Until recently Jonathan Valdivias didn’t have much of an audience. His paintings regularly hung on the walls at NIAD, a local gallery and workspace for artists with disabilities, but his publicity was limited by the gallery’s attendance. Now, thanks to NIAD’s new partnership with the online community and store We Are Lions, Valdivias has the chance to show his work globally.
We Are Lions is kind of like Etsy meets Kickstarter meets NIAD. It’s a website that exclusively shows and sells work from artists with physical or intellectual disabilities. The profits go directly to the artists, their host gallery, or some combination of the two. Further, all of the work is packaged, shipped, and processed by adults with disabilities. It feels like a start up, but their mission has nothing to do with profit.
“We Are Lions is about giving artists and the public the opportunity to break down artificial barriers and communicate on a subconscious level,” explains We Are Lions CEO David Schwartz. Though he just graduated from college last May, Schwartz is already hard at work building his online store to help artists just like Valdivias — those with physical or intellectual disabilities — create unique spaces to show and sell their artwork.
“This partnership has been great in both directions,” explains NIAD Art Director Tim Buckwalter. “We have this gallery here in Richmond, and people from from all around the Bay Area come to see our work. We Are Lions helps expand our reach, and now our artists can reach people around the globe.”
Like with any online experience, We Are Lions is all about the user interface. “It’s kind of like an online museum,” explains Schwartz. “You can go through different artists’ exhibits, and then fund their projects.” Browsing the website feels like looking through a secret market — one that hasn’t been fully tapped before.
You go through, find the artists that you like, and help them fund their projects — whether it be $5 or $50. In 2015, We Are Lions plans to host 20 new artists every two weeks. The company has been active for just about a year now, but already Schwartz has partnered with four organizations similar to NIAD. The goal is to give as many artists as much exposure as possible, and to help establish this often overlooked artist community as mainstream.
The medium is the message for exposure at We Are Lions. Art work can be purchased on a canvas, a t-shirt, or even an iPhone case. It is this accessibility and this everyday-ness to the products that helps We Are Lions succeed. The physicality of art can be cumbersome — once you place it in on a wall or a self, it often stays there. That’s not a problem with the art from We Are Lions.
“We get customers all the time who tell us that people keep asking them about their shirt or their phone case,” says Schwartz. “That’s exactly what we were hoping for all along. By having these striking, beautiful images so visible, it starts a conversation which leads to awareness and interest in this artists community.”
The network that We Are Lions creates is as much about the consumer community as it is about artists like Valdivias. Valdivias gets to show his work to a much large audience who will then — through using the iPhone case or wearing the t-shirt — provide a means for him to get exposure, recognition, and appreciation.
The partnership between NIAD and We Are Lions has been in development for just over a year now, and the model appears to be working. At last check Buckwalter was about to sell out of the t-shirts at NIAD, and he and Schultz were in talks to reprint another batch.
The community of We Are Lions and the artists at NIAD is still young, and there is still some work to do before these artists make it mainstream. For now, most don’t meet their funding goals, but at the same time, many the t-shirts are flying off the shelves. Like with any Kickstarter campaign, or Etsy shop, or NIAD exhibit, We Are Lions needs to get the word out — and then go viral.