This summer, Studio Gallery is interviewing the movers and shakers of the art world. We’re getting to know these talented professionals through their own words. In our Art World Professionals series, curators, consultants, directors, designers, and more come together to share their insights into the wild, wonderful world of the arts. We’re continuing the series with Creative Director of Events at Refinery29, Olivia-Jené Fagon, who sat down with us to talk about Refinery29’s unique mission, and 29Rooms, their upcoming festival of cause, culture and creativity.
Tell us a little about your background and what got you interested in the arts.
I was born and raised in Washington, DC, and I grew up in a family that filled my world with art; we had art in our home and my parents always took me to the DC mall to go to museums. My father, in particular, who immigrated to the US from Jamaica, and has a deep love for music, literature and art, has also made sure that my relationship with art and culture is global, diverse and for everybody. I studied art history and media at Brown and then moved to New York to work in the arts, starting my career at The Smithsonian, The Phillips Collection, and then Artsy. I cut my marketing teeth doing brand strategy at Imprint Projects and today I’m a Creative Director of Events at Refinery29, the leading media and entertainment company for young women.
Can you tell us about Refinery29, and what the company's primary mission is? What sets it apart?
Refinery29 is the leading media and entertainment company focused on women. Through everything from editorial content, original video programming, social, shareable content, and live experiences, we are a place for women to see themselves reflected and spoken to. We see ourselves as a catalyst for our audience to feel, see, and claim their power. So whether it’s giving unheard voices a seat at the table to create their own content, like our dedicated instagram platform for and by black women called Unbothered or making space for topics that are real for our audience but might be stigmatized or provocative, like our coverage of sex and wellnes, we meet women where they are and invest in how this generation is moving forward.
How did 29Rooms come to be? How long did it take to get started, and what advice would you give to young artists hoping to set up their own events?
We launched 29Rooms in 2015 as a bit of an experiment to celebrate the 10-year anniversary of Refinery29. In its inception it was our way of bringing our digital brand to life for our audience physically plus disrupting the exclusivity of New York Fashion Week with one of the few events that was inclusive and free. It was also an opportunity to celebrate all of the creative voices, artists, nonprofits and brands that resonate most with our audience. We collaborated with truly visionary talent like Petra Collins, Shantell Martin, and Solange Knowles to create 29 unique experiences, all housed within one warehouse in Greenpoint.
For any artists or creatives hoping to start their own event I would say do it! The explosion of experiential in particular has been so art and artist-inspired and I would love to see just as many artist-led and founded events be launched. In terms of advice, always start with your community. We launched 29Rooms as a gift back to the R29 audience. The best events care about hosting a particular audience or serving a community (especially one that might be underserved) not just showcasing your POV or your project. What can you give them? What would inspire them? And what would you build that would bring them together in a meaningful and empowering way?
And on a practical level, find a team of collaborators who share your vision. The 29Rooms team is made up of creative directors, producers, designers, editors, community managers and more, and because an event touches everything from creative to production to marketing to talent that partnership is essential. As artists and creatives we might have the vision but there are so many practicalities to successfully execute an event; don’t try and do it alone.
We’re interested in your slogan “Expand Your Reality”. How are you hoping that 29Rooms will change the way that we interact with art, and how we think about it?
Officially, 29Rooms is Refinery29’s festival of cause, culture and creativity. We bring it to life through traveling tours, venue takeovers and spaces transformed by art and design. At each 29Rooms, we work with collaborators across arts, activism, and culture to create what we think of as a ‘tasting menu’ of twenty nine installations, performances, and workshops. This year’s tour theme, “Expand Your Reality,” which we launched last September in New York, is all about unlocking imagination, provoking thought, and daring our audience to dream bigger. Expand Your Reality was also built to expand the perception of what 29Rooms is and could be. We wanted to create more opportunities for interactivity and theatrics on-site, so we introduced hands-on art workshops, a reimagined nightclub, phoneless experiences and opportunities for guests to engage directly and disarmingly with each-other.
Immersive art has been a destination for decades and we are definitely trafficking in that legacy, but 29Rooms sits in its own space and we’re mindful of that. It’s exciting right now because there’s so much hunger in people to show up in person and be moved by not just art but style, music, activism and by collective experiences, especially when it’s also inspiring in its scale and transforming for an audience. Whether it’s presenting visual art through a playground space like in our “Art Park” or asking our guests to just pick up a paintbrush for maybe the first time in years in our “Make Your Mark” experience, we want our guests to feel inspired by, apart of and close to creativity, their own and our collaborators.
What are the challenges of working with so many artists and so many ideas, and what are the benefits?
It’s definitely an opportunity more so than a challenge. Our artists bring relevance, culture and community to the event, and the collaborations you’ll find in the space vary wildly. We partner with artists across categories (I.e. visual artists, new media artists, poets, choreographers) who have their own unique practice, lived experience and POV on conversations that the R29 audience cares deeply about.
If it’s spirituality and self-love (“You Are Magic” with The Hoodwitch), human rights and community (“Rest In Power. Rest In Peace” with Shani Crowe), safe spaces and identity (“Teenage Bedroom” with Uzumaki Cepeda), we’re able to work with them to find artful and authentic expressions of these topics into installations, workshops, or performances that our guests can then step into at 29Rooms. Our artists also have their own audiences and online followings, so it can be another gift back to our audience when they get to see/feel/and touch their work in person at our event.
The main challenge is making space for the very unique and very different visions of so many artists and creatives while keeping one cohesive theme and the Refinery29 POV across the entire event.
It’s a balancing act. We have to be flexible in our process of developing each artist’s experience, working around very different skill sets and often working with artists who haven’t brought their work to life three-dimensionally or in a physical space before.
What is the process for coming up with/choosing final room ideas?
The 29Rooms team is made up of a wide range of very talented creatives, designers and producers who develop the overarching tour for almost a year. We start by looking outward, working with our team of editors and creatives who speak to our audience daily, to capture the most relevant and forward thinking conversations across fashion, art, beauty, politics, etc. in one cohesive vision for the event, our theme. We also consider ways we want to evolve the event based on the event landscape (How can we innovate experiential?), our audience’s feedback (What did our guests love from last year’s 29Rooms?) and our own internal ambitions for the event (What’s next for 29Roomst?). We then start assembling our individual room experiences through our collaborator search, reaching out to a diverse list of always incredible talent with a specific vision or topic for a room that we want to create with them. It’s a lot of moving pieces but those key components of research, inspiration, feedback and collaborators always sets the foundation.
Refinery29 chooses a local artist from each event location to create their own unique room in 29Rooms. How does that process work? What suggestions might you have for prospective artists?
Yes! It’s important to us that we make space for the amazing creative communities that are in each city so we continue to collaborate with local artists on rooms and experiences at each tour stop. For example, we’re working with Atlanta-native Neka King and DC-native Trap Bob for the Expand Your Reality tour on their own installations.
Once we confirmed our tour schedule the team did a month-long search for emerging artists at each city, tapping our own networks, talent teams, Instagram and wider online research into the cultural spaces of those cities to find a long list of artists who reflect their city and share the forward-thinking Refinery29 spirit. Our creative partnership with those artists is then always a two-way dialogue; we bring a very clear vision of what we want the final experience to be (whether it’s the interaction, the visuals or the final takeaway for our guests) and then work with them collaboratively, across creative, design and production, till it’s live at 29Rooms.
For any emerging artists, invest in ensuring you show up in those places that our team and larger event or media properties often turn to when we start our talent search. Have an artist website and portfolio that is up to date, a presence on social media, in particular Instagram, and find opportunities to work in the exhibition, event and programming spaces of your city.
What rooms have been your favorites over the years, and why?
We’ve created so many! “Dance Break” is our phone-less recreated nightclub (on the Expand Your Reality tour) and is such a joyful, high-energy experience where guests can just dance, be free and engage with one another unselfconsciously. Last year’s “Conversations With Your Inner Child” With Carlota Guerrero was a simple but emotionally impactful experience where our audience connected with their inner child through the process of writing a letter to themselves. At 29Rooms Los Angeles 2018 we created our first video installation with Lena Waithe, called “Oh Say Can You Say”, set to Whitney Houston’s rendition of the National Anthem which followed the Black experience in the US from the Civil Rights movement through Black Lives Matter. It was a new immersive medium for us and took a very unapologetic but artful POV, led by Lena, on a topic we often don’t confront, pushing the boundaries on what our audience expected to see at 29Rooms. “Rest in Power. Rest in Peace” with Chicago-native and artist Shani Crowe from 29Rooms Chicago 2018 will always be a favorite. It was a commemorative room experience to Chicago gun violence that included a larger-than-life chair, a throne to represent power, patterned with cowry shells hand-applied by Shani and her team, and it housed an inner shrine where guests were invited to leave the name of a person they’d lost on a piece of paper. It was transformative and our Chicago audience felt moved and seen by it.
What’s next? Are you planning on introducing 29Rooms to more cities?
Definitely. After launching our Expand Your Reality tour in Chicago, the experience will also touch down in Dallas, Atlanta, Washington DC and Toronto (our first international location). Check out 29rooms.com for more information!
From Gallery Director Svetlana Shaindlin.
Thank you to Refinery29, Olivia-Jené Fagon, Grace Hagan, and Halley Stubis.