The Brooklyn Rail

JUL-AUG 2020

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JUL-AUG 2020 Issue

Artists Space

Adrian Piper, <em>It's Just Art</em>. Performance documentation, Artists Space, 1981. Courtesy Artists Space, New York.
Adrian Piper, It's Just Art. Performance documentation, Artists Space, 1981. Courtesy Artists Space, New York.

Shocking but true: Artists Space, essential model for a generation of feisty, funky, youth-driven nonprofits, is nearly half a century old. More surprising still, initially it depended entirely on government support, at a time when both the governor of New York (Nelson Rockefeller) and the US president (Richard Nixon, newly re-elected) were Republicans. Promising to make up for a dearth of opportunity for young artists, Artists Space’s founders rounded some up and offered them the chance to call the shots, all on the state’s dime.

I’m tempted to stop writing right here.

The further history of Artists Space, though, is plenty instructive, particularly now, when democracies are in free fall, economies are gutted and the domestic public sector—angry and frightened citizens, feckless politicians—is unlikely to see art as an essential investment. Founded in 1972, Artists Space was conceived inside the New York State Council on the Arts (NYSCA), a Rockefeller initiative of 1960, as an organization that would serve the needs of emerging artists. Trudie Grace, director of NYSCA’s Visual Arts Projects program, and the late art historian Irving Sandler, a panelist there (he also had ties to the National Endowment for the Arts) brought together a number of local artists—they included Jeff Way, Richard Nonas, Jene Highstein, and George Segal—to determine its priorities. Unsurprisingly, exhibition opportunities were emphasized; also recommended were a slide registry of work by artists without gallery representation, and emergency grants for artists’ materials costs (at first, grants were capped at $300). Grace became Artists Space’s first director, Sandler its first Board president. Of its initial home, at the corner of Wooster and Houston Streets above the fledgling Paula Cooper gallery, Sandler’s wife Lucy remembered in a recent phone interview “Trudie and Irv sweeping the floor at the first space, the boards full of splinters. It was an artworld that’s unrecognizable today.”

Installation view of work by Barbara Kruger, Artists Space, 1974. Courtesy Artists Space, New York.
Installation view of work by Barbara Kruger, Artists Space, 1974. Courtesy Artists Space, New York.

The organization’s name declared its mission: exhibitions, initially three solos at a time, were all to be selected by established artists, with well-known figures choosing those less widely recognized, and unaffiliated with a gallery. Mostly named by Irving Sandler, the first artists invited to appoint solo shows at Artists Space included Vito Acconci, Romare Bearden, Chuck Close, Donald Judd, Sol LeWitt, Dorothea Rockburne, and Richard Serra. For following seasons, a letter was sent to more than 600 artists, asking each to propose 10 selectors and 420 responses came back.1 Lucy Sandler reflects that those 600-odd artists were the entire artworld; as younger artists are always being told, it was a very small place. Selectors were urged to consult the Unaffiliated Artists File, and everyone with slides included was invited to meet and choose among themselves for a group show. Suggesting a now unimaginable scene, 130 did so. Slide shows from the file were held for dealers, critics, and curators. Edit DeAk, legendary cultural bellwether, became Artists Space’s first employee. Co-editor with Walter Robinson of the plucky magazine Art-Rite, she was a liaison with cutting-edge artists, and made it her business to talk with the many who came in to apply to the Independent Exhibitions Program or the Emergency Materials Fund, or to update their slide file. Informality was a touchstone. But of course, all this vaunted intimacy also suggests a certain clubbiness. In fact, a lot of people were left on the wrong side of the ostensibly unguarded doors, which would cause problems soon enough. But the good intentions of the founders were rock-solid.

Pioneer though it was, Artists Space doesn’t hold pride of place among early alternative art spaces. Jeffrey Lew’s 112 Greene Street, in SoHo, opened to fellow artists in 1970, and survives as White Columns. Alanna Heiss founded The Institute for Art and Urban Resources in 1971. Having made use of several vacant venues, she opened its first trademark gallery, The Clocktower in Tribeca, in 1973, and staged its first installations at PS1 in Queens (now PS1 MoMA) in 1976. But Artists Space was both more financially secure than 112 Greene Street and more democratic than the Clocktower and PS1, where Heiss made the decisions. Artists Space’s initial budget, $50,000, came from NYSCA, and for a few years it was viewed, with some wariness, as an arm of the Council. Sandler recognized conflicts from the start. The first, he said, was that while the organization’s purpose was to establish unaffiliated artists’ stature, achieving visibility while showing only the little known was a challenge. Twenty five years after the organization’s founding, he admitted, “It remains a problem.” Secondly, the promise of providing an alternative support mechanism to the existing gallery system was never achieved. “This is because collectors…won’t buy in an alternative space. They must have a dealer stand behind the work,”2 he said. Some artists agreed. Barbara Kruger, whose paintings appeared at Artists Space in 1974, said later, “I don’t know what an alternative space is and I don’t know what a noncommercial space is. I never knew anyone, my colleagues or myself, who ever resisted commerce.”3

Laurie Anderson, <em>As:If</em>. Documentation from the performance series <em>PersonA</em>, organized by Edit DeAk, Artists Space, 1974. Courtesy Artists Space, New York.
Laurie Anderson, As:If. Documentation from the performance series PersonA, organized by Edit DeAk, Artists Space, 1974. Courtesy Artists Space, New York.

Nonetheless, an abundance of pathbreaking—and strikingly noncommercial—shows and performances occurred in the first three years, when artists were making the selections. The auspicious and wide-ranging choices included performances by Laurie Anderson and Adrian Piper, a spare installation by Mel Kendrick and a physically minimal but robustly narrative one by Charles Simonds. Then momentum flagged. By the time Helene Winer became the director in 1975, she felt that the policy of artists choosing artists had run its course, yielding a program that was “misguided and uninspired,” as she recalled in a phone interview this spring. Too often, artists simply nominated their studio assistants. DeAk had put together a lively performance program, and might have taken on the leadership role, Winer said, but “the board thought she was too radical to be director.”4 While she has denied making all the curatorial decisions, Winer had earlier admitted, “I had no confusion about what needed to be shown or what didn’t require an alternative outlet.”5

Charles Simonds, still from <em>Mythologies</em>, 1974. Installation view from <em>Thomas Lanigan-Schmidt, James Biederman, Charles Simonds</em>, Artists Space, 1974. Courtesy Artists Space, New York.
Charles Simonds, still from Mythologies, 1974. Installation view from Thomas Lanigan-Schmidt, James Biederman, Charles Simonds, Artists Space, 1974. Courtesy Artists Space, New York.

Among the artists featured during Winer’s five-year term was Scott Burton, then doing performance work, and a show of graffiti art, for which Peter Schjeldahl wrote the catalogue essay. Literary-minded installationist Barbara Bloom and video artist Dara Birnbaum were given solo shows; Winer achieved a remarkably strong record of representing women artists. She also oversaw the relocation to 105 Hudson. The downtown club scene—particularly the nearby Mudd Club—was jumping, and there was considerable interaction between visual artists, musicians, and poets, reflected in Artists Space’s program. But two shows that took place during Winer’s tenure overshadow everything else that happened on her watch.

Scott Burton, <em>Pastoral Chair Tableau</em>, 1971–1974. Installation view from <em>Scott Burton, Pamela Jenrette</em>, Artists Space, 1975. Courtesy Artists Space, New York.
Scott Burton, Pastoral Chair Tableau, 1971–1974. Installation view from Scott Burton, Pamela Jenrette, Artists Space, 1975. Courtesy Artists Space, New York.

The first is firmly linked with Cindy Sherman, who had succeeded DeAk as Program Assistant in 1977, and had birthed a new legend by occasionally arriving at work dressed in a campily starchy persona, for instance as a secretary, or a nurse. But Sherman (whose work had been included in an earlier group exhibition at Artists Space) wasn’t included when a group of artists with whom she was associated—Troy Brauntuch, Jack Goldstein, Robert Longo, Sherrie Levine, and Philip Smith—appeared in the 1977 exhibition Pictures. Curated by Douglas Crimp, it named an era. In the show’s catalogue essay,6 Crimp laid out a kind of manifesto for theory-driven art of the 1980s. “We only experience reality through the pictures we make of it,” he wrote. “Pictures in newspapers and magazines, on television and in the cinema” make real life seem “more and more trivial.” In fact, “While it once seemed that pictures had the function of interpreting reality, it now seems that they have usurped it.” Many of the pictures in question were fairly dark, but were “neutralized by the distance that representation necessarily imposes,” just as in dreams, where sometimes it is “the mostly overtly horrible that makes us feel oddly at ease.” Freud was cited, along with Surrealism and Pop. The essay nonetheless concluded that this new work was “largely free of references to the conventions of modernist art.”7 Twenty years later, Crimp was at pains to distance himself from the show and its legacy. “I took my lead from Helene, who gave me a list of artists she thought were interesting to visit…I didn’t have my finger on the pulse because I hadn’t seen enough art by younger people.” He dismissed as “completely and historically wrong” the idea that he had launched the careers of those artists, or of a movement, saying, “after all, it was only one tendency of the ’80s and not necessarily the most central one.”8 But the enduring importance of the exhibition is evident, for instance, in a 2009 exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum revisiting what it called The Pictures Generation.

Cindy Sherman, <em>Untitled (Secretary)</em>, Artists Space, 1978. Courtesy Artists Space, New York.
Cindy Sherman, Untitled (Secretary), Artists Space, 1978. Courtesy Artists Space, New York.

If Pictures brought acclaim, a solo exhibition two years later, of charcoal drawings by the young white artist Donald Newman brought nothing but trouble. Titling the show Nigger Drawings, Newman lit a blaze that still smolders.9 Although the title didn’t draw attention until the final days of the exhibition, outrage, when it appeared, grew quickly. Janet Henry, Lowery Sims, Howardena Pindell, Lucy Lippard, Benny Andrews, Linda Goode Bryant, and others sent letters of protest to funding sources and the press; after the show closed, a demonstration took place at Artists Space.

The artist (whose abstract drawings few had actually seen) did himself no favors by claiming he was “comparing an artist to a nigger because it was about devalued labor in society without compensation or respect or regard,” nor by likening himself, rather shamelessly, to D.H. Lawrence and William Burroughs.10 But offensive though it now undeniably seems, Newman’s defense wasn’t all that different from more considered arguments made by the many who supported him. “These words don’t have quite the power they used to—and that seems like a healthy thing,”11 Winer said at the time. She noted the incendiary term’s currency—Patti Smith had recently made buttons for a concert reading ‘Rock ‘n Roll Nigger’ and Vito Acconci had thrown the word around in a performance. Critic Aruna D’Souza reports in a recent book that other support came from Fashion Moda, an arts organization in the South Bronx which she describes as a “POC-focused” (in fact, most of the artists who showed work there were white, as was its founder); its directors, D’Souza says, called opposition to the N-word a “prehistoric position and a waste of valuable energy that could be used dealing with the real issues that face minority artists.”12 Also weighing in, Crimp wrote, in a letter to NYSCA, “the lesson of an entire century of aesthetic endeavor [is that] both language and imagery function at a level of ambiguity that must suspend the imputation of an absolute and specific meaning to any word, any picture… I would like to ask the protestors in this case to explain in what way Newman’s drawings might…be construed as racist.”13 If that now sounds inconceivably smug, the endorsements that came from Rosalind Krauss, Craig Owens, Roberta Smith, and Laurie Anderson mainly differed only in tone. All felt that a great deal was at stake—not only for freedom of expression, but also for the viability of a cherished and vulnerable institution. As D’Souza writes, “Almost every one of the letters of support…pointed to the clear, unique, and even essential value that Artists Space provided in the New York art scene.”14

In the controversy’s immediate aftermath, Artists Space held a meeting with protestors, issued a statement of apology, and pledged to increase diversity in its programming. Looking back, Winer wrote in a recent email, “Our immediate concern was not making amends for allowing the use of the title, but to redress the underlying, obvious failure to recognize that whatever was the cause of such limited Black participation in our milieu, it was not going to self-correct in some natural way that we might have assumed.”15 Like others, Ragland Watkins, then Associate Director for Exhibitions, staunchly affirms Winer’s commitment to diversity, before the show as well as after. But, as he said in a recent phone conversation, “People live in their unconscious. And as we’re finding out these days, we’re not very knowledgeable about each other’s lives.”

The concrete measures taken at the time included partnering with minority-run art spaces and hiring a consultant, Tony Whitfield, to help ensure diversity. An African-American artist and curator, Whitfield was acquainted with Newman through the downtown art scene (as was Jean-Michel Basquiat, who was led to Artists Space’s materials program by Newman16), and he had declined to sign a letter condemning the organization. In a recent phone conversation, Whitfield said the choice made him a pariah in the community. The consultancy was no better. His remit was enlisting artists of color by reaching out to arts organizations in the other boroughs, an effort he called “a total failure—no person of color wanted to have anything to do with Artists Space” at the time. Whitfield remembers the experience lingered as an “albatross.”

The shadow cast on Artists Space was lasting, too. Jeff Chang argues that the protesters’ struggle was simply “about misrepresentation and lack of representation,”17 but other lessons are clouded by time. Apart from the simple fact that Newman’s title was condoned, which elicits as much wonder as fury from recent commentators, the most striking anachronism of the episode is the focus of attention, among defenders and detractors alike, on NYSCA. Winer felt blindsided that the protestors—several of them personal friends—went first to her funding sources rather than her. Her supporters wrote to NYSCA too. In other words, the fight was played out over government funding. And that made it a public matter, engaging people otherwise unconnected to what was after all a small, local art scene.

Winer says the controversy didn’t force her departure. She mentions that the board had asked her to do more fundraising, which she didn’t relish. In fact, she freely confesses now, she’d stopped having Board meetings. Mostly, it seems, she didn’t see the point of laboring in a nonprofit when there were so few commercial opportunities for young artists. A quickly growing roster of galleries had arrived in SoHo, including Leo Castelli, where Janelle Reiring, an old friend of Winer’s, was director. Together they launched the Metro Pictures gallery in SoHo in 1980, representing, among others, Cindy Sherman, Richard Prince, Walter Robinson, and Laurie Simmons, as well as Pictures participants Jack Goldstein, Sherrie Levine, and Robert Longo.

Installation view: <em>Witnesses: Against Our Vanishing</em>, Artists Space, 1989. Courtesy Artists Space, New York. Photo: Frances Miller Smith.
Installation view: Witnesses: Against Our Vanishing, Artists Space, 1989. Courtesy Artists Space, New York. Photo: Frances Miller Smith.

When Linda Shearer took over the directorship, in 1980, young artists were already flocking gratefully to the newly receptive downtown galleries. Amid a rising economy, Artists Space’s staff expanded. Valerie Smith was hired in 1981 as Artists Space’s first curator; she worked with Ragland Watkins and Susan Wyatt, then Associate Director for Services (Wyatt had been at Artists Space since its founding, initially as an intern). And the organization moved again, to West Broadway. Looking to broaden the program and ensure greater representation of artists of color, they reached out to professionals around the country. In 1985, Wyatt was named director, and oversaw outreach to artists from across Europe and beyond, including some from Eastern Europe who had not previously left their home countries. Looking back in a recent phone conversation, Smith was particularly pleased with We the People, 1987, an exhibition of Native American artists which included—along with Edgar Heap of Birds and Jimmie Durham, both admired in the art world—Marsha Gómez, well known only in her community, for her traditional terra cotta figures.

But the breadth of programming didn’t prevent political trouble arising again, this time from the right. Led in the Senate by Jesse Helms, conservatives had attacked the NEA, prohibiting, in 1989, grants to work deemed “homoerotic” or obscene. Exhibitions of photographs by Robert Mapplethorpe and Andres Serrano ran afoul of what was soon called a culture war. At Artists Space, Nan Goldin was organizing, with federal support, Witnesses: Against Our Vanishing (1989-90), a tribute to artists living with or felled by AIDS. David Wojnarowicz authored the catalogue’s lead essay, famously writing, in all caps, “WHEN I WAS TOLD THAT I’D CONTRACTED THIS VIRUS IT DIDN’T TAKE ME LONG TO REALIZE I’D CONTRACTED A DISEASED SOCIETY AS WELL.” Watching the evolution of increasingly elaborate rituals of private mourning, he advocated public rage instead. “I imagine what it would be like,” he wrote, “if friends of those who died from AIDS would take their corpses to D.C. and then “blast through the gates of the white house and come to a screeching halt before the entrance and then dump their lifeless forms on the front steps.”18 The image is uncannily timely.

Installation view: <em>Witnesses: Against Our Vanishing</em>, Artists Space, 1989. Courtesy Artists Space, New York. Photo: Frances Miller Smith.
Installation view: Witnesses: Against Our Vanishing, Artists Space, 1989. Courtesy Artists Space, New York. Photo: Frances Miller Smith.

Fearing the text would be found libelous (Wojnarowicz called New York’s Cardinal O’Connor a Nazi and fantasized about setting Helms on fire, among other things), Wyatt, on the advice of the board and its lawyer, preemptively ran it by the NEA, and offered to replace the portion of its funding covering the catalogue with income from other sources.19 Instead, the NEA withdrew the entire grant; the board unanimously refused to relinquish it. The standoff became front page news at the New York Times, and was also covered in the Boston Globe and the Philadelphia Inquirer. Leonard Bernstein declined a National Medal of Arts in defense of Artists Space. That too became a front-page Times story. Actor Alec Baldwin got the Creative Coalition to speak out, and author Larry McMurtry, then president of PEN, wrote an op-ed piece for the Washington Post. Wyatt was especially gratified that representatives of other disciplines and more mainstream organizations found common cause with Artists Space.20 Even Cardinal O’Connor said he didn’t think the grant should be withdrawn. And indeed, it was eventually reinstated. This magnitude of response, in addressing the withdrawal of public funding from a small nonprofit art organization, is harder to imagine now than the humble conditions of its birth 17 years earlier.

And, as with the Pictures exhibition, the legacy of Witnesses has lingered, too. In fact, in many ways it marked a breaking point. NEA reauthorization hearings were underway at the time of the Witnesses show, and Wyatt advocated for it actively. She believed that by working hard, and successfully, to gain access to powerful figures at the Endowment and in the federal government—by wearing pearls rather than black leather, as she put it in a recent conversation, and acknowledging that her parents were lifelong Republicans—she could change minds. In the event, it was the last major Artists Space controversy in which government support was pivotal. NEA support had been a small, but important, part of the organization’s budget. As with grants to individual artists, it carried with it the crucial endorsement of the agency’s peer-panel reviews, an irreplaceable system. A period of flux for Artists Space followed. Longtime board member Carolyn Alexander told Claudia Gould, named director in 1994, that before her appointment, “the Board seriously considered whether Artists Space should vote itself out of existence.”21 By 1989, the budget had reached nearly a million dollars; in the lean years that followed, it was slashed by nearly half.

Several leadership teams later, Stefan Kalmár was made director, in 2009, and held the post for seven years.22 “I arrived at a very particular time,” Kalmár recalled in June, via Zoom, “when it had gotten stuck, conceptually.” Describing the compartmentalization of the space into “little boxes,” he said, “It tried to be like a doll version of a museum.” His first priority was to open things up, physically and programmatically. “Before I started there was more frequency, less depth,” he says. “Lots of little things shifted from the studio to Artists Space.” What was needed was “the heavy lifting of working with, say, six artists a year, and giving them a proper budget, developing their project, their practice.”23

Hito Steyerl, <em>Liquidity, Inc.</em>. HD video with sound, 30 mins. Installation view: <em>Hito Steyerl</em>, Artists Space, 2015. Courtesy Artists Space, New York. Photo: Matthew Septimus.
Hito Steyerl, Liquidity, Inc.. HD video with sound, 30 mins. Installation view: Hito Steyerl, Artists Space, 2015. Courtesy Artists Space, New York. Photo: Matthew Septimus.

By all accounts, Kalmár’s appointment was another turning point. Emphasizing brainy, market skewering art (which often enough became highly collectible) by such emerging figures as Danh Vo, the Bernadette Corporation, Hito Steyerl, and Cameron Rowland, he raised the organization’s visibility. He helped bring together a group called Common Practice, which in addition to Artists Space included White Columns, The Kitchen, Triple Canopy, Light Industry, Participant Inc., and Printed Matter. During his tenure, Artists Space was the first organization in the US to be certified by Working Artists and the Greater Economy (W.A.G.E.), which raises awareness of artists’ economic plight. Unapologetic about focusing on creators rather than audience, Kalmár asserted, in a 2014 interview, that one thing Common Practice member organizations agreed on was “not pandering to populism.”24 To me, he confirmed, “We’re not for everybody. We’re really not.”

Installation view: <em>Danh Vo: Autoerotic Asphyxiation</em> Artists Space, 2010. Courtesy Artists Space, New York. Photo: Daniel Pérez.
Installation view: Danh Vo: Autoerotic Asphyxiation Artists Space, 2010. Courtesy Artists Space, New York. Photo: Daniel Pérez.

Of course, anti-populist or not, nonprofits can’t support themselves by selling art, and like so many directors, Kalmár was faced with financial challenges, in his case the post-2008 financial crisis. He says he found it liberating in some ways, explaining that with a limited budget, “You can only do things that matter most.” Asked about the lack of government support, he observed that tax exemption is government funding,25 about which he is ambivalent. Unquestionably, though, the paucity of outright public grants has increasingly aggravated relations among commercial and nonprofit art institutions. Kalmár calls out the compromises made by big museums, suggesting that their curatorial and upper management staff have become a “concierge” service to the donor class. Adding a touch of sarcasm, Winer notes, “There used to be an ethical separation between galleries, museums, nonprofits of all sorts. Now, museums are blessing our [galleries’] artists with exhibition opportunities they want us to finance.” And inevitably, Kalmár’s additions to the Artists Space board were tied to the market. They include gallerist Lawrence Luhring (since departed; Barbara Gladstone has recently joined); Allan Schwartzman, of Sotheby’s; and Amanda Sharp, the Frieze co-founder (he also brought on artists Rirkrit Tiravanija and Rachel Harrison). Like any board, it sometimes proved troublesome. “When it came to Occupy Artists Space [in 2011],” Kalmár recalls, there were some on the board who “advocated quickly for getting the police in. That was the only time I threatened to resign. Can you imagine the police evicting a mixture of artists and Occupy Wall Street protestors?” Wondering aloud whether “you can you bite the hand that feeds you,” he replies, “You can nibble on it a bit, that’s good.”

As to the question of how he would respond to the current surge of commitment to racial equity, Kalmár answers, “Make sure you have a board that is adequate to the demographics of your city. By that I mean not only cultural background but also class background.” He argues, bracingly, that “some form of quota” is necessary, as is having “people that audit you on it, externally, to encourage you to improve.” Too many people, he says, still talk about the need to diversify audiences—to bring more people to art. “It’s so patronizing. You don’t have to bring them to anything. You need to accept that other communities, other social configurations have their own forms of cultural expression that are as valuable and sometimes more democratic. Then you can make a choice about how you want to relate that as an institution.”

Kalmár initiated the relocation of the organization to its present space at 11 Cortlandt Alley, which was realized by his successor, the present director, Jay Sanders, appointed in 2017. When reached by phone in late May, Sanders reported that under the COVID-19 quarantine he hasn’t had to furlough staff, and is deep in addressing both immediate fiscal realities and the next six months of planning. “There’s a strong sense that the worst is yet to come,” he said. “I’ve never spent more time thinking about the fundamentals and what an artists’ space is than now.” Having arrived with a background in performance (he had been curator of performance at the Whitney Museum, and had worked at White Columns, Anthology Film Archives, and elsewhere before that), Sanders emphasizes that component of the program. While exhibitions will be relatively easy to open, he says, “such an important part of what we do is social gathering. That’s going to require more.” He’s been collaborating with the Segue Foundation in presenting a poetry series; going forward, he thinks, virtual broadcasts may take precedence over live gatherings.

But Sanders is fully committed to the organization’s support for work in all disciplines—hybridity is a key term—and to encouraging experimentation. Commissioning work is the “hallmark of Artists Space,” he believes, so “artists tend, on invitation, to make work for the context.” Just as important to him is the organization’s openness. The artists are in control of most of the “touch points,” he explains, noting, “even now”—in the new premises, a sleekly renovated cast-iron building in Tribeca—“we don’t have a fixed office. We retrofit and reconfigure the space for each show.” Artists are largely in control of those decisions, to which Sanders is highly attuned. “When you walk in the door, do you want to be engaged with a staff member, or do you want to just see work? Is there a press release? All the dissemination points around the work are part of the work if the artists want it to be.” He is gratified by how many do. “How things circulate on the internet is not ancillary,” he adds, “it’s part of the work.” Noting his emphasis on artists’ prerogatives, which arguably align with Kalmár’s anti-populism, I asked if he worried about being called an elitist. “We think about that a lot,” he said. “It’s a place for artists and art workers and those who are invested in ideas in the art world. We don’t have an advertising budget, but we do a lot on social media. We do try to make the work accessible, but we don’t try to programmatize that—we let the artist go all the way with it. I hope that’s not elitist, that there’s some generosity there. If there’s a destabilizing element in the work, I hope it’s fruitful and not elitist.”

It seems no exaggeration to say all of this is now at risk. “It’s so clear how fragile the cultural sector is,” Sanders says. “Especially in the US. We’re so grateful for things like the New York Community Trust. And for the CARES Act.” But because of the virus-induced shutdown, “Everyone’s gala was canceled. Yearly giving by supporters is challenged, for everybody.” He went on to note, “arts organizations in general live with a lot of dissonance; tackle a lot of contradiction. You’re creating work that at times has extreme value, that is bought and sold, and circulates in all these other systems. But at Artists Space we try hard to make sure that’s not the dominant thing. We try to be aware of and fight that nihilism, of art kind of becoming a luxury good. We hold those contradictions really close.” He concluded, “the collegiality and dexterity that the institution has seems to be its real continuity. And porousness. That’s its real legacy.”

Fighting nihilism, supporting artists, and being open to their evolving interests: These are indeed crucial and enduring values, present from the start. And some things have improved since Artists Space’s founding. It is no longer tenable for a handful of friends and colleagues, almost exclusively white New Yorkers, to suggest they have the necessary access and knowledge base to fulfill such an organization’s mission. And while government funding is well worth fighting for, over-reliance on it was clearly a problem.

On the other hand, being answerable only to supporters in the private sector brings problems that are perhaps less tractable, because less transparent. Was giving up on public support for culture a symptom of growing social division in this country, or a cause? Can we be nostalgic for a time when progressive new art—that is, postwar Abstract Expressionism—was used as a political tool for consolidating American cultural hegemony? It’s hard to say yes, but then it’s hard not to yearn for public reckonings based in the assumption that contemporary art belongs to everyone and needs to be on the civic agenda, and budget. Given the straits we’re now in, these may be questions for another day—or, as I see it, more urgent than ever.

At the end of my discussion with Sanders, I asked if he’s planning a blowout celebration for Artists Space’s 50th anniversary.“I honestly don’t know,” he answered. “I want to say no. If we’re really doing our job we should just be plowing ahead and doing our work. Not being self-conscious about these legacy things.” He paused, then added, “But, it’s also an important date.” Agreed.

  1. Among the new selectors were Louise Bourgeois, Christo, Mel Edwards, and Brice Marden.
  2. “Trudie Grace and Irving Sandler,” interviewed by Joan Rosenbaum, 1997, in Claudia Gould and Valerie Smith, eds., 5000 Artists Return to Artists Space: 25 Years (New York: Artists Space, 1998), 24, 26.
  3. “Barbara Kruger,” interviewed by the author, 1991, in 5000 Artists, 28. But as Trudie Grace explained, they would put visitors (and potential collectors) in touch with artists if they showed an interest, as did some other nonprofits. Exit Art, for instance, made a policy of welcoming such income.
  4. Following DeAk’s departure, she became a founding board member at Printed Matter. See Megan N. Liberty, “Printed Matter,” Brooklyn Rail, March 2020.
  5. “Helene Winer,” interviewed by Matt Mullican, Cindy Sherman, and Valerie Smith, 1998, 5000 Artists, 57.
  6. Crimp revised the essay for October magazine in spring 1979, adding Cindy Sherman and omitting Philip Smith.
  7. Douglas Crimp, Pictures (New York: Artists Space, 1977), reprint accessed May 2020 at
  8. “Douglas Crimp,” interviewed by Claudia Gould, 1997, in 5000 Artists, 89.
  9. It is the subject of extended discussions in recent books by Jeff Chang (Who We Be: The Colorization of America [New York: St. Martin’s Press], 2014) and Aruna D’Souza (Whitewalling: Art, Race & Protest in 3 Acts [New York: Badlands Unlimited], 2018), and in the catalogue to the Brooklyn Museum’s 2017 exhibition We Wanted a Revolution, 1965–85. For discussion of the word, see also Randall Kennedy’s Nigger: The Strange Career of a Troublesome Word (New York: Vintage, 2008).
  10. Newman’s moment of fame did indeed attract a moment of professional success. Charles Saatchi, then an enormously influential collector, bought three of the Nigger Drawings. And Newman was taken up in quick succession by the Mary Boone and Annina Nosei galleries, before departing from the art world.
  11. Aruna D’Souza, 77. Quoted in a Village Voice article by Richard Goldstein (“The Romance of Racism,” April 2, 1979), in Aruna D’Souza, 77
  12. In D’Souza, 83
  13. In D’Souza, 85
  14. In D’Souza, 95.
  15. Email correspondence with the author, June 26, 2020.
  16. Both Watkins and Susan Wyatt, then Associate Director for Services, remember this connection.
  17. Chang, 91.
  18. David Wojnarowicz, “Postcards from America: X-Rays from Hell,” in Witnesses: Against Our Vanishing (New York: Artists Space, 1989–90), accessed in May 2020 at
  19. The NEA grant was in the amount of $10,000, for an exhibition whose total budget was roughly $30,000. The catalogue budget was $7,000.
  20. Susan Wyatt, “Setting the Record Straight: Diary of a Controversy,” in Louis Crosier, The Cultural Battlefield: Art, Censorship & Public Funding (Gilsum, NH: Avocus Publishing), 1995, 94-97.
  21. “Carolyn Alexander,” interviewed by Claudia Gould, 1997, in 5000 Artists, 313.
  22. Conversation by Zoom with the author, June 9, 2020. Since leaving Artists Space, Kalmár has been director of the ICA in London; he is presently on COVID-19 furlough.
  23. Under Kalmár, artists were paid $3,500 per solo exhibition and $900 for participation in a group show, plus travel, production costs and per diems.
  24. “Other People and their ideas No. 17: Stefan Kalmár,” interviewed by Tom Eccles, ArtReview, November 2014, reprinted September 2015, accessed in June 2020 at
  25. By contrast the British government does support the ICA, but taxes all its income; the outcome, Kalmár says, is nearly a wash. In any case, he is leery of the current European model which, he said in ArtReview, “employs ‘performance indicators’ that are reminiscent of how, say, Google measures effectiveness.”


Nancy Princenthal

is a New York-based art writer. She is the author of Agnes Martin: Her Life and Art (Thames & Hudson, 2015) and Unspeakable Acts: Women, Art, and Sexual Violence in the 1970s (Thames & Hudson, 2019).


The Brooklyn Rail

JUL-AUG 2020

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