Why Artistic Community is More Important Than Competition

Last weekend, I found myself in a pickle. Months ago, I got word that I was accepted by Gay City Arts as an invited artist for Seattle Erotic Art Festival (SEAF). I was overjoyed that I would be exhibiting in Seattle, as I moved here in September 2014 and had yet to start showing work again. I had shown work in over 100 group shows and 2 solo exhibitions in Nashville, but had taken a long hiatus to focus on my health. I assumed that Seattle Erotic Art Festival was a low-barrier-to-entry exhibition.

Photograph from 2002 - McKenna Jane

When my freelance gigs began spacing out more and more and I found myself low on funds, I shrugged it off and imagined I would pass on showcasing in SEAF. I had yet to print the image I’d entered (it is an edition of 2), or mat or frame it. My friend Naomi, a visual and performance artist as well as publicity specialist for artists and lowbrow galleries here in Seattle, came to visit me this past week. Needless to say, she had a few choice words for me.

“What do you mean you’re not going to exhibit?! I’ve had talented friends enter for SEAF for years and have never gotten in!”

A rock formed in my stomach. Oh, crap. Maybe this wasn’t such a low-barrier-to-entry exhibition after all. Maybe I was about to pass up a great first showing in Seattle. Naomi looked me dead in the eyes and asked, “What can I do to help you get this print ready for SEAF?”

As I’ve mentioned, I am no newbie when it comes to group shows and exhibitions. Something I learned the hard way back in Nashville is that artistic community is more important than competition. I know that when many fledgling fine artists begin this type of endeavor, they are focused on who is more talented than them, who creates the same or similar content as them, how do they stand out, how do they make more money than the next artist. I was no different.

Luckily, I am also a social person, and naive. At my first group show in Nashville, the curators were very kind to me. They answered all questions and helped me make my work visible. They also asked me if I would help them by volunteering to work at their next show. They seemed nice enough, so naive McKenna volunteered. I enjoyed it! So I did it again, and again.

It would have been easy to take advantage of my free labor in this instance, but they never did. When I had a need, or a competing show, an assignment needing fulfilled, they were there to help. They advertised for group shows I was in on nights they were hosting their own. I began helping other curators and artists, and they began helping me back. Metal-work artists and performance artists began asking me to photograph their work. They let me use these images as well, both for assignments and for my portfolio and website. I traded burlesque photography for being allowed to print the images and sell them at shows and galleries. I ended up on a board of directors for an artist’s cooperative non-profit, exhibiting and helping Nashville artists and getting free word-of-mouth advertising for my own work. It was truly incredible, and not once did a photographer in my same market ever hesitate to help me out, because they knew I would do the same for them.

Fast forward 3 years and 2400 miles, and here is Naomi, staring me in the eyes and asking me, “What can I do to help you get this print ready for SEAF?”

Undergraduate freshman McKenna might have bristled or hesitated at this question, but the McKenna of 2016 didn’t hesitate. I’ll be dropping off my print at Seattle Convention Center tomorrow, April 18th, and you can see it throughout the festival from April 22-24th.

And Naomi knows that when she could use some help, I will have her back.