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Friday, June 29, 2012

RAW artist throwdown at Terminal West

Work by RAW Atlanta artist Lucy Chastain
  • Courtesy RAW
  • Work by RAW Atlanta artist Lucy Chastain
In three years, RAW: natural born artists has grown from an L.A. art party to an international network of artists in 54 cities across the U.S. and an outpost in Brisbane, Australia with plans to expand into Europe and China next year. Tonight, RAW hols its coming out party in Atlanta with Solstice, a showcase highlighting local emerging artists working in film, fashion, music, visual art, performing art, hair and make-up artistry and photography. Part art fair, part fashion show and part concert, RAW's events focus on artists in the first 10 years of their careers and provide them with professional headshots and online portfolios and video profiles. Tonight's event at Terminal West will be hosted by local comic Trey Toler and was organized by Atlanta location director Eleanor Simmons. CL spoke with RAW's L.A.-based founder Heidi Luerra about the organization and how it's managed to grow so quickly with ticket sales as its only source of income.

How did you start RAW?
We stared in March of 2009 and previous to starting RAW I actually had another company that I ran for three years that featured fashion, music and art. And so I kind of made a lot of my mistakes with that company and was able to learn and figure out what I wanted to do exactly from that experience.

What was that company called?
It was called Project Ethos and it was just in Hollywood and it was every couple of months. After running that organization for three years and hosting big showcases, I realized I wanted to keep them small and more intimate and be able to go to several different communities. I was actually in the corporate world for a little while - I worked for CBS, CBS Radio - and was inspired by the fact that radio is syndicated everywhere. So it was a combination of those two things. I'm an artist myself. I grew up in a family of musicians. I paint, have painted since I was a little kid. I had my own clothing line for a while. So this was everything that I loved.

With the previous company, Project Ethos, when I was trying to get my clothing line out there I realized there was just no approachable entity that I could go to. I didn't know how to get started or what to do or how to get my stuff marketed correctly and so I just kind of took matters into my own hands. So RAW kind of came out of several years of experience in doing different things, of course, as everything does. I met my partner, Matthew Klahorst, who is a brilliant web programmer and web developer and he had his own company and was working to create a website where artists could sell their work online and as we started talking further we said, "Why don't we collaborate these two ideas and showcase artists both online and offline and kind of roll that into one because no one is really doing that. They're either one or the other but they're not both." So we put a plan down on paper and we're at the point now where we're like, "Hey, we just did everything we said we were gonna do." And now we're like, "Now what? I guess we go international."

So what is RAW's business model? Because looking at it, how sprawling it is, your're in 54 cities, you're talking about going international, each of these events, it's every month. How did you create a sustainable model that works for you? This is such a huge discussion point in Atlanta, issues of funding and lack thereof. There's tons of upstarts here and people trying to figure out how to be sustainable.
We're totally for artists, by artists. We have no funding since the beginning, we've never had funding. It's been just elbow grease. We don't have any venture capital; we don't have any of that. And I like that personally, 'cause I don't like that type of influence. We get to kind of do what we want to do. But it's definitely a harder path at the end of the day.

Each of the artists to participate in the show is responsible for selling 20 tickets and the tickets are $10 a piece and that's the way that we sustain. So we sustain through ticket sales essentially and everything that goes into our organization goes right back out into building bigger and better things for each of them. We have our end-of-the-year RAWards event that we put a ton of money into and create career-building prize packages for the winner. We're a lot like a nonprofit in a lot of ways, even down to our titles and everything that we do. We actually started out as a nonprofit in the state of California. That was the direction we were heading and then the economy tanked. And arts budgets are the first thing to be cut and arts councils' budgets are the first thing to be cut. And we were like, "We could do better just by boot-strapping, essentially doing it ourselves." And if the artists, if this is something they're interested in, if the community is interested in, we'll know right away. And so we decided to scratch that idea and know that we could kind of do more permanent good being a for-profit organization with a very altruistic mission. We're an extremely mission-driven organization, more than the bottom line for sure. We're always trying to create value for our artists. So that's how we've been able to do it thus far.

Work by RAW Atlanta artist Raz

So why did you choose to come to Atlanta?
Well to be honest, we have heard - and we have people write in to our website and say, "You guys need to be here. You guys need to be here." Just different cities, I mean, we've had people from all over. And we always do research. We see if there's an arts community there, if there are any arts schools. If this is a place where people are creative and what we've found is that a population of people there are always gonna be artists and people who are creative who are expressing themselves in some way, shape or form. So Atlanta was just kind of a no-brainer for us. We actually wanted to launch Atlanta a long time ago. And it took us a long time to find someone as perfect as Eleanor to do it. So we've been pretty picky there. But I think Atlanta is amazing.

Do you make the rounds and visit the other cities for their events?
Yeah, travel is a big part of my job. I like to shake everyone's hands that's ever come into contact with our organization. I think that's really important. I go and meet the venues. I go and meet the directors and the hosts and production assistants and the videographers and the photographers and everyone. It's physically impossible for me myself to got to every single show. It just couldn't even happen in the span of a year if I wanted to. So now we're kind of diversifying the travel and doing little mini trips where I don't get to see every show per se, but I get to see every city. Last year we actually did a nationwide road trip so we covered a lot of ground - 10,000 miles in three and half weeks. Coast-to-coast and back again.

...The first show that I ever threw was gathering all of these creative people from the community that I had come into contact with like, "How come no one knows about your music? How come no one knows about your art? It's ridiculous, y'know. I want to help you somehow." But at the same time I was in L.A. and there's tons of stuff going on constantly but there wasn't someone stepping up to the plate and actually saying, "I'm going to create a creative network for everyone to benefit from."

Solstice hosted by Trey Toler. $10-$15. Fri., June 29, 8 p.m.-midnight. Terminal West, 887 Marietta St., Suite C. www.rawartists.org/atlanta/solstice.

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