PRINT November 1976

Artpark: The New Esthetic Playground

ARTPARK, IN LEWISTON, NEW YORK, may be the shape of things to come: state politicians supplying funds, art administrators selecting artists to make projects on public view, and artists provided with a regulated set of working conditions. An escape valve for artists’ work and visitors’ leisure, Artpark’s luxury status is headed for redefinition as a necessity, cultural compensation for industrial wear and tear. Its internal stresses are more apparent to artists and other longterm residents than to casual visitors grateful for an alternative to bland state parks, gallery packaging, or Disney World. And its attractiveness as a program is being recognized by other states, which have called in Artpark staff as consultants for possible projects along similar lines.

When Lyndon Johnson established the National Endowment for the Arts in 1964, he surely never dreamed such a small part of his Great Society would inspire regional organizations that patronize visual artists, among others, long after his more general programs for war and peace had foundered and sunk. Though Artpark has recently joined the scramble for NEA and private foundation funds, up to now it has been strictly state funded, the offspring of some unlikely alliances within New York State. For all the seemingly accidental events leading to its formation, a generally favorable climate of opinion made Artpark feasible, a political plus for both parties. For the week of July 28 to August 3, 1976, I camped out there—an incursion indoor institutions couldn’t have tolerated—and had a chance to see what bearing an institution such as Artpark has on artists’ work.

Artpark is two hundred acres by the Niagara River Gorge, a conduit between Lake Erie and Niagara Falls upstream, and Lake Ontario further downstream. The area is saturated with engineering and refinery industries, such as Bell Aerospace Laboratories, Hooker Chemicals and Plastics Corporation, and Carborundum Company, and leisure pastimes, such as the Shaw Festival in Toronto, the Albright-Knox Gallery in Buffalo, and Niagara Falls in between. The densely populated 60-mile radius of people who make up 60 percent of Artpark’s visitors are a mix of white-collar, blue-collar, urban poor specially bused in, and the rural population outlying the industrial areas. And the “art” in Artpark suitably carries a broad definition: children’s puppet troupes, gourmet cooking classes, the Metropolitan Opera, tractor pull contests, weeklong residencies for craftspeople from the region, and one- to four-week residencies for national artists.

The part itself shares in that tension of multiple use. Though people go to Artpark with different expectations, according to whether they see art as “work” or “entertainment,” it is almost impossible in those close quarters not to feel the overlapping of what is usually called work and leisure. Ideally, that’s called paradise, but Artpark, even at its best, remains a paradis artificiel, powered by political machinery geared to making the area’s questionable status quo work.

It takes time for an area to deteriorate properly. For the historian Lewis Mumford, the Buffalo region is an outstanding product of regional misplanning leading to an intensification of metropolitan congestion. In The City in History, Mumford refers to an earlier unheeded study on the area by Henry Wright and his associates of the New York State Commission for Housing and Regional Planning. They urged “a new kind of urban diffusion . . . favorable to the renewal of older communities drained of their life blood by metropolitan centralization. . . . The concept of the balanced city . . . widened to the balanced region, deliberately remodeled as a work of art.” Lewiston is just such an older community, long overshadowed by surrounding industry. Artpark, Lewiston’s visa to the tourist industry, turns Wright’s concept inside out. It is a small and transitory community of working specialists, to be visited by people on their day off from a large and largely malfunctioning “community”: the Niagara Frontier District. When they depart, most visitors return to their homes in the industrial park.

However, the art preserve itself is no longer well favored, ecologically. The Robert Moses Power Project constructed about a mile upstream by the New York State Power Authority dumped excavated slag in 52 acres of spoils piles on the site, and the Stauffer Chemical Company deposited its chemical wastes there from 1944 to 1965. Artists often find their project excavation holes filling with substances such as liquid sulfur, and after heavy rains some of the ground runs with chemically colored unnatural springs.

Clearly, as Lewiston business leaders saw, the Gorge frontage was not being used to its best advantage. At first they merely intended to start a summer festival of historic pageants. But they had both a mentor and a Midas in the late Senator Earl W. Brydges, majority leader of the State Senate (Republican), representing the Niagara Frontier District. Soon sights were raised to building a performing arts center modeled after Saratoga: both publicly and privately supported, but privately operated. In 1964, in great optimism, the Niagara Frontier Performing Arts Center, or NFPAC, was formed. With state funding flowing its way through Brydges, NFPAC built a sophisticated theater of more than 2,400 seats.

Brydges, along with Mark Lawton, a Deputy Commissioner of Parks with a gift for the intricacies of legislative law and some influence with the Rockefellers, found use for an obscure state bureau called the National Heritage Trust. The trust manages, without direct legislative control, private properties bequeathed to the state. Proper political levers were pulled, and the project was tenderly lifted from the arms of NFPAC into the greater financial security of the National Heritage Trust. To NFPAC, renamed Artpark and Company, was left local fund-raising and the drumming up of volunteers. Now maneuverability was gained, because under the trust, programs, staff appointments, and budget supervision were free from other than routine legislative supervision.

Ideas, errors, more errors and more ideas quickly followed upon each other. At first, Lawton and Brydges had the relatively uncomplicated idea of bringing local craftspeople to work at the park. Another and more elaborate layer to the edifice was added by Dale McConathy, former art advisor to Time, employee of the Betty Parsons Gallery, Vogue columnist, and consultant to New York City on parks. McConathy was hired by the National Heritage Trust as Artpark’s executive director, and he brought with him a certain downstate élan. His idea, as visual arts coordinator Rae Tyson put it, was to create “a park fusing art and recreation, making art a shared experience rather than cultural intimidation.” But the initial two-year budget of $2 million for 1973–4 was quickly exhausted in initial expenditures. Preliminary press was bad, at least partially because Artpark’s staff had naively bought display advertising before breaking its story to news departments. And McConathy fired his theater general manager, bequeathing to himself management problems unsuited to his experience or personality.

It was down to the wire, one month before Artpark’s scheduled opening in 1974. Brydges was thinking of closing the park down before it had even opened. Arts project troubleshooters were called in, and to many insiders’ surprise, the place opened, though for a brief season of July 25th to September 15th. Much of the park was still incomplete, and artists and craftspeople were dissatisfied with fees far below present Artpark rates. But 35,000 people had visited the park, and 50,000 people had heard everything from Van Cliburn to Gordon Lightfoot at the theater. The park’s survival through that first season was enough to secure it operating funds for another year.

Gradually Artpark put itself together. David Midland was hired as the new executive director. In time for the 1975 season the architectural firm of Hardy, Holzman, and Pfeiffer completed Artpark’s second major structure, the ArtEl. It’s a five-hundred-foot-long wooden L-shaped partially roofed boardwalk on stilts, noduled with log cabins, erratic stairs, washrooms, a semitruck body, and a silo, and flanked by quonset huts, a geodesic dome, and some rented trailers. The buildings variously serve as a video screening room, artists’ living quarters, a photography darkroom, storage space, staff offices, and a kitchen. If the theater is, in Lucy Lippard’s apt phrase, “an instant white elephant,” the ArtEl is a preying mantis lying down. A cross between an open-air gantry rig and a summer camp rec hall, the structure cost under $1 million and, with one end at the lower parking lot and the other leading to the theater, functions as a well-traveled nervous system.

Though Artpark estimates total attendance for 1976 at over 200,000 people, the legislature is keeping a cautious hand on funds. Annual funding for 1975 and 1976 was $1,464,649 per year. An annual 18 percent depreciation (by Artpark staff estimates) in the money’s value caused some stringencies in 1976. The park was open five, rather than seven, days per week. A common visitors’ complaint the first year was the relative dullness of watching artists at work. As a result, the visual arts program has been expanded to include more craftspeople and daytime performers; fewer artists were brought up, and their maximum materials allowances were lowered. Artist residencies, I was informed by staff members on several occasions, are made possible only by the popularity of the theater and crafts programs. So that art was, in effect, subsidized by them. When cuts were made, the artists’ performance program was the first to go, in favor of projects which could be viewed by visitors all summer. A turnstile mentality was operating here, to the detriment of work whose only drawback was its transience. Obviously no such judgment was exercised by Artpark when it sponsored an evening’s performance by the New York Philharmonic.

Expendable or not, it’s a tough program for an artist to get into. Out of 140 unsolicited applications for the 1976 season only two were chosen. The other 23 artists were approached by Artpark. Two individuals do the choosing: Rae Tyson, a long-time area resident, former schoolteacher and organizer of local art events; and David Katzive, who in addition to his capacity as consultant to Artpark is a newly appointed assistant director at the Brooklyn Museum. The selected artists are flown up to Artpark to view possible work sites (often under ten inches of snow at the time). They then submit a detailed proposal, virtually guaranteed of acceptance. Although some balance of regions, styles, and sexes is attempted, few of the artists are outside the gallery/magazine/school-instructor matrix.

Residencies are staggered over the season. Like the craftspeople, artists receive $300 a week as fee, plus $125 a week for living expenses. In addition, materials are paid for up to $3,500, though there was much talk during my stay at Artpark that some artists were told they could receive only smaller sums. Local college students assist the artists as “interns,” for which they receive $300 for the summer and some college credit. The staff helps move materials by phone or forklift, and provides assistance when asked to do so. The artists may live in tents or portable construction shanties on their sites, or they may live in a nearby boardinghouse in town, or in somewhat rundown cabins a few miles away on Lake Ontario. During the course of their residencies most artists found themselves moving to their sites. At the season’s end they can take their work home with them, if they can find a way to do so; otherwise the work will be destroyed, except, of course, for Artpark’s photographic and video records. Each summer the artists face a tabula rasa to be marked by their energy alone.

For a short period of time, then, a community is formed. Shared concerns can at times go deeper than the customary backdrop of gallery openings or pressured meetings usually allows. The artists have a common bond, in that their contracts stipulate that a specified piece be completed within a given time. Many artists, in effect, broke their contract after they arrived at Artpark, altering their pieces or undertaking Bow-Wow on location at Niagara Falls, from videotape by Lynda Benglis and Stanton Kaye a different one entirely. This was viewed benignly by the park’s administrators as long as what the staff deemed a recognizable piece was made. Whereas a gallery or museum can treat different artists by different rules, at Artpark everyone was subject to similar pressures; much of the artists’ dialogue with each other, public, and staff, was tied to their sense of what their interests, both mutual and conflicting, were, and how they could be accommodated.

Rafael Ferrer came and left after my visit to Artpark. As he aborted his piece under what he considered unacceptable conditions, his experience profiles Artpark’s structure and tensions. Commissioned to create an environment of “sewn canvas, neon, wood, metal, cowbells, and music evocative of turquoise spirit and hot pink energy,” Ferrer, soon after his arrival at Artpark, claimed his site was altered by the close proximity of a children’s playlot under construction, and that the art underway around him was oppressively second-rate, “Sunday earthworks, academic exercises with no edge.” After some shifting around of site and project plan, and sharp words with Katzive and Tyson, he left the part a week after his arrival. He took with him what materials he had brought, without returning the $2,500 in materials funds advanced for their purchase.

Ferrer’s basic argument is that his contract cannot legislate his reactions to the park. He had begun to write a record of his feelings about the situation, taking his time, for his contract stated that he could proceed at his own pace. Undoubtedly Tyson and Katzive understood Ferrer’s point. But Ferrer had bent Artpark’s rules further than they could stand. In their role as administrators, Tyson and Katzive were answerable to the annual state audit of Artpark’s accounts, including the materials fee for which Ferrer refused, on the grounds of wounded dignity, to show the required suppliers’ bills.

This conflict bared issues about Artpark and its “system.” To what extent can artists use patrons and how much do administrators use artists? Would Ferrer’s stance be more eloquent had he returned his materials funds and/or the artistic and expenses fees given to him for his one week of residency?

Ferrer’s accusation that Artpark encourages mediocre art is one of several issues. But another is: to what extent will Artpark choose only those artists who respond well to its system of organization? (In any event, how could they possibly predict this in advance?) As it is, a few artists, such as Ferrer, found the gap between their own wills and public control unavoidable, though subject to manipulation. Some artists pursued placid goals, unchallenged by staff and visitors as long as discernible objects were made; and some artists flourished using Artpark’s staff and resources.

Marjorie Strider completed her four-week residency and her project. But she found the staff’s offhand request that she construct larger pieces more discernible to the public an impediment to her mood and work. The same could be said of the public’s daily round of questions at times other than the agreed on three to five p.m., five days a week, specified in the contract. In conversation after her residency, she compared Artpark unfavorably to the P.S. 1 group show in Long Island City in June 1976, in which diverse artists worked in their indoor “sites” without interference from the sponsoring Institute for Art and Urban Resources. But minor stresses at P.S. 1 would necessarily be magnified to an uncomfortable degree at Artpark. To work at Artpark means to live there, without the defusing possibility of taking the Flushing Line back to the loft each evening. Also, the time of residency at Artpark is actually the installation time, when the artist is on stage, whereas the gallery or museum floor is usually closed to public incursion when the work is being put up.

In contrast, the sexually charged The Amazing Bow-Wow of Lynda Benglis and filmmaker and video artist Stanton Kaye, which also put a considerable stress on Artpark’s system, was executed with one or two mishaps but no real disaster. The human-size costume of a conspicuously hermaphroditic dog named Bow-Wow was worn by its designer, Rena Small. As Bow-Wow, she starred in a narration of the dog’s life, videotaped by Kaye, much of which passed in a carnival show situated in small towns (variously Lewiston, Niagara Falls, and Allentown, Pennsylvania). The dog’s large brightly painted double-sexed genitalia were securely hidden from view by a flap of fur safety-pinned onto the costume for the scenes taped in the towns.

But more revealing footage was intrinsic to the piece as well, and for this the public had to be excluded. A sideshow exhibition was to be taped on a Monday, when the park is officially closed. But families had driven in anyway. Nervous park officials had to dissuade several small children (and their parents) from entering the tent, as Benglis, in sideshow barker’s outfit, displayed Bow-Wow in front of Kaye’s video camera to the extras, consisting of artists and staff.

Later in the residency a further imbroglio occurred. The Bow-Wow crew had promised to the staff to keep the dog’s sexual organs hidden from the public, but one day, as they taped outdoors at an odd hour, some unexpected visitors drove by close enough for an eyeful, about which they complained to the staff.

Certainly these situations were as potentially explosive as Ferrer’s and Strider’s conflicts. But the Bow-Wow group had brought with them a very different sense of context. Although The Amazing Bow-Wow roles were developed by the players projecting fantasized self-images into the characters—much like Eleanor Antin’s Eleanor Antin, R.N. performance—their schedule at Artpark was fixed by a tight taping agenda. This made their own rules for getting things done loom larger than any strictures of Artpark. In addition, the crew had long been working with Bobby Reynolds, a professional show business magician, with whom they had developed the image of a carnival hermaphrodite and a carney instinct for compromise with official rules in order to get the show done. Whenever Bow-Wow appeared in public it was rated PG, but the artist’s final video is for selected audiences only. As Benglis put it to me, “The park administrators were on our side, but they had to act as double-agents, agents for the park as well. We couldn’t have done Bow-Wow without the park’s money and assistance, all those people as extras, and the background of the park and the town.” The park and the Bow-Wow group parted on good terms.

Some pieces were disastrously dull. Linda Howard’s Round About and Sky Fence were made of extruded aluminum rods bolted together in parallel lines placed in straight rows or gradual curves. They were completed after I left, and the end result, as far as I could tell from photos, recall the sterile “non-solutions” of much conventional public sculpture. Bill Vazan’s Migratory Cues employed materials largely identical to, and on the same site as, Dennis Oppenheim’s Identity Stretch of the previous year. Vazan’s patterns of asphalt and kero spray depicted some stellar constellations birds navigate by, and to that he added in spots 500 pounds of wild bird seed to attract migrating birds, none of which hid the staggering unoriginality of the piece.

In contrast, two artists working close to the ArtEl and its flow of people employed a kitschy vernacular deliberately accessible to most visitors. Jim Roche’s Bicentennial Welfare Cadillac, with its $5,750 worth of parts and ornaments for interior and exterior, and Sig Reynolds’ inflatable latex and butyl-rubber 1976 John Deere Tractor were enjoyed by people who disapproved of Warhol and had never heard of Oldenburg.

Two other artists worked in solitude and with solitude as a kind of material. But their work dealt very directly with the possibilities of a publicly shared art. George Trakas worked on the steep and rocky lower gorge trail, and Ree Morton on the wider upper gorge trail (originally the roadbed of the New York Central Railroad). The area there had green water, dolomite, shale, limestone, and sandstone cliffs, domestic sumac, wild fruit trees, white oak, chicory, Queen Anne’s lace, a range of mints, goldenrod, locust trees and, of course, poison ivy.

Trakas had completed his work and left the park before I arrived. Partway down the lower trail he had built a wooden hut complete with large windows and a drawing table. For a couple of nights I slept there in a hammock and each morning traversed the remains of his piece: a narrow metal trestle hugging the line of rocks along the path, leading to a sixty-foot wooden trough constructed at right angles to the trestle, and with wooden wedges and roughly poured concrete to make steps leading down, at a 57-degree angle, to the water’s edge. The trestle, a continuation of the brinksmanship of balance in his CUNY Graduate Center Mall installation of 1975, rose and descended from a few feet to a few inches off the ground, at one point becoming slippery from a stream trickling down the rocks. Walking this structure, my confidence fluctuated. I could easily run along the trestle when it was close to the ground, but try as I may, the same width of trestle felt a little narrower and a lot more dangerous when higher up. Local spear fishermen, I’m told, mocked Trakas as he labored each day, but once the job was finished found themselves walking along his trestle and wood-and-concrete steps each day to reach their fishing spots more easily.

Ree Morton found her site at a wall with reinforcing rods stuck out of its top, in front of a cliff with hanging plants watered by several natural springs. She painted the wall with light pink acrylic, fixed arches of metal lathe to the rods, and decorated the whole with Celastic. Often used in the theater to design props, Celastic, when dipped in acetone and shaped, permanently hardens but maintains the flowing lines of cloth. The arches were twined with Celastic strips painted pink, yellow, and dark green, and the wall draped with maroon swags and red-tipped-with-white Celastic “roses” and streamers—dusty Victorian colors.

Nearby in her shanty, Morton painted, on small rectangular unstretched canvas, picture postcard scenes of views from her site: the Lewiston-Queenston Bridge stretching over the gorge, the upper gorge trail curving round the bend. The picture surfaces were composed in delicate strokes, what Morton calls “wrist painting.” The finished pictures were glued to the right and left of the wall and given multiple frames: the frames originally painted on (often with ornamentation such as polka dots), a frame of raw canvas, then Celastic “curtains” formed around the picture. She made, in the largest sense of the word, a naturalistic theater, titled Regarding Landscape. Placing artificial materials in a natural setting reversed the earlier pieces For Each Concrete Man and No Title, which brought natural materials into the great indoors. Behind the wall and paintings rose the cliff. In front of, and at a suitable distance from, the wall were placed six theater seats for the comfort of any audience wandering down the trail.

Though Morton and Trakas were in no way collaborating with each other, their works had a remarkable set of correspondences with each other and with Artpark as a whole. Both of these artists’ works are designed for a one-to-one appreciation: Trakas’ trestle and stairs are single-file, his hut the proper dimensions for a solitary hermit; Morton’s setting is fit only for quiet contemplation. At the same time, they are made to be of practical use: a trestle to walk to fishing spots, chairs to sit on after the trek to the site. More so than in the rest of the park, and certainly more so than in the Buffalo area, utility and playfulness are allowed to mix. A fine balance has been struck in the works’ echo of what Artpark is intended to do: Trakas’ trestle parallels the form and function of the ArtEl, and Morton’s Regarding Landscape mirrors the Artpark Theater. It’s to Artpark’s credit that publicly supported art could encounter the public as thinking individuals.

Barbara Baracks writes fiction and edits and publishes Big Deaf.