Casey Droege: Building a Strong and Sustainable Arts Economy in Pittsburgh

Interview by: Ilana Curtis

Casey Droege operates outside and between traditional models of small business, art making, and curatorial practice. Droege is a native of Pittsburgh, where today the city’s industrial legacy lives on in the arts through the deep pockets of charitable foundations. A 2016 report by the Greater Pittsburgh Arts Council states that Allegheny County, which includes Pittsburgh, ranks number two in per capita arts funding from foundations when compared to eleven other U.S cities of comparable size. After studying art and working in Chicago and Detroit, Droege understands the challenges of engaging in the arts economy outside of major markets like New York and Los Angeles. In her hometown, Droege sought to reconsider the support mechanisms for artists producing work in small cities like Pittsburgh.

Droege’s art includes social practice projects exploring interpersonal relationships. Her latest exhibition, Support Group, for example, considers alternative support structures women artists create for themselves. These are questions Droege explores through her business, Casey Droege Cultural Productions (CDCP), as well. Founded in 2017 with a mission to create relevant and accessible art experiences that connect Pittsburgh’s creative community to a national arts conversation, CDCP encourages the growth of a local arts economy and builds a diverse audience. In addition to founding programs like SIX by ATE, the Pittsburgh Photo Fair, and Community Supported Art Pittsburgh, Droege recently opened a brick and mortar retail outpost called Small Mall. In her first two years, she has involved 229 regional artists and captured an audience of nearly 19,000 visitors. We talked with Droege about her art, career, and support mechanisms that have fueled an exciting wave of initiatives out of CDCP.

Shot of “Support Group,” an exhibition by Droege on view at 707 Penn Gallery on view through March 3, 2019. Courtesy Porter Loves Creative.

an artwork in a white room with 5 unique dining chairs arranged in a circle on a raised platform on a patterned picnic blanket

How did you decide to become an artist? Tell us how this all began.

Casey Droege: I grew up in the North Side of Pittsburgh and was raised by artists—so I drank the Kool-Aid really early. I also went through Manchester Craftsmen’s Guild, which has an amazing after-school program for teens. They’re the reason I went to college and got great scholarships. I went into teaching after college and later to grad school so that I could teach college-level. During that time I started making work like SIX x ATE, which had the potential to make money, and began applying for grants that straddled personal artistic grants and small organizational grants.

Casey Droege Cultural Productions organically grew into a business, but it took several years of pounding on the doors of foundations to figure out how to get money. As an arts organization, we’re outside of the norm because we’re a socially minded for-profit business operating with a fiscal sponsor. We’re using grant money as our start-up funds with the goal of operating on our own revenue streams within the next two years. I hope to generate ideas about how artistic businesses can work in cities that don’t have a normal arts market and are lacking the traditional support structures for a healthy arts ecosystem.

Before moving back to Pittsburgh, you lived in Chicago and Detroit. How did the structural support for the arts community differ in those cities, and why did you come back to Pittsburgh?

I went to college in Chicago and graduate school in Detroit. Part of why I left Chicago was because I had to work so many jobs to make a living. But when I came back to Pittsburgh I  bought a house without a loan because property was extremely affordable then. Detroit was pretty cheap as well, but Detroit had similar problems to Pittsburgh as a recovering industrial landscape. Detroit has a slightly more robust commercial arts market, there are some really big collectors who make a big difference, and they have bigger individual artist grants through the Kresge Foundation. But, with Pittsburgh, I am familiar with how things function, so it made more sense for me to come back here and use what I had.

Have you noticed any changes or shifts in the Pittsburgh arts ecosystem since your return in 2010?

In some ways, Pittsburgh is becoming more connected to what’s happening around the country and internationally, which is exciting. We’ve always had amazing large institutions and there’s been quite a few little artist-run DIY spaces, but most of them don’t last long enough to build up the middle ground. Silver Eye Center for Photography is an amazing example of one that has, but it’s hard to think of anything else. We live in a city where the arts are not a part of most people’s daily lives, and when you add the rising costs of living and property, it seems like a race against time to create a scenario where you can building up that mid-sized institution or sustainable arts business.

Artist presentation at SIX x ATE. Courtesy Johanna Lasner.

an artist standing in front a room with people sitting and watching them present

Can you talk about starting your dinner series, SIX x ATE?

SIX x ATE started with the 56th Edition of the Carnegie International in 2013. The curators rented an apartment in Lawrenceville as a space to host artist lectures and experimental programming. With Tina Kukielski, one of the curators, I brainstormed the idea of the series and she opened up the apartment as a trial space. I planned three dinners in the first year that were all very different. The larger series just naturally grew out of the initial success. The first few years it was free for attendees through grant support. Eventually it made sense to start selling tickets, and I continue to tweak the model to keep it accessible. We try to provide a wide range of ticket prices, and we always have a group of tickets that are free for partners. I think that is why this works. There’s a genuine mix of different people and we strive to keep everyone feeling comfortable and encourage them to talk to each other.

How does SIX x ATE strengthen bonds within the arts community in Pittsburgh?

It’s a good way to pay artists to participate in something, and it’s a good way for people to connect. Individuals in the arts come to network, to catch up and hear what’s happening. For people outside the arts, it’s an interesting way to begin a journey into the arts, or they come because they have an interest in somebody speaking or the chef who’s cooking.

Every year we move through different locations. This past year we did one at Chatham’s Eden Hall Campus, we did one at AIR on the North Side, Braddock UnSmoke Systems, and one more at our old space downtown. We did one in Fresno, California too!

For the last couple of years we have had around 100 people per event, and they were intense productions. We’re thinking about scaling it down again and going for something more intimate, to reinforce the idea of community building and connections.

Artist presentation at SIX x ATE . Courtesy Mike Weber.

a packed presentation space with people sitting in folding chairs and on stairs adjacent to the space - on one wall is a presentation screen, on another is a variety of photos

Would you consider SIX x ATE the venture that inspired you to start your business, Casey Droege Cultural Productions (CDCP)?

Definitely. The business grew out of my social practice. Even the physical work that I make is, for the most part, about exploring relationships, dynamics, and societal structures. And there’s an entrepreneurial end to it because somehow you need to make a living, right?

In addition to starting SIX x ATE, I was also doing a lot of one-off experiential things and short event-based work. I co-founded our CSA (Community Supported Art) program, based off the model of Community Supported Agriculture. It’s a subscription model project where a subscriber gets a box, or “share,” of artworks from local artists instead of a share of produce from a farm.  I was also approached by Evan Mirapaul to Co-Direct the PGH Photo Fair, an annual fair of photography at the Carnegie Museum of Art.  With those three programs together, that’s when I started pitching to foundations that they fund an umbrella business, CDCP, that would carry out much of this type of Pittsburgh-based programming, that has the potential to create new programming and generate a vibrant Pittsburgh arts economy.

What was the process of finding your support model?

It took a long time to convince foundations CDCP was a viable option. As a younger woman with few resources, convincing people to give you a chunk of money is always going to be hard; I was constantly told to go partner with existing organizations, most of them run by men younger and less experienced than me. Eventually, one door opened and then it snowballed from there. As we enter our third year, CDCP is still supported by grant money.

Now that we’ve gotten the foundations here on board, it’s a question as to whether we will be sustainable. And that depends on getting the public in Pittsburgh to open up and support these ventures with their money and time.  At the end of 2019, the goal is to be sustain ourselves on our own revenue streams. I want CDCP staff to get paid, support artists through sales and fees, and continue to collaborate with various partners in the community. Our consulting work is really key, that’s how we can continue to support our community-oriented work.

Interior of Small Mall, featuring the goods of local artists. Courtesy Porter Loves Creative.

the interior of a store - wooden display walls with holes (for pegs to hang pieces and install shelfs) show off a variety of books, prints, jewelry, and plants.

So the foundations are your venture capital, your investors.

The goal, is to make a business that will pay people and provide steady income for everybody in this emerging arts ecosystem: artists, curators, galleries, framers. Not that we can be the only organization encouraging these partnerships, but at least if we get the cycle going and open up foundations to this idea of supporting an arts ecosystem, then maybe another seed will get planted.

For artists in Pittsburgh there are opportunities to get grants here and there. But it also feels like if you get one big grant, that it–that not a career. As we start to lose the affordability of the city; the cost of living is a lot higher than it was 20 years ago, and you can’t thrive—let alone survive, and potentially support a family—as an artist if you get $20,000 one year and nothing for the next six years.

In a city like Pittsburgh, arts patronage looks different than in other cities with more commercial galleries. How does CDCP work to offer alternative models of art patronage?

At CDCP, we want to convince a wider audience in Pittsburgh to appreciate arts and culture, buy tickets to events, and buy art. Through Small Mall, our concept store, we’re experimenting with selling work from regional artists at an affordable price. Most of the galleries in Pittsburgh don’t survive on revenue from sales because people in Pittsburgh aren’t comfortable with that kind of system. They are however comfortable walking into a store and buying things. So Small Mall is a fun retail space with the addition of programming similar to that at a gallery. We’re in line with a lot of “shop local” businesses, who encourage people who walk in the door to reroute their money. Don’t go to Target to buy that pillow or Urban Outfitters for a poster; find something here and feel great about sending that money to an artist that you could bump into next week.  

Also at CDCP, we are focused on accessibility. With all of our ventures, we are a  translator—for the public and for businesses—helping them to understand artists and establish relationships with their work. These connections lead to financial contributions and create revenue streams. Whether it’s a developer buying art for a site, or a business hiring an artist for a project, or an individual buying a ticket to see an artist talk.

Exterior of Small Mall, the brick and mortar retail outpost and office of CDCP centrally located along Butler Street in Lawrenceville, a neighborhood in Pittsburgh. Courtesy of Porter Loves Creative.

a warm brick building with large windows - small mill is written in white text on one of them, and a blue sign points at the entrance

Featured Image: Droege giving remarks at SIX x ATE, an artists talk and dinner series that started in 2013 and is now in its sixth season. Courtesy Mike Weber

About the author:

Ilana Curtis (b.Boston, MA) holds a BA in Architectural Studies from the University of Pittsburgh and will be pursing her Masters of Design at the Harvard Graduate School of Design in fall 2021. She is driven by design projects that connect community, people, and place, an interested fostered during her tenure at PLP.

Find Ilana on Instagram and LinkedIn.

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