Rochester Contemporary Art Center squares the love
What’s in a name? Historically, the artist’s signature has reigned supreme, creating value and prestige in the art world. However, fifteen years ago, Rochester Contemporary Art Center (RoCo) proposed a radically different model—one that encouraged everyone to envision themselves as both artist and collector within the confines of a six-by-six square. 6×6 invites anyone to submit artwork, and the call is always answered. Celebrities, international and local artists, designers, and students of all ages come together to donate their art under the auspices of a single exhibition. The result is a dazzling display of thousands of small artworks that raises funds for RoCo’s art programs. As the exhibition has grown, it has evolved and developed in scope and service, exploring the limitless possibilities of a square. In its fifteenth year, I sat down with executive director Bleu Cease to discuss the geometry of 6×6.
The origins of 6×6 coincide with the beginning of your tenure at RoCo. When you became executive director, the organization was in pretty rough shape financially. While there had been a tradition of fundraising through art auctions, you had concerns about that specific model. How has 6×6 rewritten that narrative?
In 2008 I worked with two friends and supporters of RoCo to develop some of the core aspects of 6×6. It was always our intention to create an egalitarian project, one we hoped would demystify the perceived elitism of the art world. We wanted to open the door and welcome all who were art-curious.
We began with a series of questions. What would happen if we put out an open call encouraging anyone who considers themself an artist to create a unique piece of art, six by six inches in size, signed only on the back, and then sold anonymously for $20?
We were interested in what that would do to the experience of making and the thrill of discovery of the artwork you purchased. The success and growth of 6×6 have affirmed we were not alone in asking these questions and celebrating the results.
The experience of attending 6×6 is almost indescribable. The exhibition is a compilation of over 5,000 individual works of art meticulously installed row upon row from floor to ceiling of the gallery walls, each piece and each year uniquely its own. Two things are apparent: the exacting nature of what must be involved in pulling off an exhibition of this scope and the incredible generosity of the artists themselves in service to the other.
From the volunteers who install the show to each and every artist, 6×6 is a terrifically human event. Behind each square is a story and an act of unforgettable kindness. We hear from major established artists that they use 6×6 as a challenge or an exercise in trying a new approach, style, or medium. On the other end of the spectrum, we hear from new artists that they are thrilled to exhibit their work in public for the first time. The small, standardized parameters of the square lend themselves to both.
The anonymity of the maker is a core value of 6×6, and yet I’m sure there have been some surprising people who have contributed work.
Over the years, we’ve personally invited artists to participate, and it’s always an honor to discreetly install their work in the gallery. Then there are others, names you might know, such as Thich Nhat Hanh or Phillip Glass, but may not be considered visual artists. I have no idea how they even became aware of 6×6, and yet their names emerge as unexpected gifts amongst the thousands of artworks we receive. I think one of my favorite elements of “surprise” will always be when people purchase artworks anonymously, only to discover the work was actually made by their neighbor or a friend from a foreign country! It’s another way I’ve come to appreciate the countless ways creativity is a powerful connection and what can be shared through the exchange of art.
The energy of people punctuates the opening night of 6×6, all gathered together in a frenetic moment of buying art en masse. Until the pandemic. What was it like to turn the gallery opening into a virtual event? Because our participants have always been global, since 2009, we have offered a “hybrid” model online facilitating the viewing and purchase of work, so we were fortunate to have the structure in place. But we had never been only online as we were in 2020, and that was strange. In 2021 it was significant to welcome visitors back to RoCo, but we continued to hold our opening as an online event and will do so again this year. Now the opening night “first chance’”to purchase is available to anyone from around the world, democratizing the process all the more. I wouldn’t have expected it, but it has been a silver lining.
Tell us what viewers can expect to find in the fifteenth iteration of 6×6.
As an institution, RoCo is forever indebted to the generosity of all who contribute their art. This year we will also highlight a specific grouping of work received from Puerto Rico to Square the Love and benefit the Fundacion de Culebra. For the first time, we are giving back and “sharing the love” with a specific community to shine a light on a critical issue: the impact of environmental contamination [by the US Military] and the ensuing humanitarian crisis on the small islands of Vieques and Culebra. No matter what, 6×6 will continue its core mission to exhibit artworks from all over the world and possibly inspire contributors to see themselves as artists. Each year 6×6 reminds me of the universal human impulse to make something. Hopefully, 6×6 can be a safe place to enter your artwork for the first time or the thousandth time because your name is only on the back.
Don’t miss 6x6x2022, opening June 4 at Rochester Contemporary Art Center, 137 East Ave. rochestercontemporary.org.