SEATTLE – Nooksack visionary Louie Gong wants to change not just how people see Native art, but how people see Native artists.
The most common business model is this: Art dealer acquires artwork from the artist outright or on consignment. Art dealer markets the artwork and sells it for a profit. And that’s it.
Gong and his company, Eighth Generation, have introduced a new model: Show artists how to market their own work so they can build sustainable businesses, and give them the tools to do it. The process puts the artist in control of putting their work into the hands of consumers, and of sharing the story that their artwork tells.
“I could just acquire an artist’s work for $200 and [resell it], but that’s not the path to sustainability,” Gong said of Eighth Generation’s Inspired Natives Project.
“When we work with an artist, we don’t just license their art. We help them build their business capacity. From building an e-commerce website to digital art skills to the way they tell their story, we mentor them through the process. We want to circulate the opportunities and income derived from interest in Native art and tradition back into the communities that are generating it. The days of watching others profit while we receive nothing are behind us now.”
He added, “We’re not just artists. We’re also business people capable of big things.”
The next big thing: Eighth Generation is launching a wool-blanket line October 17 that will provide another creative venue for “Inspired Native” artists — as opposed to blankets produced by companies that use Native-inspired art.
“Blankets are one of the high-end products that feature cultural art,” he said. “This line is going to create a lot of opportunity [for artists].”
The first blanket series celebrates Evergreen State College Longhouse’s 20th anniversary. Each blanket is made of 100 percent New Zealand wool. Gong and Eighth Generation collaborated with Evergreen staff to produce a blanket with a Thunderbird design, a Coast Salish basket pattern, and a wave pattern that recognizes Evergreen’s relationship with the Maori people.
There are 300 blankets in the series; each blanket sells for $180.
Other fibers – Nisqually Chairwoman Cynthia Iyall’s alpacas produce wool used in blankets – are something possible in the future, Gong said.
Gong covered the cost of producing the Evergreen blanket using money he earned over a five-year period doing workshops. In exchange, Evergreen is hosting the Eighth Generation scholarship, to be funded by 5 percent of all blanket sales in perpetuity.
Eighth Generation currently operates with family members and a couple of contractors. Gong launched an Indiegogo campaign on September 17 to raise $60,000 to support the wool blanket project. The funds raised will allow for the hiring of the first Eighth Generation staffer.
“Support Inspired Natives, Not Native Inspired” ?
Gong said the wool-blanket market has long been dominated by companies that misappropriate cultural art and fail to forge equitable relationships with Native artists. By establishing a Native-owned alternative, Eighth Generation aims to ensure sustained Native ownership over Native art and culture, he said.
Sarah Agaton Howes, Anishinaabe, is one of the two first artists to participate in Eighth Generation’s Inspired Natives Project (the first was jewelry artist Michelle Lowden, Acoma Pueblo). Howes said the relationship has been “transformative” for her. (You can see her work at HouseofHowes.com.)
Before she worked with Eighth Generation, she was just “a beadwork artist on the rez.” That “changed dramatically on a lot of levels. First, it’s validating to have an artist I respect work with me … Louie is really patient, but he pushes me to do things that are more difficult, pushes me out of my comfort zone.” She has since produced cell phone skins, mixed-media earrings, greeting card packs, and organic cotton tote bags.
“Second, people seek me out more because I’m working with Eighth Generation. I’m asked to teach, and that’s important to me because I want other people to know how to do this work.”
Being in control of the process – from creation to marketing to delivery – it’s the artist, not someone else, who shares the story that her artwork tells. “Our stories have always been told by outsiders,” she said. “We can tell our own stories and make our art more accessible to people.”
The next Eighth Generation wool blanket will be a Howes design and is expected to be released by Christmas, she said. It will feature designs passed down in her family; elements include heart berries and evening primrose.
Noted Puyallup artist Shaun Peterson said the work Eighth Generation is doing to empower emerging artists “makes sense.” He’s been a full-time artist for about 15 years. At that time, in the late 1990s, he attended a workshop for those aspiring to work full-time as artists, sponsored by Artist Trust. Of the 24 that participated, only three are working full-time as artists.
Fast forward to today: Modern technology provides a relatively low-cost way for a Native artist to build capacity – particularly if he or she is adept in social marketing.
“It’s a shifting landscape, and there’s a social marketing aspect for sure,” he said.