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Centerfold: A conversation space for local young artists.

by Aimée Tian

Centerfold is a Montréal based art initiative founded in 2015 by a group of university students: Nadim El-Asmar, Adam Rutledge, Sandro Papais, and Brittne Potter. Describing themselves as a grassroots, community-driven organization, Centerfold aims to deconstruct traditional conceptions upheld by art institutions and provide opportunities for local artists to be rewarded for their work. Through a series of pop-up exhibitions, Centerfold challenges the public to immerse themselves into the local art scene and question the dynamics of the canon. This increased accessibility both grants exposure and generates revenue for artists, as well as stimulating dialogue among the greater community. All proceeds received at Centerfold’s exhibitions through open donations are directly contributed to their participating artists.

I sat down with Director Nadim El-Asmar to speak on crowd-sourcing, ‘talking back’ to for-profit institutions, and what the future holds for Centerfold.

Aimée Tian: How did this (Centerfold) come to be?

Nadim El-Asmar: So myself, Sandro and Adam have all been friends since first year - we were all in the same rez together at McGill. And Brittne we met casually - when we started the project she came on board.

In terms of how it started…I don’t know, it kind of started out of nothing. I had an idea to do something related to the arts and giving some young artists more opportunities. Then I started talking to Adam and Sandro about it and then together we came up with the concept of Centerfold and then doing art exhibits.

AT: And how long has it been going on for?

NEA: Our first show was May of 2015.

AT: How would you describe what it is that you guys aim to do?

NEA: The art industry is a bit of a snob industry. You have certain people that dictate who sees what. Breaking that down and letting the community decide is what we want to go for. We’re more of a grassroots, community-driven organization.

Not saying that there isn’t a place for those hot-shot gallerists and curators. There is a bit of a clash with that, but we want to talk back, and we think we should be talking back. We don’t think the industry has been treating artists that well over the years. There are too many barriers to entry. We’re finding ways to give the artists more leverage. We pick what we like, and then let the audience decide what they like.

There are certain expectations that with art, as opposed to music or film, that there often isn’t compensation in return for consumption. We think that if you are going to be consuming this art, then you have to compensate the artist somehow. They are creating something for you, so it’s only fair that you give back to them.

Something we will never do is ask an artist to show with us without finding a way to compensate them. A lot of people will be like ‘hey we’ll give you exposure’! But we don’t think that that’s enough.

AT: How do you divide the work up within the team?

NEA: We’re all really involved in the process. I set up the timeline and map out what our tasks are, Adam deals with the design and releasing callouts, Brittne handles the artist relations, and Sandro is the technician - he hangs the show. 

AT: Okay, so in terms of outreach…when you first started was it a lot of building on social circles?

NEA: Getting our foot in the door was a lot of cold-emailing people and reaching out to artists ourselves. We had some of our friends who are artists reach out to their friends who were also artists. But once people started hearing about it, it definitely grew. It just kept snowballing. Facebook is a great way to reach out, and now that more people know about the project, whenever people see it they also tag their friends.

AT: Have you always used a pay-what-you-can/voting model?

NEA: So actually I read this chapter for class, about how the Internet was created for the public but now you have all these companies making money off the Internet and there is no financial trickling down to the people. So that kind of got me thinking…well that’s not really fair, how can we make a more equitable system?

The whole idea is that people are making content, but all these big companies are making the money off the content that people are creating. Is there a way that the people who create the content can see some financial return for their contributions?

That’s where the whole voting system came from. How can we get money into people’s hands? Through a system of open donations, if enough people come to our events and donate, then that amount can actually be substantial enough that it can help the artists.

Then we came across the problem of how to distribute it. I think it was Adam who came up with the voting concept and that the percentage of votes that an artist gets should equal the percentage of donations that we get.

AT: And is that amount divided among the top 3? Or how does that work?

NEA: No, I guess that’s something we haven’t really been that clear about. We only release the top 3 because there’s a competitive element that we really want to understate. We still let all the artists know what the results are and we send them how much they make, but we thought it’d be weird to encourage a hierarchical list. We don’t want to build on that competitive element - it’s more so to support each other.

AT: What about the logistical elements? I noticed that there’s been a shift from the pen-and-paper to an iPad voting app.

NEA: Yeah, so we’re trying to ‘get more tech’. The pen and paper is cool, it’s kind of a staple of our shows, but the iPads make it much easier for us to count the votes. I think it’s always gonna be a bit of a hybrid system. We’re never going to fully replace the pen and paper. I think people enjoy having something in their hands to walk around with.

AT: And the installation process? Has anyone had formal training or how did you guys know what to do?

NEA: For our first show, we had a friend help out who’s now the head curator of a gallery called The Hole in New York. But from there we’ve just been learning on the fly.

In terms of installation, we’re very precise. We measure everything and make sure everything is standardized. It’s very important that it is like that - if the artists are trusting us with presenting their work, it can’t be sloppy. It has to be perfect. If we create a bias towards a certain piece, then it’s unfair.

AT: I actually recently attended a show over the holidays out in Vancouver. Are you guys just working out of Vancouver/Montréal for now?

NEA: Yeah, so over the holidays, the other three all go back to Vancouver, and we thought it would be fun to include Vancouver in the mix. That was our third one there.

AT: I don’t think there’s much else out there that’s happening in the same sense.

NEA: Yeah, I mean, even here there isn’t. There are a lot of people who put on group shows, and use models trying to help artists, but we haven’t really come across anything that’s really the same as what we do - that at the end of the day gets artists paid even if they don’t sell their work. And that is very important to us.

We have a young demographic who can’t necessarily afford to buy the works, but still want to support the artists. The only way that you can really do that right now is by sharing and liking posts on social media - there’s no way to just go a make a small donation. This seems [like it would be] really simple, but when enough people make those donations, then the artist can leave with, say, $250. Which could be enough to cover costs for materials.

So, I think what people are doing is great, giving artists exposure opportunities and raising awareness for their work, but in terms of getting paid, that’s something that we haven’t really seen anywhere else.

AT: What kind of mediums do you guys usually show?

NEA: Typically painting, photography, paper works. We occasionally do video, and we do sculpture as well, but we sometimes run into difficulties with the static vs. dynamic. It does make things a little uneven. Performance-works are sometimes harder to show. It’s also uncomfortable if you are walking by with your voting sheet and the artist can read your emotions towards their work.

AT: Do you have any criteria for the selections process?

NEA: No, we’re quite open. We don’t like to limit what artists send to us. We don’t set themes - instead, we look at the submissions we do get, and from there we curate and make a show out of it. We like for people to send us as much art as possible. We’ll usually get around 1000 or so submissions from close to 200 artists, and then we reduce it down to a short-list. And from there we’ll see which pieces work well with our vision. Usually it ends up being about ten to twelve artists at a show.

Also, let’s say we get a certain number of submissions that fit into one theme that we have in mind. We’ll always look to some of the old work that we’ve been sent. Artists that have submitted to us since our first show are still in our database, we still look at them every time we do a show, and we still try to include them. Once you submit to us, that work will always be with us. We’re always looking at it, and looking for ways to include them in our shows.

AT: Do submissions usually come from local artists?

NEA: Yeah, mostly from Montréal. We’ve also gotten some from the States and Toronto-area, but it’s tougher to show them, with shipping them over and handling. The idea is really to give local artists opportunities that they might not get otherwise, because we believe that there is a lot of talent there that is undiscovered. We want to get them opportunities to show their work. 

AT: Do you try to use different exhibition spaces every time?

NEA: Yeah, every time it’s been in a different space. We try to find weird places that people might not typically think of as an exhibition space.

AT: What has that experience been like? How have you found the art’s relationship changing within these spaces?

NEA: It’s tough to say. I think it’s really interesting because when people go to exhibitions, they’re used to seeing just the [generic] white walls. We find that to be a little boring, so by putting people in different spaces (when there’s art up), it helps to change the space and pushes them to create their own experiences that they’re not used to. That’s why we try to find different spaces.

We cover our costs [of renting out the exhibition space] from the bar. All the money that comes in through the door that people pay to get into the exhibition goes to the artists. But the bar money we keep to cover the costs of the exhibit. We also usually follow up the show with an underground afterparty.

AT: How’s the turnout? Has it been pretty steady?

NEA: It’s been getting bigger. Which was weird, because when we first started it, we had a pretty decent turnout. And then we had one event which was a huge success and we were like we’re never going to be able to repeat that again! Centerfold XII was our most successful one, up until Vancouver. The crowds definitely have been getting bigger. We’ll see upwards of 300 people come out in a night, which is pretty phenomenal. It’s raising a lot of money for the artists.

AT: Is there anything that you really want to stress about Centerfold?

NEA: I guess one of the things is that all of the money that we do raise goes directly to the hands of the artists. When we just release the names of top 3, that sometimes becomes a little confusing for people.

I think something that is a little bit more implicit about the project is that there is also an educational factor in there that is really interesting. People who aren’t very familiar with art come to our exhibits, and it forces them to make a judgement: I like this one more than this one, but why? What are the things that are interesting about this that I don’t really like about that?

So that gets people to familiarize themselves with the art, learn about the processes behind it, learn about what they like and what they don’t like. It creates more of a dialogue. And that’s something that we’ve found to be a byproduct of project. Exposing people to art.

AT: You mean by critically examining.

NEA: Yes, exactly.

AT: Is this project something that you guys will be continuing into the future? What’s the plan now that everyone’s graduated?

NEA: The events have always been a way for us to compensate the artists. We find that artists are exploited in the industry and don’t have the opportunities that they deserve. So that’s always been an avenue to do that. But they haven’t been at the core of what we want to do. We wanna make a larger difference. We want to affect more artists on a global scale. So the events worked because we were all in school, but now that we’re out of school, we’re trying to move into creating more of a business out of it. The events will always be there, they will always be important. But we’re trying to make more tangible opportunities for artists.

AT: Have you guys thought about expanding the team?

NEA: Definitely. We’ve been talking about that a lot lately.

AT: How have you all found the time to do this? With school and work and everything?

NEA: It’s a struggle, but we all really enjoy what we do. And it’s really rewarding when artists send us emails afterwards telling us how amazing their experience was. For some of them [Centerfold] might be their first time showing. That’s definitely enough for us to keep going.

Centerfold XIII is currently in the works and accepting submissions. The show is set to take place on February 24th, 2017.

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