PRINT December 2006

Matthew Higgs

FAR FROM THE DEAFENING BUZZ that continues to emanate from the auction houses, and even further from the glossy pages of Vanity Fair, whose “art issue” hit newsstands in November, one of the most intriguing—and least commented on—narratives in the New York art world continued to unfold this year. The underreported story I refer to revolves around the unprecedented number of personnel changes that have taken place, or are about to take place, at the city’s better-established, and indeed historical, “not-for-profits” (a literal term that handily serves as both a mission statement and a manifesto, of sorts). Considered as a whole, these changes can’t be dismissed as a mere human-resources shakeup. Rather, they constitute a profound shift in both ambition and attitude, one that suggests an equally profound opportunity, even a mandate, to reimagine and reanimate an entire culture. The crop of recently appointed curators and administrators includes, in no particular order: Debra Singer, executive director and chief curator of The Kitchen; Gianni Jetzer, director at Swiss Institute; Benjamin Weil, executive director of Artists Space; Richard Flood, Laura Hoptman, and Massimiliano Gioni, curators at the New Museum of Contemporary Art (whose new building will open on the Bowery in 2007); Rochelle Steiner, director of the Public Art Fund; and artist AA Bronson, director of Printed Matter, Inc. (And then, I guess, there’s me—for the past two years I have been the director and chief curator of White Columns, New York’s oldest alternative art gallery.) With the exception of Singer (formerly a curator at the Whitney Museum of American Art) and Bronson, all these people left jobs in other cities, and, in many cases, other countries, for their new positions in New York. Tellingly, about half forsook curatorial roles at major museums. Add to the mix the fact that as of this writing the Drawing Center, Art in General, and the Dia Art Foundation are all looking to appoint new directors, and you begin to perceive a historically unparalleled situation in which the opportunity— and desire—for change is contagious. It’s a groundswell that could exert a broad and lasting influence on the cultural topography in and beyond New York. While much is still in flux, the general prognosis is better than good.

Indeed, a renewed focus on artist-centric activity has been discernible in New York for the past couple of years. One particular aspect of this activity—cooperative practices—was very publicly privileged in the 2006 Whitney Biennial, “Day for Night.” Cocurators Chrissie Iles and Philippe Vergne presented a number of collaborative contributions, including the Wrong Gallery’s show-within-a-show “Down by Law” and the coauthored artworks of Reena Spaulings. Elsewhere, RoseLee Goldberg’s biennial of live art, PERFORMA, which debuted in 2005, has single-handedly reinvigorated a genre—performance—that seemed to have gone underground, though “single-handedly” is probably not the right term for an endeavor that includes innumerable partners throughout the city. Printed Matter’s inaugural NY Art Book Fair, held in November at the now (sadly) defunct Dia Art Foundation building on Twenty-second Street, will—I hope—kick-start a similar resurgence in independent publishing. Galvanizing projects that have each, in their own highly individual ways, occupied interstitial spaces between the commercial galleries, the traditional not-for-profits, and other platforms include Matt Keegan and Sara Greenberger Rafferty’s North Drive Press, which publishes artists’ paper-based projects; Fia Backström’s various and nefarious activities, including the event series “Herd Instinct 360º” and the sly design project “Tablecloths for Commercial Galleries”; Gareth James, Sam Lewitt, and Cheyney Thompson’s elusive publication/“drawing” project, Scorched Earth; and the artist- run gallery Orchard, which this year presented projects ranging from Nicolás Guagnini’s slide show Middle Class Goes to Heaven, 2005–2006, to “Around the Corner,” a kind of psychogeography of the Lower East Side organized by Christian Philipp Müller. Maverick commercial enterprises such as Miguel Abreu Gallery, Terence Koh and Javier Peres’s Asia Song Society (aka A.S.S.), and James Fuentes LLC evince an attitude close to that of their not-for-profit peers. Many of these initiatives are operating in the geographical and ideological space mapped out by Lower East Side pioneers such as Reena Spaulings Fine Art or Maccarone Inc. The latter’s new space will soon debut in an area that has the makings of a true “post-Chelsea” neighborhood: the lower edge of the West Village, already home to Gavin Brown’s Enterprise and Harris Lieberman Gallery.

With respect to the changes afoot at the established not-for-profits, my feeling is that this unusual scenario reflects a serious reinvestment by an idiosyncratic group of artists, curators, and administrators—each with his or her own motives and intentions—in the future viability and potentiality of smaller artist-focused organizations. In the recent past, such organizations have struggled to distinguish and (re-)define themselves in the face of the pressures exerted by an overheated and, it has to be said, territorially aggressive art market. (The year was also notable for high-profile articles in the Wall Street Journal and the New York Times about the predatory habits of certain art dealers and collectors, for whom the region’s most visible graduate programs have become a hunting ground.) Put simply, there seems to be a renewed urgency around the idea that we can’t trust market forces to nurture art and artists, and that, consequently, it is absolutely imperative—once again—to find other outlets for, and means of supporting, culture. My guess is that even the most ardent boosters of the current art market are aware that the situation looks increasingly undesirable and unsustainable. (Certainly many people would agree that the art world is a lot less fun than it used to be.)

And while the processes of economic and logistical consolidation—e.g., the accelerated free-market movement of successful artists from large to even larger galleries—continue, many of New York’s public institutions and museums find themselves in something of a quandary, a state of limbo perhaps, that seems to have induced both a sense of inertia and a crisis of confidence. The current direction of both the Whitney Museum of American Art and the Museum of Modern Art were each the subject of lengthy “soul-searching” articles in the New Yorker in 2006. In recent years, the complexities and pressures that accompany working within larger institutions have increased: Staffs face heavier fund-raising responsibilities and must negotiate the desires of ever-more-influential board members, even as they attempt to assimilate the rapidly shifting parameters of contemporary art as well as the relatively new historical category “twentieth-century art.” It is not difficult to imagine why so many high-profile curators, such as Robert Storr, Saskia Bos, Russell Ferguson, Okwui Enwezor, Lawrence Rinder, and Hou Hanru, have recently elected to work—both curatorially and as scholars—from within the more elastic framework of the art school. In light of this general sense of flux, it really does seem like an opportune moment for artists and artist-centric organizations to seize the initiative and create new, autonomous approaches to the production, display, discussion, and dissemination of art.

In fact, one model of this kind of approach turned out to be my personal highlight—and possibly my personal epiphany—of 2006. And, in what could be considered an encouraging reflection of the general dispersal of influence from the institutions, and cities, where it has traditionally been concentrated, this experience transpired not in any of the established centers of attention (London, Berlin, New York, etc.) but rather in Milwaukee. A week after the Frieze Art Fair kicked off, in early October, the midwestern city hosted a kind of samizdat version of the London jamboree: the inaugural Milwaukee International, a new, bona fide art fair—of sorts. Conceived and organized by an informal collective of Milwaukee-based artists and galleries (among them Kiki Anderson of Jody Monroe Gallery; Nicholas Frank of Hermetic Gallery; John Riepenhoff of Green Gallery; and Tyson Reeder, Scott Reeder, and Elysia Borowy-Reeder of the General Store), it opened more modestly than Frieze, in the Polish Falcons Beer Hall in the city’s Riverwest neighborhood. The fair temporarily displaced the hall’s typical goings-on—cribbage, dart-ball (a game that “combines darts with baseball,” according to my local guide), spaghetti dinners— but, even though the space had been tricked out for the weekend to look like a typical art fair, the spirit of these activities remained as a spectral ambience. The exhibitors, who each paid $150 for one of the white-painted booths, constituted a curious, ad hoc group of thirty-odd galleries and projects, both commercial and otherwise, from Oslo (Willy Wonka Inc.); Zurich (Karma International, in collaboration with Mark Müller); San Juan, Puerto Rico (Galería Comercial); Winnipeg, Canada (Paul Butler’s Other Gallery and its affiliated Collage Party); Los Angeles (Ooga Booga); New York (Canada, Gavin Brown’s Enterprise, Zieher-Smith, Swiss Institute, and White Columns, among others); Miami (Locust Projects and Bas Fisher Invitational); Oak Park, Illinois (The Suburban); and elsewhere. What distinguished the whole affair was that selling art didn’t seem to be anyone’s primary—or possibly even secondary— concern. Instead, the weekend seemed—in the most straightforward yet profound sense—to be about hanging out. Cannily employing the format, and exploiting the ubiquity, of conventional art fairs while eschewing the civic (and corporate) ambitions of, say, a biennial, the organizers put together a genuinely organic “grassroots” gathering that mimicked the form of a marketplace to create a porous social event. Turnout was excellent: Over the course of the weekend, a steady stream of visitors, seemingly of all persuasions, braved the inclement weather simply to check out the fair and listen to its house band, Vern and the Originals.

The Milwaukee International felt simultaneously fundamental, magical, and possibly even a little subversive. Certainly it felt like something significant was happening, even if the exact nature of that significance—still—remains elusive. The event’s informal structure reminded me of some of the pioneering art fairs of the early and mid-1990s, fairs that, in hindsight, can be seen to have helped shape international networks of artists, dealers, critics, curators, and, indeed, collectors that persist to this day. Like the original Unfair, held in Cologne in 1992, for example, or the early manifestations of the Gramercy International Art Fair (1994–98), held in the guest rooms of the Gramercy Park Hotel in New York, the Milwaukee International served a function that went beyond the merely commercial: It provided an occasion, a platform, for sympathetic individuals to meet—in person—to share information and ideas in a manner that was both convivial and communal. The fair also reminded me of how and why, as a teenager in the North of England in the late 1970s, I started to become tentatively interested in art via the independent, DIY music scene that emerged in the aftermath of punk. Like that scene, the Milwaukee International proposed a viable, self-sustaining model of culture, one that was rooted not in social or economic one-upmanship but in the pleasures of self-determination, friendship, and cooperation (reasons that, I imagine, partly motivated Jeffrey Lew and Gordon Matta-Clark to start White Columns, or 112 Greene Street as it was then known, in 1970).

Returning to New York in a state of mild post-Milwaukee euphoria, I find myself more optimistic than ever about the new possibilities and potential of New York’s alternative art spaces. Central to the processes of reorientation and reinvention that are already under way will be the creation of new networks, new conversations among different kinds of artists, writers, curators, and others, of all generations—conversations that simply didn’t exist or hadn’t taken place before. Obviously, the more people involved, the better. Of course, this is not an occasion for consensus building—quite the opposite: It is an occasion to call for and celebrate difference. The Milwaukee International provided a tangible example of one way to proceed. Its “lessons,” such as they are, can be readily applied everywhere—including New York. As both the Milwaukee fair and the newly energized not-for-profit community in New York testify, art does not need to be expensive (or even necessarily for sale) to operate as an agent and catalyst for change. All that is required now is for every town and city in the United States (and elsewhere, of course) to create its own “International,” its own context for dialogue and exchange, and shape it according to prevailing local needs and desires. And before you know it, the polarized present-day art world—of “them” and “us,” of the “haves” and the “have-nots”—might be no more than a distant memory.

Matthew Higgs is director and chief curator at White Columns, New York, where the exhibition “looking back,” curated by Higgs, is on view until December 20.