What is Queer/Art/Mentorship? from Ira Sachs on Vimeo

CHICAGO — While New York may be the American epicenter of all things art, continually battling it out with the fantasyland that is Los Angeles, the opportunity to work with an older, possibly queerer mentor (queerer in the sense that they’re older than you and have been there, done that) doesn’t often just present itself out of nowhere. The Queer Art Mentorship program seeks to remedy what is otherwise a purely mystical, random connection between artist and mentor by serving as the matchmaker, or yenta, if you will. Most of all, the program seeks, by its description, to “give a sense of the value of queer work and cultivate a collection of voices that amplify the queer artistic experience.” Queer Art Mentorship is curated by Lily Binns, co-executive director of Pilobolus Dance Theater, and Ira Sachs, a writer and director, and is currently based in New York. It recently expanded to Los Angeles with Queer/Art/Film/LA and will hopefully continue to spring up in art meccas across the country. Applications for the 2013–14 cycle are due on Friday, July 12.

Fascinated by the program and how it can build dialogue, relationships, and most of all community through crossgenerational conversation, I spoke with Ira Sachs via email.

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Alicia Eler: How did the Queer Art Mentorship program begin? Why?

Ira Sachs: I arrived in New York City in the late ’80s, when a whole generation of artists was wiped out by the AIDS epidemic, and there was a repressive turn in the city’s culture. I never had a mentor or anyone I could even follow their career to see what a sustained career as a queer artist might look like. The intention of the program was to create an apparatus that could serve as a ballast against that absence and to connect queer artists across disciplines and generations.

2012 Queer Art Mentorship recipient Melissa Li (all images courtesy queerartmentorship.org)

2012 Queer Art Mentorship recipient Melissa Li (all images via queerartmentorship.org)

AE: It makes me think about residencies like the Fire Island Artist Residency (FIAR), which is located outside of New York City proper and brings together LGBTQ-identifying artists. It’s important to cultivate queer community in that type of space, outside of an urban center, but your program is focused on queer artists working only in an urban center. What are your thoughts on the difference between the Fire Island rural context and New York City urban one?

IS: New York is a hive, and yet it’s also a very dislocated place, where many of us feel isolated from some sort of imagined hub of activity, whether social or artistic. We are interested in creating the opportunity of nonvirtual interaction — the kind of conversations that mythically used to take place over tables at the Cedar Tavern, and still do across tables at artist residencies.

AE: How do you define “queer”? Or is it best defined by the artists applying?

IS: “Queer” is a term that we consider self-identifying. That said, we are interested in work that somehow is engaged with questions of gender and sexual identity. How that engagement takes place is highly personal and can be literal or figurative, abstract or representational.

AE: I was previously on the board of the Critical Fierceness Art Grant here in Chicago, which awards queer artists financial assistance. The grant discusses the idea of queer artists, but it also allows space for artists whose work could be contextualized as “queer.” How do you think a grant like that compares to what you are doing through the Queer Art Mentorship program? 

IS: Grants and organizations like yours and QAM function as a form of encouragement — whether individuals get the money or the fellowship or not. They create aspirational goals which give form to the “value” of queer work, in ways both monetary or otherwise. Knowing that something called Queer/Art/Mentorship exists and a fellowship might be attainable has influence on the community of artists beyond those who end up participating. It says to the world  — both the public as well as the artists who apply — that this work is meaningful.

2012 QAM recipient Camilo Godo

2012 QAM recipient Camilo Godo

AE: I’m curious about this part of your mission statement: “Its goal is to build an interconnected web of queer artists of all generations and mediums who know each other and each other’s work.” Isn’t that what social media and the internet are doing, in a sense? 

IS: Social media is a part of a conversation that can be made all the deeper by nonvirtual encounters and interaction. If social media becomes the only way that people are connected, the ties are that much weaker. Surprising things happen when you sit with someone and let the talking go where it may.

AE: I recently read an interview with Sarah Schulman by Alexis Clements in Bitch magazine, which brought some nice context to the new queerness that is happening these days. Schulman, who I noticed is one of your mentors, notes how gay voices left the mainstream in the ’90s as a result of niche-marketing to LGBTQ folks. So essentially, by labeling something LGBTQ, it became marginalized and less visible but also gave a space for these types of conversations. With the rise of the queer generation, which is mostly people in their 20s who believe in a broad definition of the term (not just related to gender), I feel that the term could apply as a blanket for non-normative lifestyles, whatever that really means. Looking ahead, I wonder if “queer” will just become another market-driven term or niche. What are your thoughts on this? Or, to be more specific, what do you think of the concepts like queer futurities, a new queerness, and where the term “queer” will lead?

IS: To me “queer” is a place-holder that is inclusive of a broad range of individual histories and experiences. I am less interested in its limits than in its collective nature. It’s not perfect, but for me, when we started the program, it seemed like a better way to go than LGBTQ or some other such term.

2012 QAM Mentor Carlos Motta

2012 QAM Mentor Carlos Motta

AE: Tell me a bit about how the mentorship aspect of the program works. Do the artists who are accepted into the program pick their own mentors, or are they assigned? How is the mentor–mentee relationship formed? How do you select mentors?

IS: The mentors review the applications and choose an artist that they feel they will have something significant to offer, personally, creatively, and professionally. Usually that means a mentor will be drawn to someone working in their own field, but we also allow for crossdisciplinary pairing, if so inclined. Over the year of the fellowship, the mentor and fellow arrange to meet monthly on their own schedule, and bimonthly the fellows meet collectively to discuss their own work. Mentorship in all fields is not purely hierarchical. The communication a mentor has with another mentor in a particular year can be as significant to the idea of the program as one between the fellow and the mentor. This is something I learned in studying mentorship in other fields, like health and education. It’s a real trend of the moment, and it builds the field overall.

AE: Why are you focused only on New York City? Would you ever consider expanding the program to artists and cities in other parts of the country to include projects

IS: We have just started a program called Queer/Art/Film/LA as our first outside of New York City. We have focused on New York because that’s where the people involved live, and we are community-based, nonvirtual, real-time in our interest and intent. But we believe that these are programs that can be replicated in other communities, and over time, we hope more of that takes place.

To learn more about the Queer Art Mentorship program, visit the website. You can also follow QAM on Twitter. Applications for the 2013–14 cycle are due on Friday, July 12. 

Alicia Eler is a cultural critic and arts reporter. She is the author of the book The Selfie Generation (Skyhorse Publishing), which has been reviewed in the New York Times, WIRED Magazine and the Chicago...

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