by Travis Egedy
Over the course of the past decade, Denver has gradually been reaching beyond the image of the big cow town. New art districts, galleries and the DAM expansion have ben a few aspects of cultural growth giving Denver a name beyond football, John Deere and the Great Western Stock Show; and Illiterate, a small art magazine gone gallery and art collaborative, has played a role in putting Denver on the map of the art world. Adam Gildar, Chief Editor and CEO of Illiterate Magazine, talks about why Illiterate is so unique and good for the city.
First of all, what is Illiterate? How did it come to be?
Illiterate is an organization that cultivates interaction with art, literature and creative community. We provide opportunities for individuals to develop their artistic voices and use them to engage themselves, each other and the public in dialog.
Illiterate began in 2005 while I was living in Boulder with this wild visual artist, Sander Lindeke, who is now Illiterate’s art curator. We were both attending the University of Colorado, me studying creative writing and him studying visual art, and lived in a small ground level apartment located a few hundred yards from campus, making it a convenient pit stop for our friends on their way to and from class.
At the time, many of the people we knew also wrote and created art formally and informally, and when they’d stop off to visit, we’d eventually end up discussing our latest projects. I wanted to see what would happen if these people all converged on the same room at the same time. So, I asked Sander what he thought of revising our revolving door policy by inviting our friends to present and share their work at a predetermined time. He agreed, and soon every Wednesday night we had a mini salon in our apartment.
From those small gatherings Illiterate was birthed—first as a student publication at CU, later as an online community, and most recently an arts space in Denver.
Would you describe it as a collective? Who all is involved, and why?
Illiterate is and isn’t a collective. Yes, Illiterate relies on group participation from a variety of individuals including our dedicated volunteer staff, interns, online contributors and the artists who show in the gallery.
And there’s certainly plenty of comradery to go around with all of the gallery gatherings. However, the term “collective” to me implies a level of egalitarian unanimity that Illiterate does not require to exist; we don’t all have to agree with each other to get something done.
For example, though users submit and vote on each other’s content online, which influences what is chosen for publication and for gallery exhibits, ultimately the decision comes down to our curatorial team. We learned a long time ago that much like in politics, when popular opinion reigns completely, quality of thought suffers.
We operate with a very open door policy. If you want to get published or show your work in the gallery, submit your work on the website. If you want to talk with one of us and support what we’re doing, stop by the gallery. And if you really like what we’re doing and think you can contribute in a bigger way or do something in the space, write us and tell us what it is you want to do.
You have done a lot to help bring attention to a lot of young and talented emerging artists in both Denver and internationally. Is this a main goal for the magazine?
In the industries surrounding art and literature—and they are industries—much like any other industry, recognition is not necessarily reserved for the people with the most ability, but those who have the most noise generated about them. You can do a few things about this. You can get upset about the injustice of it all, plug your ears and hold your breath in protest, you can start yelling at the top of your lungs and hope someone notices, or you can find someone with a megaphone and whisper your message in their ear. In the first scenario you’ll likely pass out before someone notices you, in the second you’ve joined the cacophony of shameless self promoters, and in the third you’ve joined Illiterate. Illiterate is a speaker box for the unsung talent out there who have something unique to say and want to get it out there without being a complete loudmouth. One way we do this is by showcasing emerging artists alongside established ones, online, in print and in the gallery. The emerging artist gets to share in the spotlight and the established ones get to say, “I helped discover tomorrow’s trendsetters.”
One part of working with emerging artists is helping them to establish themselves as professionals. Though some people are creating purely for their own personal enjoyment, others would like to make it their career and live off of their skill and passion. For these people, breaking into the gallery scene can be a very daunting endeavor, as the art world is very much a place where the gap between the have’s and have not’s is fairly extreme —you’re either making it, or still working that other gig and showing your work as part of the local coffee shop’s décor— and often young artists, even if they went to art school, have little training in the business surrounding their craft. Illiterate is a launch pad where artists can hone not only their concept but also their commercial viability and hopefully work towards sustaining themselves.
There have been other DIY underground culture magazines that have come and gone in Denver; why do you think Illiterate has had the staying power it does?
Every organization has a life cycle, be it a magazine or a laundromat. With small businesses that are built out of passion rather than a desire to exploit a gap in the marketplace, say a DIY underground culture magazine, the success and drive of the business seems to revolve around one or two highly motivated people, usually the founder. When that person steps back for whatever reason, the organization goes with them.
A great example of this on a large scale is Apple and its CEO Steve Jobs. I read this great article about him about a year ago, where the writer interviewed anonymous employees about their boss at Apple. Everyone independently agreed that the guy was both a tyrant and a genius. He micromanages every aspect of the company from marketing to product design and programming and keeps each department isolated from each other so no one knows exactly what product they’re working on until it’s released to the public. In the short term, this model of the maniacal monarch gives Apple the advantage over the competition; while other companies rely on time consuming processes like interdepartmental communication to make decisions, Apple, with its streamlined dictatorial structure stays one step ahead, releasing hit product after hit product, as if by magic. The downside is that the value and productivity of the company seems to revolve around Steve Jobs’ every heart palpitation, which appear to be pretty intense lately. Recently, when it came out that he was battling cancer, the company’s stock went down, and when he returned to work, it went up again. When Jobs is gone for good do you think Apple will still have its edge?
This same tension between bureaucratic and totalitarian leadership applies to many organizations, from governments to DIY underground culture magazines. In my opinion, the short term gain of singular leadership that’s often needed in the forming of an organization needs to be balanced by the long term benefits of processes that outlast the involvement of any one person. At Illiterate we’re putting processes into place that will hopefully keep us going strong for years to come, regardless of who’s in charge.
As far as what keeps us relevant to our audience and why people still support Illiterate after years of involvement, I think it has something to do with how embedded we are with our contributor base. Because Illiterate depends so heavily on the community for content—we literally can’t do what we’re doing without the constant supply—there’s a shared sense of ownership in the organization. They supply us with art and literature and keep the gallery going by coming to events and purchasing artwork. In exchange we can keep updating the site with new posts, features and spotlights, while working towards the next publication, and hosting gallery exhibitions.
A big part of what Illiterate does, seems to be its focus on collaboration. Everything you do is always so eclectic—from fashion shows, to art exhibitions, to experimental music performances. Is this done on purpose?
I don’t know if eclectic is the word I would use, but yes, collaboration is definitely intentional. Illiterate is intended to be a conduit rather than a filter for creativity based on a small group’s self proclaimed superior taste. As I mentioned earlier, Illiterate started as a dialog between art forms, and we attempt to keep that going by showcasing a variety of media.
Though we’ve focused our efforts in the last few months to getting the gallery off the ground, we’re beginning to incorporate events that again highlight the many other aspects and media that make up our community. Starting this month, we’ll be hosting regular film screenings followed by a regular comedy series in April. We continue to keep the literary fires lit with a weekly poetry open mic in Boulder, that I started with Illiterate’s former poetry editor, Yuzo Nieto, and, which two poets and publishers, Rob Geisen and Olatundji Akpo-Sani of Baobab Tree Press, now host. There’s also been talk of life drawing classes, and as we get ready to put out the next issue of the publication, a fundraiser with music and fashion elements. Ok, I take back what I said earlier, we are definitely eclectic.
Why is the online aspect of what Illiterate does important?
Without the online community, Illiterate wouldn’t be able to exist. The website serves as a talent pool for the gallery and the publication, and it’s there that we find content to display in both.
The process to submit to the site is relatively simple. First sign up for a profile. Then sign in to the website and start submitting and voting on content. Users can submit as much as they like either in line with a supplied theme from the next issue of the publication or with content of their own choosing.
You recently just opened a gallery on south Broadway, and have already had four amazing exhibitions from local luminaries like Mark Sink and Mario Zoots. Is it hard to be young and running your own gallery, especially in this economy, where every local gallery is hurting?
Yes, it is definitely challenging at times to run a gallery, but it’s also rewarding in a way I think no other business is. The gallery has given me and the rest of the staff the opportunity to work intimately with artists in process and to know these individuals in deeply personal ways. Mark Sink and Mario Zoots are two great and completely different examples of this.
Though we’d had many discussions at Illiterate about a permanent space that would include an art gallery, we weren’t expecting to open a gallery when we did. We also knew starting out that selling art alone wasn’t going to be a consistent way to pay the rent; with revolving exhibitions your inventory changes from month to month, making it nearly impossible to have solid financial projections.
In addition to the gallery, we had an equally large basement level and decided to convert a portion into artist studio units. The staff then began to search out artists to participate in an artist in residence program. Each artist received partially subsidized rent and inclusion in an annual resident’s exhibition in exchange for one shift contributing their skills to the gallery each week.
The program worked and in fact we’ve decided to add two more units and artists to the space. While the artists receive a place to work and an opportunity to exhibit their art, Illiterate can take more chances with our gallery exhibits while also increasing our workforce, which allows us to keep regular hours six days a week. Because each artist in residence helps to choose new studio artists, the work environment has grown to include a natural dynamic of friendship and collaboration, and the current group of artist residents is already hard at work preparing for their May exhibition.
What is planned next for the gallery?
In May, Illiterate’s resident group show [will have] works by David Coccagna, Andrew Hoffman, Katherine Rutter, Sander Lindeke and Rachel Paton. In June the madly prolific painter and ceramicist, Jason Appleton, emerges from a two year, self-imposed gallery hiatus to descend on Illiterate with an immense body of work including paintings, drawings, ceramics and these incredible soft sculpture paint strips. Beyond that, it’s a secret.•