goodcitizen slideshow

Interview with Andrew James

Good citizens can occupy Wall Street, the consumer electronics aisle at Best Buy, or a storefront/billboard hybrid art space in South St. Louis. With a rotating billboard typically running parallel with the exhibitions and a broad spectrum of emerging and midcareer artists delivering consistently excellent shows, Good Citizen has become an uncategorizable staple in the art community in the city. Andrew James, the artist and founder of Good Citizen, speaks with editor James McAnally about the unique gallery’s growth, his artist-centric philosophy and balancing his personal work with operating the space.


Andrew James: It all started with a Jello Biafra (spoken word artist and Dead Kennedy’s vocalist) lecture where he talks about ‘becoming the media’. That was really inpiring for me. He was talking about something completely different, but the thought stuck that “If you don’t like it, do it.”

James McAnally: Is the billboard tied to that idea? It seems like a pretty literal manifestation of ‘becoming the media.’

AJ: It was happenstance. It was all chance encounters…I hadn’t been here very long and the idea of buying property was kind of a hot idea. It was affordable. I had just moved here from San Francisco and saw I could buy a place for less than our rent was before. I looked at the place mostly as shop space. The idea of the billboard mixed together with the storefront just started working together in my head. It probably opened at the worst and best time because it was December, 2008, right after the economy plummeted. You just accept it as a loss and don’t worry about making money and put on good shows.


JM: I know technically, Good Citizen is a commercial gallery, but I think most people consider it as more of an alternative art space. A lot of the work isn’t necessarily sellable.

AJ: Like, here’s a sound installation…

JM: Where in that spectrum do you fall?

AJ: Oh, I don’t know…

JM: Well, the IRS will classify you, I’m sure. (laughs)

AJ: Yeah. My accountant keeps telling me I have to make a profit, but what are they going to do? Fine me? I guess I’m concerned with putting on good shows and finding people that I can trust to do a good show. This last show (Expansions and Stratifications by Karl Jensen and Ken Wood) was kind of profitable, which is kind of nice, but now I’m stressed about shipping the work, so it always comes with its own issues. It started with people I directly knew and I knew they would do good shows and that has expanded to people that we knew knew and the circle keeps getting bigger and bigger until, like next year, there are several people I’ve never met yet. We’ve only emailed. […] But they found out about us from someone else and I’m like, “How do you know who we are?” It’s this big, small world thing. People are recommending us to people who do good work.

JM: It seems like St. Louis has a bias towards nonprofit galleries and commercial galleries really struggle here. Have you given thought to that since you are right in the middle of that divide?

AJ: When I started the idea, there weren’t as many galleries as there are now, for sure. There were the people over on McPhereson in the Central West End (Atrium, Duane Reed, William Shearburn), Bruno David and Philip Slein. Not much more, really. There were a few other things that would pop up for a while. I thought at first that we would make money, then I stopped really worrying about it because before we even opened, the economy tanked. It doesn’t cost me that much more to run it since I already live here and have already done the rehab. It would cost me more if I were going to rent a space. I just feel like it is so much more complicated to run a nonprofit. You have to talk to other people. Have a committee. I realize it’s not really. I mean, I’m on the committee for a nonprofit I’ve never actually been to, so I know it’s not that complicated. It’s just more paperwork.

JM: If it’s not hindering your vision for what you want or affecting the shows you want to put on, it doesn’t necessarily matter. Has it ever been a consideration to represent anyone?

AJ: No.

JM: Never?

AJ: I made that decision a long time ago. I knew that I wanted to do it show by show. I’m not going to represent anybody. I’ve got really low commission fees compared to most galleries to try to attract people that if they want to sell. I’ve got a 30% commission, where everyone else’s is 40 or 50 percent, so I don’t worry about it that much. I approach it from an artist’s standpoint. What would I want from a gallery? I’ve had some really negative experiences showing at not-for-profits before. Like, you get there and have to fix everything yourself. You have to patch their walls and paint it for them and they won’t even help you move your work in. I just think the idea of showing the same people repeatedly alters things too. I put on shows that I want to see.

JM: I feel like almost everyone I know in a position of starting a gallery or nonprofit or something is almost always out of that impulse of making what you want to see. There’s no one else doing it or you wouldn’t feel compelled to do it. Most people actually doing it don’t have a natural inclination to be like “I wish I could run a gallery someday. Or, it’s been a dream of mine to be an arts administrator.”

AJ: The idea of administrating didn’t happen until we were open. I don’t know. I’m not a huge fan of heavily curated shows. You go in and everything seems to fit the curator’s viewpoint. I’m a fan of trusting the artist to do something, you know? I feel like sometimes those curated shows dumb down the artist and make them too simple to have their own thought, so we have to make them fit our thought. I’m not a curator.

JM: I think there’s something to be said for trusting the artist and knowing their work well enough to see where it goes to know they will make something of worth. Even if you don’t, there’s an implicit fact of giving them a platform. It’s like “respect yourself as an artist enough to make a good show.”

AJ: Back to your commercial question…

JM: Part of my question was that, I think, there is really only a few commercial galleries in town and none of them really work with emerging artists for the most part.

AJ: That was part of my thing when I opened up. Not just emerging, but midcareer artists. There actually are several places that cater to young, emerging artists, but there aren’t many midcareer places. But I’m not a representative. I’m not good at that part. I’d have to hire someone to do that and we aren’t bringing in the capital to warrant paying me versus paying someone else. I’ve had people ask me about going to art fairs and things just as a name and taking a group of people. I just feel uncomfortable with that.

JM: I’ll avoid personal questions, but do you feel like there is a long-term plan for Good Citizen?

AJ: There’s no plan. I don’t think I’ve ever had a plan in my life. At least one that worked. I always say I’m not going to plan the schedule, but then I always book the next year way before that. Something will always happen. This year, my July person had to cancel so I immediately had to find people. The first people I reached out to were people I wanted to give shows for next year. They couldn’t do it, so I was like, “well, let’s go ahead and book you for next year.” Then suddenly, I had half the year booked and I had the other half in mind already. So we’re booked through next year. I keep refusing to plan out 2013, but I keep coming by something and am so tempted to offer that, but get in my head that I want to move to a better neighborhood. I mean, the only thing my building has going for it is the billboard. It’s the only reason we stay in that building; for the gallery, at least. It’s a good space and everything, but I get so fed up with my neighborhood on a regular basis. Things were going pretty good and things came to a screeching halt. The latest thing is my downstairs neighbor rented to a Cricket store and it kills me to see the damn Cricket flag. So it makes me want to get through next season and find a new building. With [my girlfriend] Amanda’s stuff getting more involved and then trying to get my own personal work in…

JM: What have you been working on?

AJ: I had this great idea for the Great Rivers proposal. In my own work, I have all these bizarre-ass rules for myself and one is that it can’t be emotionally personal, but it has to be personal. It is all about charting out weather patterns, specifically the high and low temperature ranges, and making them into sculptural graphs, sound installations and videos using that raw data as the structure. It has to be uncontrollable, personal but not personal…(laughs)…I have too many rules for myself, basically, is what it comes down to.

JM: So your rules are that it’s uncontrollable; personal, but not emotionally invested.

AJ: Not expressive. Personal, but not expressive, but beyond my control as to the final structure. The last good show I did was all about my pocket change and tracking it over the course of a month.

JM: The last good show…? (laughs)

AJ: That I made, yeah. I had a good show, but it was kind of different. A long term project and it was kind of a bad spot, so…I always feel guilty about the idea of showing it again.

JM: So you don’t show work twice?

AJ: No, but I haven’t had time to make new work in a long time. Sometimes you just get bogged down.

JM: It seems like as the thing succeeds, it gets more difficult to protect your own practice. How does your art balance within that?

AJ: Right now, it’s not, which is ok. For a while, I didn’t have a good direction. It’s one of those common, post-grad school things to go through. Trying to find a new direction, while also shifting medium because I had some health issues…I’m falling apart, basically (laughs), so I need to make something a little lighter and easier. It becomes heavy and complicated really fast.

JM: So what would the material be for the proposed piece charting the weather patterns?

AJ: There is one that would be a laser-cut aluminum or steel graph that would be 60 feet long and convert the temperature to inches so that it would go up to roughly 106 or 108 degrees and down to 0.

JM: So…

AJ: Yeah, so it’s not light at all.

JM: You’re breaking your rules again! (laughs)

AJ: Of course. I had this sound piece based on it. I have no musical background or knowledge or anything, but if you go on Garageband and count the space, it is perfectly 120, which was the range I was using for everything else, so I would just find the space that matched and make that the note. So the highs were the high notes and the lows the low and messed around until it sounds good. You can’t really control what it sounds like, but it actually sounds pretty good.

JM: Like process music.

AJ: It sounds like Escape from New York. Like this 70’s or 80’s sci-fi, when commercial synths became readily available.

JM: So what is the sound it is triggering? Is it a particular resonance or instrument?

AJ: The ones I ended up choosing were like ‘dub horns,’ all garageband terms, and tweaked it until it was this bassy, throaty sound. I messed around with all the pitches and a few things, so I can’t remember what the highs were. Like ‘spiritual strings’ or something and some filler to make it resonate. But I kind of like not knowing what the hell is going on and working that way.

JM: You treat it as a raw material that you can figure out for your purpose. These kind of prompts maybe help. If you don’t think like a musician, you just think if it is the tone you want instead of theory.

AJ: I think I failed recorder class in 5th grade…

JM: That’s tough to do (laughs).

AJ: With two boys, my family wasn’t too keen on having instruments in the house. Anyway, I got really into that idea for a while and it took over my time.

JM: So what was the last show that worked?

AJ: Well, the last show I did was at The Foundry and was called Tango Mike India. I had been doing this thing since about 2003 where I would scan these objects on a flatbed scanner and catalogue random objects. Kind of an obsessive impulsive thing. It started out with the idea that if you’re going to have artificial intelligence, they would have to know what a gummy bear is. So you scan a gummy bear. (laughs) So it started with that idea and just grew into 500 of them by the last one. For the pocket change one, I tracked my pocket change every day for a month every day, but I had to start over every day as well. So it is a 0-99 scale. The underlying thing is that I have to become an active physical consumer. I have to make a physical purchase with money, not credit. There were scans of all the change. There were bar graphs. There was a point graph that I threw darts out. I made the points, then I threw darts at it until I hit the points, so there were all these little holes, then the one point, which I considered a drawing. A chance drawing, I guess. And then I made a video animation of pennies dancing.

JM: I think I know the answer to this, but would you ever show your own work?

AJ: I was pretty “no, no, no,” for a while, but I think if I could develop this idea and not get bored with it, which is my biggest obstacle–not getting bored with it, I might consider it. I don’t know. It seems like cheating a little bit, but if it was a really good show that I would want to see anyway, then maybe.

JM: I think it is totally valid to do it. I’m not saying that it is best for it to show your own work, but I don’t think there should be any implicit restrictions. But, really, who would you be cheating? Who would really have a problem with it?

AJ: It’s my rules again, you know?

JM: I could guest curate the show…and it would just be your solo show. (laughs)

AJ: Our first show was a big group show and I included myself in it. It was kind of an introductory thing and actually 4 or 5 people from that show, I’ve given solo shows to. At least 5. It was kind of like, “Here we are, this is what we’re going to do.” It was a packed show. We had 25 or 30 people in it. Mostly people we knew.

JM: Ok, I’m going to ask a loaded question. Something I always want to know from artists and galleries is what you see as strengths and weakenesses in the St. Louis arts culture.

AJ: Honestly, I think it is thriving right now. I do feel like it is behind the times a bit at times…I feel like a lot of younger artists feel like they can do what has been done and that is valid. And I’m not interested and they get pissed off.

JM: I do think there is a sense from some people that they automatically deserve to be shown. As if all barriers to entry are invalid and there is nothing that should keep them from showing.

AJ: I get that sense from certain groups and that’s not what I grew up with. I think maybe now that our professors were scared of us, like if you are showing too much before you are 40 or 50, then you aren’t doing it right. Maybe they were worried we were going to take their jobs, which is what is happening now. But, they are retiring, so they don’t care. I think there is this odd sense of entitlement with younger artists, which makes me feel like a stodgy old man saying that, but…Like, “You show paintings, I do paintings, why aren’t you showing my paintings?” Or, “What do you mean a packet?” You tell someone, “just send me a packet, an application.”

JM: They’ll come back with, “I just sent you an email. What else do you want?”

AJ: “I sent you an email with a picture from my phone.” Professionalism, you know? I guess I grew up shooting slides and that shit costs money. You start learning more about images and how you shoot everything when you think about what every image costs. Every frame you shoot.

JM: I think, more specifically to St. Louis, there are a lot of new galleries that were not there 5 or 10 years ago, so there isn’t a precedent for a lot of the artists that are maybe outside of an academic context that had to do it. They weren’t trained into it. There isn’t a history of anyone saying that that approach is not actually ok. There wasn’t an infrastructure that starts to teach those practices.

AJ: And now some of them are probably running their own galleries and they are running into the same thing. Like, “oh shit, no wonder he’s an asshole. That shit is work.”

JM: You realize that, for the most part, there is no such thing as an un-curated space. You can say that, but everyone puts up particular barriers based on their preferences or what they want to see their space doing.

AJ: Their location, their space, their preferences…So, I talked about mine. What are your plans (for The Luminary)?

JM: That’s a loaded question. I always have plans. I’m the opposite, I’m all plans.

AJ: I have plans, but they change all the time.

JM: I’m still trying to figure out how I’m doing it at all. I didn’t mean to do this and now, here we are!

AJ: There are definitely days where I’m just like, “Why don’t I get a job at Best Buy?”

JM: The benefits are definitely better. (laughs) The discounts are better. Don’t have to deal with FedEx as much…

AJ: Then you realize that you just hate having a boss…


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