Screenprinting + Bicycles = ArtCrank
Meet Charles Youel, the man behind the pop-up poster shows rolling into cities around the globe.
In 2007, Charles Youel was a copywriter and creative director in Minneapolis who had grown restless spending his days making websites, banner ads, and other digital projects. His circle of friends included more than a few avid cyclists and creatives who itched for something more tangible. So he decided to combine two of his passions—cycling and creating—by putting on a show of bicycle-inspired art at One On One Bicycle Studio in Minneapolis, and inviting all his friends.
“That first Minneapolis show was all about creating a context for people I knew—really talented designers—to make art out of something that they cared about,” says Youel. “I honestly had no intention of doing more than one show. I thought we’d be lucky if 50 people showed up. If you’d told me it would be a sneak preview of the next seven years of my life, I’d still be laughing.”
Five hundred people came to that first show, and most of them went home with at least one poster. In the nearly eight years since, ArtCrank, the so-called “poster party for bike people” has unrolled more than 2,000 designs at more than 50 events staged in cities including Austin, Boston, Chicago, Denver, New York, Portland, San Francisco, Seattle, and Washington, D.C.
The show now attracts work from major talents like Target’s associate creative director, Allan Peters—another bike nut who calls the Twin Cities home.
“I look forward to ArtCrank every year the way a kid looks forward to Christmas,” says Peters. “I usually start concepting my poster months in advance. It’s one of my only chances as a graphic artist to have full creative control.”
Youel attributes much of ArtCrank’s success to an audience that feels the same pull that grabbed him and his friends back in Minneapolis, so many years ago.
“I don’t want to get too deep, but one of the laws of physics says that for every action there’s an equal and opposite reaction,” Youel says. “As our lives get more digital, as we spend more time with these glowing rectangles in various sizes and shapes, I think people get a greater appreciation for a hand-made, analog, tangible product.”
ArtCrank remains a small outfit—Youel and his wife (a graphic designer, of course) work alongside an operations director and a promotion specialist, and they get help from friends overseas for international shows in Paris and London. All posters are priced the same, and while ArtCrank takes a commission on sales, the majority of proceeds go to the artists. Most of the organization’s operating funds come from event sponsors like Clif, Neenah Paper, Shinola, and Timbuk2. Youel makes an effort to give back by donating proceeds to nonprofit groups that use bikes or art to do good, including Livestrong, World Bicycle Relief, and Springboard for the Arts.
A few months before each event, Youel and his colleagues seek out 25-40 artists for each show.
“When we pick artists, it’s not just all about work that I like—it’s about finding people whose style is going to give us the greatest depth of work, whose work is going to translate into a poster that will appeal to our audience. Because all of the ArtCrank staff come from agency backgrounds, we don’t want to ask people to produce spec work in order to be involved—we just ask people who are interested to submit three samples of previous work, just like you’d do for any other design gig, and then we make our decisions.” On visits to new ArtCrank cities, Youel may struggle to get as many submissions as he’d like, but in regular stops like Minneapolis, as many as 200 designers and illustrators might apply in one year.
Submissions are limited to locals, with good reason.
“We’ve learned that the most successful posters are the ones that pay homage to the host city, whether it’s by showing a particular street or skyline or a landmark that would be known to people who ride in that city,” says Youel. “That character can only come from someone who has that local experience.”
If you’ve ever stumbled upon an ArtCrank original on Pinterest or other social media sites, you may have come to the cruel realization that the posters aren’t easy to purchase. Although artists are welcome to sell their own work after the show is complete, Youel decided not to offer the posters for sale on the ArtCrank website.
“With 25 to 40 artists in each show, we just don’t have the staff or the physical room to support sales on an ongoing basis,” he says. “And we want to create an experience where people have to be physically present—you have to come to a location for a limited time and if you want to own something, there is a limited quantity available. At a time when most transactions mean simply pushing a button on your computer and getting whatever you want in 48 hours or less, there’s something appealing about needing to be in a physical space to make a purchase.”
Fortunately, there may soon be a few alternatives for those who haven’t had the chance to attend an ArtCrank show. Youel has plans to release a book in time for the holidays, and he’s considering an e-commerce site that would allow those outside the typical ArtCrank cities to submit their work. Those additional projects will mean fewer road shows in 2015, but ultimately, Youel has every intention of touring at full capacity. (Read his letter about the future of ArtCrank.)
Youel owns six bikes, and describes himself as a “moderate biking fanatic,” but acknowledges that a year-round bike-poster show seriously cuts into his riding time. He’ll pick up a bikeshare bike in most cities on the ArtCrank itinerary, and last year he logged enough time in the saddle to complete the Almanzo 100—a 100-mile race on gravel roads of southeastern Minnesota.
Why sacrifice all that time on the bike to put posters on a wall?
“There’s a saying that if you love what you do, you never work a day in your life, and I’m here to tell you that’s complete bull shit,” Youel says. “If you love what you do, you work every day of your life as well as nights and weekends, but this has been the most rewarding experience I’ve had in my entire life. Having the privilege to work with so many talented creative people, the chance to see so many parts of the world, and the ability to reach so many people in so many walks of life—that just never gets old.”