On Edge: Alternative Spaces Today by Robert Atkins (1998)


On Edge: Alternative Spaces Today

Robert Atkins

Art in America, November 1998, pp. 57-61

Last winter I received two startling missives from alternative spaces: An invitation to discuss Franklin Furnace’s revised mission as a virtual organization on February 4 and a press release announcing the demise of Randolph Street Gallery on February 13. The news about Randolph St. Gallery was personally saddening. I’d worked with the Chicago space on its production of Muntadas’s File Room (1994), the pioneering online archive of social and cultural censorship. Franklin Furnace’s situation is more ambiguous. The meeting to which I was invited was called to discuss the New York organization’s new cyber-orientation–visionary or elitist? Although a healthy debate ensued, I left concerned that this well-intentioned group of middle-aged arts professionals hadn’t a clue about creating opportunities for twenty-something artists.

Pondering some recent developments in alternative-space history, my concerns mounted: NAME (in Chicago) and WPA (Washington Projects for the Arts) went bankrupt in 1996. (The latter was absorbed by the Corcoran Gallery of Art.) San Francisco’s Capp Street Project is closing its space, in part because founder Ann Hatch’s philanthropic priorities have shifted. (Its residency program is being incorporated into California College of Arts and Crafts’ exhibition program.) The Alternative Museum in New York hasn’t paid employee-salaries since last fall, according to its founder, Geno Rodriguez, who termed the past year “our worst time ever.” Roberto Bedoya, head of the National Association of Artists’ Organizations (NAAO), the alternative spaces’ lobbying organization in Washington, commented that “There’s a kind of malnutrition or fading away. Many organizations are doing far less programming than they used to and some like COCA [Seattle’s Center On Contemporary Art], LACPS [Los Angeles Center for Photographic Studies] and LACE [Los Angeles Contemporary Exhibitions] are really stressed.” Although spaces like Hartford’s Real Art Ways and New York’s Artists Space are thriving, en masse, the alternative art scene is in crisis. As Peter Taub, the former Executive Director of Randolph Street Gallery, put it: “It’s desperate out there. The field is currently defined by adversity.” Has an era already ended?

The adversity identified by Taub assumes at least three forms: Generational change, the Culture Wars, and a decade of public disinvestment and ill-considered foundation mandates. Only the first of the three could have been anticipated nearly three decades ago when alternatve spaces emerged as a new phenomenon. The first of these small non-profit organizations initiated by and for visual artists appeared in New York in 1969 and 1970 with the founding of 98 Greene Street, Apple and 112 Workshop (a/k/a 112 Greene Street and now White Columns.) For many of us baby boomers, at least, the term alternative space remains synonymous with the network of seemingly institutionalized spaces such as San Francisco’s New Langton Arts, Houston’s DiverseWorks, Buffalo’s Hall Walls, Atlanta’s Nexus Contemporary Art Center, New York’s Kitchen, and San Diego’s Sushi, to mention only a few.

Some came into being with a little help from friends within the “establishment.” New Langton Arts (then 80 Langton St.) in San Francisco, for instance, was founded in 1975 and originally funded by the local Art Dealers’ Association, and Artists Space in New York opened its doors in 1973 as a project of the New York State Council on the Arts. For artists of the seventies, the new alternative spaces offered virtually the only venues for the development of conceptually oriented, non-commercial forms such as video, installations and actions (the term performance art wasn’t coined until the late seventies.) This conceptualist bent separated alternative spaces from artists’ cooperative galleries, usually commercial spaces where artists banded together to exhibit traditional-format work and collectively pay the rent. Non-traditional curatorial practices also characterized the new alternative spaces: Most relied on artists to curate shows, rather than professional curators. And, most radical of all, artists received fees for exhibiting.

Not every space fits this general model and sometimes appearances can deceive. The Drawing Center in Soho, for example, presents an annual historical show, and boasts an elegant loft-space and a well-heeled board of directors. It may not look like an alternative space, but, according to executive director Ann Philbin, it is. “The majority of our shows are artist-curated and we pay fees.” Other organizations, like PS1 and the New Museum of Contemporary Art, have evolved into full-fledged kunsthalles, that is contemporary art museums, which don’t collect. The NAAO roster now lists more than 700 full- and associate- members that range widely from established institutions (such as Rochester’s Visual Studies Workshop) and publications (Atlanta’s Art Papers), to their far smaller counterparts (such as Los Angeles’ VIVA! Lesbian and Gay Latino Artists and Art FBI or Artists For a Better Image, Jeff Gates’s publication-oriented, artist-advocacy operation.) Requirements for NAAO membership essentially demand only that organizations be non-profits devoted to contemporary art and committed to guaranteeing artists both policy-making roles and fees for presenting their work. Today, an artists’ organization may be as much a mind-set as anything else; and not necessarily an alternative space.

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Since the original flowering of alternative spaces in the seventies, much has changed. During the first half of the eighties, East Village artists rejected both the non-profit and conceptualist orientations of the generation that preceded them and founded their own galleries including Civilian Warfare and Gracie Mansion. (Although this was largely a New York phenomenon based on a then-thriving market for emerging art, it mirrored an international revival of painting and blunted the razor-sharp divide that once separated commercial galleries from alternative spaces.) Other venues began to enter what had been exclusive alternative-space turf. Object-making artists such as Cindy Sherman and Robert Longo first showed their work at Hall Walls, in Buffalo, and Artists Space, and then moved with Artists Space director Helene Winer to Metro Pictures, the high-profile, commercial gallery she opened (with Janelle Reiring) in 1980. Museums also got into the act by establishing project-type programs, which showcased contemporary art in varied media not necessarily by renowned artists.

The second generation of alternative spaces–including Newark’s Aljira and San Francisco’s Artists Television Access, which were both founded in 1983–were more diverse than their predecessors. The former tends to focus on traditional-format work, the latter on work in non-traditional formats and distribution systems including cable television. The new norm of the eighties and nineties simply came to mean assisting artists working in all forms by providing exhibition or performance venues. The term artists’ organization began to seem more appropriate, if far less precise, than alternative space.

Alas, the salad days of such organizations would prove to be short-lived. The elimination in 1981 of both NEA grants for critics (a group alleged to be overly politicized by Hilton Kramer and his ilk) and the Neighborhood Arts Program (a component of CETA, the Comprehensive Employment Training Act), were harbingers of the Culture Wars to come. That NAAO was the only organization-plaintiff in the so-called NEA Four trial over the Congressionally mandated “decency” standards for the awarding of grants to artists, is a reminder that the majority of the cultural warriors’ organization-targets have been alternative spaces. To put it bluntly, the Radical Right has triumphed in this and virtually every other engagement of the Culture Wars. The NEA long ago gutted its operational support for many alternative spaces; one of the causes of WPA’s bankruptcy was the reduction of annual NEA support from $200,000 to $10,000–a ninety-five percent cut.

The Radical Right’s continuing scrutiny of the NEA has been extended to the state and municipal levels. Programming about the flag, multicultural identities (especially queer ones) and sexuality (even plain old nudity) is likely to invite protest. Numerous alternative spaces have been defunded and some funding programs–such as Cobb County, Georgia’s–have been eliminated entirely in order to abolish support for venues that feature such work. If stories like these no longer hit front pages with the frequency they used to, it’s not because artists have purified their work. The mass media has little attention span for news that no longer seems new, and the administrators of publicly-funded exhibition spaces now have a financial interest in avoiding controversy.

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Ironically, Randolph Street Gallery-offerings were never a magnet for censors; the School of the Art Institute of Chicago tended to be the arena in which Chicago scandals of the past decade erupted. Nor was Randolph Street Gallery totally abandoned by the NEA, it received a $30,000 programming grant for its final series of exhibitions and performances, the racial-identity-oriented T-Race, organized by Kerry James Marshall and Jane M. Saks, which ran from October-December, 1997. But in most other regards its demise seems all-too-typical.

Founded by a small group of artists in 1979, Randolph Street Gallery moved from its Randolph-Street storefront to its present location on North Milwaukee Avenue in 1982. The capacious loft encompassed an exhibition gallery, black-box performance space for time-based arts, and a project space. (The organization acquired the space in 1993.) More than a thousand artists and performers have presented their work there, including Xu Bing, Robert Blanchon, Leon Golub, Eve Andrée Laramee, Lauren Lesko, James Luna, Rosy Martin, Muntadas, Esther Parada, Carolee Schneemann, Andres Serrano, Spiderwoman Theatre, and Rikrit Tiravanija. Randolph Street Gallery administered a re-granting program for regional artists that distributed close to $200,000 between 1989 and 1996, and also produced forty-four issues of P-Form, a savvy, quarterly journal devoted to performance and interdisciplinary art between 1986 and 1997. Remarkably, all of these activities were coordinated by five volunteer committees of artists. But despite the exemplary efforts of volunteers, staff and operating expenses increased dramatically, from one part-time staffer in 1986 to five full-time staffers a decade later administering a budget of $450,000.

A turning point for the organization came in 1995, when Peter Taub, its longtime executive director (and current Director of Performance Programs at Chicago’s Museum of Contemporary Art), resigned. “I didn’t have any energy left from trying to keep it [Randolph Street Gallery] afloat…I also believed the organization needed a radical change and that it would work better with a new executive director,” he recalled. According to Paul Brenner, Randolph Street Gallery’s former program director, the problems didn’t surface until after Taub’s departure. “There wasn’t enough long-term planning. Grants didn’t come in and nobody wants to fund operating expenses anymore.” By the end of 1995, ten percent across-the-board programming cuts were made; quickly increasing to twenty- and then thirty-percent cuts, because much of the budget was committed to operating expenses. At this point the staff included two full-time development directors, a business/office manager, but no executive director. “The lack of an ED [executive director] was a problem,” Brenner observed. “Nobody could do it for the $30,000 we offered and not having an ED hurt us with private funders.”

In January 1997, Randolph Street Gallery took a nine-month hiatus from public programing to consider its options. Its board and staff organized round-tables with educators, representatives of larger institutions like the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, and peer organizations. Despite few concrete measures of support, RSG decided to give it one more shot. But things did not improve. T-race closed on December 13, 1997 and the gallery shuttered its operations exactly two months later. Randolph Street Gallery’s nineteen-year history embodies the vital roles that many effective alternative spaces have played: Serving artists as research-and-development facilities, while serving audiences as facilitators and bellwethers of American cultural discourse.

In essence, Randolph Street Gallery was bedevilled with two seemingly intractable problems inherent to alternative spaces today: How to attact an executive director with the MBA-skills necessary to run the Kennedy Center for a modest salary, and how to increase earned income when the audience is largely made up of low-income artists and students. With radical reductions in public funding, alternative spaces are now chiefly at the mercy of private funders, rather than the public funding that subsidized their initial growth. According to Brenner, one Randolph Street Gallery board member went to Chicago’s richly-endowed MacArthur foundation seeking additional funding to pay an executive director. What it received instead was a handsomely paid consultant who earned $25,000 for a short report asserting that since Randolph Street Gallery was not likely to generate much earned income, it might as well close. “We would have laughed, if we hadn’t felt like crying,” commented Brenner.

The problem with such foundation-world thinking is that it proceeds from the arguable (and very American) notion that cultural institutions are businesses and need to adopt corporate models in order to survive. Arts-fund-raiser Jeff Jones, author of 2200 successful grant applications for progressive organizations such as the San Francisco Mime Troupe and the Women’s Philharmonic Orchestra, is a veritable one-man history of funding developments of the past decades. “Artists with good artistic sense could start organizations but that’s no longer enough. Now you have to be a financial expert who understands marketing and personnel issues; the MBA-skills-bar is impossibly high but you need these skills in order to talk the language funders want to hear,” he said. “Every one of the five biggest arts funders in the Bay Area–where I live–encourage administrative-heavy and art-light organizations. The problem is that these corporate models are fine for large museums and big-budget opera companies, but they have no relevance at all for artist-run organizations. They’re a consultant’s dream.”

Robert Crane, President of the Joyce Merz Gilmore Foundation in New York, concurs that financial accountability and market models are de rigeuramong private foundations, while providing much needed operating support is unfashionable. “This [lack of operating support] has hurt small organizations especially. Alternative institutions must feel that they’ve taken a beating at every level,” he said. “Because the work they present isn’t immediately popular they particularly need support. Most art organizations can’t really open a gift shop and increase earned income.” The Joyce Merz Gilmore Foundation, whose founder is a dance patron, recently made its last grants in the visual arts, preferring instead to focus its limited resources on dance and theater.

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In the past decade, the notion that organizations of all kinds need to locate and develop alternative streams of income has gained currency among funders. Most alternative spaces have considered such ideas, and more than a few have implemented them. Real Art Ways in Hartford, for instance, opened a screening room for independent and foreign films in 1996. The cinema generated $80,000 in ticket sales its first year, and the next phase of RAW’s $1.4 million expansion includes a cafe, performing arts theater and a second screening room. (This will be funded in part by $550,000 in state and city funds.) Aljira opened a graphic design studio in 1996 with a $50,000 grant from The Arts Challenge Fund, a consortium headed by the Geraldine R. Dodge Foundation; it has yet to turn a profit. Holly Block, executive director of Art in General, noted that her organization provides daytime and after-school education programs for K-12 students and at-risk youths. “This would be earned income if we could charge the Board of Ed a fee for each student,” she said. “But we would have had to have negotiated their bureaucracy twenty years ago. We do these programs because we’re not in Soho and need to reach a wider audience. So they pay for themselves and help us meet other goals.” Programs like Art in General’s and RAW’s at least support their organizations’ missions of investigating visual culture and serving audiences.

Perhaps the boldest recent experiment in earned-income initiatives was that of Art Matters, the New York-based foundation. Although not an alternative space Art Matters attempted to generate substantial earnings by developing a mail-order catalog of artist-designed products in order to increase funding to artists after the NEA eliminated grants to individual artists. The first catalog appeared in fall, 1995 and by all the standards of direct-marketing was an unqualified success: Two percent of catalogue recipients made purchases and these purchases exceeded, on average, those of the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s catalogue-customers. When it came time to up the ante and expand operations, Art Matters asked the same foundations who constantly preach entrepreneurship to arts organizations to invest $2.5 million. Art Matters received not a dime. As Cee Scott Brown, former executive vice-president of Art Matters, told The Chronicle of Philanthropy, “that was just lip service, just buzz words….They [program officers] don’t have the ability to convince the boards to follow them.” If a sophisticated foundation can’t, in Jeff Jones’s words, talk the language funders want to hear, what success is the typical artist-run organization likely to have?

But perhaps there are larger, philosophical issues at play. Should an alternative space want to become a major wholesaler of tchotchkes? Or as Holly Block put it, “we thought of doing a printing business. But I’m not a printing expert and I don’t want to be. One full-time job is enough.” Happily, Art in General is in no danger of failing, although Block (among anonymous others) cautioned that the financial problems facing alternative spaces are far worse than I think, noting that “people are not very open about their finances.”

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What’s at stake if dozens of alternative spaces fail over the next few years? Plenty, if you regard the art world as an ecosystem. Such an outlook implies that the withering away of alternative spaces not only limits diversity–that is, the range of artistic visions presented to audiences–but impairs the vast majority of future artists who might develop their crafts at these art making laboratories. As Robert Crane observed, “The entire ecology needs to be supported. The collapse of small organizations will have an effect, but probably not an immediate one. Everybody, funders included, have short visions when we need ten-to-twenty year horizons.”

Are there solutions? Might newer alternative spaces spring up to take the places of those established in the eighties and nineties? Many of the new storefront/garage galleries started by artists throughout the country (like Pierogi in New York) utilize many of the curatorial practices pioneered by alternative spaces. But because their founders are not interested in the onerous task of building and running non-profit institutions, their access to funds is extremely limited.

The biggest problem may be that “the issue of a crisis in the field gets talked about, but mostly within the field,” says Anne Pasternak, head of Creative Time. “You never read about it in the New York Times.” Jeff Jones believes that the field’s first order of business is to challenge the Darwinian proposition that only the well-funded organizations deserve to survive. “Values matter, the Right Wing taught us that.” Jones commented. “Cultural equity demands that everybody–artists and audiences alike–has access to cultural resources. Nobody expects the opera to turn a profit, the conversation never begins there.” Or as Will K. Wilkins, executive director of Real Art Ways, observed upon returning from a NAAO conference in Chicago in May, “The aftermath of the demise of Randolph Street and NAME wasn’t really talked about in official sessions there. I was puzzled….Aren’t the failures are as instructive as the successes?”

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