Groundworkk comes to Durham


The Clarion  Content has been singing the praises of the cultural nexus that is our new offices, Mercury Studio, for some time. Last month we attended a paradigm breaking event called Groundworkk at Mercury Studio. The idea is insta-Kickstarter-esque process meets micro-lending, in person pitchers are able to request funds from an audience that paid $5 per person to get in the room. This $5 forms the kitty that pitchers win.

Groundworkk Founder Matthew Konar and Whitney Robinson of Freshly Given


Last month at Mercury Studio, it was wall to wall. The concept is only five months old, but has already proven a hit in Raleigh.  Naturally, the early adopters, like Durham guru Jim Lee, were there.

There is four pitch limit. Each pitcher is supposed to give a four minute presentation and then answer six minutes worth of questions from the audience. Ostensibly, no electronic aids for presentations are allowed, although there appeared to be some leeway with this rule.

We heard pitches from four interesting and likely worthy causes. The Durham Storefront Project, The Durham Photography Parade, The Durham Arts Council’s Emerging Artists Program and the health drink, Jungle Fruit. Groundworkk founder, Matthew Konar, told us in his opening remarks that he hoped this could be a symbiotic process for the community; the community funding community based projects. It warmed this liberty loving, small “c” conservative’s heart. No need for government money to crowd out the little guy and bureaucratize the process.

Mind you, these are tiny grants. With approximately sixty people in attendance, the pool was no more than $300. Microfinance indeed. And it occurred to the Clarion Content, as we listened to these appeals, that this might have fascinating applications for Grameen-style microlending. What if via Skype, entrepreneurially minded citizens of the globe’s less developed areas could pitch first-world funders. Even if the audience who listened to the funding pitch only contributed $2-$3 a piece, it would be massive in those economies. One computer on the far end, one good internet connection and a translator might make it happen.

Perhaps we will pitch this idea to Groundworkk ourselves. Although not this month, Groundworkk returns to Mercury Studios tonight at 6.30pm. All of the coveted pitch slots have already been nabbed. If you attend, in addition to getting to hear cool proposals, you get to eat. Groundworkk always invites a local caterer to put on a spread. Founder Konar reports every single one of these caterers has booked a gig out of the evening of donated food, another win-win scenario. Last month, the food was out of this world, cooked up by Amy Saltmarsh.

The audience listens to the proposals one after another, questions the pitch team or person, and at the end of forty minutes adjourns for snacking and noshing. During that time voting takes place, it is done on tiny slips of paper like might have been used for a student council election. Not high tech, but effective enough given the stakes.

The proposals your editor heard last month were all high-minded. The Durham Storefront Project has been a huge success in recent years and garnered tons of positive press for its invigoration of the empty spaces of downtown Durham (including in these very pages). Some say the Durham Storefront Project provided a critical impetus for the leasing of several previously underutilized spaces. Art seeding development.1

We were glad to hear the Storefront project is inching ever closer to its goal of paying the artists. We were disappointed to hear that the total number of artists involved in the project has been cutback to only four from as many as sixteen in the past. We are happy the Durham Storefront Project continues to work on behalf of the public’s art enlightenment and for the public’s art enjoyment.

The Durham Arts Council and their Emerging Artist’s Program were the recipient of our vote. Some might argue that they already get plenty of funding. At the Clarion Content, we thought it ballsy and innovative that what some view as a staid, old organization like the DAC was out at this cutting-edge event pitching. And they brought the big guns, Margaret DeMott, Director of Artists Services, and Lindsay Gordon, Artists Services Manager.

Their pitch, like Durham Storefront’s, was straight out of Konar’s “of the community,” “for the community,” “by the community” playbook. They ran through the litany of amazing Durham artists that have won the Emerging Artists grant, including sixteen new winners this year. The list of past winners is a veritable who’s who in Durham art.

Jungle Fruit was the creative brainstorm of young PhD student at Duke. He wanted to bring a fun, healthy, energy drink to the table. He said we had seen impacts of our society’s obsession with sugary drinks. He had passion and verve, but when the audience wanted to know, what about the crowded market, how would he stand out, the sledding got tougher. He did have thoughts about a imaginative product line, including bubble tea and perhaps a future energy drink with liquor, though he couldn’t quite square that with the health angle.

The night’s big winner was Alaskan and Duke alumnus, Tyler Mahoney, and the Durham Photography Parade. Mahoney danced on the edges of the low tech rule, narrating while flipping through a few, cool graphics and slides on a tablet. The crowd was clearly inspired by Mahoney’s co-creating, co-planning approach.

He proposed a parade of amateur and professional photographers take shots of Durham through their own eyes and lenses. He spoke hopefully of getting shots of Durham’s less frequently photographed neighborhoods. He opened after introducing himself, with a series of direct remarks about the interplay of social justice and photography. He offered that all photos taken that day would be curated, crowdsourced, freely available to the public, geotagged for businesses and neighborhood organizations. It sounded awfully good.

The Clarion Content does have some concerns. We believe it is uber-important that the neighborhoods being photographed need to have participants in the Durham Photography Parade. We are loathe to think of the insensitivity and inhumanity that might be possible were a bunch of outsiders to come traipsing into one’s neighborhood, pointing cameras at one’s house and family. It rings of some of the basest elements of safari and cultural tourism. There are, of course, ways in which these forays and this exposure can lead to good. And to his credit, when the Clarion Content expressed our concerns to Mahoney, he said that every effort would be made to be inclusive. He asked for help in connecting to as many young people, amateur photographers  and Durham residents as he could find. He noted it was his goal to get beyond the Mercury Studio social circles and Groundworkk attendees, to have as diverse a group as possible on his Durham Photography Parade.

And by all means, Durham, join in! They already have a website. Mahoney is a sharp operator, he will bring this project to fruition and create a repository of additional Durham photos. Stimulating discussion and challenging boundaries all the while.

The Durham Photography Parade takes place March 2nd departing at 12pm from Durham Central Park. Find out more here.

As we mentioned, like so much of what passes through Mercury Studio’s doors, Groundworkk is provocative, daring, paradigm-changing and ultimate giving and self-fulfilling. Round two tonight. Bring your pens, notebooks, minds and $5 bucks. It is fly.


1A favorite Clarion Content thesis.

Aaron Mandel

Aaron Mandel is a writer and an accomplished public speaker. He is the publisher of the Clarion Content. For more than a decade, the Clarion Content has covered Durham’s arts, politics, music, and cultural milieu. From breaking news stories to the hottest local acts, the Clarion Content is on the scene. The Clarion Content published more than twenty distinguished guest columnists and garnered nearly a million views. Mandel is a volunteer for the Durham Mighty Pen Literacy Project and serves as the President of the Board of Sustain-A-Bull Durham, a local small business collective with more than 200 members. He writes regularly on the Clarion Content and has been quietly writing fiction since the 4th grade. Mandel has been published in the Raleigh News and Observer. He has also produced numerous art shows, including, “Durham under Development”. He was a featured speaker at “The State of Publishing” conference. He has presented to Durham Chamber of Commerce, “Chamber U” on the “New Media”. He has also served as the play-by-play announcer for the D.B.L., a Durham youth basketball league. He holds a Bachelor of Arts degree in History and Religious Studies from Indiana University in Bloomington. An avid policy debater at Indiana and a Nation Debate Tournament qualifier, Mandel was also a member of the New Jersey State Champion two-person Policy Debate Team. He has lived in North Carolina, New Jersey, California, Texas, Illinois, Colorado, Indiana, and Baja California, Mexico.

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