In the basement of a SoMa-area warehouse space, Jessica Delorme has been uncrating art with the excitement of a kid opening birthday presents.
Over the past several months, the curator of the one-night-a-year Cheaper Show has waded through a mountain of submissions—1,300 of them, up from 900 in 2010 and 500 in 2009. From those, she’s chosen the final 200 painters, photographers, sculptors, illustrators, and others whose 400 pieces will fill the walls of the upstairs space at Broadway and Kingsway on Saturday night (June 25). And now she’s getting the chance to see the work, sent from as far away as the U.K., Guatemala, and Japan, that she had only been able to judge on a computer screen before.
“I’m always surprised every time I unbox something,” she tells the Straight, surveying a vast storage room split up with blue masking tape into national, international, and local-art sections. “Seeing a JPEG is one thing, but this is so much better. It’s like seeing someone on TV and then seeing them in real life—it’s so much more exciting. And it’s even better quality than I expected.”
The works are just starting to trickle in on the day the Straight visits, but already, they show the wild diversity the show is known for. Recent arrivals include London, Ontario, artist Jamie Q’s whimsical, story-book-hued 3-D papier-mí¢ché wall sculptures; Quebec City–based Paul Brunet’s bizarre pop-cartoon paintings, with their sinister cats and babies with glowing eyes; and Edmonton artist Jennifer Rae Forsyth’s abstracted painted text bursting with attached silk flowers.
Delorme, a practising artist herself, and a grad of the Alberta College of Art and Design who has curated the show for the past two years, admits that picking the pieces is relatively easy when she starts out, but gets increasingly torturous when she gets down to deciding on the last 20 or so works. She tries to represent every medium, from photo-conceptualism through to the strong painting submissions she noticed this year.
“The work I choose is often outside of my comfort zone and I see that it will represent one sector of the artist community and one sector of viewer,” explains Delorme, whose choices range from the surreal mixed-media visions of man and beast by Chile’s Alejandra Villasmil to the ephemeral, ghostlike scenarios in the photos by Montreal’s Patryk Stasieczek. “The most effective ways to get people to get excited about art and buying art is making sure there’s something for everyone.”
The curator’s job has become a lot more daunting since the Cheaper Show started 10 years ago. The initial concept is still the same: that every work in the exhibit will sell for $200, no matter who the artist is. Started by emerging artists Graeme Berglund, Steve Rio, Steve “Breadman” Cole, and Syx Langeman, the event has sold an almost unbelievable $200,000 worth of art over the years. It’s also grown into a huge annual affair—and not just in terms of artist submissions. Last year, at Gastown’s old W2 Storyeum, the Cheaper Show drew 7,000 art fans; this year, in a bright, sleek new space that used to house both Cantu and LivingSpace, it hopes 10,000 will join the party.
Surveying the new 22,000-square-foot, high-ceilinged, white-walled Kingsway location, Delorme relates how difficult it is to find a room that can house such a massive event. It’s so challenging, in fact, that organizers Berglund and Rio reportedly thought they would have to move the show to the fall until they one day stumbled on this spot, which had been recently used as a communal pop-up shop.
“Now we are in the heart of where all of these artists live,” Delorme says.
Amid the offerings at the exhibit and sale, the space will also house four installations that the Cheaper Show has commissioned for the big night, ranging from Simon Redekop’s full-room video art to Johnny Yi’s dinette set crafted entirely out of moulding bread.
Delorme says the commissions, which were launched last year, are a way for the Cheaper Show to represent an art scene that goes beyond the works on sale. “The show prides itself on how diverse it is and that [the installation aspect] just adds to that and speaks to what contemporary art is right now,” Delorme explains. “It’s also about spreading our money to see something made that isn’t necessarily ”˜commercial’.”
Delorme also tries to connect the show with the local contemporary-art scene by visiting artists’ studios over the year. She admits that, on her rounds, she runs into artists who don’t agree with the concept of the show and its low price point, and she respects their right to abstain. But for many others, she says, the Cheaper Show offers the chance to get exposure they might not otherwise have, as well as to connect to the wider artists’ community.
“Art is so dense in this city—there are so many artists and not nearly enough places to show it or people who have time to organize a show,” she explains. “Two hundred dollars is what makes it accessible for people younger who want to get art but can’t really afford anything higher. There are tons of people who want to know more about what’s going on in the city and don’t have a way that’s this approachable.
“You can’t expect people to one day develop their taste and then buy a $50,000 piece of work.”
Still, she and her colleagues at the Cheaper Show understand the key to this concept is to keep it limited to a single night of the year. That’s why, when the newly renovated Waldorf Hotel approached the Cheaper Show about maintaining a $200-per-work gallery at its new arts hub the event organizers asked the spot to reconsider the mandate. The result is the Black & Yellow, which Delorme also curates, a year-round gallery that features full-priced works and installations by artists associated with the Cheaper Show.
“It was important to connect it to the show, but we saw it as a quieter, more thoughtful sister to it,” Delorme explains. “It’s not sustainable or responsible to sell artwork for $200 year round. It has that punch that one night, then people are forced to play by the rules the rest of the year.”
And so the Cheaper Show team ensures that its event remains a much-anticipated one-off every year—though making it happen is no small task. A team of 10 will hang the work this week, and on the actual night of the event, an army of 100-plus volunteers will help oversee the sale.
In the past couple years, art stars like Lawrence Paul Yuxweluptun and Attila Richard Lukacs have caused visitors to line up early for the show and rush in to make their purchases. This year, names include Bradley Harms, Fiona Ackerman, Scott Lewis, and more. (See thecheapershow.com/ for a full preview.) But Delorme says the bulk of the thousands who will attend the Cheaper Show are not die-hard collectors: “The first 10 are looking for names and then everyone else is just so excited to make an impulse buy.”
The Cheaper Show is at Kingsway and Broadway on Saturday (June 25).