“I’ve taken art to non-art spaces,” Astria Suparak says, “and non-art to art spaces. Before YouTube, when people had much less access to alternative, unconventional, experimental work, I did a lot of shows in places like bars, skating rinks, and living rooms…Some people have called this the rock band model: taking the work to the people, rather than waiting for the people to find to the work.”
Astria, curator of the Miller Gallery at Carnegie Mellon University, is the first of the flock of creative, forward-thinking curators to speak at People’s Conference at ICA. They’re here to discuss the variety of relationships art institutions can have with their local neighborhoods, what’s alternative about alternative art spaces, and other issues arising from People’s Biennial, an exhibition organized by Harrell Fletcher and Jens Hoffmann, in collaboration with Independent Curators International (ICI), which looked for art in unconventional places. One of the artists in that show, Warren Hatch, makes nature films of microscopic life he finds in his Portland, Oregon neighborhood. This is a good metaphor for most of the curators here today, whose missions are bound up with the art and artists in their own backyards.Astria, for example, told us about a show she organized in Syracuse, Embracing Winter, “repositioning winter as an opportunity to view your surroundings in new ways.” Video, installation, and photography were all on view, along with an enormous knitted sculpture of a mitten. A chart on the wall showed area snow fall levels over fifty years. Big piles of sparkling, environmentally sensitive ice melt were arrayed on the floor for people to take, decreasing in proportion to the increase in the snow outside. Perhaps most delightfully, in what Astria called “a reversal of Duchamp’s readymades,” an array of snow shovels was hung on the wall for visitors to borrow as needed—the object returned to its usefulness.
Andrew Suggs, director of Philadelphia’s Vox Populi, recounted how this alternative artist collective was launched (legend has it) at a bar called Dirty Frank’s one night in the late 80s “by a group of art students who were drunk and decided they wanted a place to show their work.” Andrew raised useful questions about the world alternative, for instance: An alternative to what? He quoted curator Lia Gangitano who wrote, “While some of us continue (perhaps out of respect) to use terms such as ‘alternative space’…it’s not clear anymore what, exactly, we mean.”
The biggest institution heard from was the Queens Museum of Art whose director, Tom Finkelpearl, gave an eloquent overview of how his museum—located in a borough where 47.6% of the residents are foreign born—serves, woos, and otherwise engages with its community. Art exhibitions, usually with some tie to the area, are an important part of the program, but so are local community festivals that offer cultural celebration along with access to social services. The museum staff speaks eight languages. “Our goal is to be the most community-engaged museum in America, without giving up on the complex contemporary art practices,” Tom declares. “We may be outside of the mainstream of the art world, but we’re not outsider artists.”
A third model for combining art and community was presented by Ruthie Stringer and Dana Bishop-Root of Transformazium, a small artists collective working in Braddock, Pennsylvania, outside of Pittsburgh. The young members of Transformazium originally moved to Braddock from New York City on a wave of optimism, largely because a lovely old building was available for sale very cheap. Part of the building, however, turned out to be uninhabitable and had to be deconstructed, a huge undertaking that Transformazium approached in the spirit of an art project. Once settled in the community, the artists worked hard to develop good relationships with their neighbors, seeking creative ways to kindle meaningful conversations. One program they dreamed up paired artists with Braddock youth to create site specific installations in the kids’ neighborhoods. A screen printing shop was opened, and an artist-in-residency program begun—all on the proverbial shoestring.
Which brings us to the crucial, interesting, and often uncomfortable question of money. At about this point in the conversation, an audience member called out, “Who gets paid? Where does the money come from?” I was relieved, having been wondering about this myself.
In this realm, too, many models were represented. Transformazium members, for example, have day jobs, get small grants, collaborate with established non-profits like the local library, and sell art when they can, plowing the proceeds back into their project. The Queens Museum, by contrast, is largely foundation funded. Tom Finkelpearl went right to the heart of the issue when he said, “Can you remain idealistic and true to your goals if you take money from foundations and corporations? That’s the challenge. But it’s important to have health insurance for your employees.”
So many important, awkward, interesting questions raised over the course of one day! Not just Where does the money come from? and An alternative to what? but also, What if you’re somewhere there’s nothing you’re an alternative to? What happens when social practices are framed in terms of artistic production? Could it be an advantage to a curator to be untrained? Have we moved beyond the provocation of Duchamp’s urinal?
Coincidentally, I was in the Philadelphia Museum of Art last weekend and happened upon Duchamp’s “Fountain” sitting placidly in a bright room at the end of a hallway. A man was showing friends the gallery. One of the women, after looking around, turned to the man. “But is it art?” she said.
I confess I felt a little thrill. My guess is that object is not quite ready to be returned to the restroom yet.
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