by Amy Blum
In 2008, shortly after Bleu Cease took the reins as executive director of the Rochester Contemporary Art Center (RoCo), he was faced with a significant challenge.
The Art Center needed a major fundraiser and their past model wasn’t working. Together with a couple of longtime supporters, Cease developed a fundraiser that would – and could – involve everyone in the community and beyond, of any age and talent. Make a piece of art measuring only 6 by 6-inches, in any medium, of any genre, to be sold for a flat $20 as a fundraiser for RoCo. The kicker? Keep the artists’ names anonymous until purchase.
The goal for the first year was 2,008 art works, and close to 3,000 entries came in. Since then – as the word spread and entries increased – submission quota went from unlimited, to 10, then six, then four, and now three per person. Most recently, RoCo has exhibited approximately 6,000 original artworks annually from all 50 states and more than 60 countries, made and donated by celebrities, international and local artists, designers, youth, and everyday people. In 2019, RoCo sold 2,600 artworks.
Artist John Magnus Champlin is one of RoCo’s biggest 6×6 fans, describing it as “one of those gems – you just have to experience it.” Others have called 6×6 “an extraordinary expression of art, of the mind, and the soul.”
Over the years, artists have shown creativity in materials and subject matter. 3-D artworks continue to grow: glass, dioramas, origami, metal, fabric, plastic, clay, and paper sculptures, found and recycled parts, and even electrical mini-installations. The artists also have expanded in diversity, including a local horse and the celebrated South African porcine, “Pigcasso.” RoCo has it on good authority that a guinea pig named Willie is participating.
Life in the Finger Lakes editor Mark Stash, a regular participant, notes that “the 6×6 show is a fun way of giving back to the Rochester art community. Painting within a 6 by 6-inch area allows for incredible creative freedom.”
From the beginning, a celebrity component was built in to create a buzz. RoCo has boasted a varied group of participants from filmmaker Bill Viola and renowned composer Philip Glass, to Zen Buddhist monk Thich naht Hahn, author Andrea Barrett and the late actor Robert Forster, as well as prominent community leaders like the late Congresswoman Louise Slaughter; Mayor Lovely Warren; university presidents; orchestra conductors; media celebrities; Olympic fencers; artists Albert and Frances Paley; Robert Marx; Nancy Jurs; and Peter Jemison, among others.
The late Wendell Castle – father of the art furniture movement – was a regular contributor, calling 6×6 “a wildly popular and successful exhibition, terrific fun and supports a great cause.”
In 2019, RoCo launched a 6×6 Make Art Day initiative with a mayoral proclamation and a handful of events. In 2020, more than 45 venues signed on to host a public Make Art Day on March 6. Businesses also used it for team-building and numerous individuals hosted private gatherings.
“It’s like a ‘community reads’ initiative meets Super Bowl Sunday for creatives,” says Cease. “This year’s widespread community response is a testament to Rochester’s incredible visual art community, and a willingness for people to join a fun event to promote greater visibility and awareness of the arts.”
With its modest purchase price and artist anonymity, RoCo’s largest fundraiser also serves to blur the lines between celebrity artists and those who find expression in making art, all while encouraging collection of original art. Sales from 6×6 provide about 15 percent of RoCo’s annual budget.
The recent COVID-19 health crisis has caused RoCo to make some adjustments to 6×6, but Cease, the team at RoCo, and the Rochester art community are determined that the unique annual project will take place.
This year’s 6×6 exhibit runs from Saturday, June 6 through Sunday, July 12. The global online preview begins May 15. For more information, visit roco6x6.org.