Evan La Ruffa ’05 walked away from St. Thomas’ Justice and Peace Studies program with an important message: It’s not just enough to criticize; it’s important to come up with viable solutions for those critiques.
La Ruffa has put that message into play with IPaintMyMind, a Chicago-based nonprofit he founded with the goal of making art accessible to everyone.
“(Justice and Peace Studies) really got me thinking about passion and wanting to do good in the world, and build a model that hadn’t been thought about,” La Ruffa said.
'Putting art where we live, work, play'
“I've always been the guy telling his friends about a new record or artist I had found,” La Ruffa said. That passion for art and music led to the first iteration of IPaintMyMind in 2009, mostly in blog form. By 2012 La Ruffa had laid the groundwork for it to grow into something more.
As part of his justice and peace studies major La Ruffa worked with nonprofits. He said he noticed a common problem: how nonprofits fund their work. He said it was frustrating to be looking for donors and grants so often it hurt the work.
"It was clear that funding nonprofits was a key pain point," La Ruffa said. Instead of "trudging the same path of donors, grants and foundations," La Ruffa focused on a model that earns revenue, satisfies partners and clients, and funds charitable work.
What he came up with is the basis for the company’s Shared Walls service. Private companies contract with IPaintMyMind to bring a temporary exhibit into their space, which IPaintMyMind curates from their growing collection. That revenue helps fund a free exhibit (also curated by IPaintMyMind) in a public space, such as community centers, parks or libraries. For example, since fall 2012, they've curated an exhibit for Darwin Elementary School.
“We’re really focused on spreading the love, putting the art where people, live, work, play,” La Ruffa said.
While IPaintMyMind is based heavily in Chicago, La Ruffa said they hope to focus on New York, Los Angeles and San Francisco.
Taking the art out of a gallery context is important, he added, because it makes it easier to relate to.
“We’re rebelling against the snotty art-world, red-rope thing,” La Ruffa said. “That’s hugely important to me … changing the way people interact with art and showing that art is something that is, and should continue to be, part of everyone's daily experience. Not just something set aside for the affluent."
The program supports artists in two ways: First, IPaintMyMind physically buys works of art from the artists, which are placed in IPaintMyMind’s collection. Second, the artists then gets exposure in various places around the city, where more communities can interact with it.
IPaintMyMind also continues to feature artists and musicians on their website, and has their own gallery with monthly exhibits in the Green Exchange building in Chicago.
Most of the artwork IPaintMyMind buys are pieces that can be easily placed on a wall, such as screen prints, digital collages or photography. Although a lot of the work is made locally, La Ruffa said they’ve also had from artists all over the world, including California, Europe and Japan. La Ruffa said about half the time the artists contact IPaintMyMind, and about half the time IPaintMyMind reaches out to the artists.
La Ruffa said they try to curate content broadly to pull a lot of people in and have them find something to be excited about.
“They relate to something they’ve seen, and are also discovering brand-new stuff,” La Ruffa said.
Another key aspect: price.
“If it costs $1,000, I’m not buying it either,” La Ruffa said. “A lot of times the reason people keep art at arm’s length is it doesn’t feel like it’s for them. It costs a lot, and only a few people can afford it.”
Continuing to expand
IPaintMyMind continues to grow and while La Ruffa is still the only full-time staffer, the company includes an editor, event director, half a dozen writers and four interns.
La Ruffa’s goal is to continue growing by developing new partnerships and getting more art into communities: He wants to have an exhibit in each of Chicago’s 50 wards by the end of 2016.
"We thought there was no better way to exemplify our mission than to make our goal about putting art in every Chicago community," La Ruffa said.
While art can be intangible, La Ruffa has numbers on his mind for measuring the impact and success of IPaintMyMind.
“Aside from money, how many people are coming to the shows? How many artists are reaching out? How many companies for partnerships? Are the grant makers moved by what we’re doing? Have they written a check?” La Ruffa said.
La Ruffa referred to IPaintMyMind as his “colorful and chaotic baby” but said there was nothing he’d rather be doing.
“Definitely offer encouragement to anyone who has a great idea or positive solution,” La Ruffa said. “For me, it was melding my passion, art, with my desire to make the world a better place.”