Visual Arts

Phillip March Jones: Southern art’s man in New York

Phillip March Jones, photographed in New York City, March 2016.
Phillip March Jones, photographed in New York City, March 2016.

Phillip March Jones grimaced. He didn’t want a photographer to take a photo of him; he doesn’t really like having his picture taken professionally. But he does have a friend, an artist, who takes Polaroids, so if there has to be a photo he’d prefer to support him.

This is a theme when you talk with Jones: Above all, he is concerned with supporting artists. And, for him, this support takes form mainly in what he calls “cross pollination,” forging opportunities for artists and making connections in the art world across state boundaries.

Jones is a Lexington native making moves in the national art scene. A graduate of Emory University in Atlanta, Jones also attended the Universite Paris 1 Pantheon-Sorbonne and Auburn University. His subsequent return to Lexington resulted in founding Institute 193 — a matchbox-sized gallery on North Limestone — in 2009, with the mission of giving voice to “groundbreaking contemporary art outside of large metropolitan centers.”

This central goal is behind all of his career moves — after founding Institute 193 (where he still plays a large role), he served as the inaugural director for Souls Grown Deep in Atlanta, a foundation that preserves and exhibits the artistry of self-taught black artists in the South. For the past couple of years Jones — now in his mid-30s – has been in New York, working first as director of the Christian Berst Art Brut gallery, and now — as of just a few months ago — director of the Andrew Edlin Gallery.

And Jones is an artist as well, photographing imagery found traveling around the country.

With the same approach he took to discussing photos of himself, Jones steered an interview away from the galleries themselves and what he does. Instead, he wanted to talk about how being a part of the New York art scene has allowed him to serve as a sort of ambassador for artists back home in Kentucky and elsewhere in the South, who otherwise might not be getting much exposure outside their region.

This drive to bring artists outside major urban and cultural centers into the national dialogue is an extension of the mission that drove Jones to found Institute 193.

Now, he not only gives groundbreaking Southern art importance and recognition at home, but also affords those artists necessary exposure to a broader audience — trying to create an art world that doesn’t just leap from New York to Los Angeles, skipping the rest of the country.

“They’re all artists, no matter where they’re from,” he said, “they need exposure in multiple places. There’s a tangible benefit to me being in New York and providing to Lexington artists.”

And these artists agree with him.

J.T. Dockery — a self-described comic book artist from Eastern Kentucky who has been showcased at Institute 193 — said his involvement with Jones led to new and valuable connections. In addition to exhibitions like Dockery’s 2011 show, Institute 193 also produces multimedia — comprehensive volumes of work, CDs, photography compilations, and in Dockery’s case, comic volumes. In conjunction with Institute 193, Dockery has published three volumes of comics in a series called Despair, produced with the help of artists he recruited from Lexington and elsewhere. The volumes have been very successful — the first two have been singled out as “Notable Comics” in recent collections of the publication The Best of American Comics.

Dockery points out that this sort of non-traditional collaboration benefits both parties: “That dynamic … not only puts the name of Institute 193 in front of the ‘art comics’ community … but Phillip also gets my work out to an audience of gallery-focused people who might not see it if I was working strictly within comics.”

Florian Idenburg sees Jones’ work in expanding boundaries and creating new links among art communities in an even larger context. Idenburg, a Dutch architect whose firm had a show at Institute 193 in 2010, thinks forming interstate and international connections has vast implications: “Ultimately, we need to foster communication between various communities in order to move humanity forward.”

He sees Jones as an excellent communicator and bridger of communities. And, of course, Idenburg is grateful that Jones introduced him and his firm to what he calls the, “particularities of Kentucky and some of its inhabitants.”

Idenburg and Dockery are just a couple examples of artists who have become part of the inclusive, innovative web Jones is weaving.

His current show at Andrew Edlin in New York features three artists from Kentucky — Robert Beatty, Mike Goodlett, and Beverly Baker. Both Beatty and Goodlett have had exhibitions at Institute 193, and Baker has been featured in Institute 193’s presence at art fairs. Jones actually started working with Goodlett at Christian Berst in New York and, in addition to Institute 193, has featured him in an exhibit at the University of Kentucky Medical Center (which Jones also curates). Goodlett and Beatty are slotted to be in the New Art Dealers Alliance (NADA) fair in New York in May. And the late Robert Tharsing, a renowned Lexington artist, had his first show in New York at Christian Berst, under Jones’ direction. Jones also organized an exhibition of Tharsing’s paintings of Lexington for the UK Medical Center.

When asked about his role, Jones smiled, shrugged and reverted to character: “The real story here is the artists I’ve worked with.” But without Jones’ ingenuity and success in promoting those artists, their stories might not have been heard outside their home regions.

The story of his work — in Lexington, Atlanta and New York — is that there are incredible artists out there doing incredible things, but it is hard for them to get wider exposure without an advocate with connections. And that’s what Jones’ focus is, “being an advocate for all these different people and the region … art is a great cultural ambassador.”

This cultural ambassador has no plans to abandon Lexington and Institute 193 anytime soon.

Jones returns to Lexington about every six weeks, and is still very involved with the gallery that, in every measure but square footage, has grown immensely since its 2009 opening. He said his role has changed from daily operations to bringing in bigger picture artists and exhibits. He is now officially the chairman of the board and editor-in-chief, but still refers to himself as the “chief janitor” of Institute 193.

Emma Guida is a Lexington native who now lives in New York City. Reach her at Emma.Guida@gmail.com.

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