Starting A Scene: Amanda Brinkman of Pelican Bomb

Founded in February 2011, Pelican Bomb has taken off as a high-flying arts organization generating a discourse around contemporary art in New Orleans, curating thought-provoking exhibitions, and facilitating an online marketplace for local artists’ work.

INVADE sat down with Creative and Operations Director Amanda Brinkman to talk about Pop Culture 101 and how to kickstart an art collection on a budget, as well as how Pelican Bomb is creating a “public record of New Orleans, right here, right now” through contemporary art.

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INVADE: Tell me about your background and how you found your way to New Orleans.

AMANDA BRINKMAN: Growing up, my family moved around. I lived most of the time in the Arizona desert and spent my summers in London, where my mom is from. I was exposed to contemporary art in London from a pretty young age. I studied art history in college and started as a bookstore clerk at the Museum of Contemporary Art in San Diego. I worked my way up from there. One day I hope to go back as the museum’s director, so I can say I started in the bookstore [laughs].

Before moving to New Orleans, I was living in Chicago where I was a grad student at the School of Art Institute of Chicago. I did a lot of visual culture research, so I looked not only at contemporary art, but also the way contemporary pop culture is shifting how we look at things. I was teaching courses where we would talk about Perez Hilton, Jessica Simpson, and Harry Potter. But Chicago wasn’t my home and it was really cold.

When I was entering my fourth winter there, I was offered a job at the Museum of Contemporary Art. It was a crazy snap decision, but I declined the job, went back to my apartment, packed up, and moved to New Orleans. I thought I’d just stay a few months and wait out the winter. Almost immediately, I hooked up with Miranda Lash and the other people working on starting Pelican Bomb and was brought in within three months of it being launched. [Executive Director and Founding Editor] Cameron Shaw and I hit it off and became partners.

 

New Orleans has a reputation as a food and music town although it’s not necessarily known for its contemporary art scene. What does Pelican Bomb make of that?

New Orleans is known as a culinary and music spot, so we looked to those areas as  models when creating Pelican Bomb. If you really love live music, there are clear ways to support that: you can go to a show, you can support people busking, you can support WWOZ. You can support local music in everyday ways and fold it into your life. It’s the same with food: you can go to restaurants, you can follow chefs, you can buy tickets to private dinners. Those opportunities are readily available – but how do you support the visual arts in New Orleans? There’s this idea that if you go to an opening, that’s supporting the arts – and in one way, it is. You’re going and you’ve given your time, but drinking free wine and looking at something doesn’t put money in artists’ pockets. I think people want to invest more in the visual arts, so Pelican Bomb wanted to create more ways to learn and also financially support the artists of this city. We looked at what was already here and tried to find innovative and fun twists to make that work even more accessible to people who otherwise might not know.

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How does Pelican Bomb’s mission statement inform your work in the city?

I have a very strong vision when it comes to how artists, arts administrators, and curators should be treated. That’s something that I care deeply about. My goal has always been to make Pelican Bomb an organization that pays artists fairly and acknowledges the hard work of writers, curators, and administrators as creative collaborators. Almost four years later, we now have four fully functioning programs: we have the online publication, the Community Supported Art program, the Roving Exhibitions, and the Critic in Residence program. It’s been a tremendous amount of work for two people and we work every day of the week, but we finally hired our first full-time employee and we’re training additional part-time staff. We’re looking forward to growing more and honing in on what makes us unique and what drives us.

When you read our mission statement, it’s not lip-service or bullshit non-profit speak; those are true and meaningful words to us. We evaluate everything we do based on that mission and we try to work with organizations that share our beliefs. We make our decisions based on one question: does this advance the people that we’re working with in our community? If the answer’s no, then we’re not going to go for the opportunity. We see ourselves as a connector between artists, critics, and other creative collaborators to good and productive opportunities. We’re not anyone’s last stop; we want you to funnel through us so we can help you find more opportunities.

 

What was behind Pelican Bomb’s decision to set $80 as the fixed price for pieces available through your Community Supported Art program?

There is a national movement of community supported art (CSA) programs. We weren’t the first, but we were probably among the first ten that came up. The model started at Springboard for the Arts in Minneapolis, which we considered and adapted in creating our program. The CSA programs work slightly differently in each city, but artists generally get around $1,000 and they’re asked to make fifty of something, whether that’s an edition print or fifty unique pieces. They submit the works and those get organized into fifty shares. If there are ten artists, you could come and buy your share, which has ten pieces in it, for anywhere between $500 and $1,000, depending on what city you’re in. 

If you’re spending $500 to $1,000 on art, then you already have a lot of disposable income, and that’s great for you, but let’s try to think about people who are more like me [laughs], or Cameron, or the people that we know who can’t really be spending $500 to $1,000 on art that they’ve never seen before. Maybe people aren’t able to make that leap. What if we retooled this model to where we pay artists $2,000 as well as materials, and they in turn make 100 prints? Instead of buying a share, you can just go on our website and buy pieces individually for $80 – because you might be able to afford $80 if you can’t afford $500 to $1,000.

  

Tell me about the Roving Exhibitions and your pitch that won the New Entrepreneur Week in 2013.

Our Roving Exhibitions aren’t only exhibitions; we consider anything we do in public to fall under that umbrella. Most of our operations are online. When we go out into the public, that’s our roving presence. We might do a panel here, a talk there, a dinner here, or a brunch somewhere. With our exhibitions, we work downtown in the CBD because it’s historically commercial and there’s a lot of empty space. Our winning pitch was to fill that empty space with art and we tested out the program during Moviehouse NOLA. We learned a lot from that process. We were able to use all of that learning to do our current exhibition, “Foodways.” It really couldn’t have gone much better, so we’re thrilled about that. It’s great when you can say that about anything that you’ve done [laughs].

  

How can we get involved?

We’re totally open to different forms of engagement. If what you’re into right now is a ‘like’ on Facebook, then we’ll take it. We’ll start selling tickets to the boucherie soon. If you want to add to your collection or start one, we have Community Supported Art. Come to the gallery, come to any of the lectures or workshops we’re doing. We’re really open to new people popping up and introducing themselves and becoming part of Pelican Bomb.

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