More than a few artists struggle to make a living from their creativity; putting paint to canvas or giving voice to notes does not always lead to self-sufficiency, and rarely to riches.
Georgia Cassimatis finds little discomfort pursuing the business side of the arts.
When her attempt to get into an arts high school didn’t work out, she pivoted to an interest in many things economic and pursued a degree in business management at Keene State College. There, she combined her lifelong love of the arts with a strong financial acumen, first running a mobile art gallery. This involved traveling the region and selling friends’s art from a booth at music and other fairs. Under her 10-foot-by-10-foot tent, the traveling art sales business was an important proving ground for her.
“I had a collective of artists of 20 different types,” Cassimatis said. “It actually was a gallery.” That experience left her with a realization: “I could use my business background in a way to combine art in the business world.”
In addition to a business degree, Cassimatis earned a graduate degree from Antioch University in Sustainable Development and Climate Change in 2015, yet again adding to a portfolio built on things meant to last.
Never resting, the 32-year-old has since engaged in several significant local arts endeavors, including ownership of 17ROX, a for-profit loft for artists; running The Friends of Public Art, a non-profit advocate for incorporating art in public spaces; and as a lead volunteer with the Walldogs community mural effort, which resulted in 16 outdoor paintings throughout Keene’s downtown, each depicting a piece of the region’s history.
Her efforts have earned accolades, including a 2019 Trendsetter Award from the Business Journal of Greater Keene, Brattleboro and Peterborough, and now a Ruth and James Ewing Arts Award in the highly competitive Community Engagement in the Arts category.
17ROX, which operates in the black, includes 10 artist studios located at 17 Roxbury St. in downtown Keene. The units are priced affordably, and until the novel coronavirus struck, had a waiting list.
“I built it in such a way that it is profitable. It’s not a money-making tycoon business,” she said. “I’ve been purposely setting the rent low and have been criticized for not charging more and paying myself.”
While asking for under-market rents may seem counter to a typical business approach, Cassimatis is a devotee of the B Corp business model, through which company profits are reinvested into community benefits. This philosophy fits closely with her Antioch degree and that of her part-time employer, W.S. Badger, a certified B Corporation, where she works in large-order fulfillment.
“B Corp is in my DNA,” she said.
In a 2019 story in The Sentinel, Cassimatis described the 17ROX studio experience as one that has been equal parts collaborative and innovative for her tenants.
“What was unexpected is that everyone is taking their own responsibility for their own little studio,” she told a Sentinel reporter. “They’re doing things without me knowing, and that’s great. I don’t even know what’s going on or what to expect when I come in.”
Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, 17ROX artists had been providing community art courses, including eight-week Drawing 101, Painting 101 and Youth Drawing 101 offerings.
“The classes provided another revenue stream for the artists where one didn’t exist, and essentially created a job where one once was not,” she said. “These artists were able to take home 100 percent of the proceeds.”
She added, “We are hoping to get our teachers teaching again as soon as it is safe and everyone is comfortable. Online is just not feasible at this time. Everyone is looking forward to the time when we can meet in a six-foot-apart group in the future.”
This “build it and they will come” philosophy seems to be a core principle for Cassimatis, whose devotion to public art is demonstratively changing the cityscape in Keene. The success of the Walldogs project, termed the Magical History Tour, last June is perhaps the most visible example. Walldog muralists from around the world converge on communities each year to paint on building facades, depicting the histories of those towns and cities. Keene landed the Walldogs in 2019 (no simple task), and the resulting work adorning 16 buildings is an audacious collection of art for the public to appreciate.
“Walldogs, that was awesome,” she said. “Still is.”
Cassimatis was among a core of volunteers who handled marketing, fundraising, logistics and “weekend-of” activities for some 200 painters and 300 volunteers. It was her element.
“It was one of those bucket-list projects,” she remembers thinking. “It would be pretty cool if we could have a mural festival. Then you meet someone like Peter [Poanessa, a leader in bringing the group to Keene along with Judy Rogers of Prime Roast Coffee Brewers] who is ranting and raving about a mural festival, and someone refers him to me, and I say, ‘I’m in.’”
Her non-profit — Friends of Public Art — devoted all of its time, volunteers and resources to the project, which was a two-year odyssey.
“It was one of those dream jobs, which you think, maybe in 10 years I could be involved in something like that,” she said.
There is much more on Cassimatis’ to-do list, including helping to design a new skateboard park for the city. Fundraising is taking place now on that project. Public art will be part of the design, which will feature a donor wall on which skateboards will be mounted and inscribed with donors’ names.
Cassimatis is driving, through her collaborative energy and eye for boldness, to set an agenda for public art. She finds a willingness among many to join in that effort.
“I think Keene is really unique,” she said. “There’s an organic feeling to the way we’re doing this. I feel grateful that I was selected to come to the forefront and work on something that was a need for the community.”
As for future projects, she’s working with Local Crowd Monadnock to raise funds for a sculpture at the Dillant-Hopkins Airport. And keep an eye on local traffic rotaries… While many of us see these as obstacles to negotiate while driving, she sees ideal places to display public art.
“Think about Cheshire County as a larger compass, a larger map,” she said. “The roundabouts are everywhere. [This could] be somewhat of a roundabout art tour.”
Sticking to business, Cassimatis can be counted on to leave the local art scene greatly enhanced — and sustained.