K á r o l y T a r d o s:
Chapters form the History of Artists Space, as Seen from Budapest (1)
When the pioneers of abstract expressionism founded Arts Club in 1949 and Tanager Gallery in 1952, on 8th and 10th Street in Manhattan, nobody would have ventured to predict that the financing of the alternative sphere in the US would continue to live rather hard times for at least another 20-30 years. For long, there were only very few such institutions, and the state financers began to back these only around the seventies. From this time, however, they would cherish their promising galleries as “bright young stars”, among them Artists Space, Franklin Furnace, P.S.1, The Kitchen, before, by the eighties, the self-moving independent spaces, communicating art related to human rights and politics, would become somewhat disgraced again, as renitent, “decadent” actors, which were fortunate enough, however, to be able to rely on the sphere of private foundations, already strengthened by that time.
Artists Space (AS) was founded after lengthy negotiations in 1972 by the New York State Council on the Arts (NYSCA), which had been trying to find ways to finance artists from the funds of the institution. Until then, the regulations only allowed for financing art in very limited ways, the Visual Arts Projects Program of the NYSCA could only finance nonprofit institutions. This ensured the least possibilities for the fine arts, as while, according to the regulations on financing, dancers and actors were perceived as groups, artists simply appeared as old-fashioned entrepreneurs. Moreover, the regulations did not make it possible to finance co-operative or other alternative galleries, except if they were “public service” spaces. Thus the idea for founding a gallery called Artists Space was outlined, which space would not only be nonprofit but also public service, as it was planned to serve independent artists. The public service character of the gallery was embodied in traits such as: according to the rules set up, the artists could select their fellow artists who would have a show at AS, the board was composed in fifty percent by artists, and there were several founding programs which supported independent artists. (Most important of these was the Unassociated Artists File, which contained the slides, later on the digitalized slides, of the artists applying for an exhibition.) Trudie Grace, Director, and Irving Sandler, Board President, who had been working previously an NYSCA, provided so as to have the gallery cover all costs of the exhibition, and to have the income from any eventual sales be fully due to the artist. Furthermore, artists could also receive modest one-time grants for preparing their show.
The freshly incorporated organization operated within an extremely democratic framework, by which the founders intended to place the gallery in opposition to the character of the commercial art world, dominated by dealers, collectors, and curators, critics. In the course of the selection process, first three established artists were selected, who in turn would choose three independent, emerging artists to exhibit in the exhibition space. The democratic character of the system of selection (already treated ironically by many) was then further enhanced: the artists could decide about the person of the selectors as well. They wrote up a list containing the names of about 660 artists, and they sent it to all the listed artists, to have them select 10 selector artists from among the ones they knew from the list. That there was actually interest at that time in this way of selection and in the possibility of showing in Artists Space was signaled by the fact that 420 artists answered. A further democratic trait of the selection process was that all, at the time around 400, members of the Unaffiliated Artists File were invited to a slide show composed of their slides, with the purpose of selecting the members of 12 person group shows.
However, Artists Space did not succeed in creating an art world completely alternative to the commercial sphere. Firstly, because collectors, who could secure subsistence to the artists, did not really buy in independent spaces, as they liked it more to have their commercial gallery dealer stand behind them. Secondly, because the Artists Space exhibition policy was to have one artist exhibit only once, so they could not really represent anyone more seriously, as a commercial gallery would do. Nevertheless, they served as a model for quite a few alternative spaces.
When the Board hired Helene Winer (HW) in 1975, it was obvious that she would not receive a completely free hand in managing, the new manager, nevertheless, could rightfully trust that she would have a considerable degree of freedom in transforming the operation of the organization. According to HW, one of the weaknesses of system of selection was the lack of (curatorial) consistence and continuity, and that, secondly, even this way, only a very limited number of artists could have a show, within this primarily those, who had some kind of relation with some established artist. Thus, this was a considerably nepotistic system. And as the Board was not so deeply interested in the artistic program at the time, only in some democratic selection principles, and only one or two active members of it cared even about that, HW could carry through a selection that was sympathetic for her taste within the still colorful exhibition program. It is another question that, at that time, the art system did not yet pay so much attention to young artists, who thus formed a closer group in this alternative context, were not so much separated by their competitive position. And the situation, by the way, was similar with the other alternative spaces, which numbered rather few at this time, and were not competitive, however they tried to differentiate themselves as clearly as possible for their financers, and they followed each other’s programs, though they did not hold formal meetings.
In the Helene Winer era the basis of the selection system was a selection committee composed of 4-5 changing members, partly artists, partly curators. If either of the members was very committed to showing an artist (with Helene Winer’s word weighing the most), the person would be given an opportunity to show. Thus, a (collective) curatorial selection could appear behind the rather dense program, also backed by studio visits made by the members of the selection committee, and by slide shows. And as HW, who left AS in 1980 after this period and founded the still existing, well established Metro Pictures Gallery, subsequently confessed, she very much enjoyed, and even today is missing the type of programming characteristic at that time, with a lot of imaginative events taking place continuously, without having to take long term responsibility, as opposed to the necessarily more prudent, businesslike world of commercial galleries.
The artistic program of AS was determined by the fact that the both conceptually and visually effective trends which appeared in the art world around this time were only shown by a few commercial gallery leaders, like Leo Castelli and Ileana Sonnabend. One of the most acclaimed exhibitions at Artists Space at the time was Pictures, which set out to present these trends. An exhibition arranged two years later, still under the directorship of HW, The Nigger Drawings, was also a big hit, but in a specific and unfortunate way. At this exhibition, Donald Newman, a white artist, showed such drawings, which, according to Helene Winer’s subsequent consideration, he would not necessarily have had to present with this title, the artist rather intended to gain some further attention. If the same kind of pictures were presented by a black artist, like Kara Walker’s works in the Whitney Museum, it would not have created such a scandal. This was the time of the beginning of “PC”, political correctness, self-censorship applied in delicate racial and gender issues. In any case, it was an unpleasant and illuminating episode for HW, who had to cope with the racist stigma for a while for not having foreseen the effect.
By the eighties, in any case, NYSCA began asking for quotas in the artistic program (in terms of color and gender), and also wanted to implement this in the composition of the Board. In the meanwhile, the gallery had to move from its second floor place above Paula Cooper Gallery on Wooster Street because of conflicts with the neighbors, and found a new place on Hudson Street in TriBeCa.
In 1980, Artists Space again hired a new director, in the person of Linda Shearer (LS). LS had previously worked for 11 years as a curator in Guggenheim Museum, thus her step meant a move out of a more institutionalized, more secure environment, furthermore in the context of the Reagan administration, which had a rather negative stance against the financing of art. However, already at Guggenheim, LS realized that it was much more exciting for her to be able to select the material to be exhibited from among the works of many young talents on the basis of a great number of studio visits, rather than to choose familiar pictures of already established artists, and put them with one simple move into the material to be exhibited. Also, another important factor in her decision was that since 1975 she had taken part in the selection committee set up by Helene Winer at Artists Space, and she felt perfectly well in the curatorial body. Thus, when HW left, it also seemed an obvious possibility for AS as well to appoint LS as director.
According to Linda Shearer’s evaluation of the situation, for AS to move on it was necessary to reorient part of the staff to fundraising, and some public relations communication was also needed because of the still recurring effect of The Nigger Drawings exhibition. At least as important was that she found it necessary to formalize the selection system even more as a curatorial system, which was also signaled by the fact that it was from this time on that Artists Space always had an official curator, from 1981 in the person of Valerie Smith. Thus, in the newly defined gallery, LS no longer committed herself to exhibiting any works of any artists, but to showing a series of works based on a fresh selection with a curator’s eyes. She herself also made selections sometimes, though much more rarely than at Guggenheim, the larger part of the work fell on Valerie Smith, who sometimes visited 60 studios for one show. AS, however, still remained an organization oriented more than the average on artists; they continued to operate their slide register, for external persons and organizations as well; they arranged yearly group exhibitions on the basis of this; the Board also consisted of artists by half of the members; and in their curatorial work, in the phrasing made by LS, they were more oriented than usual in the work of museum curators to present “not the art but the artist”, even if the curatorial work has become more professionalized. Thus, the organization continued to keep a special atmosphere of an original, funky, downtown museum. This characteristic was also reinforced by the fact that, by this time, the artists who had exhibited in AS in the seventies had already become rather established, which canonized with retroactive effect the choices made by the gallery, and actions like the exhibition New Galleries of the Lower East Side in 1984, where they showed already established artists from galleries in that district, also had such an effect. Still, the main profile at AS remained the exhibition of experimental art, where the institution still had an advantage as compared to the commercial galleries.
Thanks to this, the given period also had a potentially scandalous exhibition, for example Eric Bogosian’s work in 1982, Advocate, in which he projected pictures of tortures, obtained from Amnesty International. Fortunately for AS, this show passed unnoticed, but it is characteristic of the gallery’s curatorial activity that, though learning from the previous experiences, LS and the Board already considered communicating to Bogosian to take into account that AS could lose funding if someone finds the projection offensive, finally LS did not do this, censorship remained a taboo.
From 1985, Artists Space’s ship was navigated on by Susan Wyatt (SW), after Linda Shearer left and returned to the circle of large institutions, to MoMA, to a clearly curatorial job. By this time, SW had been working for 11 years at AS, from the beginning of her career and from the beginning of Artists Space’s history, in different types of jobs, before entering the director’s position. Her concept concerning the direction of the institution basically followed the practice developed by Linda Shearer. One of the changes in the policy was that, as from the second half of the eighties commercial galleries became quite involved in showing emerging artists (whole rows of freshly graduated, 22 year-old artists exhibited in prominent commercial galleries in the starting boom), SW also took a chance with national and international level exhibitions. In the context of national level exhibitions, curators from different cities in the country were invited to show artists selected by them on Artists Space’s forum, which scheme was also related to the fact that AS could not finance the eventually more intensive traveling of its staff. They also took longer periods of time to collect, organize the finances of international shows. Perhaps the most significant show like that during the SW cycle, on which they worked for two years, was eventually of a Central-European orientation, and bore the title Metaphysical Visions/Middle-Europe. This exhibition, epochal in New York, was shown just before the collapse of the state socialist regimes.
In this period, it was characteristic of the American political climate that in 1989 the legislation passed the Helms Amendment to the Constitution, named after Senator Jesse Helms, according to which the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) would be prohibited from then on to support art which would qualify as “obscene”. More in detail, this would affect works of art, the theme of which would involve “sadomazochism”, “homoeroticism”, and engagement in “sex acts” in general. Also, grant applications, “which, when taken as a whole”, did not have “serious literary, artistic, political or scientific value” were to be denied. And Artists Space, though it was perhaps not so difficult, again hit right into the sensitivity of the art financers, when inviting photographer Nan Goldin to organize the show titled Witnesses: Against Our Vanishing, which was on gay sexuality and AIDS. She in turn, aggravated this, together with Connie Butler, the new AS curator, by inviting David Wojnarowicz to write an essay in the catalog, which DW titled Post Cards From America: X-Rays From Hell. When NEA was informed about this, they first immediately withdrew their 10 thousand dollar grant given earlier form the Special Exhibitions grants, before reinstating it after intensive and exciting negotiations with Susan Wyatt, but requiring AS to add a disclaimer on NEA’s part in the catalog. The other major maneuver by SW in this socially sensitive dimension took place when Congress symbolically punished NEA with a penalty of 45 thousand dollars because of grants of the same value given to the Institute of Contemporary Art in Philadelphia and the Southeastern Center for Contemporary Art in North Carolina, on which SW reacted by suggesting that if these two institutions were put on the blacklist, other institutions should also have the same fate. And she proposed for all organizations to participate in an action, in which they would continuously call NEA concerning the text of the law and to have their exhibitions qualified as acceptable or unacceptable, making it impossible to give such qualifications.
Finally, Susan Wyatt became so much involved in national level arts advocacy, that in her sixth year as a director at Artists Space, in 1991, she sailed off from the AS territorial waters to the newly discovered dimension. Her place was taken by Carlos Gutierrez-Solana (CGS), arriving from the position of director at the Visual Artists Program of NYSCA, again from there perhaps because of the external conflicts. CGS turned back Artists Space’s orientation into the original artist-democratic direction. One of his first projects was to establish an AIDS Forum, for which he was motivated partly by the relevance of the theme, and partly by the fact that he himself was HIV positive. In the context of this forum, exhibitions changing every 1-2 weeks were held from the works of the artists, where the democracy of the selection was only limited by the order of arrival.
CGS deemed that AS had become alienated from people and from reality because of its “pseudo-intellectual”, pretentious curatorial activity, and he wanted to bring the institution back to the artists again. They returned to the principle of having three artists selecting the next three artists. CGS wanted to create a genuinely multicultural and multidisciplinary program, but neither their institutional, nor their market financing was sufficient. This was why benefit dinners were arranged, as well as a special series of exhibitions called Putt-Modernism, where visitors could play mini-golf in the exhibition space for money, also with a benefit character. After having arranged several thematic exhibitions, however, CGS quietly left the head of Artists Space, as he felt that being over 40, he could no longer be the “right” leader of the gallery. With his last action, in 1993, he moved the institution over to Greene Street, in SoHo, the commercial center of the art world.
From 1993, a much more curatorial world again dawned on Artists Space, brought by the leadership of the newly hired director, Claudia Gould. In around half of the cases, CG and her curator selected the artists to be shown and their works of art within their own scope of authority, while in the other half of the exhibitions they only decided about which artists to invite, but in the context of a certain openness, the artists could determine the works they would show. Within this substantially curatorial model, the director found it quite entertaining and productive to hand over the scene to the artists, as in the majority of the cases it could not really be seen in advance what would happen, while a lot of talented young artists received an opportunity to present themselves. To be able to enhance this practice, and to create an openness, according to which any artist that they would find interesting in the course of a studio visit could receive a possibility to have a show even within a month, they established a mini project space in one of the spaces of the institution, while still being able to utilize the larger spaces for organizing larger scale exhibitions.
Claudia Gould would have liked to bring back night life to Artists Space, as to recreate the noisy atmosphere of the seventies. This was supported among others by a series of performances by the Squat Theater (with Péter Halász), which CG considered similar to the shows curated by the artists, as they also had a considerable amount of unknown in the production. CG was furthermore an amateur of architecture, fashion and multimedia, and she organized several architectural exhibitions in AS, for example Digital Mapping: Architecture as Media. The really effective show, which gained attention, however, was Customizing Terror, in 1995, bringing a turning point in Artists Space’s PR and financing. Attention was then again really focused on the art presented by the institution after the shows Lines of Loss, in 1997, and Abstraction in Process, in 1998, with the New York Times again devoting full length critiques to the exhibitions.
Artists Space’s artist financing program was quite popular in the artist community. This was made possible by the stabilization of the financing of the institution, even if at a lower level. However, AS could never again play the role of such a central institution, point of gravitation for young artists as it did in the seventies, when there were hardly any other such alternative spaces, and commercial galleries were much more closed. In the nineties (and partly already in the eighties), open commercial galleries in East Village and the SoHo tapped Artists Space’s mission, they were already showing just graduating artists in their early twenties, which was obviously more attractive for the artists than to show at AS by participating in the group exhibitions or showing in the mini space. Nevertheless, as the excess supply of artists was still enormous, and has been so till this very day, Artists Space could keep its attractiveness in certain segments of the art world.
Concerning AS finances, we could see that the organization started out in the middle of the 70s as a state financed nonprofit institution, fully financed by the state (with a 100 thousand dollar yearly budget). Afterwards, its budget topped at the end of the 80s (with 900 thousand dollars of income, which included 300 thousand dollars of state subvention). And by the end of the 90s, state financers have already let go of the institution (AS could count with only 50 thousand dollars of state grants, while their total budget was around 500 thousand dollars). By this time, Artists Space had to learn to navigate in the waters of private foundation financing, much more important in America than state financing.
This financing situation, however, could even be called attractive for Claudia Gould, as she obtained most of the financing from private foundations, which asked less for their money, like for example the Mark Rothko Foundation, which only asked in return from AS to show the works of some older, undervalued artists sometimes. Naturally, abundant state financing also had advantages, as it was originally still easier to write an application for a 25 thousand dollar state grant, than later on to invite 100 persons to a 250 dollar benefit dinner, with a screening of Cindy Sherman’s film, the Office Killer, with the income enriching the AS budget. For CG, however, freedom proved to be more important, which she interpreted as keeping a distance from state financers, as well as from commercial galleries and their world dictated by the collectors’ money, and choosing free artistic manifestation. CG did not want to produce stars, she only intended to serve as an experimental terrain for young artists.
After Claudia Gould left, in 1999, and continued her directorial and curatorial activity in the Institute of Contemporary Art in Philadelphia, Artists Space’s Board found the new director in the person of Barbara Hunt, who had been curating in Europe previously, but had presented herself already in New York as well. Though according to the Board’s concept, BH would have continued a similar kind of directorship and curatorship as Claudia Gould had exerted (thus where the director’s function extended to cover a considerable share of the curatorial decisions), the new director actually curated only one show in the end. After this, she withdrew and referred to the fact that her administrative duties at AS did not make it possible for her to assume continuously and freely the same extent of curating as she had done earlier. With this turn, however, the Board did not revoke her appointment, but institutionalized a new model of directing and curating, of which Artists Space has already experimented with an abundant amount of versions. The new model involved the director, commissioned with the administrative management of the institution, and the curator, empowered with full authority to make curating decisions. Thus, the roles were separated, and this structure continues to operate up to present: after Barbara Hunt changed sides and moved over to take the director’s chair at the Donald Judd Foundation (in January 2006), the AS Board is again looking for a director with the same functions.
Thus, under Barbara Hunt’s directorship, curatorial decisions were made by the curators: there were right away three curators acting one after the other in this period. Jenelle Porter, continuing in this position from Claudia Gould’s period, later on Lauri Firstenberg, and finally Christian Rattemeyer, whose tenure will run into the period of the following director. Jenelle Porter’s name may be hallmarked by the reprise of the exhibition Pictures (1977) arranged at the time of Helene Winer, in the show called Pictures at an Exhibition (2001), the pictures of which relate to the works and artists of the previous period with an art historic value. Lauri Firstenberg’s name may be linked for example to the show titled Painting as Paradox, which presented the paintings of a broad selection of New York painters. Finally, Christian Rattemeyer selected among others the material of the show Model Modernisms, from among the works of seven European artists, who hadn’t shown in New York previously; and he participated in selecting, together with Catherine Carl, the works shown in the exhibition Flipside, looking for post-utopian trends, and the flipside of utopia, in Eastern European art and their US counterparts.
Thus, Artists Space is looking for a new director to work besides the present curator, Christian Rattemeyer, who has come from Germany, but if the AS Board continues the previous model, as it says it is its intention to do so, and if no unexpected turn takes place, which would again redraw Artists Space’s internal map, then the artistic world at AS in the following period will be determined basically by Christian Rattemeyer’s artistic concepts. On the basis of these, and also counting with the competition of the commercial galleries, we may count on a characteristically intellectual program, with fewer artists, and with the broader presentation, as compared to the competitors, of artists representing trends from the rest of the world, from Europe, Latin America, etc.
(1) When writing the present article, I relied basically on the excellent historic material of the publication titled „5000 Artists Return to Artists Space: 25 Years”, Ed.: Claudia Gould, Valerie Smith. Artists Space, New York, 1998. For the period after 1998, I complemented my study by the information gained from my interview made in February 2006 with the present Artists Space curator Christian Rattemeyer, and with some internet materials.