Eight years ago, Mickey Ashmore’s son asked a simple question: “Why don’t you go to Booker T. to look for art?”
For Ashmore, CEO of Universal Commercial Realty, the idea to look for gifts for his most valued clients for his company’s 20th anniversary was novel. Now, seven years later, the simple question has led to a legacy of art advocacy among high school students in the form of Retail as Art.
The scholarship photography competition, a charitable initiative of UCR, presents a number of high school students with prizes for images that capture their interpretation of the essence of retail. From fish markets to store racks, past winners have varied in subject matter, but all feature a high level of style.
“A lot of these kids don’t have an outlet for their creativity or don’t get recognition for these kinds of things. The people who get recognized are usually the athletes,” Ashmore said. “But we get to give these young people an opportunity to grow, express themselves, and increase their creativity.”
Ashmore, who enjoys photography in his spare time, realized after the contest’s first year, with seven or eight entrants from Booker T. Washington High School for the Performing and Visual Arts, that the contest was special, and that UCR needed to continue the event.
“Getting involved with these kids, and hearing their parents say, ‘thank you,’ it’s a big deal. The rewards we get are just as important as the kids,” he said.
For 2014 winner Abigail Chang, the contest pushed her from thinking of photography as just a hobby and into believing she could pursue it as a full career. She submitted photos every year of high school and won for her entry, “Lobster Dinner,” during her senior year.
“After the first year I was able to explore photography on a more professional level rather than just as a hobby,” she said. “Retail as Art has given me a platform for positive exposure starting out. Having a bit of competitive edge makes it more real, because photography is a very competitive field of work.”
Ashmore hopes that students involved in the program can realize the creative professional opportunities available in retail.
“We’re really trying to make young people aware of the job opportunities in graphic design and retail. It’s such a great opportunity that doesn’t necessarily need a four-year college,” he said.
This year, top images, as judged by a panel of photography experts, will be on display for three days at the Goss-Michael Foundation Gallery, culminating in a gala on April 25, which is open to the public. The images are sold, with the proceeds going back toward the scholarships.
“They now get the opportunity to show off their work to their friends. They have something to truly be proud of,” Ashmore said.
For the second year, Retail as Art is also accepting Instagram submissions — a sign of the changing accessibility of photography.
“We realized that a lot of students didn’t have access to a photography class or a camera except their phone,” he said. “The Instagram images are just amazing, and we’ve upped the number of contestants by letting them apply through the app.”
Now, Ashmore expects more than 300 at the upcoming event.