While chatting over dinner almost 10 years ago, fellow sculptor Knox Cummin and I discussed the possibility of starting a sculptors group in Philadelphia. I had become aware of the growing number of such groups around the country and thought that the time had come for Philadelphia sculptors to make a more visible appearance on the sculpture scene. Six months later, I saw Knox again and he asked me what progress I had made. I hesitated, then admitted, “none.” I then realized that if we really wanted this to happen, we had to act. By the winter of 1995, a group of energized Philadelphia sculptors had begun to meet. We were seeking a form of community that would allow us to get beyond the isolation of our studios. We didn’t realize it, but we were responding to the same needs motivating other sculptors groups.
Jim Gallucci, founder and first president of Tri-State Sculptors expressed a similar inspiration: “We just wanted to get together and be like the old arts guild—network, ask each other for help.” Other groups, including Sculptors Inc. of Baltimore, also developed as support networks. They could provide a haven for artists to share aesthetic, technical, and career concerns. People could speak the same language and exchange information about practical issues like tools and materials, as well as about educational resources and technological advances. Some groups were founded as “societies,” with juried admission to their ranks. This tradition still exists, generally among groups focusing on more traditional and figurative styles of sculpture such as the National Sculpture Society. But most others have eschewed this approach in favor of a more democratic system, accepting anyone interested in joining. That was our decision as well.
Sculptors may bond on aesthetic, technical, and social levels, but the real glue that holds groups together is the opportunity to exhibit. Sculptors groups create exhibition opportunities for their members, either by providing their own venues (a relative rarity) or, more commonly, by sponsoring shows. The Pacific Rim Sculptors Group is very fortunate in having an arrangement whereby it can mount group exhibitions in an expansive atrium gallery and courtyard in downtown San Francisco. Other groups may need to be more creative, but there is never a lack of opportunity. Sculptors can participate in juried or non-juried indoor, outdoor, traditional, and alternative venues all over the country. Grounds for Sculpture, in Hamilton, New Jersey, has been hosting sculptors group exhibitions annually since 1998. Groups have initiated traveling exhibitions, some of which have been accepted at so many venues that their originators have contemplated putting homing devices on them so they don’t get lost.
Collaborative ventures among groups have allowed for increased visibility for members’ works around the country—and the world. Struggling through bureaucratic snafus, Philadelphia Sculptors and the Hungarian Sculptors Association managed to find common ground and hold joint exhibitions in both countries. KOA (Kinetic Art Organization) doesn’t worry about the details of finding venues and installing work. It hosts virtual exhibitions, which cuts cost and allow it to offer free membership for any artist whose work fits the definition of “kinetic.”
Some groups are more loosely structured than others—some by intention, and many by circumstance. Most have by-laws and organizational structures, and many have received their nonprofit, tax-exempt 501(c)3 designations. Most require dues, generally in the $30 to $50 range. For a majority, membership dues are the only source of income. A lucky few have long-term patrons, and a number of others seek grant funding for special projects. Some have regular, organized elections of officers and Board members and have been able to maintain workable systems for years.
The reality for other groups can be rather different. Sculptors groups consist almost exclusively of volunteers who have limited reserves of energy and time, no matter how high their level of commitment. Interest waxes and wanes, and members tend to leave when their needs or circumstances change. Continuity is a real problem, but the challenge of staying alive and vital also brings new leadership and inventive solutions. Sometimes in order to survive, groups have to find new and younger blood. In New York, Robert Michael Smith and Michael Rees have transformed the Sculptors Guild with their focus on digital technology. Still remaining exclusive in membership, they have nonetheless been successful in attracting younger emerging artists—a coveted population. The Pittsburgh Society of Sculptors has dropped the membership requirement for its annual juried show. Lynden Cline made use of her advertising background to shake up the Washington Sculptors Group by reconfiguring its artist-only Board, organizing successful social events, appealing to members’ interest in the larger sculpture community, and injecting a high level of energy that appealed to younger sculptors.
The quest for younger members is essential to keeping sculptors groups alive, but demographics indicate that older members represent the core of many organizations. In addition to artists who have been long-time members, there are significant numbers of people who left or retired from other careers and have embraced sculpture in their later years. They often bring with them a different kind of enthusiasm, or maybe a feeling that they need to make up for lost time. Terry Mollo joined more than one sculptors group because she “came into this late and had the need to go everywhere and do everything that had to do with sculpture.”
The difference in agendas between those considering themselves professional sculptors, whether emerging or mid-career, and those referred to by some as “hobbyists” can create schisms. Destiny Allison, herself a professional sculptor, returned to New Mexico after a 10-year hiatus in New England. She found that the New Mexico Sculptors Guild was all but moribund, with the remaining members duking it out. The professionals wanted the group to have clout and to further their careers, while the “hobbyists” were more interested in showing and felt excluded when their works were not accepted into juried exhibitions. Contention became her motivator, and she took upon herself the task of guiding a contingent of volunteers to meet the challenge of addressing conflicting needs.
As sculptors groups mature, it is becoming apparent that there is room for a wide range of goals and programs beyond the sponsorship of exhibitions. Many groups have moved their interests into educational programming, including lectures and presentations, technical demonstrations and workshops, and symposia and conferences. The Northwest Stone Sculptors Association addresses a specific audience and has been presenting stone carving symposia since 1987. For over 20 years, Tri-State Sculptors has sponsored annual conferences, sometimes alone and sometimes in collaboration with other sculptors groups or arts organizations.
Students are being courted by many groups who sponsor exhibitions of student work (usually at the college level) and present awards and reduced membership rates. Sculptors who are also college art faculty members recruit members and help students enter the world of professional art. Innovative projects and exhibitions help to attract new recruits and to capture the interest of continuing members. The Sculptors Guild is developing a video archiving project to interview older members and preserve their comments for future generations. For its 20th anniversary, Washington Sculptors plans a collaborative event in which teams of artists will be put together for a few days, provided with materials, and then left alone to see what gets produced. The entire process will be videotaped and shown to members at the annual dinner.
Most groups now see themselves as information portals, and, with the expanded opportunities provided by the Internet, information about all kinds of opportunities flies quickly to interested parties. Groups may not have street addresses, but only a few lack Web sites. Still, the traditional form of communication, the newsletter, continues to inform members about a group’s activities.
The sculptors who join sculptors groups probably represent only a small fraction of all the people involved in the world of sculpture. Some artists don’t join because the idea of being part of any organized activity is anathema to them. Others just don’t see how membership will benefit them. Some sculptors who join local groups do not look further to see that there can be an even larger network.
Paul Hubbard, Philadelphia Sculptors Vice-President and chair of the Sculptors Groups Task Force (organized by the International Sculpture Center), believes that the ISC can play a significant role in the ongoing viability of sculptors groups. “They should be the mother ship, a resource to tap into which can also tap into ours,” Hubbard explains. “They provide support and expertise and opportunities on a larger scale. They make things available for students through their programs and are supporting the next generation of sculptors. They need us and we need them.”
He is not alone in his views. Robert Michael Smith, a recent addition to the ISC Board of Directors whose new position includes representing sculptors groups and their interests, emphasizes the importance of the “networking factor.” Many sculptors want to feel more connected to a larger sculpture community, but at the same time they want to be recognized for what they do on the local level. Smith believes that the ISC can provide a larger perspective and access to more extensive opportunities, while local groups can serve more individual needs like exhibitions. He is also interested in “strategic alliances between smaller groups,” which could be facilitated through a centralized identification of groups in an ISC network. This could allow for smaller, more affordable regional conferences. The Sculpture Community, accessible through www.sculpture.org, is a new on-line community that provides some of the same opportunities for interaction among sculptors.
For sculptors seeking a larger sense of community, membership in a sculptors group can offer just that. With continually expanding resources available to them, sculptors can recognize that joining a sculptors group provides much more than just the addition of a line on their résumés.