Leon casino, Monoprint from Marie Leterme.
Galveston-based artist Nick Barbee wanted to create a way to more easily bridge the divide between artists and collectors of works so they could both be more successful in their respective endeavors. In a stroke of brilliance, he ended up fleshing out an ingenious way for people to collect and distribute works of art as part of a local lending library. It’s a genius setup that gives artists the ability to benefit from repeated exposure without suffering from self-marketing strain, while simultaneously granting burgeoning art collectors the ability to get some skin in the game without breaking the bank.
Founded in 2016, Art Lending Library Galveston (ALL) is an art lending library with a reach that now far exceeds the Galveston area. Through membership fees, donor support, and the help of a creative grant from The Idea Fund, ALL builds its capital for collecting participating works of art while also building capital for the program itself. It operates much like a regular library, but members of ALL check out original works of art instead of books. Through programmed events and outreach, members have their “checked out” pieces of work for two and a half months, ample time for the nascent collectors to enjoy the pieces as they adorn the walls of their homes or offices.
A great thing about ALL is that the yearly membership fee is made up of three tier levels, which allows patrons of all income levels an opportunity to temporarily host works of art in their personal collections. The goal is a two-fold endeavor for Barbee. The first is to support young and underrepresented artists, and the second is to encourage new collectors by removing economic barriers for living with quality art. Barbee appears to be working off of a similar model used by the NYC-based organization Working Artists and the Greater Economy (WAGE). Founded in 2008, WAGE is an activist organization focused on regulating the payment of artist fees by nonprofit art institutions and establishing a sustainable labor relationship between artists and the institutions that contract their work. Barbee’s work through ALL, however, exists on a more intimate and grassroots level than the work done by WAGE in that it relies on a more approachable, closer-to-home process.
I was fortunate enough to have some time to catch up with Nick Barbee to learn a little more about his inspiration and his change in practice for the project.
Free Press Houston: When did this idea first come about? Was there a moment that made you suddenly think ALL needs to be and I am going to start it?
Nick Barbee: I grew up in DC, surrounded by free museums. Having that unfettered access taught me a lot about art and is a big reason I pursued art in college. I started working on the idea for the library a few years ago as a way to replicate that exposure away from those museums. It wasn’t until the Idea Fund that I started purchasing work. I thought the idea was my own invention, but quickly found out there are both historic and contemporary versions of an art lending library. There is one in Minneapolis, and they were a big help when I first started. I think Galveston is a great place for the library because it has art galleries, but most are vanity galleries selling pelican paintings to tourists (nothing against pelican paintings). ALL is a way to introduce different types of art to the community while also allowing people to participate in the art economy who would normally not be able to afford to purchase work.
FPH: is the artist lending library just for the region or does it go beyond the state?
Barbee: We have artists from out of state contributing to the collection. I would be happy to lend work to people out of state, just so long as the work isn’t kept past the due date. But for now, I’m focusing my attention on getting members from Galveston County and surrounding area.
FPH: Do you see running this new space as a change in your direction from artist to gallerist, or is this just another Barbee facet?
Barbee: I see this more like a public work than a gallery. So in that way, I feel like not much has changed. But for ALL to work, I need to do some of the work of the gallerist, in that it is my responsibility to represent other artists’ work to the public.
FPH: Besides the historical and contemporary realms in this collective lending process, what was your impact on this notion of buying and lending?
Barbee: We purchase each work for the collection. It is important to us that the artists are compensated; too often artists are asked to donate work without compensation. We are building our collection with a $7,000 grant from the Idea Fund. Member fees will help us further grow our collection.
Barbee has always been an involved artist in his own practice and within his community, and he was one of the first artists I met from this region before I moved from Portland to Houston seven years ago. Barbee was a resident CORE Fellow at the Glassell School at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston at the time, and his veracity and boldness were worn on his sleeve as he continued to push his works and projects to completion. Dancing the fine line between performance, visual arts, and social practice, Barbee always remains unsettled in the best possible way, thus making him the perfect candidate for an undertaking such as ALL. So far, Barbee has collected 15 pieces by 14 different artists for the ALL collection, and he will be working towards collecting about 5 to 10 more pieces in the near future.
One of the chief strengths of the ALL collection — to the benefit of new and veteran collectors alike — is that it is both diverse and approachable, but that should come as a surprise to no one. Those who know Barbee know that he has a good eye, silver tongue, and is truly passionate about his creative community.
Barbee is currently working out of the annex of the historic 1859 St. Joseph Church, but he will soon be creating the new offices for ALL at The Historic German Church annex, scheduled to open up with its first event around November of this year.
ALL has been making plenty of waves in the region, and through the due diligence of Barbee and his many supporters, the organization has earned much traction over the past year. So stay tuned, Barbee has much planned for ALL in the upcoming months.
The artists currently involved with ALL are:
Marie LeTerme, Galveston
Kamila Szszesna, Galveston
Gregory Bergeron, Galveston
Dan Shmahl, Galveston
Erika Harper, Houston
Tracey Ceniceros, Houston
Jon Read, Houston
Tommy Gregory, Houston
Bret Shirley, Houston
Loc Huynh, San Marcos
Angelica Raquel, Laredo
Noah Towery, Memphis
Rick Ulysse, Florida
Blade Wynne, Virginia