Jennifer DeSantis’ business card says she is the “Liaison of Social Activities Extraordinaire” for OT Circus, a non-profit gallery and art event space in downtown Albuquerque. That title is a tall order in normal times, but since the global pandemic took hold, she has had to redefine her role as the “Social Activities” part dissipated. She is now, as she describes, an “Art Tender:” She helps New Mexico’s artists show and sell their work in a world that has for the past few months been one with shuttered galleries and artists left with few venues in which to make a living.
Enter Facebook. The social media site became for DeSantis and OT Circus a readymade platform to not only help local artists sell their work without investing much time or money in infrastructure, but to also grow a supportive community of local artists. Weekly Alibi sat down with DeSantis (at a social distance) to find out how the OT Circus ABQ Online Art Auctions work. The following is an edited version of that conversation.
Weekly Alibi: You've managed to come up with a way to help New Mexico’s artists sell their work, and you’ve found a way to do it that didn't cost any money. How is that?
Jennifer DeSantis: I'm a visual artist. That is my main gig. And I'm a contract worker for the OT Circus. I'm mainly in charge of art programming, gallery management and things like that. Being an independent visual artist, I have been involved in Facebook auctions in several groups for over four years. Mid-March was our last in-person show at the OT Circus. Then everything, as you know, kind of snowballed with the COVID. We started brainstorming; how can we help our local creative community with all of these in-person events having been canceled? How can these artists start making money? We were toying with the ideas of virtual shows live and things like that. In lieu of things going live and doing virtual shows on websites, I said why don't we do this auction? Why don't we take this template that exists all over Facebook and hone it into our community under the umbrella of the OT Circus? So, we created this platform I'd already had experience with and just changed a few specifications to make it just for New Mexican artists.
When did this start?
April. This is our third month and we average about $5,000 every month put into the creative economy. We've kind of created our own micro-economy during the pandemic through the auctions. What we are seeing is a lot of artists supporting artists or new community members meeting artists from different parts of New Mexico. It's really been great, not only in sales and income for artists, but also nurturing the social media skills and photography skills; all of these things that come with being an artist in 2020. The auction platform really helps hone those skills and attributes.
You have over 1500 members in the group now?
It's incredible. I really was thinking when this started, this is going to be great to help a few people. We'll see what happens. The groups that I'm involved with [other Facebook auction groups] are national and international. With this one being just local, I really thought it was going to be smaller, but it's actually bigger and more supportive than some of the larger groups.
The artists pick the work and they set their prices. Does the OT Circus make money from this?
No. There's a time to give and there's a time to receive. If people want to donate something to the OT Circus, there is that option, but I don't really push it right now because artists have lost everything. The life of an artist and their income is relative to events. That's it. Website sales are one thing. Etsy sales are another thing. Print on demand sales are very miniscule. Most of their income is derived from doing an in-person event or these online auctions, which really is so similar to an in-person event. The more you engage in the Facebook group, the more people you talk to, the more people you get to know, the more times you say thank you to people that compliment your work, that's forming a relationship very similar to what you would if you had a tent in this park right here.
The advantage of seeing art online as opposed to an art opening is there is no low-grade wine.
We don't know if people are drinking while they're posting their work at their house. There may in fact be some low-grade wine or whiskey.
Is the idea to just keep the auctions going?
We were going to stop once things sort of got back to normal, which at this point I don't think they're going to get back to normal anytime soon. At OT Circus I was throwing a different event every week so there was something fresh, exciting and inviting. We're still trying to keep Downtown activated with creativity, beauty and life. With that being said, I don't think that we'll be able to continue that route. Since First Friday art walks are starting again in July, we are going to take away that first week.
You are not going to hold the online auction on the first week of the month?
I think we'll just keep it going for the other weeks. We’ve received 99 percent positive feedback, particularly from people that are buying. A lot of people are telling us they can't make it to an in-person show for various reasons. Some people are honestly still nervous about going Downtown, which is unfortunate. This gives them the ability to meet artists, view art, purchase art and support this creative economy here in Albuquerque and in New Mexico from the comfort of their own home. People are really digging it, so we want to continue doing it. It's really important for artists to feel supported, to feel encouraged and to feel motivated. That's part of what we're doing in the group. We want artists to have a sense of self-responsibility, which is why we want you to take your photos, upload your listings, set your prices, communicate with people. As you continue doing it on this platform, you'll get better at it. It becomes easier. You meet more people. I don't want to stop it if artists are doing well and feeling supported right now.
Do you think this could be a high point in our culture in creating art, not only because of cultural stressors, but cultural stressors that put people at home with time on their hands?
Yes. We're seeing a lot of COVID-inspired art for sure. Isolation is a huge theme. Depression. Solitude. Meditation. A lot of spiritual growth we're seeing exemplified through artistic expression from the COVID for sure. I think it's definitely given us a totally unique perspective.