Inside the intimate setting of Primary Project's gallery in Little River, a large group gathered. Bodies spilled over from the lit-up interior into the outdoor lawn — drinks in one hand and a pseudo laundromat ticket in the other. Strangers stood shoulder to shoulder while others took up residence on the cool concrete steps.
Dejha Carrington, cofounder of the art-collector network Commissioner, stepped out in front of the crowd. Microphone in hand, she was ready to introduce the evening's main event: the official launch of Commissioner season two with local artist A.G.
That memory is from a time when the words "social" and "distant" were rarely used in the same sentence — and never together as a worn-out phrase.
A year has gone by since that night in Little River, and Carrington and her team are celebrating the recent conclusion of their second year while simultaneously planning for Commissioner's most remarkable season yet.
Commissioner is a membership program that offers art lovers and aspiring collectors the opportunity to acquire reasonably priced works. Beyond acquisitions, members are welcomed into a community of like-minded individuals and treated to exclusive art events year-round.
Carrington started the program in 2018 after she was asked about collecting art. The mission was made clear, and she asked herself: How can we build a community around art collecting knowing that this is a necessity, that this is a need?
She began to think of her own experiences in the art world, including her time as a publicist for Oolite Arts (formerly ArtCenter/South Florida), her travels while working for a Miami Beach public-relations firm, her current role as vice president of communications for YoungArts, and her love of art and collecting.
"We [as a community] need to think about how we build capacity to fund artists differently," Carrington says of her epiphany.
Commissioner thrives because of its members. The $500 quarterly fees are collected by the organization and used to commission exclusive works from local artists.
"Season one was a huge vote of confidence," Carrington tells New Times. "It also let us know that people were looking into how they can have a direct hand in contributing, supporting, and investing in artists. We found a price point that really works in the way that it sustains both the commissioned artworks as well as the majority of our programming and storytelling."
Season-two programming included a workshop with renowned photographer Johanne Rahaman, a gallery visit and talk with gallerist David Castillo, and a virtual sculpture-making session with ceramics artist Kira Tippenhauer.
Although most of the programming for season two was conceptualized early on, the Commissioner team needed to restrategize in March after the pandemic shut down the city.
"It was jarring at first," Carrington admits. "The first thing we thought of was the well-being of our own families and then our Commissioner members. Then we started thinking about what we as a community could do to bring new streams of revenue to local artists as much as we could."
Ultimately, Carrington and her team opted to use funds that had been dedicated to events for a new, unplanned commissioned piece by artist Gavin Perry for current season-two members and season-one alumni.
"The ethos we've been building since day one was put into practice during this time of crisis, and in doing that, it became clear to us that our job was going to be to invest in as many artists as possible," she says.
One misconception Carrington says she first heard regarding the pandemic was that it was going to be a productive time for artists.
"We know that's not true, especially because artists already exist on the economic fringes of our society," she clarifies. "We as Commissioner felt that we had to dismantle some of the myths that were going around in terms of artist behaviors during COVID-19."
Through informational sessions, Commissioner reminded the public that artists are people too — people who are dealing with adjusting to life during a global pandemic.
"It's unfair to expect artists to be creating during this time," she says.
But despite the restrictive environment, Carrington says she has witnessed a new trend emerge on the art scene.
"So much is happening virtually, and I've seen an increased focus on the artistic ecology," she reports. "People are starting to see how the artistic landscape is really interdependent. Artists are using the virtual space to collaborate with other artists, and I'm seeing a lot of organizations reach out and start building relationships with artists."
As a way to reach a broader audience and stay afloat in an economy that feels increasingly suffocating, artists are expanding their catalogs and creating more pieces at lower price points. There has also been an increase in online auctions, Carrington says, and artists are selling more merchandise like shirts and stickers.
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"I do think that folks who are interested in supporting artists are more inclined to buy now because the traditional gatekeeping of an intimidating gallery isn't there when you're shopping online," she adds. "There's a certain level of accessibility that happens on the internet."
For Commissioner's third season, members can expect more online programming.
"We'll keep on thinking about the tactile, the art, how it feels, and also what socially-distant events might look like from a very creative space," Carrington says. "Not your typical markers on the ground, but how we can work with artists to reimagine what performance, or what a visual art experience might be like in a safe, socially distant space."
Commissioner season three launches in September; visit commissioner.us to join the waitlist.