Binder Projects is a women-owned virtual art gallery and exhibition platform founded in Memphis with the mission to make art more accessible to everyday people and remove the intimidation of the typical art-buying experience. Founded by two Memphis natives in late 2018, Erin Wright and Nancy Cheairs, the online art gallery features work from more than 10 established and emerging U.S. artists.
Erin Wright is a Los Angeles-based architect, painter and sculptor. In high school, she was Nancy’s studio assistant. Erin first left Memphis to obtain her undergraduate degree in painting from the Art Institute of Chicago before studying architecture at UCLA. She has been collaborating with Nancy for more than a decade, and she returns to Memphis as often as she can. Nancy Cheairs is a lifelong Memphian, and she holds a Bachelor of Fine Arts degree from Memphis College of Art and an MFA from the University of Memphis. In 2010, she founded Flicker Street Studio, an art school with a variety of offerings for adults and children meant to provide a creative community for individuals who want to explore the visual arts.
Together, the two artists are reimagining the traditional model of buying and collecting art. Get to know Erin and Nancy, and learn how they are changing the art community in Memphis.
Tell us about Binder Projects.
Erin: Binder Projects is a carefully curated gallery featuring contemporary art by emerging and established artists across the country. We have an online platform as well as a brick-and-mortar space on Flicker Street. Our overall goal is to provide a platform for artists and collectors to experience art in a new, accessible, and fun way.
What was your inspiration for an online gallery?
Nancy: Erin and I have worked together for a long time, and I have been showing my paintings for a long time. We started a discussion about collaboration and independence for artists and how artists can control their artwork. We began to ask ourselves, How can we create this community for artists? I have a lot of experience and a good, solid collector base, and we wanted to provide that for young artists, as well as the most established people, in Memphis. We talked about the idea for quite a long time, then we decided to push the button and do it.
Erin: The dream started in 2017 when we started talking about this idea more seriously and asking what a project like this looked like when we are separated by 2,500 miles. We learned from Flicker Street Studio that everything is not going to be perfectly in place when you start a business, so we just jumped in. Where did we get the confidence to do this?
Nancy: We jumped in, and we continue to learn as we go; in any creative process, you have to be willing to take the risk.
What are your individual roles within Binder Projects?
Nancy: Erin’s main role in running the business is as the girl in the cloud — she handles the website and communications with collectors and artists, and I am the man on the ground. When we have exhibitions or our clients want to look at work in-person, I am the one who does that.
Erin: Through Binder Projects, we advocate for the artist. We have insight into relationships with dealers, and this background helps us support the artists. Binder Projects is just as much about the collector and how they buy art as it is the artists.
How do your backgrounds in the arts play into the mission of Binder Projects?
Nancy: We wanted to make looking at art accessible to the collector; we provide images with information on the medium and prices and a way to view it in the room to get a sense of scale. Walking into a gallery, you don’t often know the prices or what you are looking for. With Binder Projects, you get a clear overview of what we have before making a purchase or seeing something in the gallery.
Erin: Online is a new way to buy art, and it is a strange, new experience.
How many artists do you currently represent?
Nancy: Right now, we represent 11 artists: Taylor Loftin, a young artist who works in mixed media and straddles the line between sculpture and painting; Jim Buchman, a sculptor who lives in Memphis; Whitney Lorenze, a young artist who lives in Connecticut; Ed Rainey, a draftsman and multimedia artist living in Memphis; Roger Allan Cleaves is a new artist for us — he is a mixed media artist who works on oil and canvas painting; Alex McClurg is a painter from Birmingham; Phil Donohue is a photographer based out of LA who takes photos around the nostalgia of mid-century architecture; Alex Paulus is a Memphian who does clever, funny paintings; Lauren Fogg is a landscape artist; Nancy Cheairs (me), an oil painter; and Pam McDonnell is changing from botanical to portraiture. We represent quite a breadth of work and artists.
In the absence of in-person interactions, how are you creating opportunities for buyers to connect with the artists?
Erin: When shopping online, you often don’t know the backstory of the piece. We put forward that each work is made by a person who is incredibly committed to their craft; it is made with integrity. We interview the artists and ask questions because we want it to be about them. If a collector comes in or calls, we give as much information on who the artists are, what they are making, and where they are in their career. For example, in the gallery the other day, a collector was asking what I thought Nancy was thinking about when painting a piece. I couldn’t speak for her as an artist, but I could speak to how the painting affects me and how her work has evolved since I have known her. We are able to put our lens on it while putting a lot of emphasis on who the artist is.
How would you like to grow Binder Projects?
Erin: During the pandemic, we have been really fortunate because we have had record sales since March . Like many businesses, we have been pushed online, and having a platform in place has given us a leg up. We don’t know what will happen in 2021, but we hope to expand online programming and in-person shows simultaneously.
With everything you see online, our main goal is transparency. If someone has an appointment to come into the gallery, they can see everything online beforehand. This gives them a bit more knowledge, which in turn makes them more comfortable.
Nancy: We also have a try-on program. When people come in, if they want to try something, they can hang it at their house and live with it for five days to decide if it is a good fit. Our artists are very committed to their work, and their work has a lot of soul. When that soul is present, it reverberates in someone’s home, and there has to be a conversation between the collector and the art. We hope to have more in-person events because art is such a visceral experience, and online shopping does not capture the hand-feel of the piece or make a mark where seeing it in-person does.
How is the art scene in Memphis growing?
Nancy: Memphis is known for being really creative, musically and visually. Art lives in a lot of different places because artists just cannot be contained. They find their way through the nooks and crannies, and there was a need for a nontraditional collaborative artist community and space. We have two galleries here, and there are a lot more artists here than that limited amount of gallery space can represent.
Erin: Our gallery started out of the need for more representation for the Southeast. It is obvious that art comes out of the big cities on either coast, but some of the strongest work I have seen is coming out of the Southeast. My main agenda is to push this art to the West and East coasts because it is some of the best and most prolific. I am excited to watch this project grow here in Memphis. When I look at our sales, we are shipping internationally and getting calls from Seoul and Luxembourg; our artists reach other points of the world without being in one of those big, coastal cities. That is why Memphis is right for this project.
What is the best piece of advice you’ve received?
Nancy: My mother said, “You can do anything you want.” I took that literally.
Erin: I am a worrier, and because I am a right-brained person, I am a little neurotic. The best piece of advice was from my dad. He said, “99% of the things you worry about don’t happen.” I think about that daily.
Besides faith, family and friends, what are three things you cannot live without?
Nancy: My studio, dark chocolate, and music.
Erin: My studio, my two dogs, and my car because I live in LA, and I could not get around without it.
Thank you, Erin and Nancy, for sharing your story and supporting artists in such a fun and unique way. Learn more about Binder Projects HERE.
All photos provided by Binder Projects.