By dave barton
After graduating from Chapman University with a BA in film and television production in 2001, Kevin Staniec's parents expected him to go the traditional route: move to Hollywood, get a low-level job as a production assistant and work his way up. He bristled. "Why would I start at the bottom when I could just start writing and making movies?" he now asks.
No underground blockbusters came out of that decision, no hobnobbing with Tarantinos or Linklaters–just a few shorts and music videos–but the DIY spirit of collaboration among Staniec and his friends led to the creation of the free art magazine, ISM: A Community Project. Cobbling together money–"We were 21 years old and knew nothing; it was all trial and error"–the first issue boasted pieces by novelist James Blaylock, a pre-Glee Matthew Morrison (who was starring in Hairspray on Broadway) and artwork by OC Weekly favorite Aaron Kraten.
The publishing release parties that followed–DJs and dancing, live art, and literature–became hot tickets, coming to the attention of Kirsten Schmidt at the Orange County Museum of Art, who brought ISM in to do a series of combo release/exhibition opening parties. The experience of working in such a different environment (one that could easily have backfired) was a crash course in learning how to not fail for Staniec, who turned the four gigs offered by Schmidt into a two-year contract. As sales of ISM began to grow into the thousands, it started to charge to cover its costs. The hard work led to other gigs–including curating at Irvine Fine Arts Center, Grand Central, Laguna Art Museum, and more–as well as a prestigious Norman Rockwell tribute show at the Muckenthaler Cultural Center in Fullerton, with the iconic illustrator's work reimagined by modern artists from Disney, Pixar and the Cartoon Network, among others.
ISM's a thing of the past now, breaking even and folding after a decade in business, and Staniec is no longer floating around OC and LA; he's now a program specialist for the city of Irvine, and his big project is Living Room Talks. Happening every first Sunday of the month in the gaily decorated space at the Great Park Gallery, the free, hour-long, interactive discussions feature professionals in the industry talking about marketing, branding and other aspects of being a successful artist. It's the closest thing to a French-style salon that Orange County has seen in a while.
It's only the beginning of a three-step program toward making the gallery an active art environment. Built and curated to be inviting and unassuming, its aim is to be a warm spot for artists. It's currently open four days a week, but Staniec has pushed for six. The gallery offers Wi-Fi, a comfortable atmosphere and free meeting areas. Give creatives free space, and conversations get started. People start talking, and good things start happening. The conversation has just begun.
Staniec is quick to name the people who said yes when he needed them to and gracious with praise for artists and administrators alike who opened doors or worked for free. When he talks about the recursive qualities of people working together, it's hard to not get as excited as he does; you can also see a little of the high school basketball player in the adult.
"The key to success is collaboration," he says. "It's what ISM was all about. It's what I'm all about."