We had the good fortune of connecting with Katie Avila Loughmiller and we’ve shared our conversation below.

Hi Katie, why did you decide to pursue a creative path?
I grew up being the only Colombian person I knew. I was adopted into a caucasian family, grew up in a predominately white neighborhood, my teachers in and outside of school were white, and even most of the books, movies and TV shows I watched centered white characters. While I didn’t quite know how to articulate what I was feeling as a child, looking back I was confused as to what my place in the world was — when I couldn’t point to anyone who looked like me, where did I fit? Where did I belong? My love for writing, art and performing was something I fell in love with at an early age. Through the arts, I could take up space, show up as my authentic self and tell my story. While my career has veered off the path from a traditional creative path at times, I have always come back to my love of storytelling. After a few years of working for a nonprofit where I was able to see real change happen on a national scale, I was curious about the role of art and the artist and social change. I then applied to get my Master of Fine Arts degree at Otis College of Art and Design in their Public Practice program. I was accepted and completed this degree in 2014. Since then, I have fully committed my life and career to being a creative who works across disciplines, puts community at the center of my work, and I continue to tell my own story as well as helping others tell theirs.

Can you give our readers an introduction to your business? Maybe you can share a bit about what you do and what sets you apart from others?

I didn’t mean to start a business when I started LUNA (Latinas Unidas en las Artes). In 2017, after living in Milwaukee for nearly a year, I had been working for a variety of nonprofit arts organizations and was extremely disappointed in the lack of representation for artists of color, particularly Latinx women artists. At one organization, my co-worker happened to be Paraguayan but was from Milwaukee, so I asked her if she knew other Latinx artists. As it turned out, she knew a lot and from there, we decided to see if these artists would be interested in forming a collective — and they were! After meeting monthly for a year, we were able to curate our first exhibition featuring 15 artists in July of 2018 and from there we continued to curate exhibitions and get involved at community festivals and other events. In the fall of 2019, we received a grant from the city to open up a temporary pop up space and we made the leap to turn the collective into an official LLC. This opportunity helped launch and excel many of the LUNA artists’ individual careers but it also transformed how LUNA would operate moving forward.

The collective model, unfortunately, was not sustainable. I, along with a handful of artists in the group, were putting in many, many unpaid hours. In 2020, I went to a Labor themed residency at Santa Fe Art Institute to take time to figure out how LUNA could be sustainable as a business. While there, I was able to secure our first commissioned project and it was clear to me that was the future of LUNA. We now work solely on commissioned projects including curatorial projects, public art installations, workshops and more. The most challenging part of this work, however, is that there is a lot of interest in hiring us but not at the rates we demand. One of my main goals with LUNA now is to educate companies/organizations on the true labor of artists in order to ensure artists are paid equitably. I have found many companies/organizations want to work with artists but still are severely underpaying them. This becomes extremely problematic particularly when trying to diversify what artists get opportunities.

The biggest thing I have learned is how competition and a scarcity mindset is a tool of white supremacy. I think it’s incredibly important that artists help each other and that there is actually room for all of us — if we make room. I think LUNA has and continues to be a great example of this. LUNA has been a place where many artists have been able to get the support to grow their own individual business. We’ve had many artists who have seen success and this doesn’t hinder any one else’s success or the success of LUNA as a business entity.

Let’s say your best friend was visiting the area and you wanted to show them the best time ever. Where would you take them? Give us a little itinerary – say it was a week long trip, where would you eat, drink, visit, hang out, etc.
Of course, we have to spend some time at Lake Michigan especially if they’ve never checked out a Great Lake before — truly we’re so lucky to have this as a part of our city. For food — there are so many places to go but Sherman Phoenix and Zócalo Food Park are great places where people have lots of options. Historic Mitchell Street has some of the best food — Anmol Restaurant for Pakistani & Indian Halal Food, Damascus Gate Restaurant for Middle Eastern Food and Lopez Bakery for tamales and pan dulce. While at Lopez Bakery, we would check out the mural LUNA created for them which was originally outside when their window was temporally boarded up but they loved it so much that when the window was replaced they put the mural inside! There’s also the best Milwaukee Public Library Branch on Mitchell Street which is the home to a makerspace and public art created by resident artists in 2018 and 2019. For a coffee break, Anodyne Coffee all the way — and maybe there’d have a show in the evening showcasing bands from Milwaukee’s wildly talented music scene. When friends visit during chillier in climates, I take them to Mitchell Park Domes. In the summer, we’d have to go to one of the many different events happening at SummerFest grounds or to a smaller park concert like at Washington Park Bandshall or Kaddish Park. Finally, I always take people on the very fun Lakefront Brewery Tour and that’s where we’d order, in my opinion, the best cheese curds in Milwaukee. Milwaukee has great sports teams too — so if the Brewers or the Bucks were in town, we’d have to see a game. Other entertainment could include a movie at The Oriental or a play at Next Act Theatre. Honestly, there is so much more to do and see here!

Shoutout is all about shouting out others who you feel deserve additional recognition and exposure. Who would you like to shoutout?
Everyone who has ever been a part of LUNA. There are too many people to name but I will name a few! First and foremost, Gabriela Riveros, the co-founder of LUNA, there’s no way I would have attempted to start LUNA without her collaboration and connections to other artists in the city. The next person who I met early in the process of forming LUNA is Nicole Acosta. Nicole had previously formed a Latinx artist collective and her expertise and understanding of how collectives work was invaluable. Nicole continues to be a close friend, collaborator and champion of the work I do in and outside of LUNA. Debbie Sajnani, Irma Roman, Yessica Jimenez and Quinn Blackshere who all were completely invaluable when we had our temporary pop up space and helped us with the transition from a grassroots collective to an actual business. Outside of LUNA, I am extremely grateful for the support of Mary Louise Schumacher, who wrote an important article for the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel after our first exhibition that helped spread the word about the work we were doing. Mary Louise has also turned into a close friend and someone who I worked closely with and has hired me to work on different projects! My partner, Lafayette Crump, who is incredibly busy person as well but always finds the time to support projects and attend different events whether it be an art opening, a play I’ve directed or a panel I’m speaking on. He also never misses an opportunity to brag about the work that I do. And lastly, the city of Milwaukee. I moved here in 2016 and I was pretty much welcomed with open arms. I found it amazing how easy it was to collaborate and get involved in the community. I was only supposed to be in Milwaukee for a summer but 6 years later, I have found a real home here and that is because I have been able to find an incredible community of people here.

Website: www.lunamke.com + ww.wkatieavilastudio.com

Instagram: @lunamkeofficial + @imkatievila

Linkedin: www.linkedin.com/in/katie-avila-loughmiller

Twitter: @imkatievila

Image Credits
The first photo with me (on right) with fellow artist, Whitney Salgado sitting on our street mural was photographed by Zachary Seib — as well as the photo of community members painting the street mural. The headshot of me in hoops was taken by Nicole Acosta.

Nominate Someone: ShoutoutLA is built on recommendations and shoutouts from the community; it’s how we uncover hidden gems, so if you or someone you know deserves recognition please let us know here.