Crit Group: A Conversation with Andy Campbell, Sarah Bancroft, and Andrea Mellard

Currently finishing up its second year, Crit Group is a competitive six-month program created by The Contemporary Austin to provide guidance and feedback on professional practice and development for local artists. The program is steered by art historians and curators Andy Campbell, Sarah Bancroft, and Andrea Mellard.

We sat down to discuss the program, which ended at Grayduck Gallery with the exhibition The Only Knowledge Worth Possessing, featuring Rebecca Rothfus Harrell, Sarah Hill, Ben Jurgensen, R. Eric McMaster, Katie Rose Pipkin, Bobby Scheidemann, Pat Snow, Sherwin Rivera Tibayan and Glenn Twiggs. This interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity.

Rebecca Marino: So let’s start by talking about how Crit Group came to be and has developed.

Andrea Mellard: The idea for Crit Group came from looking at how The Contemporary Austin wants to serve the art community. We have an art school that’s been around since 1961 and teaches skill- and media-based classes to non-professional artists, but there hadn’t been many classes that served working artists in Austin. Also, with the merging [of Austin Museum of Art and Arthouse at the Jones Center] and re-branding and new vision for the institution, there was a shift in the exhibition program that brought in more internationally recognized artists so there were fewer exhibition opportunities for artists in Austin. So with that sort of puzzle, it started with some informal conversations with local artists (and speaking of conflict of interest, I believe you were at one of those meetings). Just asking, over beers, “What do y’all need and want?” Then I reached out to Andy [Campbell], just stating, “Hey there are some gaps we’re interested in filling, and do you want to be a part of that?” Andy and I kicked around some ideas and discussed the Whitney Independent as a model—some combination of crit group, professional development, and community-building.

Andy Campbell: Yeah, and if I’m remembering right, when you came to me you said the one thing across the board that was needed and wanted was a greater sense of community and connection to other artists working in Austin.

AM: Yes, and we also wanted an opportunity for people to put their art forward, especially since universities are such a big presence here that artists get out of school and find themselves in this vacuum.

AC: I think what I was noticing as an educator too was that people got out of school and didn’t know how to apply for a grant or a residency. They have all the questions about their practice, but there was no comprehensive step of course work or class work that really covered what we call the work of being an artist. Making is, in the end, only a percentage of time to be spent on your work.

AM: From those initial conversations, Andy had been interested in bringing other voices in. I had met Sarah [Bancroft] through the visiting lecture program, and she was new to Austin. I thought she brought a kind of superpower to the mix in that she has big museum experience on a very high level of professionalism and was also hungry to meet people since she was new here.

Sarah Bancroft: Andy had developed a great framework and then we tweaked.

AC: We tweaked throughout the first iteration, and we’re still tweaking now, but for example, when things would pop up, we would have to develop solutions that were based on the ethos of the program. I remember one of the early conversations that we had was like, OK, we have this admission process and everything figured out and of course there’s this process of “OK you’re accepted into the programming” or “this year you didn’t make it” and we sat around thinking about that and what this program has to say to the experience of not getting into somewhere. So what we developed out of that in regard to the ethos of the program was that we were going to meet with people that didn’t get accepted into the program and who wanted to meet with us and we would give them feedback. Whatever they want to talk about for fifteen minutes, we get to talk about. We’re there to be transparent and honest with them as much as we can about that process. I don’t know of any other program that does that.

SB: I think that was as big a part for us as it was for people we met with. It’s very powerful both ways.

AM: There are times when you’re looking at applications and you’re like, “Oh, I wish they knew….” Or “If they hadn’t…” and usually the conversation ends and there’s nothing else, so it’s nice to have that exchange.

SB: It doesn’t often happen, so for us to have the opportunity to communicate was great. And an artist in this group is actually an artist that was rejected last year.

AC: Two!

SB: Oh, you’re right! We have two artists that were rejected the first time. And then, upon further feedback and reapplying, we got them in. We really wanted them to reapply, so that exchange was super helpful.

AM: The program also has that kind of feedback in that we do a professional development topic each monthly session. And while we have some things we want to cover, we’ve also flexed and shaped things based on what the artists need. So if someone is having trouble with an application or expresses some sort of need, we try to be responsive to that.

The Only Knowledge Worth Possessing | Grayduck Gallery
The Only Knowledge Worth Possessing | Grayduck Gallery

RM: So what exactly is the framework you’ve created for this program? Can you break that down a little?

SB: There are three real nodes. There’s the actual crit, which I think is done in a really interesting way, thanks to Andy. For each monthly session, which is three hours long, we have two or three artists present, and it’s a proper crit. Then there’s also the professional practice part of the program, which is working out the bios and statements or sometimes it’s the simplest of stuff, the basic mechanics. There’s how to interact with a gallery or a curator or dealer. These are conversations rather than giving directions. But there’s also the third node, which is the exhibition at the end. There is a project where they’re showing work, and it’s a real exhibition, so it’s not just talking around the idea of showing work. Jill [Schroeder] is working with the artists the way that any artist would work with a gallery. It’s real.

AM: It’s an opportunity to be reflective about the exhibition process, so Andy and Sarah as the co-curators can say, “I’m coming to your studio, and I’m expecting to see new work, not images on a laptop,” and, “I’m going to pick the work, and we can have a conversation about it, but ultimately I’m going to pick it.” Usually those dynamics are happening, but no one’s talking about them, and that is a relationship that can be built honestly and respectfully, and you can talk about whose role is what.

RM: So Sarah and Andy ultimately pick what’s in the exhibition?

SB: Yeah, Andy and I choose and we curate.

AC: And that’s a big part of it, too, because I think for the Austin-area artist, they’re used to being in situations here that are more informal. Artists here end up doing so much more than just making sure their work gets to the place. Often times they’re asked to choose the work, install it, and do everything. Some of them have experienced this process before, where they don’t have control over the choice of work, but for some of them, they haven’t. We have a professional preparator installing the work, so they’re not responsible for coming in and hanging it on the wall nor are they responsible for coming in and staking out space. That’s our job. And that’s part of the aim of the program.

SB: It’s a way to walk them through the process organically, where we’re not holding their hands; they’re just going through the process.

AC: This is our second year to partner with Grayduck, and in so many ways it’s just the ideal partnership. It’s a hybrid institutional and commercial gallery situation. However, that means we get to be reflective about all those processes.

AM: Evaluation is a big part of it. So we do that at our last meeting, in the space, with Jill and all the artists, just reflecting on it. And they also do an online evaluation of us and the program.

RM: What have you changed as a result of that?

AC: One of the things that I really loved was having a session before we officially met. We grab a drink together and get to know each other informally before we meet in a room and are expected to perform as artists. I think it’s great to ease into it. The first year everyone was in a room and no one had really met each other and the first thing out the gate was “let’s introduce ourselves” and there’s a certain kind of anxiety that comes with that.

SB: The other change, which is just a particular detail, is that we had a more realistic understanding of what could happen within the three hours that we met. So there was the initial idea that we would have a guest speaker or guest visitor every session, but most of the time we would be focused on crit. So we ended up with fewer visitors and more time with the work.

AM: We also go back and forth a little more from The Jones Center and Laguna Gloria, and that’s really important to me because Laguna Gloria is a site that I really want more artists to be aware of. So many artists I know and respect have told me they’ve never been there before.

The Only Knowledge Worth Possessing | Grayduck Gallery
The Only Knowledge Worth Possessing | Grayduck Gallery

RM: When you’re choosing people, is it an incredibly individual choice or do you pick in relation to others?

SB: It’s both, and I’d say Andy and I tend to agree about 80% of the time.

AC: Yea, it’s weird, I actually wasn’t expecting that when we first started. Not because I was expecting anything. It was just because you’re a different person than I am, so I wasn’t expecting to agree as much.

SB: We have different strengths, but we really complement each other, and we seem to bring a different understanding of the artist because we have different approaches. And the other 20% we talk about, and it’s awesome. We don’t agree, but we figure it out.

AC: There are particular artists where Sarah and I don’t even need to talk about it; we just both know “yes.” Big yes. And it’s not like we’re looking for perfection. We’ve actually turned artists away before because we felt like they didn’t need the program. So it hits a kind of middle ground. We have everyone’s applications and we talk in that moment about every single person that’s applied. We look at every single image. We don’t skip over anyone. Because if we’re thinking about people for the program, we’re not just thinking about what’s in the application but also how is the application put together? Could they use our help in figuring out how to maneuver this process? And how much help do they need to maneuver this process? Is it too much for us? And that’s the other conversation that we have: Is there too much here to catch up on for us to be any good?

AM: We each come together with our definite yeses. Then we think of the big picture and ask, “Is there enough range in media? Between where people are in their careers? Perspectives that people are going to bring?”

AC: It’s an organic process like anything, like going to a studio visit and choosing work. There are a couple artists, maybe even in this group, where I thought “no, not interested” just based on the application, but because Sarah and Andrea were interested in them and made really compelling cases for them, I was swayed. And I think that happens to everybody. I think that part of it is in the chemistry of the making of the room. And by the way, that’s something that we try to indicate happens for grant applications, too. There’s a certain sense of control you can have over how “good” your application is, but at the end of the day you’re totally out of control of that decision. It’s the chemistry of the room of people deciding about that application along with the whole picture. It’s such an organic and complex procedure, but our goal is to shed a little bit of light on that and not be opaque about it, you know?

The Only Knowledge Worth Possessing | Grayduck Gallery
The Only Knowledge Worth Possessing | Grayduck Gallery

RM: What’s been your favorite part of Crit Group?

AM: Probably the crits. I feel like it is such an act of generosity and vulnerability for an artist to show work that is either new or in the process, so for me it is such an honor to be a part of that. And I think the group works toward a tone that is constructive and supportive but honest. And because there’s such a range within the group, people have so many different perspectives. I think Katie [Rose Pipkin] is a great example. Katie is working at the frontier of digital work, and you have photographers and sculptors giving her feedback and I think that makes for a really interesting conversation.

SB: I feel like I’ve learned a lot from Andy and Andrea during the crits. Andy is such a phenomenal educator and instigator of conversation, and that’s been really valuable to me. I loved that. I valued it so much, and it’s been such a huge learning experience for me. Yet, I’d have to say that my favorite part was the studio visits and the installation process.

AC: I find that standing next to Sarah and watching her put work on the wall is really useful for me. I learn a whole lot from seeing the way that her mind works curatorially. Even though we’ve selected the work together, it’s different from putting it all together in a room. For me, that’s where I’ve really learned in this group.

My favorite part is actually the studio visits at the end. I love the crits, but I love the studio visits because they come after we’ve seen the work. We already have a basis of knowledge and familiarity for each other so there’s an intimacy to those studio visits that I treasure. I can remember, even from last year, what the orientation of all the rooms of the studios were that we went to visit. I remember one of the artists from last year had this really amazing resin incense burning in the house and how much that added to my perspective on her work. So to have this moment with me, Sarah and just the artist, without the rest of the crit group, that is one of my favorite parts. But it’s only because we had everything else before. If we had done the studio visit at the beginning of this process, it wouldn’t feel as intimate to me; it would feel like a studio visit where it’s a little awkward and you’re trying to figure things out.

SB: Yeah, and we can ask more intimate questions and have a more intimate conversation pertaining to their work because we already got to know it.

The Only Knowledge Worth Possessing is on view at Grayduck through September 13, 2015. Interested in applying for Crit Group 2016? Applications will open in late fall 2015 with an application deadline of December 1, 2015.


Rebecca Marino is co-editor of Conflict of Interest. She also works as a visual artist and curator in Austin, TX. She teaches several photography classes for The Contemporary Austin’s art school. She also applied for Crit Group 2015 and did not make the cut.

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