manifest gallery: jason franz

As the chief operating officer of Manifest, Jason is involved in every aspect of the organization and oversees all programs. On the ground he coordinates the project submission process, jury process, and programming for exhibits and books as well as serving as the organization's primary grant writer. He is the first point of contact for most communications regarding projects and Manifest's programming and philosophy. He also designs Manifest's publications, exhibit layouts, and PR material, and maintains Manifests' website and the organization's Facebook presence, among many other sundry tasks.

A Cincinnati native, Jason attended the Art Academy of Cincinnati for undergraduate programming, back when the school was still attached to the Cincinnati Art Museum. He then worked at the CAM for about a decade; eventually becoming an exhibition designer that participated in creating the Exhibition Design program at the Cincinnati Art Museum—now led by Kim Flora. He then attended DAAP for his graduate schooling, where as a student, he discovered his appreciation for teaching. Upon graduating, he began his role as an adjunct at the AAC and at University of Cincinnati. Around 2001 he applied to become the Department Head of Painting and Drawing at Xavier University, after making his move over there and finding students that were becoming increasingly competitive and interested in challenge, Jason began to ask the question, “What is the artist responsibility within the context of a Jesuit program, such as Xavier?”. Of which their collective response came, “we need to put the work out there, we need to create a space for work to be shown”. They felt the reality of a bubble that surrounds all universities and art programs. They wanted to start a gallery off campus. So they began a student government organization called The Society of Visual Arts. They began shopping around for a potential space to house a gallery, finally landing on Manifests location: 2727 Woodburn Avenue. The space was rough, but right. One of the founders, Elizabeth C Kauffman, whom found the space, had the idea to open as a non profit, completely detached from its roots with Xavier. That day in 2004 they signed a lease. After months of renovating, Jason took a leave of absence from Xavier to focus on Manifest. In 2005, Manifest, as well as Jason’s daughter, was born. 

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Five-Dots: When was this gallery established?

Jason Franz: So, if I can take a step back, at Xavier we had had life drawing classes in the evening that were open to students and professors from other universities in the area— so that we could stimulate a culture outside of the Xavier bubble.  Well, while my students from Xavier and myself were working on the space that would eventually become Manifest in 2004, the students showed an interest developing the gallery in another direction so that we could keep working toward our goal. The students came to the conclusion that while we were working on the space we should offer open life drawing sessions, which then opened us up to the question of “where”. So we began having them in what was my studio space at the time. Thus, the first department of Manifest to get off the ground, as it is now, was Manifest’s Drawing Center. It opened in 2004, and the gallery itself opened in 2005.

F-D: How long have you been with this space or in your role as Executive Director?

JF: Since it’s conception. 

F-D: Who else is on your team?

JF: Keila Hamilton is our Operations Manager, she's basically the other administrator. She keeps the books and helps me keep things in order. She’s on site most business days and she also does a good amount of our grant writing. Katie Baker has been with us for five years, and is our Exhibition Coordinator, and Adam Mysock is our Drawing Center Coordinator as of this summer. Jack Seiter is our Operations Assistant, he helps pick up pieces in between the rest of our staff. And of course we are absolutely dependent on our interns.

F-D: How many interns do you normally have?

JF: We’ve had as few as one or two and as many as ten at one point. I think we have four or five currently. But, we depend on those interns, that’s how we stay open throughout the week. Having that flexibility in our scheduling has always been important to us. Too many galleries have the problem of only being open for a couple of hours on Saturdays— so our interns are not only working in the gallery, but they are also providing a service to the community by allowing us to be open to the public throughout the week during ‘normal’ business hours.

F-D: When you moved in here, did you have an idea for how you wanted to run exhibitions or did it develop organically amongst the team?

JF: We knew that the reason the students wanted to start the gallery was because I was pushing them to get out of that Xavier bubble. They were going to spaces downtown, the CAM, CAC, commercial, experimental, and non profit galleries— and they were coming back and having to do reports on it. At the same time we were discussing how to become better critical thinkers. During our critiques I would ask them to put on their subjective lenses versus their objective lenses— I’d provide them with a way to look at work, a way to process what they were seeing so that they could formulate an educated opinion. I’d ask them to first look at the work and tell me what they saw in it, and of course they enjoyed that. Then I’d ask them to tell me if the work was successful based on the rules and formulations that they had been learning. The gallery ended up emerging out of their understanding of the principles and ideas that they were learning in critiques, and their necessity to keep that clarity in tact—objective and subjective. So, to summarize, Manifest was born out of a desire to filter quality. We wanted to be able to bring in as much varied art as possible, while applying a filter that would bring about only the best work.

Our jury process was born out of that same thinking. It grew out of the same soil, if you will. Even though I was the Chief Curator and Executive Director, I didn’t want it to be about me. I want it to be about the gallery. I knew that, even if I was trying to be as objective as possible, I would tend toward my own personal bias. That’s why we have juries and that’s why we keep our jurors anonymous— we don’t want artists to feel pressured into applying to exhibitions here because they know a particular juror. The jurors we use aren’t necessarily people that you would know anyway. I don’t want artists to ever apply or not apply to one of our shows based off of what they think the jurors will think.

F-D: What is this gallery’s main goal or function?

JF: I sort of touched on this in regards to what I was speaking about using the gallery as a way to filter quality; but there is more to that. As a museum professional, as a professor, and now as a gallerist, I’ve seen the public become further alienated from contemporary art— and they’re mad at artists for that, because they appear to be responsible. So I want the organization, as a gallery, to be able to bridge contemporary art to the public. I want it to be accessible to them without it being intimidating, but it has to be a little intimidating. It’s like church. I think of the whole organization—the gallery and the Drawing Center— as a culmination of these three things: a church, a school, and a library. All three of which are places that you can walk into and just feel the vibe. There is something higher, and so you have this feeling of awe and respect. It is intimidating, but it’s transformative. So, the gallery serves as a version of all three of those within the context of visual art. So you want people to be able to have access and to experience it. So to sum up, I guess it is to bridge contemporary art and the general public. It also brings artists together— I get the privilege of hearing stories of artists internationally traveling; meeting other artists at some event, and realizing that they have both shown at Manifest, and they have that connection. And so we have discovered through our years in operation that we are in fact a neighborhood gallery for the world— which is exactly where we want to be.

F-D: Has the location of the gallery influenced your work selection or selection process in any way?

JF: Nope. The only thing we are cautious of are the pieces that we include in the window during our Nude exhibition. We like having the lights on 24 / 7 so that if someone walks by during non hours they can at least see some of the work that’s inside. So we try to be sensitive to the community; obviously we are going to keep doing them, but we’ll at least install in one of the less window dominate galleries. But, overall, I wouldn’t say that the location of the gallery affects the work that is displayed. Not to mention, when you utilize a jury, it kind of eliminates a lot of the possibilities for that kind of influence. 

F-D: Can you describe a typical day for yourself?

JF: Well, for the past six years I’ve had the incredible pleasure of being able to walk my daughter to school. Then most of the day I am either communicating with people or managing information. I work at home. It’s a lot of email. A lot of it’s routine, but because of that routine we appreciate new ideas so much more. 

F-D: What kind of style or aesthetic do you think is most applicable to this space?

JF: There is no style, and there is no aesthetic. I will say though that when I hear complaints, I usually hear one of two things: that we only show realistic work, or that we only show conceptual work. I find it ironic, and good, that we are accused of both. It plays to the human condition that people will see what they want to see. It validates that we are providing something of quality and variety. I think that variety comes from the artists, though. We put out calls that are pretty open ended, it becomes more of a question to the artists. . . you know, “what do you think this means”? Our exhibition is just a collection of their answers. For example, we just put out of call for art fitting under the theme ‘In Memorium’ and apparently, that show is about swimming, swimming pools, and floatation devices. Several pieces in the show allude to water in some way. 

F-D: Do you think that perhaps alludes to the symbolism that water holds for life and death?

JF: I guess so, perhaps. For the call we requested works dealing with remembrance, loss, memory . . . transition; not just death. What’s also funny is, yes, we had a lot of artists submit this kind of work, but we also had a jury pool that also selected these images. Meaning that they saw the symbolism too. I love that. That happens a lot. We tend to see thematic sub-themes pop up from exhibition to exhibition: it usually happens visually, with some sort of imagery; or formally, with some sort of texture or form that gets repeated.

F-D: What other programs, non profits, or locations do you have strong ties to?

JF: All of them?. . . I mean, we don’t have strong ties to anyone, we don’t collaborate too heavily, but we do collaborate. We have a class running at the Civic Garden Center, it’s coordinated through the Manifest Drawing Center, but they meet there. We’ve had some acting and musical groups come here and work with us during drawing sessions. As a non-profit we do some partnering with other arts groups: we of course parter with ArtsWave and the Ohio Arts Council. In fact, we just wrapped up a project that was a partnership program with the OAC and the Civil Rights Commission— Envision Project. We selected twelve high school students to come and study black and white film photography for sixteen weeks, with no cost to them. But these are all kind of one-off examples. We don’t have a marriage to any of them, if that makes any sense.

F-D: Does the history of the community or social issues affect exhibition selection?

JF: Well, we are part of that history. We are making that history. 

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F-D: What influences outside the visual arts inspire and impact your approach to designing exhibitions or programs?

JF: Everything. That’s a very open ended question! I’ve already touched on my experience in the museum world, and it was something I had difficulty with, and was even critical of at times— and you know, there were some individuals in that culture that I could open up to and have a dialogue with and some that I couldn’t. But a lot of what we do here is influenced by my experience as a young artist working in a museum. In terms of education, in terms of the presentation of the work, in terms of why we are showing the work, and how we engage the public. I can be a bit critical at times; but I’m an artist and a professor and I know what good teaching results in. So, Manifest is a culmination of those experiences that I've had. I’m also taking into consideration commercial galleries in how the price tag of a work changes the public’s perception of it, and how contradictory that idea is— how the viewing of the art becomes more about the investment than the object. We’ll never present costs in an exhibition. Obviously we have the information available, but it’s never presented as part of the exhibition. 

Personally, I also follow politics, social patterns, and behavioral patterns in people and cultures. I’m personally a fan of history, I really love pre-history: the story of human development. If I see a headline in the news about Neanderthals and DNA I get really geeked out, I love it. I love reading about deep science and the universe. I enjoy reading some of Joseph Campbell’s works, some of Wendall Barry's works. I actually got to meet him at his farm in Kentucky a while back. So, those are some of my and Manifest’s interests— not much of it is art, actually. I like road trips into the middle of nowhere. It’s about balance, I suppose.

F-D: What does having a physical space to show work within your community mean to you and how do you make it a useful, productive space for everyone?

JF: It means everything to us. Without the space we couldn’t do it, and without this space [at the Drawing Center] we couldn’t teach. I’ve always said that the first teacher you have at the Drawing Center is the space itself. The make up of the space matters so much: how it looks, what’s in it (the art on the walls, the people in it), the tools that you see around; all of that sets a vibe. The same, I guess, goes for the gallery. The way it’s laid out, the way the exhibition is planned . .  . it teaches and informs. I guess that is a sub theme for us— you know, self-learning. You’ve gotta create situations where people can learn on their own— spontaneous learning is important to us. 

We’ve moved the Drawing Center four times, out of various reasons, but the gallery has always been in the same location. Something that is on our mind is property value of Manifest Gallery. When you run a successful gallery, you actually drive property values up, so eventually we might not be able to afford this space. Yet, we are committed to this community, and we are committed to not thinking of artists as fertilizer. We don’t believe that we are just a tool as a means to an end. We think we provide a service that should always be available to the people— both as a drawing center and as a gallery. Yet, we don’t have the money and time (and we don’t campaign) to attempt to get our local officials to secure us— whatever that means. So we are always a little space. . .  ‘scared’. . . I guess would be a good thing to call it. We are conscious of our future and our future in this space, because they run along side of each other.

F-D: I guess then, that my follow up question is what is your opinion of online gallery spaces, void of any brick and mortar location?

JF: I’d say I have a bias against it.

F-D: Why?

JF: That’s a good question. As an artist, and as a teacher; I think the object matters, and your body matters. Looking at a drawing, for me, is very much about [how you feel in your body as a viewer]. It’s about how you are experiencing the image and where it is. The object, your computer or phone, filters out a tremendous amount of the art that, I feel, some people don’t really appreciate. So you end up lacking in a lot of the experience in looking at art— it’s a lack of experience. I guess that’s why. I’ve never really had to put that into words before. But I guess, that it also depends on the context and what the mission is of the gallery. 

F-D: In my own experience and understanding, rising property values and costs of starting a space have made it increasingly challenging to open a gallery. While as with an online space; you have an unlimited audience (taking for granted that your audience may or may not have access to the internet), and your costs outside of paying your staff are nominal, thus starting a project is much more palpable.

JF: So, then, to formulate my answer to that: I’d say that if Manifest, if for whatever reason, had to leave its physical location, we would not become an online gallery. I’m interested in designing within spaces. Body recognition is important to me as a gallerist— the body knows. I would write, and I might write and supplement with images. But that would be about it. I’m a firm believer that our job, as artists, is to find a way to share the things that we make with the world; in the real world. Whether it’s traditional or not traditional, it just needs to be done in a way that does justice to the art that it’s sharing.

F-D: Do you see your space as relating to any current movement or direction in visual art or culture?

JF: All of them! We try to serve as a model for artists and other galleries; but we are also, in some ways, trying to serve as a model for other non-profits. So we often get people reaching out to us from around the country asking, you know, “how do you guys do it”? At least three or four times a year I have extensive conversations with other non profits from around the country about how we exist, basically. 

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F-D: Which other galleries might Manifest be in conversation with?

JF: All of them. Again, we’re Switzerland. I mean, we try to be where we are, in between and around all of the others. We triangulate ourselves. With that in mind, we aren’t necessarily trying to follow other galleries, but we try to understand our commonality by virtue of our understanding. You can’t understand where you are unless you understand where others are.

F-D: Do you have a motto or creed that as a curator, or artist, you live by?

JF: Lots of them I’m sure. But I don’t wear any of them on a t-shirt or anything. Less is more. You have to say ‘no’ to so much more than you say yes to; which is true, not just in curating, but as an organization. There are so many good ideas out there, it doesn’t mean you need to do all of them. As far as curating, you know, empty space matters.

F-D: When asked; what do you tell people you do for a living?

JF: Keep breathing, that’s how I keep on living. I guess I say I run a non profit organization. Then that digresses into a conversation about how it started with my students.

F-D: What risks have you taken in your work, or for your work?

JF: A lot. Risks in my work or in Manifest?

F-D: Actually, I’m curious in what risks you’ve taken as an artist outside of Manifest.

JF: Having a studio and paying for that studio is a risk— I mean I’m not using it all the time. I think that choosing to be an artist is a risk.

F-D: Words of wisdom? Perhaps practical advice for individuals interested in starting a similar type of organization.

JF: Trust your sensibility. Trust what you're looking at and perceiving in front of you. Have your ducks in a row. You have to have a plan, you have to have a source of revenue and it can’t always be grant funding. It has to be some grants, but certainly don't be reliant. Every once in a while I get into a discussion with someone in regards to our having an application fee, and some will say to me that that is exploitive.  I always ask them what they think we should do instead and still exist. They always tell me that I should just apply for more grants. There is this myth out there that it doesn’t take an exorbitant amount of resources to apply for all of these grants, and there is just money out there for the taking. We work so hard for the little bit of money that we do get from grants. And we work equally hard on grants where we don’t even receive anything. It’s a myth that you can just do it all by way of grant funding. Having a reliable, predictable base of funding is urgently important and you limit your scope to that practicality, no matter how good your ideas are. If you can’t afford to do it, you need to put it on a shelf and save it.

F-D: Is there something you are currently working on, or are excited about starting that you can tell us about? 

JF: I’m excited about everything. For me, I guess it feels like an orchestra, and I guess I’m attempting to conduct and that’s exciting. As far as programming: we are in our 13th season at Manifest. The five exhibitions that we have up and running now through September 15th in our five galleries are as follows: Monochrome; which is in our main gallery, in our drawing room and parallel space is our 9th Annual Nude, in the central gallery is Animal Nature: Printmaking by Ralph Slatton, and in the north gallery is A Quiet Mind: Drawings by Tamie Beldue. Then on September 29th we will open our open for our 14th season with our Fresh Paint Biennial: Achuachrome ( an exhibition of works of watercolor), as well as two solo painting exhibitions by Dustin London and Benjamin Lowery.

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