By Gwendolyn Holbrow
Love and money: couldn’t everyone use a little more? Every year at this time, the Artist’s Valentine offers its unique blend of both. If you’re an artist of any kind (even the kindergarten kind), the Artist’s Valentine offers you the chance to create valentine cards quirkier than Hallmark’s wildest dreams and donate them for sale to an appreciative public. Through the Artist’s Valentine you can connect with and support other artists, show your work to your peers in a friendly, non-judgmental atmosphere and/or to well known curators and gallery owners for comment, enjoy a superb dinner in an elegant historic setting, and be eligible for an absolutely-no-strings-attached cash grant.
It’s not only for artists, of course. The original valentines, ranging from traditional paper hearts and flowers through jewelry, pottery and books, to wood, concrete and welded steel, have won the organization an enthusiastic customer base as well “We have very very loyal buyers. People, like Filene’s Basement, who line up before the sale,” says Sally Reed, one of the group’s founders. Some are collectors, hoping to snap up bargains by well-known artists. Others may be viewing and buying original art for the first time, but all appreciate the vast array of valentines too unconventional for the local mall.
All valentines submitted are accepted, but in some cases segregation is necessary: when a piece is deemed too risqué for young eyes, it is sequestered in the Smut Corner. “Inevitably, we receive some erotica, and we certainly want to display it and make it available, but people bring children,” explains Reed. “So we have a tall cabinet, and you have to be tall enough to see over the edge to indulge in the Smut Corner.”
The Artist’s Valentine is the lovechild of three artists, founding mothers Katharine Bell, Cary Hewitt and Sally Reed, who conceived it at a dinner party in 1995. And the father? It’s hard to think of a more unlikely candidate, but Hewitt credits Jesse Helms. “Funding for the arts had been slashed and slashed,” explains Bell. “Artists are among the poorest, but they’re always being asked to donate,” according to Reed. “Artists are poor and generous. Wouldn’t it be nice if some of that good will could come back to them?” “We asked, ‘How can artists help each other? What holiday is left?’ Valentine’s Day: it’s a match made in heaven,” adds Hewitt.
So they discussed what they hated about applying for grants (application fees, being judged by a resume or statement, having to make up a project budget and prove need, the lack of feedback) and devised a grant program to avoid all of them. To be eligible for the Artist’s Valentine grant, an artist need only donate at least one valentine for sale. To apply for the grant, submit eight slides of recent work. That’s it. The founders enlisted more artists, and eventually additional committee members Faith Cross, Madeleine Lord and Claire Macy, and started making valentines. Since then, they have put in hundreds of hours of volunteer time, recruited a series of prestigious jurors for the selection process (this year’s juror is Nick Capasso, curator at the DeCordova), and distributed thousands of dollars in grants to dozens of grateful artists.
The Valentine Sale and Party is a one-day affair at Paul Matisse’s Kalliroscope Gallery in Groton. Matisse (yes, he is related) has been called the godfather of the Artist’s Valentine. In addition to being the first grant recipient, he has hosted both the sale and the annual artist’s potluck dinner every year since the beginning. About 25 artists attended the first dinner, and since then the number has tripled to 75, the maximum his converted church can seat. Many artists call the convivial December dinner their favorite part of the organization, with its opportunities to share slides and stories and build a sense of community. Matisse gives all credit to the committee, claiming, “All I’ve really done is say yes,” to their requests, but his support has been fundamental to the Artist’s Valentine’s success. “I love the whole thing, it’s so completely non-commercial,” he says. Many of the hundreds of contributing artists agree, making valentines just for the fun of it, without ever intending to apply for the grants.