducing Surplus Space’s “Neighborhood Gallery Grants”—A Conversation with Gabe Flores

Surplus Space wants to seed five new artist-run galleries. But they need your help...

Alternative spaces. Everybody loves ’em, but we don’t often talk about how much of a pain in the ass labor of love it is to launch and maintain one. Not only do alt galleries require money that could be spent elsewhere, space that could be used for other purposes, and time time time, but they commonly exist in the gray areas between grant qualifications and traditional funding options. By and large, alt spaces fend for themselves.

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Local artist, curator, and Surplus Space Director Gabe Flores knows this better than most.

“I used to sell plasma to make the bills at Place,” says Flores of his four years co-curating and co-directing the now-defunct, installation-focused gallery that was located on the top floor of Pioneer Place mall.

The same week that Place’s long-standing, rent-free lease was pulled for hosting a controversial performance about suicide alongside projects that reacted to consumer culture, Flores launched Surplus Space—a gallery located within the walls he calls home. Designed as a model for others to follow when starting residential exhibition spaces, Surplus transformed a dilapidated Northeast Portland hoarder’s nest into a multi-room stage for the arts, showing work from both established and up-and-coming artists in a near-constant stream since its 2014 launch.

Now, Surplus Space is starting Neighborhood Gallery Grants—which currently seeks $4700 in funding via Indiegogo—in an attempt to seed five gallerists-to-be with the money, labor, and know-how to transform their homes into exhibition spaces.

We sat down with Flores at Surplus Space to talk about what he’s learned as a curator in Portland, why he’s opted for the home-based gallery model, and how he plans to show others the load-bearing concepts of an artist-run space.

Below is a condensed version of that conversation conducted via email.

Oregon ArtsWatch: Could you give my readers a crash course on your history as a curator in Portland?

Gabe Flores: I’ve been active as a curator in Portland since June 2010 when Gary Wiseman and I started Place in Pioneer Place mall. Place landed in our laps and ended up running for nearly 4 years with the help of a lot of volunteers. Place’s 4000 sq. ft. space allowed an ability to forge lasting relationships with various institutions in town. Knowing it was a temporary space really allowed us to think expansively and we aimed to share the opportunity of showing in the mall with as many folks as possible.

Three days before Place closed, Surplus Space launched. Surplus was co-founded by Travis Nikolai, who was also our first year’s curator. Surplus is really only possible because my dad, Jerry Gilmer, decided to give us an incredible gift, and he came up a couple times each week for half a year to give his expertise in building, plumbing, and electrical. Without his help it just wouldn’t have been possible.

Initially, the plan for Surplus was to use two rooms in the house and an outdoor space in the summer and fall. When Place closed, it underlined [Place’s] temporary nature. It raised questions about sustainability [that I address at Surplus].

OAW: Your current home-based gallery project, Surplus Space, is in large part an experiment in sustainability. What did you learn about sustainability at Place and how does that relate to Surplus?

GF: Place was incredible, but not very sustainable. We never knew how long we would be invited to stay and were at the mercy of Pioneer Place. We received a tremendous in-kind donation from the mall and only had to come up with funds for utilities, remodeling, and general upkeep. Place’s 4000 sq.ft. cost roughly $500 a month to maintain, which is not much, but for myself, as a poor artist, that’s a lot money. My ideas around sustainability revolve primarily around personal expense because not only are exhibition projects an additional expense, they also occupy time when additional funds could be made.

How I think about sustainability for an artist-run space is it needs to not be too much of an economic expense. Artist-run exhibition projects have a tendency to be more experimental,  with a focus on new media, performance, and installation, none of which are great ways to make money. Artists creating a curatorial project are often asking themselves a question about involvement, but may not be interested in having a space for longer than a few years. Creating a way to participate without a lot of additional debt becomes key to having artists be able to make opportunities for each other. So, with this in mind we decided to make Surplus Space into an alternative space based on the idea of a model home, in a way, to explore sustainability.

Similar to how a display home demonstrates layout and livable space, our model home demonstrates how each room within a house has the potential to become an exhibition space. With five distinct areas of curation we can effectively demonstrate how to create an environment conducive to exhibitions and day-to-day living. Surplus has a white box, a black box video installation space in the garage, an outdoor performance/installation space, a parlor where 2D and sculptural works are exhibited, and we use our poplar-lined kitchen, bathroom, and hallway as flexible curatorial space. I have a loft bed I sleep in in our parlor. Surplus hopes to add to Portland’s well-documented history of home-based exhibition spaces in garages, living rooms, closets, basements, sheds, back yards, etc.

OAW: Another aspect of Surplus’ mission is repeatability—showing people that they too can launch a gallery in their personal living space—and your current Indiegogo campaign, Neighborhood Gallery Grants, aims to set people up with the seed money, volunteer labor, and know-how to transform their own homes into independent art spaces. What influenced this aspect of Surplus’ mission?

GF: Once we started thinking of Surplus as a model, we couldn’t help but think about replication because why else create a model? In order to start a project it takes a lot of time, energy, money, and a willingness to experiment. We came up with a few ways we could help artists who might be interested in creating a space themselves. In December we sent out a questionnaire to folks who either formerly directed or currently run an alternative space and are compiling their informed responses into a handbook. Questions in the survey ranged from how labor is/was distributed to curatorial methodologies to what type of paint is/was used. We created the survey with an intent for folks interested to see how others before them had tackled early frustrations as well as why they were interested in curation to begin with. The amount of time that could be saved by sharing the resource of experience could really give someone a leg up in creating their own project.

Another key way we are thinking about replication is our Neighborhood Gallery Grants we’re currently fundraising for, using Indiegogo. Our hope is to raise $4500 to give folks interested $900 grants to support their new resident-based exhibition project. Whatever amount we raise, we’ll be redistributing. With the grant, Surplus Space will also give 25 hours of our labor and any ongoing consulting they may like. My dad has offered his help to consult with folks who are interested in any sort of build out—he’s just that kind of guy. The $900 could be spent in any way they wish for their project, so it could be used for build out, receptions, equipment, etc. The key is to get folks to use an asset that isn’t an additional continuous expense.

Repeatability, when it comes to alternative spaces, seems like a good measure of sustainability. Artists interested in creating an exhibition space may only want to pursue an ongoing curatorial project for a limited time. Myself, I know I’m going to be stepping away from creating exhibition projects for awhile once Surplus Space closes in November, so I’m interested in giving others an opportunity to create their own projects.

OAW: You’ve had a fairly unique experience as a curator in Portland—taking over rent-free retail space in a mall is, as you’ve noted, a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity—and that muddies the waters in terms of repeatability. The connections you forged and the audience you built at Place have translated to a level of community support, participation, and general visibility for Surplus that upstart home gallerists shouldn’t expect to experience simply by virtue of filling their homes with art and inviting friends. What tools should potential home-gallery operators look for in cultivating connections and audiences?

GF: I know, it’s really hard to offer advice to folks because of it being such a once-in-a-lifetime, but I think the key to building relationships is attending and supporting other projects. This goes for artists and curators: By attending and showing support, that is the best way to build an audience. Show folks you’re interested in their conversations, and you can’t help but find like-minded folks who are also interested in your conversations. Attending even when it isn’t one of your friends showing is a great way to show support and to engage a potential relationship; it’s a really organic exchange of resources.

Most who are interested in creating an exhibition space are really interested in seeing more work and maybe that’s the real leap an artist-based project can give. By seeing more work and being actively engaged, it sharpens a person’s skills in talking about art. Artists/curators are often most interested in seeing the world from another vantage and I know that’s why I’ve loved participating as a curator/director. Seeing an art system from multiple angles has really helped me in how I think about the potential art possesses. The more angles we can see from the more side doors we can construct. Art only happens through the side door; it has to be the conversation you didn’t see coming. The majority of alt space directors/curators I know really enjoy being able to have another way to see a system because it expands how they’re able to connect.

OAW: How do you view the home-based gallery model in relation to traditional gallery models (white boxes, museums, etc.)? Have you experienced any unique benefits in directing Surplus as opposed to Place?

GF: Surplus Space and many alternative artist-run projects are not accessible to people with disabilities. This is one of the biggest drawbacks for a couple of reasons. We’ve had people who were not able to go up our stairs and were unable to see our exhibitions at Surplus, and with a very limited budget we aren’t able to remedy that dilemma, so we lose out on audience members. Also, because alternative spaces are often not ADA accessible, they are not eligible for RACC project grants, which is one of the key ways artists are able to fund their more experimental projects. Losing audience members and funding due to access isn’t something more traditional or institutional spaces have to contend with.

Other than that, I’m finding the home-based gallery really enjoyable, and maybe it’s because it’s how I’m able to see how else art is able to live. Although I love the look of a white box, it’s so void of context that it sometimes overwhelms the work. Art is discursive and responsive, so it needs to find new settings in order to get into new conversations. If it is always responding to the same backdrop then I would wonder how expansive the conversation was in the first place.

Another difference I’ve noticed about residential-based spaces is the audience’s comfort. Our openings at Surplus have a house party feel and folks tend to stay much longer than they would at a more formal space: I really love that. Our audience often congregates in the kitchen, but also freely wanders throughout the house, and this familiarity with the layout gives folks another way to explore the conversations present in an exhibition. Homes feel alive when they’re occupied with visitors. A home lets people loosen their shoulders a bit and become less performative when talking about the work.

I’m a fairly domestic guy, I enjoy gardening, baking, and interior design, so personally the project is much more enjoyable being able to explore my other interests at the same time as my art interests. Also, my commute is much shorter.

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