301 S. Bedford Street
Madison, WI 53703
Lovey Town is a miniature project space founded by the artist Michael Velliquette. Artists participate with small-scale artworks and in the form of paper dolls made from photographic portraits they send pretending to be at an opening. Lovey Town exists in multiple formats—as a miniature exhibition space, through online photographic documentation, in print catalogs, and as a social practice where artists and viewers collaborate in the creation of a kind-hearted community. Since opening in 2013, Lovey Town has worked with over 120 artists, writers and guest curators and has collaborated with several other artist-run & non-profit spaces.
Interview with Michael Velliquette of Lovey Town
Questions by Emily Burns
Hi Michael! Can you give us some background on Lovey Town? What is the essence of the project currently and how did it get started? What initiated the early action steps to get started?
Lovey Town came into being by thinking about how I could reconnect with my core artist community. I had a small-scale foam core model of a gallery I made for an upcoming show sitting around the studio. Staring at my tiny exhibition, I started fantasizing about the ease of just making small-scale art full-time. And then there was a light bulb moment where I realized that this could so easily be the project space I had been thinking about opening.
I had been reading the book Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us by Daniel H. Pink, one of a number of outlets to which I had turned to help me think my way through a series of existential crises I was beginning to have in the studio, all wrapped up with the business aspects of my art career and how they were beginning to effect the love for my work.
My moment of insight happened through one of the key ideas of the book, and that is simply: engaging in a task that you love doing is motivated by an intrinsic value, measured purely by the pleasurable challenge it gives you. However, that pleasure diminishes when the same task gets attached to an extrinsic value (in an artist’s case that often means things like what shows we get into, which works sell, what grants we get, which dealer or curator notices us, etc.) Reading that made me feel like slightly less of a wimp for beginning question my stamina for staying in this business over the long haul. And it got me thinking about why I continue to be an artist, even when no one is looking. It made me reconsider the foundational experiences in the studio that got me there in the first place. I also thought it would be a great conversation starter with the artists I was interested in working with for this first exhibition in Lovey Town.
Once I got the idea to make the miniature gallery it was as easy as emailing artist friends and asking them if they wanted to participate in this little exhibition. The first show was called The Joy of the Task was its Own Reward and each person was asked to create a work smaller that 4 × 6 inches. There were no restrictions on theme or media. I asked them simply to make something that reflected their love for their work. It wasn’t until people started sending me the work and I started hanging the small show in the foam core gallery that I thought how funny it would be if they sent me photographs like they are at the opening. I would then print them out as small paper dolls to put in the gallery. Once I had everyone’s work and paper dolls in the gallery something magical happened. It was as if everyone was actually there in some respect. It manifested the power of collaborative play. It activated the experience in a whole different way.
Who is behind Lovey Town and who runs the different aspects of the project?
It’s essentially a one-man band organized by me, Michael Velliquette. I choose the artists, build the galleries, and hang the shows. I also do all of the photo documentation, social media posts, manage the website, and design and publish the show catalogs. But I started doing live events with Lovey Town a few years ago and as those have grown in scope I have very much depended on volunteers to help run them. Part of me has always been a little bit concerned that this not be perceived as a vanity project or something to supplement or promote my own work. I don’t consider this my art—I see it much more as something I just do for fun.
Is there a specific location associated with the project or is it nomadic?
Generally it is set up in my studio. I do about three exhibitions per year and build a new gallery for each show. The galleries measure about 40” (w) × 30” (d) × 15” (h) and they easily fit on a table in my studio. Artists mail me their little artworks through the u.s. postal service. It is always a thrill to receive the little packages filled with art. They just email me the other info, statements and bios and such, and the photos of them posing for their paper dolls. It’s all incredibly low-key and easy to manage. After I install the show I take tons of photos and post them on the gallery website and Instagram page. 99.9% of viewers that see the exhibitions see them online. It’s very rare anyone ever sees the exhibition in person but me.
A few years ago I started doing live openings, where I take the miniature gallery and set it up in a public space with a live viewing audience. I take viewer’s photographs at the events, print, and cut out their little paper doll avatars on site. Then we fill the gallery over the course of the event with the miniature crowd of paper dolls. What’s cool about doing the live events is they provide opportunities to collaborate with other project spaces, arts institutions and schools, which I have been doing more of recently.
How does your unique skillset or perspective as an artist contribute to making the programming a reality?
This is an interesting question to think about. Broadly, both my experiences in the bfa and mfa programs I attended were influential because in both cases my studio was situated in a space with other artists. So from the beginning I associated the creative process with something that happens with a community of other creative-minded individuals.
Practically, I began organizing exhibitions in graduate school in the late 1990s. Michelle Grabner was teaching in my mfaprogram at that time. Simultaneous to her own tremendously successful studio career, Michelle, along with her husband Brad Killam have run the project space The Suburban for almost two decades. She had a huge influence on the way I thought about cultivating a curatorial practice alongside my studio work.
Once I got out of graduate school I moved to San Antonio, tx and starting working at a commercial art gallery. At the same time, along with two artist friends—Joey Fauerso and Leslee Fraser—we opened an artist-run project space in a loft where we were living and had our studios. That space was called The Bower and we ran it from 2002 to 2005. Our mission was to redefine the way of work of art could be “at home” in a home, by creating a highly personal environment for both the artist and viewer. The idea of the “highly personal” is something that persists in Lovey Town in the sense that through the interactive process of getting photographed and added to the show as a paper doll, viewers quite literally put themselves in the piece.
Can you tell us more about your mission? What type of work are you interested in showing? What kinds of artists are you interesting in supporting?
I generally gravitate to artists for their personalities, or if I sense a kind of frisson with them or their work. Since there is so much time investment on my part I think practically about whom I would like to spend the time getting to know better. I like supporting artists who are kind, devoted, organized, and yet don’t take themselves too seriously. In fact the times I have regretted working with artists is when they have turned out to be too fussy, or lose sight of the playfulness of this project. For instance once I had an artist (I didn’t know very well) take me to task for putting their little sculpture on a tiny pedestal. He kept going on and on about it being a “floor piece”and I just had to laugh because in reality we were talking about a foam core box on a folding table in my studio..
What are some the of short-term goals for the project?
I’m always looking for ways to bring artists and viewers closer together. I recently did a residency with Lovey Town at a maker-space at the Madison Public Library called The Bubbler. I built an miniature foam core gallery that measured about twenty feet long and over the course of the month I hosted a series of drop-in events where participants were invited to make a small work of art from craft materials I provided. They also got photographed and I made their paper dolls on site. We then hung their work salon-style in the gallery and they got to stand their doll next to their pieces. The idea was to invite viewers to collaborate on a massive group show, while at the time experiencing what it is like to make and show work in the context of a contemporary white-box art space.
For upcoming versions I am hoping to continue to explore this kind of viewer-created content. In at least one upcoming project I am asking the artists to conceive of some sort of small-scale collaborative installation, where viewers make something that can be added to miniature space that the artists design.
What have been some of the most interesting or successful projects or events that you have coordinated with Lovey Town so far?
I think in terms of the ongoing sense of joy that Lovey Town creates for me, it has to be the paper dolls. When people agree to be photographed and turned into the paper dolls it’s a form of play. I adore how open people can be, how at ease, silly, and ridiculous. The whole experience gives me life.
As far as exhibitions, I did a super fun show a couple of years ago called “bfa 90s” with several folks who got their undergrad degrees with me back in the day. It was great to get the old gang together, and to see what everyone was up to.
This recent project we did at the library was by far the most successful in terms of engaging an audience. Over the course of the month over 300 people stopped in and made miniature works of art and had their photos taken and turned into paper dolls.
What draws viewers to the project the most? Its interactive nature?
I know for a lot of people going to a gallery or art opening can feel foreign and intimidating. At its miniature scale there isn’t one possible thing intimidating about Lovey Town. So I think it has that going for it—people like tiny things. But more importantly I think the interactive component is key, whether they are making the small artworks for the show, or just getting their photos made into the paper dolls. It’s all a form of creative play. I think that for artists or anyone working in the creative field, it’s easy to take the creative process for granted because it’s a mind state we are in all the time. But for someone who doesn’t do a lot of creative activity Lovey Town is an opportunity for them, however fleeting, to experience it. I’m always surprised by how much people value the experience.
What are some of the pros and cons of this type of project? What have been some of the biggest challenges so far?
Lovey Town offers opportunities for me to put to use the skills I have developed as an artist and educator to promote the value of art making and creative thinking. It is very much a labor of love. The downside is that it does make demands on my time, and is entirely self-funded.
Can you talk a bit about balancing your role as a working artist with your curatorial practice?
I keep a fairly clean split between the two. In my studio work I make labor-intensive cut paper sculptures. When I’m in production mode for a show I keep a very strict weekly schedule. That work is also very “interior” in the sense of how much I’m in my own head during the long spans of concentrated time required to make it.
Lovey Town is much more like office work. It involves lots of emails, writing, and clerical tasks. There is a lot of stuff to maintain online. Also, for each exhibition the gallery is designed differently so I’m constantly thinking about gallery layouts. It’s also way more social. In fact I’ve starting talking about Lovey Town less as a curatorial practice, and more of a social practice.
There’s a concept in Buddhism called “dana” that refers to generosity and giving. Recently I’ve started thinking about Lovey Town as this sort of generosity practice, meaning something I can do as an artist to give directly back to the community, in a different way than I am able to with my paper sculpture.
How do you go about choosing artists to include in exhibitions?
I choose artists for lots of reasons, as I said, not necessarily foregrounded by my knowledge of their work. In fact I did a show early on called Friend of a Friend where I asked past artists to select the new artists I should invite. The only stipulations were that they choose artists I didn’t know and who would “get” Lovey Town.
Several artists have been in multiple shows mostly because they are my closest friends and it gives us an excuse to be in touch. But I also pick broadly from a vast network I’ve cultivated over the years. Some I have been in previous group shows with, others I know through Facebook or its predecessor Friendster. Some I met at residencies and some exhibited my work at their own galleries. Some of their names have been on lists in my sketchbook for years to collaborate or trade with. Some are previous students and some mentors.
How often do people mistake the miniature exhibitions for ‘real’ exhibitions at a brick-and-mortar gallery
It happens all the time! I think anyone who only looks casually at close-up pictures from the shows could easily mistake it for a white box gallery space. I like the ambiguity but I’m not out to trick anyone. Again, it relates to the notion of play that is so central to Lovey Town.
How has social media and photo documentation paved the way for Lovey Town?
Well Facebook and Instagram provided instant platforms for me to share photographs of the Lovey Town exhibitions. Having that instant audience is wonderful. I don’t think it would have the same resonance had the project only been able to exist in the analog world.
But it has also been important for me that Lovey Town not live exclusively online. I also make print catalogs for each of the exhibitions. I want there to be a hard-copy archive of the project. I also want to be able to give the participating artists something more substantial for their own records besides a line on a cv. And I’ve also had the opportunity to collaborate with guest writers who contribute works to each publication.
How does social media affect or interact with the role of the physical gallery space in showing artwork today?
Well I think the question that’s been on people’s minds for a long time is how much of an artwork do we actually “see” online? I think over time, and given that so many artists are sharing their work online these days we’re developing skills to be able to imagine more subtly what a work may actually look like in person. I keep this in mind when I post Lovey Town photos online. The photos themselves aren’t remarkable. If you just look at them quickly they can look like any generic shots of people at an art opening. But if you know what is really going on then it is hilarious and thrilling, and you can imagine what the little gallery with all of the paper dolls set up may look like in person.
What are some of the most interesting critical or conceptual ideas that are explored through this project?It’s funny because this might be the most difficult question for me to answer. I have somewhat deliberately not thought about Lovey Town critically or conceptually over the years because those kinds of thoughts always kind of suck the fun out of things for me. I do think that Lovey Town is a project about artists’ relationships to their work, and to other artists. It is about the role of the viewer in the creation of an art experience. It is about art as a noun, and about art as a verb. It is about the way we construct realities with our imaginations. It is about the act of looking as an art form. And, it is about the way we see, and the way we want to be seen.
What are some of the most important aspects of artist-run spaces and projects today?
One of the many ironies of our open, porous contemporary art world is that it can make an individual artist feel small and isolated. In this way I feel that more regional identities can sometimes provide some semblance of inclusion for an artist—a way to draw lines (albeit dotted ones) around a group to which one can feel they belong. Since artist-run spaces are traditionally smaller in scale, and often service more regional or local artists and audiences I think they are pivotal to building arts communities and fostering dialogues amongst artists, not to mention what they can do to help artists starting out to build a little self-confidence.
Is there anything else like Lovey Town happening anywhere that you know of?
Well, early on there were a couple of projects that inspired the development of Lovey Town. One was the John Riepenhoff Experience, a plywood cube where John curates miniature exhibitions. The box is mounted high on a wall and participants climb a ladder and stick their heads up though a hole in gallery floor to view the show. Another was the Little Galleries organized by the artists Rachel Bruya and Jeremy Wineberg. Their project takes the shape of glass and steel vitrines sited outdoors at locations throughout Madison, and exhibits small works. And recently I discovered S. Dot Gallery, a dollhouse exhibition space run by the artist Stephanie Rond.
What are some of the characteristics about Lovey Town that make it unique and different from other artist-run projects?
Over the years I’ve come to think about Lovey Town as a process rather than a thing or place. What I mean by that is that is has become less about the work that is being shown, and more about how to show the work in a way that allows the artist to play and expand their own sense of their work, while at the same time connecting more personally to viewers.
How has the project morphed or changed since its inception?
Even though it is a miniature space, at the beginning it still closely reflected conventional models for exhibition spaces. As it’s grown I’ve been more interested in using that platform to engage viewers with what it means to be an artist now—not only how we make our work, but how we learn to navigate systems to get it out into the world. To that end I’ve begun facilitating the Lovey Town Workshop Series where participants (generally non-artists) take part in activities designed to immerse them the experience of creating their own group art exhibition.
Any exciting changes, events, or projects coming up soon?
This spring I’m partnering with the Chazen Museum of Art for a project in tandem with an exhibition they’re doing on the “Tile Club” who were a group of late 19th century American artists associated with the Aesthetic Movement. As I understand it they who would get together on a regular basis to drink, hang out and make decorative tiles. We’re building a small Lovey Town gallery space inspired by a Victorian sitting room and I will be hosting a series of events where viewers will be invited to make small works inspired by the exhibition to fill the walls of our tiny salon.
Thank you so much for taking the time to chat Michael!
Thank you so much, viva Maake! Viva artist-run projects!
To find out more about Lovey town, check out the website.