(Monday, February 16th, 2009)

Ashley Howard

ashley_howard1I don’t know many people who do not appreciate the arts. Music, theatre, dancing, architecture and design, writings, fashion, food, art shows—we can’t escape it. Creativity is everywhere. It’s in our cars; it’s on billboards; it’s on TV; it’s what we wear; it’s what we think about; it’s what we look forward to; it’s a way of living; it’s what we do when we can’t afford to do anything else; it’s a welcomed vacation from our everyday lives. Without art our lives would be dull, boring, uninspiring, without sound and color—truth be told, I can’t imagine it. So every time I hear another legislature group moving to cut the arts budgets, I cringe.

On Friday, February 6, the U.S. Senate, during their consideration of the economic recovery bill, approved an egregious amendment offered by Sen. Tom Coburn (R-OK) that stated “None of the amounts appropriated or otherwise made available by this Act may be used for any casino or other gambling establishment, aquarium, zoo, golf course, swimming pool, stadium, community park, museum, theater, art center, and highway beautification project.” Unfortunately, the amendment passed by a wide vote margin of 73-24, and surprisingly included support from many high profile Senators including Chuck Schumer of New York, Dianne Feinstein of California, Barbara Mikulski of Maryland, Bob Casey of Pennsylvania, Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota, Russ Feingold of Wisconsin, and several other Democratic and Republican Senators including Bill Nelson and Mel Martinez. Upon finding out this tidbit of news, I couldn’t help but wonder: are we ready for this? Are we ready to take away the very thing that gives most of us life?

I hope not.

I met Ashley through a friend at a random lunch. She is the youngest employee at the Orlando Museum of Art, which is something I took comfort in. Prior to meeting her, I had thought those employed there all might have been working towards their second retirement. I now sleep better knowing that I was wrong about this.

Ashley, at the age of 24, also owns a freelance graphic design company and is marrying a long time friend and heavy metal musician (who currently tours with Slip Knot). Her passion for the arts is something to be desired. And during these economic times, I think we need more passionate people to speak up—we cannot afford to lose our arts programs. I think it’s high time we ask ourselves: ART … what have we done for you lately?

Jana: What is happening with the arts right now?
Ashley: What’s happening in the art world is massive budget cuts due to the economy. Due to these budget cuts, jobs have been lost, programming has been limited and projects have been put on hold. I think a lot of it has to do less with money—although money is important—but more to do with people’s perceptions of its importance. The image of art in society is so different to each person. And what people believe is important, especially in a bad economy. People question where art plays a role in all of this—it’s a form of entertainment and education. Just because the economy is bad, people are not going to stop seeking entertainment and ways to enrich their lives. I’ve overheard people talk recently about how art and the cultural aspects of society are perks and not necessities—my neighbor even mentioned it to me yesterday—and it hurts something inside of me to hear that. I feel like my job—the things I do everyday—enrich the lives of so many people, especially children and elderly people. Art is a space and a venue, a way in so many arenas to enrich lives. It’s not just hurt by money but by its perception. It’s not just visual art; it’s movies; it’s entertainment; it’s sound; it’s music. Maybe right-brained people are not aware how much they would miss art if it wasn’t there.

Do you want to talk about what’s happening in Congress about it?
I don’t know much besides the articles that the United Arts Boards are passing around. I don’t want to come across as an expert on the arts side because I’m not one of the people up there making the cuts. Nor am I funding one of the arts programs that are trying to fight this. However, I think it’s important people know how much art affects them and how much a big cut like that will affect their life. Everything right down to schools are going to be effected by this. We all know how bad the economy has hit the educational system. Field trips—as you know—are almost non-existent now. I remember being a kid and thinking how important it was to go to the arts museums and the science center—the world became so much bigger to me then. For that to be removed seems a little bit frightening.

What do you think a world without art would be like?
[Laughs] I think it’d be bleak. We’d all be drones if we couldn’t come home to some form of entertainment. We need creative people around us to make the world more interesting. I don’t think we could live without it.

What’s happening at the Orlando Museum of Art? How is it being affected by the cuts?
The museum is suffering like everything else. I guess the hardest part about being there is remembering it as a kid—how untouchable I thought it to be. It was large and made of granite and it held priceless works of art. Seeing all of that and then seeing it struggle—it’s hard. There are other museums out there but this is the Orlando Museum of Art, the namesake of our city. We do have a decent outreach in our community, but the hard thing with a privately funded institution is that people can only give what they have. It’s not that people don’t want to give; they just can’t now. I hope that changes soon.

Are there enough people going to the museum? Or do you think it’s strictly a funding issue?
I think it’s a little of both. You can only expect what you’re able to offer. I think right now we have some incredible programs for all age groups, but for lack of money to market them it’s tough to get the word out. It’s like the tree that falls in the forest. If nobody’s there—does it exist? I also think that with privately funded institutions people don’t realize that they suffer like corporations do.

What can people do to help the museum?
Come to the museum. One of the most important things about art and cultural institutions is keeping it alive. Come see the shows. You might think, “What is might $8 contribution really going to do?” But if enough people come see us and then come back, the museum can offer so much more. Your contribution might easily support five kids at camp.

Perhaps people feel like they have gone to the OMA once and so they have done their duty. How often are exhibitions changed?
It depends on the year and the show. We are always rotating The Permanent Collection. The museum houses an incredible contemporary graphics collection, a lot of prints, an Andy Warhol. You have to just keep coming back. [Laughs] The show that is going on right now is a glass installation, a 6,000 square foot glass installation. With each view point you can see something different and so I think it could be visited multiple times. It’s more of an experience type show, which is something I don’t think we’ve ever had before.

What is it like to be the youngest person working at the museum?
I think it makes for interesting dynamics. There are people who have been there since its inception, and then there are new young, fresh faces. I think it’s important that institutions have a variety of age groups to challenge each other. It’s a struggle on both ends. There are people who have been there a long time and are not always receptive to change and new ideas. The challenge for the younger people is coming in and being progressive.

What did you go to school in Chicago for?
I went to the School of The Art Institute of Chicago, which is an interdisciplinary school where you don’t have majors. They very much encourage being interdisciplinary.I went there to be a painter and came out specializing in visual communication. But I took classes all over the board, which didn’t force me to be just a graphic designer, or just a painter, or just any one specific thing. It really made me a well rounded designer.

Why did you come back to Orlando to work?
It’s strange. When I was 18-years-old, I wanted nothing to do with this town. I’ve lived here my whole life. My entire family, right down to my 2nd, 3rd and 4th cousins, lived within a fifty mile radius of where I grew up. I guess I felt my world was small. Like your typical teenage-rebel-without-a-cause, I wanted to up and leave, go to a city with so much art and culture, and never look back. Not only is Chicago very cold, but … nix that. Chicago is an incredible city. I visited there many times before I decided to go. Art is such a vital part of the community, whether you’re a business person or a family. The art institute itself is right in the city, and there is a contemporary museum on The Magnificent Mile, amid the shopping district. Art there is easy. It’s everywhere. There are so many functions and places to go. But it wasn’t home to me. I realized that by the time I got to my fourth year. There is something I love about Orlando. It really bugs me when people say Orlando is awful, or that they’re leaving and never coming back. I think people are too quick to give up on Orlando, especially from an art and cultural perspective. I went to the other side—it was too easy. There was no challenge to create new programs for art. Not that those programs don’t struggle, but their support is so grand I think people take it for granted.

Do you think the museum is affected because it is located outside of the downtown area?
Orlando is built so crazily. It’s like they built something, and then built something else, and then put a road between it. Then they built something else and put a road in between that. There is no real structure to our city, which I think hurts all of the arts and cultural institutions. Downtown has grown immensely in the past five years, but we’re still not the city that never sleeps—we’re suburbia. It’s a different environment. The Downtown Arts District and galleries downtown did a good job creating community. But it does leave out the museums and I think it’s important we have both.

You also free-lance. Is it a way of survival for you?
It’s really something I’m passionate about. I do a lot of non-profit work. There is something so exciting about being your own boss and calling the shots, and being able to create your own business and finding your clients, and not having any boundaries to what you do. I think its really rewarding for someone in a creative profession. I guess it is a way of survival because I never get bored. I don’t feel I’ll ever get bored at a desk job because I’ll always have the element to find freelance. I do all kinds of things; I make jewelry and handbags and I’m a designer. I’m not one of those people that have one specific career title that defines me. I can always go and find projects, or the projects will find me. It’s an exciting way to shake things up.

What struggles do you face as a freelancer?
The struggle is that there are so many ups and downs. I could have a really good few months filled with promised work, only to then find out the project has been taken away due to budget cuts. Marketing is always the first thing to go. What do you do then? Demand money for the hours spent already working? I’m not that kind of person. The other struggle is that I think designers are really undervalued. Sometimes people want things for free or close to nothing. I think people think that designers are glorified Microsoft users. I don’t think they truly understand the art of design. I mean, we’re sitting here amongst all these wine bottles. I’ve bought wine that I didn’t know of because I loved the label. I don’t know. Basically, I just think designers are undervalued, and people don’t want to pay what they’re worth. Then you have to weigh the value of the project. Is it worth being underpaid to do the project? Or do you move on? That’s the challenge.

What about designers that take every project offered to them because they need the money to survive? Do you think it hurts the design community as a whole?
I think it absolutely hurts the design community as a whole. But I feel it’s a personal opinion that you have to make. I have a full-time job because I like to choose my design projects. Working at the OMA, I don’t get to do everything I want to do. I don’t love every project I work on. So I feel very fortunate to have this job and to do freelance. I think people that jump off the diving board into the questionable freelance world are very brave. I hope to be one of them some day. What hurts the design community is catering to people who don’t understand design. But what do you do? I don’t want to be snobby and judgmental. But I have strategically chosen a job so that I can be selective. But maybe it won’t always be that way. You may talk to me in a year and I’ll be eating my words and doing brochures for Disney World or something. [Laughs]

Who or what influences your style?
My grandmother. That may sound strange but grandmother is extremely creative. She never found her creativity until my grandfather died. It’s not to discredit her, but she only found herself once she was alone. She’s sassy and she lets me wear all of her old jewelry. I think a lot of her style, like her clothes, her jewelry, even old papers she’s kept—I always want to work when I leave her house. Not only is she creative, but she was dressed to the nines whether they had a dollar or a thousand dollars. She truly is an aesthetic person and I think I got that from her.

Who is your favorite artist?
It is a really hard question but my favorite artist is Robert Rauschenberg, who recently died. I’ve been drawn to his work ever since I was in school. I think I learned about him in an art history class in high school. He created most of his work at the end of his life at the University of South Florida. In my own personal art, I love cloth; I love graphics; I love everything collaged together which is how I became drawn to his work. In my opinion, his thoughts were very organized, which is opposite of what most people might think about him. His color sense and graphic sense are what inspire me.

Is there an art era you favor?
[Pauses] I was an art major and have flown all over the world. I went to The Louvre when I was thirteen and it changed my life. I love what I call Naked Baby Jesus Art—it’s all of those old, Baroque and Flemish paintings. That was the painter’s life; that was their livelihood. Artists were commissioned by the church or officials to create these magnificent works of Realism. Art will never exist like that again. We have cameras, and people don’t have that kind of time on their hands quite honestly. I am also a contemporary art person. I love it. So I guess my favorite type of art is a juxtaposition of the two: it’s the art of now and the art of then. [Laughs] Art now is not so much about technical things; it’s more about why? And not about what? I like the contrast.

It seems to me that art has almost gone full circle. It started off as an artist representation of a time. Then the camera came a long and made it easy to capture images as fact. Now, we live in a digital world where we are able to tweak things and have it represent what we want again—full circle.
Wow. Yeah that’s true. We have gone full circle. We don’t know what images are real anymore. We edit everything now. You can even edit your own photos to put on your own Facebook page. It’s no longer real. Nothing is real. Not that it ever was I guess.

Your fiancée also happens to be a big supporter of the arts.
Yes he is.

Do you want to talk about what he does?
Yeah. He’s in a heavy metal band called Trivium. They’re from Orlando. Some of us went to high school together. You don’t hear of a lot of heavy metal bands coming from here—people think it’s all Mickey Mouse. It’s an interesting contrast. Metal art is almost like the old style of paintings. It’s about mythology and things related to —I don’t know what I’m trying to say here. He said something really cool the other day when I was watching him do an interview. He said that he felt that metal music was the closest related to classical music. When you first hear that, you may not get it. But the music world now is computerized —they can put auto-tuning on people’s voices. It is all so fake. I think metal is very real. They write and play everything entirely themselves. He travels the world and is inspired by art. There I go again, I’m getting off the subject. Basically, what I’m trying to say is that they are an amazing band; they are from Orlando; they’re making it big; and are influenced by art. We are proud to be here. We’ve traveled everywhere around the world but are proud to call Orlando home. It says a lot about the city. It may not be a New York yet …

But at least you can be a part of the movement here.
Yeah.

*Interview Date: 2/12/2009
Support our museum. Go to www.omart.org instead of going out tonight, and then spend the money you saved on a year long membership. Want more Ashley? Go to www.paperscissiorsdesign.com. Oh, you’re a rocker? My bad. Go to www.trivium.org already.

Posted Monday, February 16th, 2009 in Artists , Orlando InterviewsTags: , , ,
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