Five Questions with Cynthia Noble
Art on theMart
by Camilla Mikolajewska
Cynthia Noble by Olga Nabatova
“When commissioning our own artists, we’re looking for unicorns. Artists who have the
technical chops to manifest their
vision on the
platform but also
have a very resolved
and sophisticated aesthetic.”
A literal light at the end of the tunnel—that is at least one way you could describe what Art ontheMart has been for Chicago’s arts community. Art on theMart, the largest permanent digital installation in the world, has provided a sense of normalcy to Chicagoans in search of socially distanced artistic experiences. Situated in the heart of the city, this unique production casts 2.5 acres worth of digital projections onto the facade of a historical building, featuring different types of art from a wide variety of artists and organizations. They even helped the class of 2020 celebrate their graduation, at a time when so many were disappointed to miss out on that milestone, and they will be doing the same for the class of 2021. I had the opportunity to sit down with Cynthia Noble, Executive Director of Art on theMart, where we discussed their curatorial process, their constant support to the community and what their productions have meant to the people of Chicago.
How have your resources been redirected to the people in your immediate community during the pandemic?
In 2020 we tried to connect with our community as much as possible. We did that through public service announcements, stay home, save lives, but we also celebrated the graduating class of 2020. We are planning on doing the same for the class of 2021. We knew early on that it was going to be important to communicate with people. We worked very closely with the city of Chicago to be able to re-open in the fall of 2020, making sure it was a safe experience according to the guidelines. Our role is to amplify the work of others. We have 2.5 acres of a blank slate to work with, where we can amplify what is important to our community. Our partnerships are also key to this project. In the fall program we wanted to showcase the work of our partners, such as the Nutcracker by the Joffrey Ballet, the Art Institute of Chicago’s exhibits Bisa Butler: Portraits and Monet and Chicago, and Arts of Life, an organization that works with artists with disabilities. Three different organizations, but all very important to the city. It was nice to bring these works to life and to allow those organizations to have their moment to shine in a time where they were very limited.
What makes Art ontheMart unique? How was that affected by the pandemic?
We’re unique in terms of the singularity of scale, and the outdoor location in the heart of the city. It is a city of neighbourhoods, where we can all convene together, an opportunity to be a place of convergence. The building was built in the 1930’s in the Art Deco style and is a very salient and historic site in Chicago. We were not affected by the closures that occurred this winter as we’re always closed from January to March to do some maintenance on the projection booths. Typically we’re open 9 months, 7 days a week. What was not planned was the closure last summer during the pandemic. We’re not immune to the guidelines, but we do have an advantage to be able to stay open while others cannot. We were able to have a cultural experience with the public during the initial closures. When we finally understood what the guidelines were, we had to team up with our security team to figure out how we can make it happen. We had to keep an eye on how many people could be in a given area at a time. We were at capacity every night, so luckily we had the opportunity to re-configure people to different parts of the city, and people even came in their cars!
We were so grateful to receive so much positive media coverage, it was a very positive step forward for everyone. Our audience also loved the organizations we sponsored. We have come to understand our public in so many ways. It doesn’t only mean on site attendees, but our online attendees as well. We began live streaming our programs and had an incredible amount of engagement. We’ve also started to explore how we can create an online experience for those who can never be in person. So that might be being able to see a documentation, or perhaps a Virtual Reality experience. The plan is to have an ongoing hybrid experience making it accessible for people at every time.
What is your advice to young emerging professionals looking to network and position themselves for a post-pandemic world?
It’s true what they say that as much as things change, the more they remain the same. Networking is all about building relationships, and while that may look different in terms of the tools we use, at the same time it’s about being curious about one another, taking care of one another and paying it forward. This has always been the case and more so now. We have all found through this experience of relative separation and isolation that we are able to build great things together.
What are you looking for when seeking out new artists?
In addition to working with our partners we also commission our own artists. Our 2021 calendar is a mix of those things and typically you would see individual artist work and partner work. When commissioning our own artists we’re looking for unicorns. Artists who have the technical chops to manifest their vision on the platform but also have a very resolved and sophisticated aesthetic. You don’t always find that in one person and it’s not always a time based media artist. It can be a painter who finds a team to digitize their artwork and is open to that idea. It is someone who is fearless and dreams big. This isn’t just a new platform, it can be a new medium. Looking at the site itself, there are so many factors or formal concerns that the artists we’ve worked with have to consider. They have to think of the site specifically, as opposed to thinking in translation. They are more-so looking at this as a new medium to create something new.