Saturday, June 9, 2012

The WYE: Interview with Leah Stuhltrager

Interview with Leah Stuhltrager

It is been awhile since the EAST / WEST project.

LS: It has been a year and a half since the EAST / WEST project. That time has flown by.

To picture the timeline is surreal. In the past few months, a small team and I have gone from the experimental 1000sq ft EAST / WEST project space, to renovating the 20,000 sq ft, long-vacant, historic Post building into a living cultural institution with our own hands.

We secured a sad memory of a fantastic building in April 2012, agreeing to pay market price in order to lock in that rate long-term as Berlin’s prices skyrocket. While the art world summered in Kassel and Venice, we redid the roof, floors, walls, plumbing, electric, doors, security, internet, and bathrooms – all without a single penny of public funding.
We finished work within our six month deadline, which everyone had declared impossible. We launched on September 15, 2012, gambling by scheduling our big moment to show off this beast we built with sheer force of will and our own sweat (and sometimes blood) right up against Berlin’s biggest art fair events.

Invisible Exports (a gallery I’d admired for years) was invited to curate our first show. We’d aimed to get 700 people to attend, our feeling being that drawing even that many eyes during Berlin’s busiest week would qualify as a shining success. 2200 people came through our front door in the first 3 hours of our opening. We stopped counting and started rejoicing. And yet, as remarkable as those numbers are, there is too much happening here every day to be represented by figures.
The only way to know what is actually growing at The WYE is to look back on what we are doing now in the years ahead. The EAST/WEST project was a small socio-cultural experiment. A year and a half later, EAST/WEST can now be identified as the beginning of something on its way to being quite larger than what it had started out to be: The WYE.

Are you still in contact with the gang in Portland?

LS: The irreplaceable Dam Stuhltrager artists and admin have been my backbone for the past decade. That DS family now includes a small team of Berliners. Two native Berliners - Verity Oberg and Inken Bornholdt - single-handedly acclimated the EAST/WEST’s American ways to Germany. These two selfless, insightful, passionate, visionary women are the reason why EAST/WEST developed into The WYE. We are a very close gang of Brooklynites and Berliners. I watch Portlanders fondly from afar on facebook and Portlandia.

Does Dam, Stuhltrager still exist?

LS: We are Dam Stuhltrager’s The WYE.

How have your NY connections evolved?

LS: I would never have guessed that the American art world visits Berlin more than Williamsburg, Brooklyn. I love that life is unexpected in that way. My connections to the States have only grown stronger, and my opportunities to work with New Yorkers as a gallerist, curator, writer and colleague have only grown.

Is there a new mission waiting for Art in the future?

LS: If everything has been done – why create?

The reason we started The WYE was to create something new reflecting today’s society. In a society where public institutions receive tax payer funding while charging admission that preclude many families from being able to afford a visit, donors exhibit their own collections to elevate their market value, and museums fail to pay the artists they show, there have to be valiant attempts to create a new structure for supporting culture. Inken Bornhold, Verity Oberg and I made a conscious decision—we decided to do everything we could to make something that would reflect the possibilities and society of today.

What does the name stand for and who are the core players?

LS: Our “doing” has attracted “doers”. In the seven months since our doors opened, we have attracted the best of Berlin’s “doing” creative community. From the Berlin Film Society to Photo Berlin to Fier / Konzept 86 to Kreuzberg Pavillon to WMP to SHS Publishing to Expath to George Ironside / Vanessa Brazeau, INDI, Dean Rosenzweig, Doc Daneeka / Benjamin Damage, Post Humor, Toby Stone… Event partners: The Reader, Sand Journal, Berlin Fashion Film Festival, Sound Development City… Our attorneys, real estate agent, programming coordinator Hannah Nelson-Teutsch, our office angel Laurel Hunt, our carpenters, our IT guru Grant Kessler, Luca Maria Spagnuolo, Sebastian Feller … Oh, I could go on and on. Putting all of these names in one paragraph is one thing. Putting all of these people in one building is something else. It does not take a village. It takes the doers in that village working together.

What is your role?

LS: Part matriarch, part test dummy.

What is your general opinion about non profits and their importance and how is The Wye different or unique?

LS: We have done everything thus far – including all the renovation - with our own private funding and not a single penny of public funding. Our insistence on making this project function without relying on outside funding was pivotal. We needed to build a foundation that was strong and self reliant, resourceful and accountable to itself for its spending. We needed to instill a basic structure where decisions were based on what best supported culture, isolated from having to returning favors.

We needed to recalibrate the existing model of an art house to one that financially pumps money directly back into artists and the art community. We needed to be accountable to those we serve and to actively broaden opportunities to make a living as an artist. In heart and soul, The WYE is a traditional nonprofit. In our physical form, we are trying different innovative formulas in an effort to develop a contemporary institution that meets today’s cultural needs.

Self-reliant, we are now in a position to show how we would maximize and invest public funding directly back into the art community, not into overhead or operating costs.

Do you provide a stipend for artists?

LS:We have just begun and are already covering 1/3 of the costs for our residencies; and, we have provided stipends for artists’ projects at The WYE. We have covered several artists’ rent and materials so they could create public installations. We also sponsor other nonprofits in exchange for work. The WYE’s existence is a product of ingenuity. We have hosted events for amazing organizations that could not afford to offer programming anywhere else. Everyone involved works so that The WYE grows, its funding grows and with it our ability to support artists and creative organizations.

As of November 2012, we have already offered direct support to 75 individuals and organizations, and indirect support to 1000 people. We have over 5000 people visit each month; and, without a cent spent on marketing, in six months The WYE has been featured in more than 120 full articles in the very top magazines, blogs and radio stations.

The WYE’s yearly budget is considerably less than the budgets for a single exhibit at even small institutions. We are aiming to make a model that proves numbers can make good sense in Arts funding.

What is happiness to you?

LS: Being alive.

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