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Lu Zhang Named Executive Director of A Blade of Grass

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Lu Zhang is a familiar, friendly face to many of us in the Baltimore art scene. Longtime BmoreArt subscribers might recognize Zhang as the artist on the cover of our first ever print issue back in 2015! Among many other feats as an artist, administrator, and organizer, Zhang helped nurture The Contemporary through its first hiatus comeback in her position as Deputy Director under the collaborative leadership of Deana Haggag. 

For the past few years, Zhang has been serving as the Initiatives Director of United States Artists, the national nonprofit to which several of The Contemporary’s staff members followed Haggag when she served as President from 2017-2021. 

Now, Zhang is bringing her years of arts administration and hands-on creative experience to a new organization as it enters a new chapter.

“I never aspired to be an Executive Director!” Zhang confessed in a recent phone call. “I work in the arts because I want to be in conversation with artists and build resources to support them. I don’t want to be further removed from working with artists on a day to day basis.”

She explains that, at A Blade of Grass, they have an all artist and art-worker board. “It’s a different model from most institutions,” she says. “I’m excited to not only be in conversation with artists and arts workers but to reestablish the organization through an artist lens.” 

Importantly, she noted, those working artists and in-the-field culture workers on the Board of Directors actually receive an honorarium for their time and energy—bringing in the voices best positioned to guide the organization’s work. I pointed out that’s a far cry from the pay-to-play model that all-too-often defines nonprofit leadership, in which wealthy donors dominate much of the decision making.

Through the phone I could picture Zhang trying not to crack one of her characteristic grins as she diplomatically clarified, “I’d frame it as this model is more accessible to the peoplethe artistswho the organization aims to support.” 

 

HOUSE OF BEING, 2018 interactive reading installation, with Cynthia Oyervides at Espacio Cero in Mexico City, photo by Ricardo Encinas

A Blade of Grass, founded in 2011, has supported “artists who serve as innovative conduits for social change and foster dialogue around the importance of art to civic life,” per their press release. Most notably, their high profile Fellowship program has supported dozens of artists with socially-minded practices, providing grants, professional development, and exposure to projects as varied as prison abolition papier-mâché theater in Puerto Rico to site-specific paintings highlighting land threatened by fossil fuel pipelines

Since the universal turmoil of 2021 and period of reflection it ushered in, A Blade of Grass has been restructuring, evaluating how best to serve artists and their communities. As their email announcing Zhang’s appointment stated, “and with new leadership emerge as a strong and values-driven organization—a leading artist- governed national funder for ambitious socially engaged art projects.”

It’s both the organization’s history and period of transition that appealed to Zhang, who told us “Socially engaged art is in such an interesting place. A Blade of Grass has hosted a series of convenings to discuss what that looks like, and I am so excited to dive into all that research as we go forward.”

Both Lu Zhang’s studio and arts administrative practices have always been driven by research, thoughtful consideration of systems, and laying groundwork for artists who follow. Her epic, year-long project topo(log) typo(log)in which she proposed and secured a position as artist-in-residence at the George Peabody Library through the ICA Baltimorefor example, wasn’t just a personal project. She created a framework for other artists to take advantage of (and contribute to) an oft-overlooked cultural resource. 

In her role as Initiatives Director of United States Artists Zhang spearheaded the Initiatives Department, dedicated to expanding holistic support for artists and their communities. This support includes projects such as Disability Futures, a fund to increase the visibility of disabled creatives, and Artist Relief, a $23.4 million emergency initiative to support artists facing dire financial circumstances due to COVID-19. 

We’re excited to see what grows out of Zhang’s new tenure at A Blade of Grass. It’s hard to imagine a better suited person for the task. Part of that promise is Zhang’s approachable, adaptable leadership style. “I think of everyone as collaborators,” she explained. What drew her to the organization was their “interest in collaborative, non-hierarchical leadership. I’m excited about these potential structures.” 

But the New-York-based organization’s gain won’t be Baltimore’s loss. Zhang is planning on staying here, and splitting her time between the two cities. As much as she’s looking forward to working with a nonprofit with international reach, she stressed the importance of home. “I can’t imagine leaving Baltimore. So many artists work in specific communities. And a lot of those communities aren’t in New York, so it’s important to me to have a sense of place.” 

 

A GENTLE EXCAVATION, 2019 / site-specific group exhibition at Resort Gallery, guest curator Allie Linn
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