Thoughts on Community

Last week I had lunch with some friends: fellow CCE founder Laura Henry, and Genevieve Robertson and Shelly Kerry from LightboxSF.  The meeting was ostensibly to brainstorm surrounding conference-y event formats, but the conversation kept coming back to community.

Initially I was sort of surprised how central the issue was, since I always think of networking as an important but secondary part of any conference.  To me, programming always came first.  That’s why you pay for a conference that has expert speakers, rather than just attend a party, right?  But the more we talked about it, the more it became clear that community-building might actually be more crucial than content.  To give just one example: let’s say you attend a session featuring someone you admire; the presentation itself probably doesn’t include much material that isn’t already on the speaker’s blog, in their latest book, etc., but afterwards you have the opportunity to introduce yourself and ask a specific question of one of your heroes.  Which is more valuable, the content or the connection?  To put it another way, a session might present some interesting ideas, but it’s the time you spend discussing those ideas with other people that ultimately leads to plans for action.

If you think about it, every modern art movement — from impressionism to Dada to street art — grew out of a small group of artists getting together and bouncing ideas off of one another.  Renoir, Monet, and Mary Cassatt all attended each other’s exhibitions (or showed together), collaborated, critiqued each other’s work and introduced each other to new friends and patrons.  So did Warhol, Basquiat, and Julian Schnabel, or Invader, Shepard Fairey and Banksy — you get the idea. Though the image is often of the tortured, solitary artist, working alone in his studio, the reality is that most successful artists are part of a supportive community.

I’m ultimately going to ignore the chicken-or-egg question of whether successful artists become friends because they are successful, or if they become successful because they are friends. Sometimes it’s the former, such as when speakers meet at conferences, and sometimes it’s the latter, such as when friends promote each other’s work to their respective online audiences.  Overall, I think one causes the other and vice versa, so it doesn’t really matter where you start — except that it’s generally easier to make friends than to become commercially successful.  I’m currently trying to do both, and the problem I keep running into is where to split my time between the two.

These days, when people talk about building a community around your art or business, they’re usually referring to social media. I’ve (virtually) met some great people through social media, but between Twitter, Facebook, blogging, and now Pinterest (which I refuse to join), you can lose a lot of time that could otherwise be spent on making new work.  I also make the mistake of following/liking a lot of people I admire, which is a great way to feel inferior, especially when you’re not being terribly productive.  Our lunch meeting last week reminded me how much I prefer talking to people in person.  It’s much more efficient than scouring tweets, and builds a deeper connection than just shouting things into the ether.

Next month the four of us plan to meet again over dinner, hopefully inviting a few more people as well.  It may not be a conference, but we’ve all been in business long enough that we each have knowledge to share.  Our collective experience means we can help one another take our businesses to the next level.  At the same time, we’ll be building a mutual cheerleading club, which does wonders for motivation and cross-promotion.  In the meantime, I’ll be scaling down the social media side of things until I’ve got enough of a real-life community to make it worth it.

Thanks to Tina Jett for inspiring today’s illustration with her own daily illustrated blog posts.

2 Comments

  1. Hi Lauren
    I caught the archived version of your Q&A on Etsy’s livestream (2/15/2012) and found your comments and suggestions really helpful (incidentally, they tagged your name incorrectly in the video file - “Vennell” which made it a little tricky to find your blog).

    I agree that social media can be a real time-suck, and sometimes it’s just not worth spending your whole day at it, but it’s tough to build your community!

    I’ll keep a lookout for more of what you post on your blog. Thanks!

  2. Lauren,
    Great article. I think one reason we turn to online resources is to find people engaging in the same kind of artwork or processes - when you’re interested in innovative or obscure media there may not be many with similar interests near enough to meet in person. And social media gives unparalleled access to the experts in the field. But for a community that transcends specific media and joins for support and networking, or even to plan events on a local level - yes, you can’t beat getting together in person with some likeminded souls.

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