Candor Arts and Creating Equity: An Interview with Matt Austin
In school, artists learn about both the for-profit and not-for-profit sides of the art world, often finding themselves philosophically deciding which one they should participate in after they leave academia. The wide-eyed, recently graduated art worker quickly learns that both systems operate under capitalism. The influence of the capitalist structure infiltrates both commercial gallery and museum alike—hierarchy, competition, individualism, and the “me first” attitude ingrained in most aspects of our society. For many working artists this means working on a contractual, or “freelance,” basis at their local museum or art nonprofit where the employer doesn’t offer health insurance, job security, equitable pay, and they don’t pay half the taxes on earned wages. If lucky, an artist sells work where they only receive 50% of their sale. At each step of the way, they compete with peers, colleagues, and friends for jobs and opportunities that will inch them toward a living wage. At each step of the way, the system antagonistically reinforces the idea that artists should be grateful for any job, no matter what the circumstances.
Owner and director of Candor Arts, Matt Austin, is concerned with these flawed financial and social systems, and he has made a practice of rethinking support systems for artists that are equitable, ethical, and most of all, sustainable. In 2012, Austin co-founded Latitude and The Chicago Perch, both nonprofit organizations in Chicago focused on providing artists with resources for making and learning. Then in 2015, Austin founded Candor Arts as an LLC company with his former collaborator Ally Hasche. During its launch, Candor Arts sold handmade goods, such as home goods and jewelry, in addition to its publishing arm, while offering fair pricing to artists who were new to selling their work. Between then and now, Hasche left the company to pursue a career in interior design, while Austin rebranded and refined the company’s mission to strictly focus on independent publishing.
At its core, Candor Arts’ is about ethics and care. The company publishes handmade artist books that include artwork, photographs, and writing about “life, learning, and healing,” according to Austin. The company accepts book proposals, and from those, they choose to produce limited edition series of hardcover books. Most recently, they have published artists such as Cecil McDonald Jr., David Robert Elliott, and Sara J. Winston, to name a few. In addition to the curated, limited edition series, the company takes on commissioned projects from individuals and organizations, as well as partnership publishing projects. Last September, Candor Arts embarked on its new long-term partnership with Patron Gallery by publishing Bethany Collins’ America: A Hymnal, which debuted at EXPO Chicago. Austin approaches each book and each collaboration with the utmost attention and intention, enacting the mission of the company behind the scenes not only through equitable pay but through an ethos that finds its place somewhere between the for-profit and the nonprofit. “Operating on the basis of open and honest communication, the collective efforts of the organization are rooted in the support of its affiliated authors and collaborators,” Austin writes is part of the mission. People are at the center of Candor Arts from the support staff to the artists. Monetary profit supports the work but does not drive the work.
Artist, organizer, and writer Lynnette Miranda spoke with Austin about the ideology and motivation behind his model, and what that actually means in practice ahead of Candor Arts participation in the first Chicago Art Book Fair this November.
Lynnette Miranda (for CAW): What has the growth of Candors Arts been since you started? What was its original mission and vision, and where do you think you are now compared to that?
Matt Austin: Candor Arts has changed pretty drastically since its inception. Candor was originally started as a boutique, online shop based in Los Angeles when co-founder Ally Hasche and I were seeking fulfillment and inspiration outside of day jobs. There wasn’t much of an original mission other than we wanted to provide really fair and equitable commissions and wholesale pricing for artists who were making cool stuff, but only just starting out.
Publishing came into the mix when The Chicago Perch started losing its financial support caused by a lack of art grants, that we had been relying on, after Governor Rauner’s election in Illinois. The organizing team also started moving on to other jobs and projects. I tried to continue the publishing arm by funding it myself. I was taking on book projects as a service but quickly learned that that was not possible legally through the nonprofit business model. Through the Perch, there were two projects ready to go to production (How to Make A Hood by La Keisha Leek and the second edition of Wind Through Quiet Tensions by Adam Grossi). My options were to either do it as “Matt Austin Publishing” or attach the projects to an LLC in order to make the payments to the authors legitimate, which is when I decided to begin publishing through Candor Arts.
The Candor Arts online store slowly dissolved as Ally’s pursuits in interior design became more demanding and developed into a career, and I became more invested in publishing and design. Through running The Chicago Perch and the lessons I’ve learned, our ethics and mission of fair treatment and support for artists and authors have remained the same, but with a more sustainable financial model. At The Perch, there was a culture and a passion where the entire team was putting in a ton of time and effort—to the point where we essentially ran out of both money and energy.
Lynnette: For many organizers, including myself, I think about the process as both practical and relational. Working with artists is equally about helping them produce a project as much as it is about building trust. Can you walk me through your process for making a book through both of these lenses?
Matt: When an author and I start talking, a particular kind of question arises and I think this is a really important moment that sets the environment for the rest of the project. I am commonly asked questions about content and sequencing: “Do you think what I have here is okay? Should I add or cut more? Is this order okay? What’s normal for a book like this?” For me, this is an important moment because it’s a chance to remind the artist that this is their work and not mine.
After the content is established by the artist, then we move to the design of the book, which is where my hand comes in. This is often derived from kind of free-association and impulse responses to colors and materials in my studio when considering that particular author or artist’s work over the course of a few long meetings throughout a month or so. I have each author provide me with a playlist of music that they would regard as an ideal soundtrack for the work, to listen to while I’m laying out the pages.
The publishing industry often reflects the worst parts of capitalism in its relationship to the author’s’ creative, emotional, and intellectual work, which tend to end up with the least financial and social support. Candor’s main motivation is to offer the opposite model of that, and make readily visible that none of our work could exist or would matter without the work and minds of our authors.
Lynnette: In my experience, I think about sustainability through a strategic lens. For example, rethinking how we define and value resources, and then redistributing those within a project or team. Like you mentioned, Candor prioritizes an ethical and fair treatment of artists and authors, how are you building an organizational model that actualizes the values you put forth? How do you sustain a project like Candor, practically and ethically? What are your funding models and your project management styles?
Matt: I pull back and look at the circumstances we operate within, and choose which direction or directions based on practicality as well as potential impact. I’ve embraced the idea that capitalism itself is unsustainable and that it will forever encourage a prioritization of money and profit over the wellness of any person, and it will do so with great inequity on the bases of race, class, gender, ability, or any mode in which a group of people can be ‘Other-ized’. Candor is an attempt to build a financial and social support system that works toward reversing that disproportion. It responds to concrete examples in which certain groups of people are not only being underrepresented but go unsupported. As a grassroots project, we have the freedom to operate and spend money in accordance with our values without asking permission, and because accumulating wealth is not the priority of this business it allows us to offer immediate support to our authors and staff.
Our challenge is to try a different model of working that provides support in situations that often lead to exploitation. For example, controlling the sales and distribution of each publication directly allows us to use the full amount of the book’s retail price and maximize how much the author gets paid. Typically, the distributor and bookstore would take significant cuts from the author’s profit. We also never take any rights away from the author, and they have the freedom to publish with anyone else and re-publish their work if they want to. Much of the decision-making at Candor considers the possibility of what a project might look like when the benefits are shared equally. We are expanding that same concept by partnering with other organizations with aligned ethics to grow the reach of these projects, share resources, and create programmatic opportunities that will further the dialogues that these authors have catalyzed.
At the beginning of the publishing efforts (when we had no money at all), the author would front the production costs and then be paid back in full immediately with book sales, then the profits would be split 50/50. We’ve gotten to the point where Candor and the author each front half, then we split everything equally; and by the end of this year, we’ll be paying for all projects in full up front, and then splitting everything evenly. Our funds come from our editioned book sales and outside commissions with artists interested in self-publishing. The cost for each published project includes design and project management, which is the income that allows me to eat food, have an apartment, and contribute the time and work necessary to hold each book to a standard that represents its author and Candor. Additionally, It’s important to me that the Candor support staff get paid as fairly as possible. Right now, the Candor staff is a rotating team of part-time bookmakers, designers, and administrators, who all start at $17 per hour. While I don’t believe that is enough, it is what we can afford for now, and it is a rate that competes with most arts companies’ starting wages.
Lynnette: We are in a fascinating moment where we often hear this platitude that the industry of publishing and print media “is dying,” yet artist book fairs have bloomed in our field in the last 5 years. What drew you to publishing in the first place? Why make books now?
Matt: In my own experience as an art educator, I’ve always been interested in the kinds of intimate experiences and boundaries one can transgress through various forms of art and language. Art books and books, in general, are great ways to communicate complicated emotional ideas as well as vehicles for sharing personal experiences that may be very different from a reader. Despite ethical, moral, political, and cultural differences, each reader is holding this object with some thoughtfulness. There is the experience of touch taking place, which, I think, is where beauty, care, and expression in the design become very important tools for communicating affect.
I don’t know if print media is necessarily dying—I don’t think it’s dying any more than everything else is dying. Like, Donald Trump is the President, which I’m pretty sure is a more sure sign that America is dying than like a Kindle being a sign that books are dead. However, I am not tied to the idea that book publishing is the only format in which this work is possible. My pursuit of this project is in the interest of equitable distribution of power through money and representation, which is currently manifesting through a book publishing business, but could absolutely manifest in other ways as things move on.
Lynnette: Where do you envision Candor going in the next few years?
Matt: I am incredibly grateful for and pretty blown away by the support we’ve received in the short time we’ve existed. By the end of 2017, we will be putting out a book a month, which is truly wild. If we keep at this trajectory, we’re going to need a new space for inventory, which we’re slating out with a partner for June 2018. Additionally, if our publishing rate keeps up, it will eventually make financial sense in a few years to get our own press machinery instead of outsourcing printing, allowing us to provide more affordable quotes for customers getting one-off books here and there, as well as produce our editions more efficiently.
Lynnette: What projects are you working on now?
Matt: Right now there are roughly fifteen or sixteen books on the roster that are just Candor Arts, including GREENZONES, a collaboration with Jenny Kendler, the second edition of In the Company of Black by Cecil McDonald, Jr., and a book documenting the Lowrider community in collaboration with Lauren Pacheco, among others. We are also forming a few new co-publishing partnerships with other organizations like Chicago’s Sixty Inches from Center and Sming Sming Booksbased in the Bay Area.