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Melissa Starker, Creative Content & PR Manager
Jun 09, 2022
Next weekend, the second All Day Blackness festival will launch Saturday at the Wex with a day full of programming celebrating Black art and independent business in Columbus before more events roll out at No Place Gallery downtown and 934 Gallery in the Milo-Grogan neighborhood.
All Day Blackness is the brainchild of Reg Zehner, curator, writer, cofounder of the online music platform Verge.fm, and the Wex's inaugural recipient of a Learning & Public Practice Path Fellowship, which was created to provide emerging arts leaders with professional development and opportunities for cross-disciplinary work.
A Columbus native, Zehner found their niche in art history and curatorial practice while studying fine art at Columbus College of Art & Design. Following graduation in 2020, they turned a difficult situation—going out into the world and trying to launch a career during the pandemic—into an opportunity to create a platform for Columbus DJs with verge. In February 2021, the first All Day Blackness was held virtually on Verge. Below, Zehner shares the story behind Verge, plans for this year's in-person fest (select programs will also be livestreamed), and what they're taking away from their fellowship.
How did you start Verge?
Oh, this is a great story. So basically, Verge started through another space called Friend that me, Oriana Hirschberg, and Israel Vento started in 2019. We did a couple of curated exhibitions, we had karaoke, and we had a lot of pop-up clothes swaps and sales, and we were trying to really push for a community art space. That was on South Parsons. And I was in my senior year of college, so that was a lot. But through Friend, we made a lot of connections to 934 Gallery. That was essential. And Friend eventually closed in February of 2020, right before the pandemic.
I know, because we wouldn't have survived. Running an art studio and community space is really hard, especially when everyone is young and doesn't have capital. But right before the pandemic, in February—Valentine’s day of that year—me and another friend of mine, Dani Miriti Pacheco, we threw a party for Black Queer & Intersectional Collective called Lava Reign. My whole thing about trying to DJ was for my thesis for college. So Danny was a DJ and they taught me. At that time, when we threw Lava Reign, I didn't know anything about DJing. But that's where I met Nadia Ayad and Lu Jones, and eventually we started Verge together.
I graduated college during the pandemic and that was not great. I began working at this manufacturing business as a digital marketing assistant. And then one day I found out about NTS. Danny sent it to me. And I was listening to it for a couple of weeks or months, and I was like, What if we have that in the Midwest? And then it became a project, I did a lot of research. And I began asking around, who would be interested in working on the project together? I didn't know Nadia and Lu personally at that time, but they were interested in working on it. And we met every Sunday for eight months as we built out the branding and the infrastructure and everything of Verge.
And then we got a GCAC grant in 2020 to help us launch in 2021. We did crowdsourcing and stuff that also helped with the initial startup cost for the radio. And we became really close friends and began really thinking about, what does it mean to run a radio station? I still don't know that answer, but I think we're getting it.
There's a through-line with Verge and All Day Blackness of collaboration and community. How do you make connections within the community not only to keep a strong core, but to broaden collaboration from there?
The first All Day Blackness in February of 2021, Dionne and I were talking and we wanted to do something, but obviously it was still a pandemic. I presented that idea of doing radio programming for two days. And for radio programming, the nice thing about it is there still are a lot of Columbus hosts with a presence on Verge. So I just proposed to a lot of the Black hosts on Verge from Columbus that if you wanted to showcase like an hour, you can do so. And that became the genesis of like, oh, we should ask partners to be part of this instead of programming something inside and not really thinking about asking people who are also part of the same community.
For 2022, I have experience throwing events with dance music and also curating exhibitions in the art scene. And the most responsiveness I've seen people from Columbus is when they see other people that they know in the events. And also, I think it's really great to think about financial compensation—if we're making this amount of money, we can also distribute that to people. Also to think about, how do we uplift the Black arts community by putting them on a platform, but also giving them some money, too? That's awesome.
That reminds me: I wanted to ask how you initially hooked up with Dionne Custer Edwards, our director of Learning & Public Practice.
So, it was in 2020. I didn't know Dionne that well, and I was going through it because of graduating during the pandemic. It was really bad. But Dionne really gave guidance and Prince [Shakur], Dionne and I, we were just in conversation with each other. I was still trying to figure out my way after graduating and navigating 2020, as the world was unable to do anything but I was working at Aldi at the time. So I was working all the time. While everyone was on unemployment and having their free time, I didn't have time, which was funny.
But I think she just reached out. She was someone that wanted to talk or give an open ear and I think that I needed that. And eventually I continued the conversations and wrote for the Shumate Council blog, which strengthened some of our collaboration. And then eventually that led to me keeping an eye out for my next steps at my digital marketing job. I was like, OK, I want to go back into the arts. I want to apply for jobs or fellowships. And serendipitously, this Path Fellowship opened up.
Installation view of Cameron Granger's The Line at No Place Gallery. The work will be on view during the afterparty for All Day Blackness. Image courtesy of the artist and No Place Gallery.
I want to get back to the Path Fellowship. But first I wanted to ask about All Day Blackness. You've put together a really great program of networking and self care. Talk to me about how the program came together and what you hoped to do with the curation of it.
I'm really interested in festivals, and music culture festivals are a very essential part of the industry. So I'm always thinking about, what does that look like in Columbus, especially in the art scene, since there's not a lot of art festivals that combine multiple different types of art in a very hodgepodge way?
Whenever I curate anything, I always think about how someone would feel at a thing. So obviously with the pandemic, I felt having some type of wellness care, like a meditation hour or an art activation session, would be amazing. Working with Learning & Public Practice, I have been exposed to a lot of art activation sessions with different types of artists, and being around some of the ideologies that are in the department I think seeped into the programming. And then for the rest of the curation of the program, I wanted to just make it fun.
I do think that the Black arts and businesses talk is essential, because it gives eyes to a lot of different organizations and artists working independently. And really thinking about, how do you make money as an artist in Columbus? That's still a question that needs to be explored.
And for the rest of the programming, everything else is just fun. We released the idea of, oh, we need to do this thing. And super professional. It’s just like, oh, we're here to have fun and have food. And that's why, after the festival at the Wexner Center, there's the afterparty. And I hear there's a lot of excitement for that, just in terms of the artists on the lineup and the fact that there's going to be music inside of an art installation at No Place Gallery. That’s, I think, really unique. And then on Sunday, it's just food and then [a chance to] kick back, really enjoy a sunny day.
Tell me more about the 934 component. Who's doing the food?
Ahmed's Kitchen, which is a very up-and-coming, pop-up kind of food business. It's a lunch theme with a lot of variations of food. So I think there's going to be pasta and salad and just some small bites, and there's definitely going to be fruit. But outside of that, there's going to be DJ sounds by Sonic Blush, who's a really great DJ in the community.
I really wanted to host it at 934, a fantastic volunteer-run gallery, because the space is really big and welcoming. And people can just sit and be with each other, and also not feel like the pressures of an institution, since 934 is really embedded in the Milo-Grogan area. I think the more effective festivals that I've been to are the ones that are decentralized. So even though the festival does kick off at the Wexner Center, we do have offshoot programming at different spaces, just because that widens access and that widens the experience of people who may not have ever been to 934.
Is there anything that you are looking forward to in particular? Not to play favorites.
Oh yeah. I'm looking forward to the afterparty, honestly. Because, I feel like the festival is going to be a lot of energy, a lot of things I'm responsible for. But then the afterparty, I don't have to be responsible for anything. I just have to show up. And I'll be DJing with my friend Don as well, which I'm really excited for. I think it's going to be a great night. But then definitely on Sunday, free food. I think that's my favorite aspect. And I’m really excited to be with a bunch of people I really care about, and we can just sit and just vibe.
Getting back to the Path Fellowship and the fact that you're the first person to do it. How are you feeling about it—what you're taking away and how it has held to the ideas that were in place when you first started?
I think this fellowship is definitely needed. It has developed me a lot faster, especially since COVID impacted my senior year of college in a very drastic way. And also, I feel like with the skills I've gained from the Path Fellowship, I don't necessarily have to go to grad school. There are some things where I'm more open to being able to continue to find work in the art and museum industry.
I went to the annual American Alliance of Museums conference in Boston this year as a professional development opportunity. That also pushed me into networking and to seeing how big this field is, and also to consider where I fit in terms of a nonprofit institution. Importantly, when I first started, I had no clue how a nonprofit art institution worked or the ways that, especially, education and the things that I care about in terms of curatorial practices or experience of a viewer are built into the systems here.
Learning & Public Practice has been a great and amazing [connection] point in the institution. I've gained a lot of ideas in terms of, how do we care about each other as both staff and as someone who wants to think about community? And I think in Learning Public Practice, they're really beginning to craft this new way of working. That, I think, really has influenced myself, and I think it has only made me stronger. And yeah, the Path Fellowship was something I truly did need in terms of where I want to go. I think it just deepened my work and made it more intentional, more than anything else. And it made me think about, what is diversity and equity? And how do I continue to apply that to my practices at the institution, but also outside the institution, along the lines of Verge and other curatorial or writing opportunities?
Do you feel like it's given you a stronger sense of what particular direction you want to go into?
I think it provided me [a sense of] where I can thrive or where I can continue to do the work that I feel most connected to. I definitely love curatorial practice. I think that for some reason, it's still a knack in me to try to find my way into that world and role. I'm not for sure why, but I think it's tied to what I learned in college and where I had the most experience with artists. And especially with exhibitions, I love just seeing [a project grow] from an idea into fruition. I think that type of work is strenuous—it is a lot—but it's worth it. And additionally, I do find value in administrative work. I don't mind being at a computer and just forming structure or infrastructure. With Verge, Nadia, Lu, and I, we built that infrastructure to have processes and systems to post about 80-100 posts every month. And that's a lot.
The amount of programming you do is really intense.
But we manage to make it very simplified so that we can balance it. And also, we don't ask too much time from other people who are volunteers. So curatorial, administrative and as well education—I think those three things I find myself really able to bind to. And in terms of curatorial practice, I can fall into performance or I can fall into film.
Is there anything else you’d like to add or call out?
Yeah. I want to shout out to the Learning & Public Practice department: Jean Pitman, Jo Snyder, and both Emilys—Emily Haidet and Emily Oilar—and of course, Dionne. It’s a great team. And Layla Muchnik-Benali, Alexis McCrimmon, and Jennifer Lange from Film/Video. And Kelly Kivland and Lucy Zimmerman from Exhibitions, and Kristin Helmick-Brunet as well.
Outside of that, I do want to state that All Day Blackness is about, what do we think about the Black community? It’s really centered on that. I think a lot of the institutions here, we talk about community. I really want to see what happens if we have an event that truly pulls from the community of Columbus and not just the community of Ohio State University.
I think that's a risk, and that's also an endeavor that could be worthwhile. We don't know how many people will show up, but I think that endeavor to try to rely on the city that is always here and not on the institutional population that comes and goes is important. I think both are needed for this place, but also I think we cater to one versus the other.
I think if we collaborate with places like No Place and 934, who are already doing the work, I'm not saying we don't have to do as much work, but we can rely on them as partners and also provide them with financial compensation. Or we help with building that connection to those spaces, so really we can begin to grow that excitement across multiple different audiences.
Top of page: Reg Zehner in the Wex grid; photo: Melissa Starker