Big Medium, a non-profit arts organization, began in 2007 to support artists on the East Side, to promote contemporary visual art in Texas and put a frame around two big events that had started a few years before and quickly gained momentum.
You’d expect the people who put on the East Austin Studio Tour (also known as E.A.S.T., an inclusive, multi-day tour of hundreds of artist studios in November that started in 2003 and is coming up on its 10th studio tour this year) and the Texas Biennial (a curated show that represents the best in contemporary art in Texas that began in 2005)—two huge, engaging, collaborative (did we mention huge?) events—would have to be staffed by a ton of people in really big offices somewhere, right?
I found myself on the East Side, in a warehouse on Bolm Road, heading up a narrow wooden staircase next to a recycled sign with the words "Big Medium Office" boldly displayed. Walking up the staircase I looked to the right and spotted a dark, tiny room filled with artistic memorabilia, to do lists, oversized rolling desk chairs, three smiling, casually-dressed people, lots of plywood and all framed by a floor to (the very low) ceiling glass sliding door.
It was like a fish bowl for creative types.
Big Medium was founded by Shea Little, his now-wife Jana Swec and artist Joseph Phillips; before Big Medium began they had all been involved in renting studios at the current Big Medium office, gallery and studios on Bolm Road. (Then known as Bolm Studios. They still rent out to various artists and have a gallery for shows.) Along with Shea, Big Medium’s current regular staff of three is Hannah Roberts and Jon Windham.
Hannah’s young and beautiful, energetic and charming, and found herself on staff in early 2010 after interning for Big Medium in 2008. Her official title is “program associate,” but she admits she wears a lot of hats. Jon, tall and witty, claims his duties are too varied to put a title around and proudly proclaimed he’s the only Big Medium staffer who’s never worked for free before joining on, and got involved after working with Shea and Jana on a large art mural for Austin restaurant Uchiko.
There’s often a misconception that we’re a bigger corporate organization that has its shit together. We do pull things off, but when we hit some stumbling blocks with artists and then they come up and meet with us they’re like ‘oh…I see, so you guys are artists and not arts administrators.'
“There’s often a misconception that we’re a bigger corporate organization that has its shit together. We do pull things off, but when we hit some stumbling blocks with artists and then they come up and meet with us they’re like ‘oh…I see, so you guys are artists and not arts administrators.' We’re definitely teaching ourselves and learning about this business the best we can as we do it,” says Shea honestly.
Sibling-like teasing and laughter come easily to the three of them (fortunate, for such tight quarters), and the lines between coworker, boss and friend have been blurred. They all hang out outside of work, and Hannah and Jon are roommates on the East Side.
All in all the atmosphere of their office and organization is the sort of one you want the people who are shaping Austin to have. And it mirrors the larger thing they’re trying to accomplish: help create a community that supports and encourages its artists, allowing the city as a whole to become a better, more creative place.
“I just like that we do things at a lot of different levels. The studios and the gallery are really supportive of local artists specific to this side of town. E.A.S.T. addresses not only the community of artists and a huge part of town but also the businesses and other non-profits; we always try to include schools, libraries and as many community members as we can. So E.A.S.T. isn’t just about seeing art; it’s about engaging with the whole side of this town and its culture, which is really neat. And then the Biennial beyond that is huge, all over the state and very ambitious…[Big Medium] is trying to have an impact on a lot of different levels,” says Jon.
Hannah says her favorite thing about working for Big Medium and what she thinks is their most vital role is creating a sense of family.
“I think the most important thing [Big Medium] does is bring people together. Unite the community through common interests. The East Austin Studio Tour…I wasn’t here when it started but I can see how it united artists all over the East Side and now there’s a community around it and it makes the individuals stronger through that. And I think there’s just a vibe about Big Medium that’s about taking care of the community and taking care of each other and having everyone’s interests at heart. And people come together because of that,” says Hannah.
If I were to break down why I think Big Medium is a big deal and shaping Austin, it’d look something like this:
- Big Medium provides affordable studios for artists and organizes E.A.S.T.,
- Creating tons of opportunities for artists to be seen and sell art and possibly make a living in Austin,
- Because of the popularity of E.A.S.T. and the Texas Biennial, divergent folks and business owners come together in ways they normally wouldn’t,
- The events and then later the community resulting from the events become a draw to not only others in the city, but folks from other cities,
- Austin becomes a city full of extraordinarily talented, motivating, kind, friendly, creative, engaging and interesting folks.
Who doesn’t want that?
In others words, they maybe haven't built any buildings themselves, but we think Big Medium's done a ton to shape the look of Austin. E.A.S.T., and the community of artists that Big Medium cultivates, is one of the many things that makes the East Side the cool place that people want to eat, live, hang out, dance, work and open their business in.
The other important role they play is in protecting the community they’ve had a part in building. Though they’re not quite in the political arena yet, they’ve come to bat to help deal with city code and regulation issues that arose from the last E.A.S.T. tour, as well as have strong opinions about the direction that Austin residents and the city should be taking when trying to grow a community and keep artists here.
“That’s a huge thing this art community and this city are lacking: the ability to sustain and maintain artists of a high caliber. They quickly go to Houston or New York or L.A. or any other major city that has better infrastructure to support artists...for the most part it seems like they get priced out because they can’t afford where they’re staying or they can’t make a living at the art that they practice. The city could change that. We could be a little more European and provide tax benefits and breaks for artists. [The city] gives tax breaks to big businesses that move in because they generate a lot of quantifiable revenue for the city. But artists do a lot of important stuff for the city, too. You can’t quantify culture. The artists here do a lot to better the city and the culture, which then bring the businesses in.” says Shea.
For the future, Shea says they might pass the Biennial torch to larger hands who can really focus their energy on something that’s gotten a bit big for three to handle, perhaps becoming its own non-profit. They've bounced around the idea of a studio tour in South Austin. They also have plans of possibly moving into a new larger development and maintaining some rent control for artists to have a place to stay and work.
The one thing they definitely know is in their future as an organization is to stay in Austin, on the East Side, helping artists.
“I think the city, the whole city, needs to do whatever it can to support artists. So if the government side can help, that’s great. Or if we as artists can band together to keep artists here, that’d be great, too,” says Shea.
It's the 10th studio tour this year, and you can see for yourself all the amazing creative talent this city has on November 12th - 20th. If you're interested in participating, hurry and apply today! You've got until Thursday, September 1st to apply. Or if you want to become a friend of the tour to support all of Big Medium's (and all the artists') efforts, you can do that, too.