TAG Gallery: Three Perspectives on an Art Collective Gallery
Written by Genie Davis
TAG Gallery has offered some terrific exhibitions in recent years, and is growing as both a gallery and a voice for artists. Gallerist Rakeem Cunningham, TAG artist Pam Douglas, and TAG artist and collective president K. Ryan Henisey each offer their take on the space as it diversifies for the future.
Cunningham relates that TAG started in 1993 as a collective for local artists to come together and display work.
“The gallery is completely funded by the artists and they are the owners. I think that is such a wonderful concept and really allows the artists to work and create at their own pace. I was hired in 2015 as the previous director’s assistant, and since then I think the gallery has expanded its focus and mission to not just allow artists to display work, but also to try to help in the furthering of each of the members’ careers based on their own personal goals and desires. With a membership of around 40 artists, not everyone is going to have the same goals, and I think that TAG really allows for its members to focus in on what they want to do and flourish at their own pace.”
Cunningham tries to assist with that focus whenever possible. “In my position, I really try to push artists to think about their work in the context of the art world at large, how their work can grow and evolve, and what types of things are fulfilling to them. In that endeavor, I really focus on professional practices and goal-setting because it’s so rarely talked about. When I was in art school at UCLA, we didn’t have a professional practices class. We weren’t told the importance of networking, finding a community, pricing work, etc. and these are all things that I have found to be of interest to a majority of members. I want to use what knowledge I have to help others.”
His position as gallery manager has made him realize what is important to him in his own practice as well, he notes. “I have anywhere from 2-3 meetings a week and spearhead two juried shows a year. Talking with and interacting with so many artists has been a joy, and you learn so much you never even knew you wanted to know.”
Over time, TAG has developed its programming, and been open to embracing and expanding its mission, he asserts. “The gallery typically has 3-4 solo exhibitions of the member artists’ work and a group exhibition, but in the last few years, the programming has expanded tremendously and I’m happy to be a part of that. In 2017, when we moved from Bergamot Station to the location we’re currently located at on Wilshire, there was a desire to really try to do some new things. One of those was to implement the idea of ‘curatorials’ into regular programming. The curatorial program allows for member artists to submit proposals for exhibitions of work that is not their own, and shifts the artist into a curator position. There’s definitely been a lot more focus on exhibitions that are collaborative; exhibitions that position the viewer act as a participant in the work, and personal exploration, and I hope to see that trend continue in the future.”
As an artist at TAG, Pam Douglas expresses similar views as to TAG’s evolution into a significant contemporary art venue that fosters experimentation and features exhibits from diverse populations. She agrees with Cunningham that the move from Bergamot to Wilshire “called for a more professional quality while some of the original artists remained…it had to be re-born.”
According to Douglas, “TAG went through a difficult transition. For a while it seemed the gallery might die. Many artists left. A team looked at real estate everywhere – downtown LA, way beyond downtown LA, abandoned churches, crumbling storefronts – and found outrageous prices for terrible property. Then a kind of miracle happened. A huge empty store twice the size of the Bergamot location became available right on Wilshire Blvd. in ‘gallery row,’ east of LACMA and Craft Contemporary, near The Loft at Liz’s, Launch LA and other fine art spots. The cost was affordable because of Metro construction, and TAG was re-invented.”
She recalls that the gallery closed for more than 6 months during extensive renovation, much of it done by the artists. “There were still questions, including differing ideas about the kind of gallery it should become. Someone tried to make TAG a sort of community center offering yoga classes, for example.” Fortunately, the gallery took a different direction.
Under leadership of gallery president Henisey and gallery manager Cunningham, TAG re-emerged as a cutting-edge art scene.
“For years, it hosted the juried California Open that attracts art from all over the world. Then it added the juried L.A. Open that showcases new talent from Southern California,” she says.
Of the curatorials mentioned by Cunningham, Douglas says special themed exhibitions take place, such as the abstract works by African American artists in Blackstraction, and LGBTQ+ art along with celebratory receptions. Art film screenings, experimental installations and professional development workshops have been added.
“It’s not the old TAG anymore. Those of us who are forward-oriented are frustrated when people who remember TAG from the past, and assume it is limited to traditional art and artists. Worse are people who think it’s a rental gallery depending on pay-to-play shows. Artists who are admitted by jury do pay dues and become co-owners that attend business meetings. That’s one of the ways this gallery survives at a time when many are closing. But the emphasis is on growth and freshness,” Douglas says.
She emphasizes that her own personal experience is indicative of that growth. “In 2019, I exhibited a large installation for Part One of Sanctuary, a multi-year series about refugees. I was able to install a chain link fence as part of the show. At the same time, I curated an exciting exhibit of non-TAG artists Narsiso Martinez, Fabian Debora and Ching Ching Cheng in adjoining rooms.”
In July 2020, she’ll exhibit a second large installation of 3-dimensional symbolic rafts for Part Two of the Sanctuary series; in 2021, TAG has offered the entire gallery – 6,000 sq. feet – to put all three parts together.
“Where else could I exhibit in such a great space?” she asks. Douglas adds “TAG artists have freedom to experiment. No one is thrown out if they make a mistake by trying a new direction. No one is thrown out for failing to cater to a commercial marketplace. Yes, sales are encouraged, but they’re assets, not burdens.” With this in mind, although she has a wide range of exhibition options, including upcoming solo shows at a college art gallery and Gallery 825, her next big show will be back at TAG, where “I control everything and I get all the space and support I could want.”
TAG collective president K Ryan Henisey stresses that TAG is a “not-for-profit mutual-benefit organization. The cool thing about this special niche structure within the non-profit segment is that it allows us to treat the ‘corporation’ as a membership function, meaning we may have up to 40 artist ‘owner/stakeholders’ without the need for buying in and out as we would if were we incorporated. This structure has helped keep the organization alive over its history because it focuses on the grass-roots efforts of the actual member artists.” He explains that TAG traditionally operated with a focus on its artists’ individual shows independent of other members in terms of style, subject, and presentation. However, the shift after the gallery’s move to mid-city led to a “growing emphasis on building an artist community and enhancing the overall quality of member and collector experiences,” he says.
The member-curated shows that began in 2018, that include works from external audiences, doubled and in some cases tripled gallery attendance at receptions and walk-ins for the month. This year, the gallery is hoping to expand its event calendar by partnering with other local organizations and artist groups, and provide artist workshops with both free and ticketed events over the 2020 summer season.
“While there is still a driving interest in the individual solo show, this is now largely tempered with a communal respect of the organization as a whole. This year, we are looking to expand our events to include workshops—both free to the public and ticketed. These may include art-world notables such as Kristine Schomaker who hosted a professional practice workshop in December, and our artist members as creative experts. Artist-led workshops will range from best practices for artist, to art making demonstrations and walk-throughs, to joyous sip-and-paint events. Artists and art lovers may look for our upcoming calendar of events in April 2020. Summer workshops will run from June through September at the gallery.”
Following requests by members for exhibition guidelines, Henisey says “We’ll be monitoring three different exhibitions in 2020 to see how creative unification affects our audience and artists.”
The cumulative changes have had “a wonderful effect on our reception in the Miracle Mile community and the Los Angeles art scene,” elevating the artistic experience for local neighborhoods while reaching diverse populations across the city.
“We want to reach out to the mid-city artist population. By providing a space for artists that is made by artists, we believe we can expand our presence and serve the Los Angeles art community as a whole. There’s a lot of work that goes into making that all happen—but with a maximum of 40 artist stakeholders, I believe we can accomplish it.”
On the personal front, he feels strongly that TAG gives back what the individual artist puts into the experience.
“As president, I have seen artists join with low expectations of involvement or unrealistic expectations of fame and fortune. These artists invariably have a disappointing experience with membership because they stay isolated, and only put up a show hoping that the adage ‘if you build it’ comes true — and I know that in the competitive LA art scene this is simply not true. On the other hand, I see artists come in with grounded expectations, or at least an open mind, towards sales and the emerging/mid-career art market, with high expectations for involvement. Those artists ultimately have the best experiences.”
The many benefits of the TAG member experience include having an equal voice as stakeholder for the organization, a solo show, access to themed member-exclusive group shows, and the ability to apply to the curation program. They may also use the gallery as their non-exclusive representative.
“Members also have full access to all areas of the business, including all information and data collected by the organization. Personally, I have used this information to observe and report on trends across sales, artwork size, and other data points, expanding not only my creative abilities, but my art business skills as well.”
He reports that the curated shows and membership diversity has allowed TAG to focus on the immigrant-American, Black, and Queer experience. “We have been able to show that art is more than a single dialogue—and TAG is more than just an exclusive club of artists. With the diversely peopled neighborhoods around us, these are exactly the types of shows we need to welcome the community to us in return.”
This year, the gallery has also added member-exclusive group shows that are themed as well as the curated exhibitions. “The first two, New Beginnings and Heritage allowed our artists to expand on their creativity. We’ll continue the fun with Postmodern Reactions next and opportunities to explore the figurative and abstract though the rest of year. We are also allowing artists to use all our spaces as options for their solo shows. A couple of artists have already chosen the Loft and South galleries as alternatives.”
Impressed with the success of shows in 2019, TAG will also continue the member curation program. “Our first showing, Blackstract, was put together by our gallery manager, Rakeem Cunningham. It focused on the works of six black artists working in the abstract. We’ll follow it starting February 18 – with an artist reception February 22, from 5-8pm – with Art + Video, curated by me. Art + Video pairs the digital and analog with fine art pieces and video displays from the same artists.”
Additionally, the CA Open and LA Open will continue to appear as the gallery’s national and state-wide juried competitions; Henisey also hopes to continue to diversify programming.
“My pet projects include the summer workshop series and hopefully a curated series of performance art. Our members are currently working on their curated proposals, so there is a still more to develop as we step further into the new year.”
Presently, there are still a handful of artist openings for the 2020 calendar year. Artists interested in joining TAG may reach out to Henisey directly by calling the gallery or writing to firstname.lastname@example.org or apply online using the Membership page at TAGGallery.net