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At 10 years, Collar Works makes artistic risk worth the reward

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At 10 years, Collar Works makes artistic risk worth the reward

Above: Troy Night Out visitors walk the Collar Works Gallery. Photo by Ariel Einbinder

On Saturday, Aug. 10, Collar Works gallery in Troy will celebrate 10 years of existence and growth in the Capital Region arts scene with their annual “anti gala” MAD Collar Party. 

Themed to bring the outdoors indoors, the event will consist of an “art yard sale” giving the community an opportunity to purchase works of art to support local artists and help grow the Collar Works’ Artist Fund. Proceeds are split 50/50 with the artists and the funds allow Collar Works to continue supporting the development of new works and site-specific projects by emerging and underrepresented artists. Plus, attendees can take part in the collar competition—winning prizes for the most eccentrically designed detachable collar—and enjoy indoor mini golf, games, food and drink.

The Collaborative recently caught up with Executive Director Elizabeth Dubben, who has been with Collar Works for the past three-and-a-half years, to discuss what the arts organization has accomplished over their first decade and what they plan to do next. 

Collar Works started in 2009 as an arts collective made up of SUNY MFA students who say a need for a space to exhibit more contemporary and experimental works. They started small, organizing pop-ups in vacant storefronts in Troy but quickly gained traction and a growing audience, eventually moving to their 444 River St. space before moving again, to their current location at The Art Haus at 621 River St. 

Photo by Ariel Einbinder

“I always say I’ve been a fangirl of Collar Works since their very first show,” Dubben laughs. 

Formerly an owner of her own gallery and having worked with Saratoga Arts and Skidmore College, she jumped at the opportunity to be a part of the Troy non-profit where she would be able to highlight more overlooked and emerging art and exhibits. 

“I felt that their mission, with the type of shows and artists and the way they were working to be engaged with the community was exactly what I wanted to do,” she says. “Just looking back at the past three-and-a-half years has been tremendous. We have exciting momentum.”

Dubben attributes the flexibility and contemporary feel of their shows to the fact that Collar Works rarely plans very far ahead. It helps them stay socially and culturally relevant. 

“We never set out thinking that we want to work with one artist or put on one specific show. It’s a much more open way of thinking where artists are bringing proposals to us or the exhibitions committee saying, ‘The region hasn’t really supported this kind of work,’ or ‘There hasn’t been a show like this.’ I feel like we’re good at workshopping ideas and supporting other artists’ projects, just making sure that we’re not being redundant in terms of what other spaces are showing and supporting artists in their early stages of projects or careers.”

However up and coming artists aren’t the only ones to have the opportunities to grow, share and develop their work. Dubben says it takes a community of artists at different career stages, skill levels and backgrounds to help foster a stronger arts scene.

“It’s about providing bridges—connecting artists who are mid-career or upper-level with these emerging artists because then it levels the playing field. People are having the shared experience of exhibiting together, especially around projects that are in the early phases of development or curatorial concepts that are being presented by artists who just really want to see a show like that. We try to be fluid enough.

The organization and their volunteer board members recently set out on a three-year strategic plan to grow Collar Works programming and networking as well as support for artists, who are provided stipends to do more site-specific works and participate in community dialogue. 

“We knew we needed to start ‘friend-raising,’ bringing new people into the fold and into the space,” she says. “It’s about expanding dialogue and breaking down barriers around challenging contemporary art or concepts that are fueling the work.”

One of the best ways the organization has found connects artists and their community well is, unsurprisingly, food. 

Photo provided by Collar Works archive

Their regular event Collard Greens is an intimate yet casual dining and dialogue experience with the general public, arts leaders and featured artists of a featured Collar Works show. Dubben says it feels like “eating dinner at a friend’s house,” discussing art, culture and life around a big dining room table. The next iteration of Collard Greens takes place Oct. 5 at 6 PM, led by guest curator Kelsey Renko. The artist’s sensory exhibit “Feel Me” runs at the gallery Aug. 30-Oct. 13.

“I think that has inspired some similar-minded events in the area and that’s nice to see because Collar Works has always been this raw, scrappy organization that I feel kind of kickstarts things. I feel there are far more artists and creatives interested in the arts than there are opportunities for them in the area, so the more the merrier,” Dubben says.

Another of the organization’s recent “pride and joy” accomplishments is their Elizabeth Murray Artist Residency, providing mostly visual, literary and performance artists—such as their most recent recipient, Troy Foundry Theatre—an opportunity to have the time, space and resources they need to further their artistic mission. There’s no cell service at the Washington County farm property, very little wifi and a whole lot of focus. 

“It speaks to the early parts of Elizabeth Murray and her husband Bob [Holman], their relationship. They met doing experimental theatre in New York City where she was making large, foam sculptural pieces to be used in the performance he was directing. We focus on a lot of emerging and experimental works,” Dubben says. “It’s definitely one of those things I can’t believe that we’ve done. The opportunity sort of fell out of the sky—a residency program that speaks to the mission of Collar Works and also [serves] as a legacy to Elizabeth Murray.” 

When asked what sets their remote, idyllic residency program apart from other similarly minded and located residencies in the area, Dubben pauses.

“We’re always asking ourselves that. After almost completing our second season, I think when it comes down to it, it is the way you support artists and people on a human level. You provide them the time and space but you really care about their experience. Just the setting itself, you walk onto this property and it’s immediately a transformative space. Coming into it, you allow yourself to set aside the burdens of the everyday that might take away from your ability to focus on your work, take risks, have time to reflect and build community in a natural way. We provide the food, the accommodations. To not have to worry about what you’re going to eat? It makes a huge difference.”

In the coming years, Dubben hopes Collar Works will be able to grow the full-time staff team, which at the moment consists only of herself and the board of volunteers of art professionals so they can continue to grow and become more of an integrated, visible part of the community at large—outside of the local media and arts scene. 

“We know we have to build our capacity. We have to enhance the programs we have so that we’re building those foundation blocks of being sustainable for the long-term. I’m very well aware of burnout. We want to make sure we can steer clear of that,” she says. “We’ve been able to hire artists on a project-by-project bases, this summer with the residency we were able to raise the resources to pay a temporary full-time position onsite along with a chef. So we have been bringing more people into the mix, we want to be able to continue to build that and to build awareness for Collar Works. We have a lot of development to do.”

Collar Works is always looking for volunteers. In addition to helping out with events and setting up exhibitions, community members can sit in on board committees to participate in programming like the after-school Art Factory program, Collard Greens, grant-writing and more. Artists and curatorial proposals are also always open. 

The MAD Collar Party and Collar Works Birthday Bash goes down Saturday, Aug. 10 at 6 PM at Collar Works Gallery, Troy. $35

 

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