Getting to the “art” of the matter

SAGE celebrates their five year anniversary, reflects on pasts and looks to the future

By Rachel Sankey

SAGE’s board members (from left to right): Leah Norem, Stacey Burkhart, EJ Miller-Larson (laptop), Betsy Wijas and Melissa Borhtz. SAGE is celebrating their five year anniversary on March 1st. Painting in background by Kendra Bilotto

Imagine three artists, sipping coffee, discussing their work – like a visual artists algonquin round table. That’s sort of how SAGE began. What started as a trio meeting at Kavarna Coffeehouse talking about the arts in 2017, transformed into an online and in-person group with more than 470 people.

SAGE, which stands for Share, Accept, Grow and Encourage, is a nonprofit arts advocacy organization centered around supporting local artists in the area.

When the meetings first started, Founder Stacey Burkhart said members would meet in various places, from local businesses to Kavarna’s former flex space inside their shop, which is now Sparkhaus Vintage, and the former Eclectic Market.

Now it has a space of its own. In November 2021, SAGE signed the lease on its own brick and mortar space, right above Ned Kelly’s bar on Washington Street.

As SAGE reaches its five year anniversary, Burkhart and the rest of the board reflect on what the organization has accomplished, and what they want to see happen, both from themselves and the community.

The org

SAGE’s board consists of Betsy Wijas, Melissa Bohrtz, Leah Norem, EJ Miller-Larson and Stacey Burkhart.

Unlike nonprofit art galleries, Burkhart said it’s important to note that SAGE is an arts advocacy organization. Though SAGE plans to host solo shows and other one-night events for artists, she said the focus is mainly on artist support. For example, the organization is in the process of receiving funding for it’s peer-to-peer mentorship program, which would allow for artists to receive help from the board, who are artists themselves. Help could include access to computers to create personal websites for their work, streaming art workshops from SAGE’s location and having a one-on-one meetup with a board member, such as Miller-Larson, SAGE’s diversity, inclusion and accessibility specialist.

The board emphasized that it’s important to have tough conversations with artists on what it is like to not get accepted into an art show and other similar matters.

Burkhart said it’s also important to make sure what they’re doing is different from other arts organizations.

“I think the question of how we are different is something that we constantly ask ourselves, when we look to launch different programs, when we look to do things in the community, it’s making sure that no one is already doing it,” she said. “I think that it creates a thriving arts and cultural community when we have arts and culture organizations actually being conscious of what it is the other is doing.”

Tough conversations

Looking back at how far the organization has come, Burkhart said SAGE had reached its exhaustion point a few times including when it became a nonprofit.

“How can we create an impact?” Burkhart said. “How can we stand on a rooftop and scream ‘SAGE’ a million times, you know, and we had ideas like that. And it was exhausting… What we have identified is that the folks that support the arts and culture community in the Green Bay area are already a part of the arts and culture community… and while there’s nothing wrong with that, the reach is limited.”

Burkhart said it is crucial to acknowledge the nonprofit arts community and the artists themselves are not charity, and SAGE works with artists to help them realize how much their work is worth.

“A big problem is that people view art as a side hustle or a hobby and not a full time job,” Burkhart said. “So they’re more inclined to ask an artist to do something for free because ‘Oh, they must have a real job. They’re making money somewhere else.’”

Miller-Larson and Burkhart said SAGE has a heavy focus on accessibility and accommodation for artists, especially during the pandemic. Miller-Larson works exclusively remotely and attends all meetings and presentations virtually, and those who wish to work with SAGE are now able to do the same.

EJ Miller-Larson interacting virtually at the Saturday farmer’s market downtown. Miller-Larson is the diversity, inclusivity and accessibility specialist for SAGE. Tania Nelson photo

Artists who wish to host a workshop virtually that doesn’t have the means to are able to use SAGE’s new streaming setup, courtesy of Sean Bowers from Creative Edge Productions and Edge VR Arcade. Bowers has worked with SAGE previously for the Ope Network, where artists were able to create a live Facebook home shopping network for their art.

“We’ve just continued our relationship… (Burkhart) reached out for this and I love artists and the art community,” Bowers said.
Despite the amount of arts organizations and communities within the Green Bay area, Burkhart said that there is a disconnect between them, as well as a disconnect between the community and the artist. Burkhart said when SAGE presented at the 100 Women Who Care conference last November, she asked if anyone in the room could name a local artist. She said the answers were next to none.

“We need to go back,” Burkart said. “We need to assess the history of the arts and culture in this community. We need to understand what the dynamic was to get us where we are today. We can’t just look forward.”

On SAGE’s end, if a plan or program that is created doesn’t follow through as expected, the organization is willing to admit failure, and make changes from there.

“We’ve always been able to evolve,” Burkart said. “We don’t get stuck on something if it doesn’t work. We get back up and we come up with a different idea.”

Artist trading card success

SAGE has also seen success with their artist trading card program which, Norem said, has been running for more than a year during COVID-19. It’s free and open for everyone to participate in, and she said those who participate will send their cards to her. From there, Norem said she divides the cards up and sends them back out to the artists. The cards contain photos of artists’ work and participants are able to add contact information on their cards if they’d like.

“It shows that you don’t have to do grandiose things in order to establish a connection,” Burkhart added. “I mean, because it’s original art from all of these artists. I have yet to listen to anybody that’s participated in the Artist Trading Card program and didn’t say ‘that was really fun.’”

Within the four walls

Since signing the lease in November, the members and other volunteers have painted and prepared the new space.

SAGE’s new physical location includes three side rooms that lead to a backroom with large windows that overlook Washington Street. Burkhart said the side rooms will be used for the organization’s peer-to-peer mentorship program, art supply storage and an office. The main and back rooms will be used for events and workshops, such as solo exhibits and more.

The back room in SAGE’s new location. This room will be used for workshops and other events. Rachel Sankey photo

The hallway between the main room and the back room will host a space for the LAB (Little Art Boutique), which will provide art from local artists for purchase. Currently, the LAB is only online.

Since all members of SAGE are volunteers, Burkhart said the space will not have a regular set of hours.

“You’re not gonna see this location have regular hours of operation,” she said. “And the regular hours will be for the artist to come in here… we chose this location because we didn’t want to be that walk in retail space. We want it to be that gem that was hiding somewhere and you had to know that we were here.”

Looking ahead

The wall in the farthest right room in SAGE’s new location is full of art, and more importantly, mirrors. Burkhart said SAGE’s theme for this year is “creative reflection.”

“So with the theme being creative reflection, I would love for the artists to feel comfortable expressing themselves more through their art, that we see the artists in the art, that we see art that makes us uncomfortable and that we see art that’s symbolic of personal experience and expression,” Burkhart said.

SAGE’s mirror wall in the new office space. The organization’s theme for 2022 is “creative reflection.” Stacey Burkhart photo

As SAGE continues to prepare its new physical space, Burkhart said that the mindset is to involve as many local businesses and organizations as possible for it’s one night only events and beyond.

The first one-night event is set for March 26, and is a solo show for artist Laura Pahlas, founder of Heartwork Studios, whose work is currently displayed at Kavarna Coffeehouse.

To continue working towards a more diverse and inclusive art community, Miller-Larson, an Indigenous, non-binary artist, said, “having someone who can represent (diverse communities) or who can see them on a board like SAGE would bring those kinds of opportunities to different communities. And not only offering artists in those communities opportunities, but offering the green bay community as a whole the opportunity to see those artists that they wouldn’t otherwise see.”

As for 2022 specifically, Burkhart said SAGE doesn’t have a set list of plans for their one-night events. Any events that are presented to the board will filter through Miller-Larson first for diversity, inclusion and accessibility.

“It’s really important that we are truly a board of artists working for artists,” Burkhart said, “and that in and of itself is different.”

Rachel Sankey is the Arts and Entertainment Reporter of Green Bay City Pages. She can be reached via email at [email protected]

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