Sezio Provides Curation for the Common Culture
While municipal museums and concert halls have been struggling with both corporate fundraising and cultural relevance in recent history, there are emergent arts initiatives gaining a following for their explosive visibility. A museum might produce just three major shows each year, but upon closer inspection, there is easily a gallery showing in some part of your city every weekend. Zack Nielsen wants to help you find them.
"The emerging artists level—this middle ground—is vastly underserved in the nonprofit arts funding," he says. "You look at all the grants and donations, it's toward early childhood education, or toward the big institutions, but no one's bridging that gap. And that's exactly the niche that we want to be in."
Zack arrived in San Diego on the heels of several college friends, "writers and musicians and filmmakers and whatnot," who had collected in the salty, sunny neighborhood of Ocean Beach. "They were kind of operating as an artist collective under the name Sezio, but they'd never really done anything [as a group]," he says. "They'd just kind of meet on a weekly basis to talk about the projects each other was working on, and help each other out."
Zack mounted the first Sezio art show in his Ocean Beach home, clearing the walls and floor for showing space, constructing a stage in his backyard, reproducing CDs and screenprinted t-shirts to give away to the 100 friends they invited to the show. Events continued for the next two years, a hobby project for the artists in the collective, promoted by word of mouth, a few posters and some magnets that could be found on neighborhood refrigerators.
In 2008, however, he starting looking at San Diego's creative scene as a whole, noting that there were many artist groups staging events in a similar vein. The few that received any notice in the local weeklies—City Beat, the Reader—were buried by the sheer volume of events listed in such compendia.
"The amount of art and music being created in the city was vastly undercovered, and not covered in a Web 2.0 way, to give people any taste of it."
It was then that Zack and his friends began to seriously consider publishing a comprehensive website. "But none of us realized the day we launched that website it would turn into a full-time job," he chuckles, gently. To establish themselves as a reliable resource, they had to be constantly posting new content. As their art events multiplied and their website demanded more, Sezio took the initial steps towards seeking nonprofit status under the hopes that this validation would make it easier to secure seed funding. It was an effort that took them through most of 2009.
Their mission statement—"We provide resources, exposure and community support to emerging artists and musicians through a variety of new media, events, retail and community programs"—presented healthy appeal to the IRS. But their local paradigm was not so friendly. Zack refers testily, although gently, to the "five suits downtown who decide who gets funded. They don't know their demographic, they don't know who they're catering to." He blames it on obliviousness, combined with a stubbornness against changing or asking for help. "They have the same blank checks written to the same organizations for the last twenty years. But what's funny is the same organizations that are getting those checks—all the museums in Balboa Park, for example—they're banging on our door, asking us to do an event, partner with them, because they have no connection with the youth."
Part of the stubbornness he encounters in city arts and culture committee meetings may result from the appearance presented by the Sezio blog. There is nothing earnest or do-gooder about it—the format is sleek, the verbage laconic, and the media links plentiful. It invites the viewer to pay more attention to the individual artists than to the mission as a whole. Which is cool, as long as you're not intimidated by coolness.
Zack asks a good question: "Why should a nonprofit be boring, bland, and unattractive?" Fair enough; maybe we just expect that of organizations that solicit our funds for the greater good. But, he counters, "Most of them are not presenting art, music and culture in a desirable manner. When it comes down to it, our website is a glorified blog of everything that we love." Can they help it if what they love happens to be cool and visually appealing?
Ultimately, Sezio seeks to bypass the established order. "How I'm trying to set up everything with us is to be completely independent of that system." He chalks the struggles of municipal arts venues to bad business planning. "I would like to run a business in this nonprofit shell, and do badass stuff and get some money for it, but also be self-sufficient." His approach includes sales of t-shirts, screen-printed by Sezio's stable of artists, to local retail darlings such as Buffalo Exchange and Hunt & Gather, as well as a donor gift package that offers an original t-shirt and a discount card honored at the city's hotter venues. He has forged a thriving community membership program that links arms with the frontlines of San Diego's culture dealers. Karl Strauss Brewery provides beer for most of the events, and Tim Mays of the Casbah provides space and promotion; in return, Sezio coordinates events and media that promote these businesses.
With their event schedule and media curation well in hand, Sezio has recently been investing effort into programs that plug working artists into community education programs. They plan to do two workshops this year with ARTS and with the Children's Museum, likely to involve screen-printing and instruction in the use of Garage Band. Programs like these, he continues, keep them from being simply "party planners."
In both outreach and event planning, Sezio abides by the ethos that no two events should be the same, which makes it hard to describe a typical Sezio scene. However, Zack tells the story of a 2009 event called Live @ Luce Loft, which divided ten emerging local music acts into drastically different pairs—indie groovers Swim Party with the Appalachia-inflected Silent Comedy, the dreamy pop of Black Mamba with the garage rockers of Writer. The open warehouse space was filed with couches sourced off Craigslist and the bands played their mismatched billings for five nights. The result, besides a blissed-out week of live music, was that "the whole music scene got smaller," he reports. Diehards for one local band were introduced to new loves, and the odd pairings resulted in friendships and creative collaborations among the bands.
Zack is often approached by artistic groups who want Sezio's backing for an event, whom he chooses to turn away. Theatre, for example, isn't a medium they are inclined to embrace. Nothing personal, though. "That's the internet these days—everything's getting more and more specific." His interest in "stoking out this one group of people" is, in fact, Sezio's greatest strength. In selecting carefully what and who it chooses to promote, the collective creates a clearly defined voice in the broader arts conversation. And Sezio's success leaves the door open for similarly focused collectives to proliferate here. If, like Sezio, they concentrate on doing one thing well, San Diegans should have plenty of options, and no problem finding them.
Read more about what Sezio has been up to in their recent overview of 2010. Image: The Dodos w/ Cuckoo Chaos during Four Day Weekend. Photo by Carly Ealy.