Thursday, May 3, 2012
While visiting New York with Hou Hanru’s class, Beyond Exhibitions, I encountered many impressive exhibitions, but I have always been mostly impressed with the alternative art space movement. I would like to describe a bit of the history behind the alternative space movement in New York, which is still very much alive today and continues to fascinate and charm visitors. I know I was charmed. In the late 1960s, the New York art scene made quite an exceptional transition with the emergence of alternative spaces in the regards to the exhibition of contemporary art. Artists who felt constrained by the pressures of the commercial galleries and institutional museum structures, yearned to break free and start something completely fresh and new. This avant-garde movement was later to reconfigure New York as the most important geographical center for contemporary art in the world. The focus of alternative spaces was with abandoned or decaying urban spaces. Most of these original spaces have either disappeared or have been incorporated into more commercial or institutional systems. The first area in New York to infiltrate the use of alternative art exhibition spaces was SoHo. This began with the numerous buildings that were abandoned and empty as well as the rise of the squatter population. In 1971, SoHo was classified as an M1 zone, which meant that it was illegal to have any type of permanent residence in any of the buildings that existed in this area. This did not deter people from occupying the buildings in this area. In fact, the many artists that infiltrated this area were so passionate about staying there that there was a very strong group that allied when Robert Moses proposed building a highway linking lower Manhattan to New Jersey and Brooklyn, straight through SoHo. There was enough of a stink made about it that the project never occurred. It was in the late 1960s that that artists had such a strong hold on this area, that they saved it from destruction. As of today, it is still the most desirable area for contemporary art galleries. This marked the beginning of an intense artistic life in which alternative spaces would play a key role in reshaping the New York art scene. On October 1970, 112 Greene St. opened. This was one of the first recognized alternative art spaces. The name was indicative, simply because of its physical address. Jeffrey Lew was the owner of this building and an artist. Artists ran and had the vision to incorporate their studios and workshops into spaces used for exhibition. Lew’s studio spaces were located on the upper floors of this building, while the ground floor was used as a new type of alternative gallery space. In the 1970s, 112 Greene Street relocated and the name changed to White Columns. There were around fifty spaces in the New York City area in the 1970s that were considered alternative art spaces. The time span regarding this influx of this incredibly avant-garde approach to exhibiting art in such an alternative setting appeared roughly between the years of 1968 until 1985. There was also a secondary movement in the 1980s, pushing through into current timelines. The important focus regarding the manner in which these institutions were run was the uniqueness of the work that each and every participatory artist brought to the program. Installation art, performance art and video art began to emerge as a new genre of art, in a very exciting way. P.S.1. is an alternative space that is one of the first and foremost alternative spaces to open with no exterior funds. It is also referred to as The Institute for Art and Urban Resources and has set the example for other alternative art spaces to follow as a guideline. The late 1960s was a time of great political upheaval. This left the artists themselves to administrate for themselves. The second generation of alternative spaces was born after 1976. The Franklin Furnace, The New Museum, The Drawing Center and The Alternative Museum were among the most recognized organizations in New York. Brian O’ Doherty was the head of the visual arts program at the National Endowment for the Arts in the 1970s. He coined the term alternative spaces and actually created a specific type of grant that would fund “workshops/alternative spaces.” In 1973, Art in America published an article called “Alternative Spaces- SoHo Style.” (Stephanie Edens, “Alternative Spaces-SoHo Style”, Art in America, November – December 1973. In this article, they spoke about the relationship between the spaces and the context of the art work. This is integral, regarding the relationship between the space in which the artist creates their work and the relationship in which they are inspired to create a work that interacts with that particular space. The first generation of alternative spaces were decaying, industrialized, raw municipal buildings that were on loan to these artists to do with as they pleased. This was an important feature that was pointed out by numerous critics regarding the poor quality of the buildings in which these works of art were exhibited. “Apotheosis of the Crummy Space” was an article that was published in Art Forum Magazine in 1976. P.S.1. was the primary example of a “crummy space.” Located in Queens, New York, this abandoned old school house, the name derived from primary school 1, served the purpose of housing one of the most prolific institutions lead by the most recognized leaders of the alternative art movement, later to become the second most recognized museum for contemporary art in the United States, only second to and affiliated with the MOMA in New York. Nancy Foot described the place as a “wreck” in which prevailed “a disaster area ambiance.” – Art Forum Magazine 1976. 112 Greene Street was physically in a similar state. None of the walls were painted. The artists were invited to use the space in such an interactive way as to use the space as a virtual empty canvas from ceiling to floor. The Kitchen opened in 1971 and was a space completely dedicated to video art. The Broadway Central Hotel was the venue that was chosen for this exhibition space. The name, The Kitchen, correlates with the kitchen space of the hotel that was converted into this alternative exhibition space. Alanna Heiss founded P.S.1. in 1971. This non-profit organization systematically found vacant urban spaces and resuscitated them by exhibiting the most avant-garde artists of this time period. Heiss was inspired by St. Katherine’s Dock in London that was established in the 1960s. There were various headquarters located throughout the New York City area. All of these locations were in municipal buildings in the center of Manhattan and various boroughs around the area. Due to economic restraints, renovations were not necessarily an option. 10 Bleeker Street was the location of this Queens based P.S.1. exhibition space. The Clocktower was another base linked in with P.S.1. and founded by Heiss and located on the top floor of the New York Life Insurance building near Canal Street in Manhattan has transitioned through the security constraints that closed it down following the events of 9/11. In 2004, it became the headquarters for P.S.1. Contemporary Art Center’s web radio station, Art Radio (WPS1.org). AIR International later occupied the space and since 2009, there have only been two exhibitions that have taken place in this space. They are more symbolic than significant in regards to their frequency. This alternative movement that primarily took place throughout the 1970s, was enveloped in a time of political and social movement that affected the entire country. American politics were questioned with the movement of the Civil Rights Act. Racism and sexual equality and the right of free speech was something of a crux, moving people to question the information and policies that were being fed to them and similar to the avant-garde movement of art, people were beginning to think for themselves and actually question what their rights as individuals was. The Vietnam war would change the way we as Americans would see ourselves and the world forever. In April of 1962, 200,000 people gathered on the streets of New York to protest against the war. New York was an absolute magnetic center for free thinking and the reconfiguration of how we see artistic and political expression and it has helped shape our mindset as a society on whole. The NEA was the most important financial supporter of alternative spaces. Founded by President Lyndon Johnson on September 29, 1965, this association made alternative spaces and non-profit organizations one of its primary projects to support. Under President Richard Nixon’s term, the NEA budget grew from 11 million dollars to 114 million dollars in 1977. In 1972, a new category of federally funded grant was created particularly for alternative spaces. In order to be able to be set up for eligibility for funding regarding an artistic program, a board of directors was needed as well as a selection committee. This former attitude of anything goes was something that needed to be discarded in order for the survival of the space to survive. The conversion from an alternative space into an institution is a seemingly unavoidable process due to rises in rent and other administrative costs. A primary example is P.S.1. and its merge with the MOMA. This institution went from having a shoe string budget to being offered an 8.5 million dollar expansion budget. After this offer was accepted, Alanna Heiss who had run P.S.1. for 32 years, relinquished her title as director and accepted the tilt as head of the curatorial department after a seven year grace period. It is an economic fact and reality that situations need to change in order to suffice our ever growing need to sustain.