The Camp Washington art center worked fast to act on their mission of “pairing a community’s needs with artists’ sense of possibility” by distributing food and art, transitioning projects—and finding ways to pay artists.
For anyone familiar with the work of Wave Pool Art Center and its director Calcagno Cullen, their stunning agility and creative vision tied into social action is hardly a surprise. Throw in an unprecedented global pandemic, a screeching halt of society as we know it, and—well, their March pivot is a perfect introduction to those not already acquainted. We exaggerate not even a little: Within days of the shut-down, the community-driven, artist-led gallery had developed a system to deliver free food and art to their Camp Washington neighbors—while finding a way to pay artists in the process.
On February 29 (remember February, that beautiful, distant world?), Wave Pool celebrated the opening of a food market within The Welcome Project, a program of Wave Pool that began with art classes for refugees and quickly grew into a market and showcase for these wares, as well as a community space for the immigrant and refugee community. Food had long been central to The Welcome Project mission: “We’ve been doing community dinners called Cincinnati’s Table for the past two years,” says Cullen. “We were already always trying to find ways to merge art and food together.”
While some would see the cusp of the Covid-19 pandemic as unfortunate timing to open the Welcome Market, the Wave Pool crew saw an opportunity to get to work. “We have this asset that is really needed during this time. In some ways, yes, it was unfortunate that we had planned all of these dinners and cooking classes and things we can’t do—but on the other hand, it’s the perfect venue to fulfill our mission and to showcase how important art is to communities during times of crisis,” says Cullen.
“Our mission is pairing a community’s needs with artists’ sense of possibility. That is never as evident as in a crisis, being able to respond quickly and directly to the community’s needs, while supporting artists.”
In lieu of dinners and classes, they organized to distribute weekly food boxes. “A lot of our neighbors are elderly and at-risk, or don’t have vehicles of their own, so they were taking the bus to get groceries,” says Cullen. So they put up flyers and initiated word-of-mouth marketing, which brought on 30 families the first week, and roughly 100 by early May. (The food is provided by partnerships with the Freestore Foodbank, Master Provisions, What Chefs Want, and ETC Produce & Provisions, but Wave Pool still incurs costs—gloves, training, foods they purchase, paying artists, and so on—which sponsorships have kept afloat.)
“Each box is of course the food,” says Cullen, “which is cans and boxed foods, as well as fresh groceries—milk and eggs and bread and vegetables. But we always include a piece of artwork to go with it.”
At first, it was ad hoc: artists in their network donated stray pieces in their studios. But Wave Pool is adamant about paying artists, and transitioned the program into a way to do so, launching POST, which stands for Printing Ourselves Together. “We are paying artists to create a limited-edition print run,” says Cullen. “A lot of them go into these food boxes, but a portion of them are signed and numbered to be a set for sale—as a way for people to collect art by local artists, as well as to support the artist, Wave Pool, and this program of food and art delivery during Covid-19.”
“Our mission is pairing a community’s needs with artists’ sense of possibility,” says Cullen. “That is true all the time in all our programs, but it’s never as evident as in a crisis, being able to respond quickly and directly to the community’s needs, while supporting artists. In a lot of ways, this is what we do best, to be able to listen to what people need and find ways for art to respond.”
Which they’ve done in yet another way, too, with the launch of Welcome Table boxes: to-go heat-and-eat meal boxes prepared by refugees and immigrants in Cincinnati in collaboration with Dean’s Mediterranean at Findlay Market ($20 for a meal for four, available at Dean’s or the Welcome Market). The wrapping, naturally, is interactive art by Collective Action Studio that tells the chef’s story, and includes the recipe and a postcard, so it becomes an ongoing collection.
They’re still at heart an art center, an ambitious and accomplished (and well-fed) community art center. And the art-specific side of the mission hasn’t fallen to the wayside. Wave Pool swiftly transitioned most of their previously scheduled artist programs online with a channel they’ve dubbed Covideo, where they host artist tours, gallery talks, and such. On top of that, they’ve sponsored seven artist projects that, says Cullen, “aim at social connection in a time of physical distance.” On the list: Dial-Up, a series of Friday happy-hour artist conversations, a pack of roving plastic flamingos, and traveling projection-mapping art shows.
As far as managing to pay artists, which many places don’t do in the best of times? Says Cullen: “I’m excited about that, actually. Really excited that we are still able to support artists, even if it has shifted a little bit.”
In April 2020, in lieu of presenting the fifth FotoFocus Biennial, light&, FotoFocus pledged its 2020 Biennial budget to financially support the region’s art community during the coronavirus pandemic. Wave Pool Art Center, along with more than 100 Participating Venues and Partners, received the FotoFocus Emergency Art Grant. The next FotoFocus Biennial will take place in October 2022.