Today is the 5-year anniversary of my “Independence Day,” also known as the day I left my corporate job to start my own business.
It’s hard to know where to begin to express how this feels. It’s an immense milestone–36% of small businesses make it here–and it’s also become my everyday. There were many times during the first two years that it felt like it could end any moment, like the slog was just too long, too unpredictable. Job opportunities, solicitors, and recruiters on LinkedIn were enticing. And, it all felt incredibly lonely. Sometimes, it seemed like the one thing keeping me in the game was that I couldn’t bring myself to stop without knowing how it all would turn out, if I could just keep up the stamina to stay in longer.
I’m glad I kept on. At some point, the “what-ifs” faded away. I found my community. The leaps from project-to-project became less disparate as my business’ infrastructure caught up with my vision. The scale of the projects began to match those dream-filled journal entries I wrote early on–that I want to create cultural cornerstones and landmarks that set a high bar for what the arts could mean to us in our daily environments, while also increasing access to shared, creative experiences.
My business has also grown to where every day, I feel more capable of affecting the changes I wished for in my own emerging years as an artist. Education and access have always been important to me. I’ve landed projects large enough not just to transform space, but also to hire other artists, contractors, and paid interns. 18 interns–high school to college age–have come through my program since I’ve started. I’ve prioritized diverse hiring, because a strong ecosystem requires diversity. The US arts industry (especially the museum/gallery industry) is 88% white, 12% people of color, and mostly men, with only half of one percent representation of women of color. Wisconsin ranks 48th in the nation for arts funding. The US ranks last among developed nations. Any “business expert” would tell you that the above market research shows it’s a bad idea to go into an arts business. There is no space for you. But as a woman of color and full-time artist, I see these odds as an opportunity for growth and change. The culture is overdue for a change. If a young, scrappy art studio can prioritize diversity, creativity, and value for creative labor, then long-established, larger institutions can do it, too.
Which brings me to my final point, and announcement. My practice has grown, and my roots are deepening to accommodate. The themes of this year, for me, have been about identifying the Uncommon and Claiming Space. Metaphorical–and literal–space. I’ve moved into a large industrial studio Common Wealth Development’s Main Street Industries downtown. I’m co-hosting an opening with Giant Jones Brewing Company for Madison Gallery Night, Friday, October 4, at 6 pm, which will be the public’s first look at the new studio. Come join me to celebrate and support the local, diverse businesses. Come join me as we say, we are here to claim space. We are here to cultivate the role of the arts in a community’s ecosystem. We are here to define a creative economy that works for all of us.
Thank you for joining Jenie Gao Studio on this adventure so far. This is only the beginning.