Bidding Adieu to Zoom: Art Tourism and In-Person Events with Women in Culture
The art world can be lonely, exciting, and confusing all at once especially with the lure of different events. Most people don’t want to attend a friend’s party alone, much less an artist talk or a sprawling art party where they know no one. I’m the first to admit, bringing a friend along to an event is always a sure-fire way to abate any awkwardness but it’s time to change that mindset and just go for it.
Arts enthusiast and founder of the amazing group Women in Culture Alexandra Harper is here to break down those barriers and curb the awkwardness one event at a time. Working as a graphic designer during the day, Alexandra wears a lot of hats. Her goal is to help women find a new community and to meet new people (she encourages members or first-timers to come alone). Through carefully curated events that span more than just the fine arts, Women in Culture seeks to make all aspects of the arts more accessible.
September was a big month for the art world at large, kicking off with a number of different art fairs including the Armory Show, Art on Paper, Future Art Fair, and SPRING/BREAK. Art lovers, emerging artists, collectors, and galleries from near and far gathered for the first time in a long time in person. After many months of sitting at home, it’s time to (safely) get back out there as the art world is buzzing with new gallery shows and exhibitions.
I had the pleasure of meeting Alexandra and over coffee, we discussed what sets Women of Culture apart from other young member groups out there, the state of the art world, and what exactly art tourism means.
There are so many art groups out there (and young member groups), but it can be really intimidating to join a group for a variety of reasons–possibly financial, feeling shy about going alone, or not knowing enough about the arts to make it feel worth it. Can you give us a run-down of how Women of Culture works as well as the breakdown of the membership?
I might be slightly biased, but there are a few key points that set Women of Culture apart from other arts groups and communities out there.
First, I put an emphasis on building community, so our events really are designed to be attended alone, and our goal is that you meet new people and make new (potential) friends at every event. My intention is that every attendee feels welcome, whether it’s their first time attending, or their 100th time attending, and that no one ever feels awkward attending an event alone.
Secondly, because we are an independent organization, we aren’t tied to creating events around a specific institution and can take in the best of what’s on offer at art institutions (large and small) all over the city. Whereas with a young patron’s group, you might only be able to choose just one of your favorite museums or performing arts institutions to belong to, with Women of Culture, you get to sample the best of the bunch, so to speak. That way, you also get broader exposure to all different styles and forms of art.
Finally, making the arts more approachable is part of my mission, so our events are educational without being overly academic. At the end of the day, art is all about the connection it creates between the artist and their audience. Engaging with the arts is a brave and creative act in and of itself, so I try to make doing so a bit easier and more rewarding for the members of the community.
While the majority of our events are presently only open to members (due to continued COVID concerns), you can join (and/or cancel the membership) at any time. We also have at least one event per month which is ‘pay-as-you-go’ and open to the community at large, without membership.
The membership currently costs $35/month and includes access to at least four events per month, as well as a monthly member’s dinner and bi-monthly book club, plus discounts on non-member events and exclusive ‘culture-tunities’ at art institutions around the city. I like to joke that it costs a lot less than that gym membership you hardly use — and is a lot more rewarding!
You mentioned that you have a background in marketing and graphic design. Can you share with our Cultbytes readers a little bit more about your background and what you’ve been working on outside Women of Culture?
I started my career in Marketing for the beauty industry and then transitioned into Graphic Design. Now, I do a little bit of both for my freelance clients and enjoy working on 360-degree marketing campaigns where I can combine both skill sets.
Most recently, I was working with a non-profit client on the concept and execution of large-scale fundraising campaigns. I also worked to refine their brand voice, identity, and communications strategy, helping them double their social media following and increase their brand recognition.
I am especially passionate about helping small companies define and/or refine their brand strategy and enjoy working to translate a brand’s unique essence across all consumer touch points, from print to web to packaging, in order to convey a cohesive and consistent brand personality. Right now, I am now accepting new freelance clients and am excited to dive into a new challenge!
Photo courtesy of Corona Johnson, 2019.
I love that your group specifically focuses on creating connections between the attendees and making art, in general, more approachable. Even with my quasi background in the arts, I still get cold feet sometimes when I approach a gallery! It’s a strange phenomenon. What do you hope your members will take away from their membership and experience with Women of Culture?
Any interaction with the arts has the potential to help us expand our horizons, discover new perspectives and learn more about the world around us, but as you mentioned, it can sometimes feel overwhelming and intimidating to navigate the art world, especially in a city like New York. I look for ways to take the guesswork out of the equation by curating the shows and events I think offer the most valuable experience, and making it easy for people to just show up.
And I don’t think you need to be an art collector or to have a degree in art history to enjoy the arts. At the end of the day, art is all about the connection it creates between the artist and their audience. Engaging with the arts is a brave and creative act in and of itself, so I try to make doing so a bit easier and more rewarding.
My hope is that every attendee leaves each event feeling connected, inspired, and empowered. As we all know from the past 18 months, humans are naturally social and adventurous beings, and I strive to provide an experience that leaves people feeling connected — to the arts, to one another, and to themselves — while also satisfying their need for discovery.
With repeat exposure to the community (and to the arts), my hope is that members broaden their cultural and artistic horizons, connect more deeply with their own creativity, and feel inspired to live fuller, happier, more connected lives, in which they feel empowered to pursue their dreams and have a positive impact on the world around them.
Photo courtesy of Corona Johnson, 2019.
We talked a lot about this in-person, but I’d love to hear your take on art tourism. I always associated art tourism with people planning a trip, and the light bulb goes off that there is indeed, a famous art museum in that specific city or town (but that’s more so props to the museum doing some great PR versus most people planning their trips around specific museums, etc). Do you think that art can boost tourism?
Yes! I actually plan my vacations in the reverse order — usually there is a show or institution I want to visit, and I try to plan a whole trip around it. This is what I do for our Weekend of Culture group trips, and it has brought us to some very interesting parts of the country. I think people often don’t realize how much art there is outside of NYC and other major cities. Especially in the wake of COVID, with more people working remotely and dispersing across the country, I think there will be more art happening in unexpected places. I recently visited Asheville, NC, and St. Petersburg, FL, both of which have blossoming art communities, even without a major arts institution, and both are well worth a visit.
The pandemic has changed so much, especially in terms of how people interact and getting to do new things (safely). What has it been like to plan events during this time and do you think your member’s needs have shifted slightly?
The past 18 months have definitely been a struggle, but it’s forced me (like many others) to get creative. I had to move everything online in March 2020, and I began to focus more on connecting artists and audiences directly through virtual studio visits and online artist talks. I think people just wanted a way to connect with one another, and I also wanted to provide a platform for artists to continue sharing their work and connecting with audiences during that difficult time. It was actually a lot of fun to have artists connect with us on a more intimate level than might normally happen at an in-person event.
Also, because people were feeling so isolated and struggling with their mental and emotional health, I started focusing more on the personal growth aspect of our mission and events. I created an online women’s circle, called the Sisterhood of Discovery, which is a 6-week journey into creative self-discovery and community. It’s all about bringing more mindful intentionality and sisterly support into your life, while also re-awakening your creative soul.
But, as soon as it became safe to do so, I began hosting in-person gatherings again. Our members were very much wanting to get back out and experience the arts in person as early as July of last year. I expanded my Art-full Discovery art & food walks, and it was actually a fun time to be out exploring the city, with far less traffic and fewer people. I think we all fell a little more in love with the city during those times when we had some extra time and space to really appreciate its magic.
Now, we’re gearing up to get back into full swing. With Broadway reopening, and the vaccine now readily available, it’s exciting to feel like things are getting closer to ‘normal’. I think we’ve all realized just how important community, art, and connection are, and my hope is that people will no longer take these things for granted, now that we’ve had to experience living without them for a time.
What events are coming down the pipeline? What type of events do you hope to plan in the future?
There is so much to look forward to right now! Next up we have an art walk scheduled in Chelsea on October 16th, and a Fall for Dance 2021 program and dinner on October 20th. Plus, we’re re-starting our performance outings with the chance to see “Caroline, or Change” and “Jagged Little Pill” on Broadway, plus Fall for Dance at the NY City Center, and so much more.
I’m also working on a trip to Art Basel Miami as well as other opportunities to connect directly with artists, fostering more meaningful connections between them and their audiences. Finally, I’m also looking forward to expanding our clientele and beginning to plan customized trips and experiences for corporate groups, couples, tourists, and other private groups.
No matter what, I plan to continue finding creative ways to cultivate meaningful connections through art-based experiences, with a focus on women’s empowerment and a vision of inspiring a deeper appreciation of the arts in their many forms.
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Alexandra Israel graduated from Bates College in 2010. A museum aficionado since her introduction to Jean Dominque Ingres' portraits as a small child, she enjoys spending her free time at museums and finding off-the-beaten-track gallery shows. Israel has been working in PR for over seven years, primarily within book publishing and in the art world. She has held positions at Penguin Book Group, Aperture Foundation, and Third Eye among others. l Instagram l