25 years of mixing art, artists and community

One of our favorite regional arts organizations, the Dayton Visual Arts Center, is celebrating its 25th anniversary this year — quite a milestone for the small but influential non-profit organization. To talk about the group and its impact, we caught up with Executive Director Eva Buttacavoli. Here’s an edited, condensed version of the conversation. To learn more, visit www.daytonvisualarts.org. — Ron Rollins

Q: For readers unfamiliar with the Dayton Visual Arts Center, describe the place and its work.

Buttacavoli: So, we're an art gallery and artist resource. Our mission is to provide art for the community, and to also provide a community for artists, which we've been doing since 1991.

Q: What’s the founding story?

Buttacavoli: We were formed by a group of artists, educators and community members who wanted a place to show local art and have a place to exhibit year-round, to gather, to learn from each other. Many of them are still around and involved, including Pam Houk and Lou Mason. We started presenting exhibitions in the old Biltmore building downtown. That was our first location, and Pam was our first director.

Q: A good year for local arts, then.

Buttacavoli: Interestingly DVAC was formed around the same time as several other key Dayton arts groups – the Muse Machine is 30 this year, the Human Race Theatre Company is 35 and DVAC is 25. So all three of us, boom-boom-boom, and all still here. So besides exhibitions and education programs, in year two we decided to host an art auction, and that's how our signature event was born.

Q: Ah, the annual DVAC Art Auction. One of our favorite events.

Buttacavoli: Yes, next April will be our 23rd. As the years went by, the event came to take the shape is has now, artists donating pieces of their work and those funds going to run DVAC. And through the years, DVAC has had all the characteristics of a growing community arts center – exhibitions in the gallery and outside of it, helping artists network and get support, teaching them to follow grant opportunities — with a few changes in location, bigger exhibitions, a few artist residencies.

Q: Who have all the directors been?

Buttacavoli: Pam Houk, then Paula Recko, Kay Koeniger and Jane Black. In December, I'll have been here five years. This is our third location – after the Biltmore, we were at 40 W. Fourth St., in what is now known again as the Grant-Deneau Tower. We've been in our current space at 118 N. Jefferson St. for 11 years. Jane was the director when we moved; she and Linda Lombard raised over $300,000 for the move.

Q: The gallery on Fourth was nice, but it was a very tiny space.

Buttacavoli: That's funny, because even though this location is so much bigger, I already want more space.

Q: You mentioned the art auction – what are some other things the organization is known for?

Buttacavoli: We've been doing the holiday "ARTtoBUY" gift gallery for about 10 years. It was designed as a way for member artists to have a gathering place where all their works could be exhibited for sale. We also have the biennial call for entries — every two years, we put out an open call for artists to have an exhibition in the DVAC galleries, either solo or small group shows. It remains one of most important things we do, because it's what artists need for their portfolios and professional growth — shows in good spaces.

Q: Well, that and making some money.

Buttacavoli: You're right. Since I got here, I've talked about the idea of an artist living wage and the need for it. We pay artists a stipend, we document their installation and also provide critical writing about their work from an academic or curator, which is a big deal. Nobody else in the area is doing that on a regular, annual basis for local artists. And we're always looking for ways to make those opportunities a bigger part of what we offer.

Q: Do much partnering with other organizations? It seems essential, these days.

Buttacavoli: Oh yeah. The four main things we do are: produce exhibitions; put on public programming and events; engage in community partnerships; and build artist communities. We've done projects with the Dayton Opera, Dayton Contemporary Dance Company, Stivers School for the Arts, DECA — so much so that we now consider creative partnerships one of the main four things we do. Everything from helping Dayton Children's do an art exhibition to putting art in the mayor's office to helping city of Kettering find art for their new offices to putting on Art in the City, working with the Downtown Dayton Partnership. We worked with the partnership and the Miami Conservancy District last year on the RiverScape mural project. We've worked with the Victoria Theatre Association and Stivers to do our trademark "steamroller prints," where we literally use a steamroller to make huge monoprints. We partner with the Ohio Arts Council on artist workshops and education. You name it.

Q: Talk about the value of the auction, in addition to the money it raises for the organization.

Buttacavoli: Well, it's the best place in town to see what's happening in the local visual arts community. I mean, where else can you go where in one room, in one fell swoop, you see more than 100 works of art by the artists working in the region. Plus 700 partygoers celebrating that fact and most importantly, buying the work.

Q: That’s a lot of art. Plus, you raise a lot of money.

Buttacavoli: About $80,000 a year. But really, the key to understanding the art auction is to think that we've auctioned off from 50 to more than 100 works a year – it's grown over time – so, say an average of 75 works a year for 23 years. All that artwork is out there in people's homes, where it can be seen and enjoyed and enrich peoples' lives. You and your neighbors' homes are chock-full of art because of the DVAC art auction.

Q: It’s where we bought our first local art. We’re a bit overstuffed now.

Buttacavoli: You're not the only one. And that in itself shows that this community validates its visual arts and artists. The arts community lives and breathes through the larger community. It stunned me when I moved to Dayton and discovered that DVAC was so connected to the community – that it got lots of attendance and accolades from visitors, and yet at the same time managed to be fairly cutting-edge. Really, you rarely find that combination in a community arts center.

Q: I guess I hadn’t thought of that. Why not?

Buttacavoli: Well, when you have an museum or gallery you often have a curator or curators there with their specialty, and their reputation rides on that. A community arts center, on the other hand, is traditionally set up to reflect the art of people who live in the community, no matter if they're just starting out on the kitchen table or have a couple of art degrees and solo exhibitions. At DVAC, we have all that in one single exhibition. It's kind of unusual. A community art center's struggle is how to balance all those elements – show good work, and have its members feel happy and fulfilled, and also keep getting funding to keep doing what they're doing. So the trick is to have the community embrace works it hasn't seen before, and to embrace the work of their neighbors as well – and that's something DVAC has attained.

We have an all-local season coming up this year, incidentally, which is the first time we’ve done that in a few years — it’s to make that point, in our 25th anniversary. We’re kicking off with 25 artists from DVAC’s first 25 years, who all worked together in different teams to create new works. It includes Navigations, a 3-person show that is part of the statewide photo biennial, FotoFocus. Next is Katherine Kadish’s solo show – a nationally known and shown painter and printmaker who lives in Yellow Springs.

Then later in the year is the Cline show, which is our university and college art and design invitational, and then and then a solo show by Glen Cebulash, who’s the chair of Wright State’s painting and drawing department.

Q: I miss Barb Cline.

Buttacavoli: She was our longtime, beloved office manager who passed away several years ago. The student show is named in her memory in honor of her dedication to student artists.

Q: Talk about the staff.

Buttacavoli: Small but mighty. Patrick Mauk is my main partner in crime. He's been with DVAC 12 years – he's our gallery manager and his job is the exhibitions and programs, working with artists, making DVAC look and feel really professional for the artists, really cool. When I talk to young students who say they have no time to paint, I brag on Patrick – he does our job and is a great, active painter and printmaker, doing shows and getting awards. Lauren Gleason is our office manager and moral center. She keeps us calm. We contract events, grantwriting amd web/graphic design – we have a new website, too, and are launching a new digital marketing campaign — you should check them out. I've got a great board, some of them with us for years, and they give me an earful all the time — which is what they're supposed to do. So, I have the help and support I need – which is the way DVAC works.

Q: I think it’s the way Dayton works.

Buttacavoli: You're right – it's not just the DVAC way of getting things done. It's the Dayton flavor of things, too – it's a nimble place, if you think and dream it, you can figure out how to do it. When you have a group or a community of people who have different talents and interests and you ask them to do something for the greater good, they're into it.

Q: Got an example?

Buttacavoli: Sure – two of our members, Alexis Larsen and Amy Deal, had a great idea to do a CSA – a "Community Supported Art" project modeled after the Community Supported Agriculture farming collaboratives people are familiar with. You could buy "shares" and you'd get a unique box of art by six local participating artists. We crated the works and had a "harvest party" where folks picked up their "crop." So the idea was Dayton-ish, grassroots, we were asking people to invest in us, and trust us that they'd get a selection of good artists and art for their money – and a lot of people made that leap. We're going to do it again next year. So were also using a new technique to educate about the local art scene and cultivate collectors – while also financially supporting the artists.

Q: Talk about cultivating collectors.

Buttacavoli: Well, there are lots of people in town who are doing it. But it is an education process – not just to create an awareness of what's out there to buy and collect, but also to nurture an appetite for it. To open people up to the joy of owning and buying art, and turning them on to the fun of having something handmade by somebody they may have met on the wall of their home or office. The education is the fun part of what we do.

Q: Is it hard in a market Dayton’s size? We aren’t New York or Chicago.

Buttacavoli: Well, we don't have commercial galleries here that are solely dedicated to promoting artists and selling their work — this just isn't a big enough town to support them — and a lot of the big corporations that used to buy art have left. Also, we're not a big tourist town and a lot of art buying happens when people travel. And a lot of people also have the idea – incorrect, I'd say – that a piece of art has to come from a bigger city or somewhere else to have value and they'll shun the idea of buying from local artists.

Q: So, what’s your general response?

Buttacavoli: I just keep hammering away at pushing the quality and accomplishment of the artists, the quality of the work and the shared responsibility in keeping and building our reputation as an arts-rich city.

Q: You’re a transplant from Florida and Texas. What keeps you here?

Buttacavoli: The ability to do really fun and great things pretty easily. Also, I just like the can-do, roll-up-your-sleeves attitude.

Q: If you could wave a magic wand?

Buttacavoli: I'd love have an ongoing program that commissions artists to create new work. I'd love to create a shared art space with Sinclair, UD and Wright State. I'd love to work with Girls Inc., the teen empowerment program at the YWCA and partner it with MetroParks' community garden and create an arts-based food education program. I'd love to make a public art program work for Dayton. We should have a career institute for artists — and also we're ready for a City Cultural Manager. Yeah. And I'd love to grow our budget and staff.

Q: Parting thoughts?

Buttacavoli: We're trying to build a community of artists and art appreciators here and also considerably outside of Dayton, across the region. The work we do at DVAC is much like what's being done by the Contemporary Arts Center in Cincinnati, at the Pendleton Arts Center in Middletown, the Fitton Arts Center in Hamilton, the Rosewoods Arts Center in Kettering. Arts centers all over the country have missions to get local arts out into the community, and we're part of that network — so we're not just a gallery doing this in isolation — we're deeply connected with how the artist can better our communities. It's more than our mission, it's like we're a whole industry, for gosh sakes.

And we’re looking our impact in 2020. That includes everything — our space and if it still fits our needs, more and major donations, more partnerships, more opportunities and what it would cost to do those things.

Q: Talk about your current space — downtown Dayton has kind of re-merged around you.

A: And we're a part of the fabric of everyone and everything that's happening downtown — but my dream is that people will be clamoring to have more art, more space and more partnerships. And we do need a bigger space, a bigger footprint, to be more a part of the everyday conversations about downtown and life here. We'll be doing visioning with our board in January to figure out how to move forward — but one thing you can say about DVAC is that we'll continue to make it really cool.

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