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In the early years of the COVID pandemic, the Central Massachusetts art community saw museums close, gallery shows cancel or be online-only, and the loss of the popular arts space in Worcester’s Sprinkler Factory.
Area artists lost many opportunities to connect with each other and with collectors.
In February 2021, two artists and entrepreneurs, Michelle May and Payal Thiffault, used their talents, experience, and passion for the arts to create a new connection for artists, a for-profit glossy magazine featuring the work and writing of artists from around New England and the world: Juniper Rag.
They formed a Paxton marketing firm called Atelier ID Global in 2017, specializing in branding, creative services, and websites. Juniper Rag began as a marketing project by that company.
“We elevate brands, and we elevate companies, so why not do it with artists? In my travels, I realized that our artists like to make art, but they don't always like the business side,” May said. “Many are very good at the business side, but many don't want to be bothered.”
Worcester artist Scott Boilard, whose murals can be seen around Worcester County including on the Temple Street side of The Sundown bar on Green Street and at Checker Place in West Boylston, said he doesn’t always have the bandwidth or discipline to consistently market his own artwork. May and Thiffault are savvy about marketing and networking and are able to promote his artwork as part of Juniper Rag, he said.
Juniper Rag quickly evolved into more than a magazine. In February, after being delayed by COVID, the publication held its first exhibition: Origin, at the Jean McDonough Arts Center in Worcester. Since then it has held exhibitions in person in Provincetown, Newton, and at the Worcester Center for Crafts, as well as online. It’s next show, Torrid | Contemporary Abstracts will open in March at the White Room in Worcester.
Juniper Rag fills a gap in the local arts scene, said Alice Dillon, a fiber artist and associate director at ArtsWorcester, a nonprofit organization with a gallery space on Portland Street in Worcester.
“There’s been a lot of buzz about Juniper Rag amongst local artists, especially when the first edition came out. There’s been a hunger for a thick-paged, glossy art publication like other big art cities have,” said Dillon. “Juniper Rag isn’t exclusive to Worcester-area artists; they've featured artists from across the country, but Central Mass. is where the heart of the magazine is. Local artists, whether they’ve participated or not, are proud of that. “
Dillon was selected by a jury to appear in the first issue of Juniper Rag, as well as the upcoming fourth issue, and participated in Juniper Rag’s Origin show.
Luis Fraire owns The White Room gallery and event space with his wife, Birgit Straehle. The couple ran the Sprinkler Factory art space before it closed in 2021. Fraire is impressed with the magazine’s quality.
“Beautiful layout, beautiful production values. It’s a high-caliber work of graphic design. It’s informative; it’s diverse,” said Fraire.
May and Thiffault both have a background in art and design. Beyond being fine artists, the two worked together for a company producing high-end event invitations. They met there and then decided to go into business together.
Juniper Rag creates opportunities for up-and-comers by connecting them with a larger audience, Boilard said.
“If you want to be a full-time artist, you have to expand beyond your hometown,” he said.
Fraire curated the magazine’s third issue, Shift. He was impressed at the magazine’s reach when he saw that one of the artists who submitted for the issue was from Fraire’s mother’s home city of Monterrey, Mexico.
“It is a little bit local, it’s a little bit regional, a little bit national, and a little bit international,” he said. “That’s a good service for the local community … Exposure that goes in two different directions: the local being transmitted out, and the outside being transmitted in.”
An artist from San Diego, Julia C R Gray, drove across the country to participate in one of Juniper Rag’s exhibitions, said May.
The magazine has a democratizing effect, as it features both known and unknown artists as if they’re on the same level, Boilard said.
Straehle, from The White Room, sees value in artists at various stages in their career being presented in a high-quality paper magazine.
“It gives them another platform, something that sticks more permanently in people’s heads than Facebook and Instagram,” Straehle said.
Juniper Rag charges a $35 submission fee to artists in its magazine and historically has charged $50-$75 for entry into its in-person exhibitions. Commissions for sales at shows vary depending on the deal they can negotiate with venues.
Dillon would like to see more outreach to younger artists who may not be able to easily pay the registration fee Juniper Rag requires for artists to be featured in the publication.
“I spend a lot of time, both at my day job and in my personal life, working with young artists who have big dreams for publications and exhibitions. Participation fees are tough for this group of artists who want exposure but can’t pay their rent with it,” said Dillon. “This is a universal problem for publications and organizations, and not one that anyone expects Juniper Rag to solve. Financial aid for submissions would be a wonderful thing to see, or maybe a special issue for artists under 30 with a discounted submission fee.“
Juniper Rag tries to keep the financial barrier for entry as low as possible, but May said they need to pay for overhead and be somewhat compensated for their time producing the magazine, setting up the shows, and promoting. Her hope is artists can sell work from the exposure in the magazines and at the shows that will far exceed the entry costs.
Beyond the magazine and exhibitions, Juniper Rag offers creative marketing and design services to artists through Atelier ID Global. This comes in the form of marketing management, media kits, and websites.
“We’re creating marketing structures for artists who want to invest more in their art,” said May.
Juniper Rag has developed an online marketplace for artists as part of its website, which is in the process of growing. Collectors can browse available artwork and learn more about the artists who created it.
The duo work actively to grow their network and connect artists with collectors. In November, they attended Art Basel in Miami and in January are headed to Art and Design Week in Fort Lauderdale.
In 2023, Juniper Rag is looking forward to more live exhibitions and online promotion, collaborating with other art organizations, and developing career-building workshops for artists, May said.
Ultimately, Juniper Rag wants to connect artists and collectors.
“We want to focus on the storytelling behind why people make art,” said May. “Get to know these artists and start collecting art. Don’t go to T.J. Maxx or Pier 1 Imports. If you can’t afford, like, a giant piece, you just start small. So much art is affordable.”