In May, artist Jonathan Saiz unveiled “#WhatIsUtopia” a pillar containing 10,000 tiny paintings at the Denver Art Museum. The exhibit came with a twist: when it’s stint was finished at the museum, he was going to give every little work of art away.
That time has nearly arrived.
Today, Saiz and the museum announced four giveaway events. The first giveaways will take place on Nov. 23 and 24 during a painting workshop with Saiz at the museum. There will be a giveaway at Understudy on Dec. 2, at Union Hall on Jan. 4, and at K Contemporary beginning on Dec. 14.
Saiz said there could be upwards of 1,000 pieces (or more) available at each location. For now, it’s anyone’s guess how many people show up to collect one.
“There’s a lot of uncharted territory in terms of what it looks like,” he said. “I’m really excited.”
The exhibit closes Nov. 17 and his giant mosaic will begin to be deconstructed. Volunteers will help Saiz number and wrap each individual piece for distribution. He’ll sign them all, too.
Jena Pruett, a DAM spokeswoman, said she’s heard a lot of chatter about getting a little two-by-two work of art.
“There’s very high demand,” she said. “People are really excited about this giveaway and the opportunity to own something that was once displayed in the Denver Art Museum. I think it’s really special.”
Saiz said he’s giving some to museum staff and others who helped him with the project. He’s shipping a handful around the world to a few people who asked nicely for one. Some will fly off to Tokyo, where an article ran about Saiz in a magazine.
Most people will have to show up at an event to get a piece. Pruett said that everyone who wants one will get one.
Back when we spoke to him in the spring, Saiz said some of his artist colleagues weren’t on board with this “give away a bunch of art” thing.
He said his friends expressed worry that he may be devaluing art and conditioning people to expect work for free. In a world where creatives are often asked to work for “exposure,” would Saiz’s project set a bad precedent?
Saiz said all this free art will only stoke a broader interest in collecting, and that the art world has become a small club.
“We’re all fighting for the tiniest section of art collectors to fund our dreams,” he said. “More people have to fall in love with art and feel like their passion becomes collecting art, and if we do that to a bigger base of people, there will be more people to fund your projects.”
This week, he told us he thinks he’s managed to win some minds over to his side of the debate. He’s been evangelizing for months.
“My friends say I’ve acted a little bit like a cult leader, trying to convince people that this is the way forward,” he said. “I do find that more and more people are understanding how it can help.”
As he attempts to convince artists that he’s not crazy, he had a major win when he won over his gallery, K Contemporary. Unlike the museum, Saiz said, the gallery has “everything to lose” in forgoing sales of these pieces. The museum charges admission, but K Contemporary does not.
“Watching a structured institution say that we all, really do, need to find different ways to activate people,” he said, “I’m really, really, really proud to be working with them.”
This is all still “open experiment,” Saiz said, and he’s still waiting to see what happens.
He’s plowing forward on the idea regardless. Saiz told us he plans on making 100,000 total tiny paintings, cranked out in 10,000-piece batches. He’s pitching the idea to more institutions like the DAM so he can take his next installments around the world. This winter, he’ll move to Mexico to work on it full-time, adding he’s going to slow down a little bit from his original pace. The first 10,000 were completed in just 150 days, a seriously major lift for one person.
So, he said, if you don’t get one this time, there should be more coming.
“I’m excited to prove everyone wrong who thinks I can’t make 100,000,” he said, “including myself.”
Update: The date of one of these events changed after we published this story, so the article has been updated to reflect that.
Correction: This article initially stated that the title of Saiz’s DAM installation was “Study of Utopia.” That’s the name of his overall project, not the installation, so that’s been changed, too.