Making a living making art—that's the UUU goal
On a rainy spring night in 2015, two college buddies drank beer and played guitar outside their apartment under the shelter of a large umbrella on University Avenue. The future wasn’t clear—as it seldom is during college—but as artists, they felt like they had two options after graduating: New York City or Los Angeles. It’s almost impossible for an emerging artist to start a career in Rochester, let alone a musician. But, they decided, it doesn’t have to be that way.
Now it’s February 2018, and it’s not raining, but it is cold. I’m listening to UUU Art Collective founder KC Sullivan tell me the story of its inception. “Under University’s Umbrella,” he concludes. “That’s where it started, and that’s where the name comes from.”
UUU Art Collective has grown to a team of nine artists, all of whom love Rochester and believe an artist should be able to make a living in his or her field. “It started as a social notion against the starving artist,” Sullivan says.
I met Sullivan and four other UUU founders at their soon-to-be gallery, where we talked while standing in the space they’ve been working years toward. “We’re all paying a lot of money to go to schools and the opportunity for a professional career, but when we graduate the commercial platform isn’t there,” he says. During college, Sullivan and his cofounders started throwing parties where they would perform and sell art. “We eventually formalized into a benefit corporation,” he explains, and about a year ago they saved enough to lease a vacant space downtown. “One thing we knew is that an important part of the artist’s model is a retail space,” he says. “A place for cultural production. This place.”
UUU’s gallery-in-the-works, for now, is a concrete-floor skeleton full of tables, scaffolding, and fresh drywall. “You should have seen it a year ago,” Dylan Niver, another founder, says. “This place hadn’t been used since the eighties or nineties.” I get a proud tour of their vision—this wall will be a window to the street, the bar will go here, performances on this side of the room, and—most importantly—art. Wall- to- wall and floor-to-ceiling.
While they support any artist and any medium, the team has had some success in recent years with visual art. They’ve been contracted to curate the art for the redevelopment of the Sibley building, partnering with a handbag manufacturer from New York City and working with other local businesses to put art on their walls, to name a few initiatives. “These are just some of the corporate services we’re providing for the emerging artist,” Sullivan says.
They’re working with local breweries, too. So far Three Heads is on board, and I ask if their coffee would be local. “Oh, hell yeah,” says Alex Freeman, another founder. He almost looks offended.
Despite the lofty mission statement of “re-engineering the emerging artist’s model,” UUU has a humble vision. They don’t see themselves as pioneers or the beginning of some artistic revolution. Rather, they feel like part of a grander movement. “We’ve had requests for critics, peers, and things like that,” Sullivan says, “and we just want to open ourselves up to people, who can come in and say ‘hey, can you make this happen? Can you become this resource?’”
Sullivan tells me the artistic community in Rochester is growing. College and university art majors are expanding— Nazareth, for example, is in the middle of building a multimillion-dollar performing arts center. “There’s more money funneling to the arts here than there ever has been before,” he says. “It’s a good opportunity to really utilize that and benefit the artist, and it’s important for Rochester to do that now while it’s in this revitalization period.”
UUU’s gallery sits on State Street, a stone’s throw from the inner loop. Down the road, MCC’s impressive new downtown campus replaced vacant Kodak offices last fall, a popular new bar, the Spirit Room, is open for business; and the city has a list of development plans for High Falls, Rochester’s newly deemed “Ecodistrict.” People are starting to take an interest in downtown again.
I ask Sullivan what he would say if he could travel back in time and advise his younger self, dreaming under that umbrella. He thinks for a long time. “I’d say to remember that you work with a lot of people, you have to delegate things, and there are some really big tasks,” he says. “Just surround yourself with people who are as good as you or better than you. Get ready for this, because this is a start-up company. You’re in an industry. And,” he smiles, “start taking those parties a little more seriously.”