Considering the Alternatives: Talking with Andrew Suggs of Vox Populi

Considering the Alternatives: Talking with Andrew Suggs of Vox Populi

Conflict Kitchen, Pittsburgh, 2011. Image courtesy of Conflict Kitchen.

Editor’s Note: In 2011, Vox Populi received support from The Pew Center for Arts & Heritage to research the new generation of so-called “alternative” art spaces. In this conversation, Vox Populi Executive Director Andrew Suggs discusses his discoveries.

You and the founders of the Brooklyn-based, alternative space Cleopatra’s have been in dialogue with a lot of art spaces east of Chicago. Your goal is to understand how these new spaces think about themselves and what they do. Whom did you talk to?

Over the course of several months, we interviewed nearly 100 people who were involved in the activities of about 40 spaces in New York, Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, and Detroit. Our guidelines were that the groups 1) have a physical space, as we were interested in their relationships to both local real estate economies and to more professional exhibition institutions; 2) self-identify as “independent,” “self-organized,” or as a hybrid of models without being singularly focused on the sale of artwork; and 3) generate activities and projects we judged as significantly impacting contemporary issues and the field at large. Most of the spaces we worked with were relatively young, many started in the mid to late 2000s (which reinforces the persistent truism of the temporary nature of independent projects), with some older spaces whose work still seemed relevant.

How are these spaces thinking differently now than their predecessors were 20 or 30 years ago?

Our findings varied, as the spaces we spoke with are diverse in their structures, missions, and programs, but certain threads did emerge. In her seminal book, Alternative Art New York 1965–1985, Julie Ault described the conditions that gave birth to the first generation of spaces:

Factors included an abundance (some would say an over-abundance) of artists; a culturally, racially, and ethnically diverse urban population in flux; the political context of various civil rights and liberation struggles; the availability of affordable residential and commercial rents; a plethora of neglected or underutilized urban sites—spaces and places in transition; an unrestricted public sphere (as opposed to the present); the growth of public funding for culture; and city’s status as a powerful art center.

Clearly, times have changed, and our impetus for this project was a question about why a healthy proliferation of so-called alternative spaces seems to continue, even with more gusto, we thought, since the economic crash of the late 2000s, and especially outside of New York City.

One would assume that the recession would have spurred more closures than openings. Since you brought up economics, how do these spaces see themselves vis-à-vis the activities of their commercial peers? Some of the older non-profit spaces—like Artists Space or White Columns—can, at times, look like tax payer-subsidized commercial galleries.

It’s interesting that your question is phrased “vis-à-vis” and not, for instance, “in (direct) opposition to commercial or institutional models.” No longer are young people able to conceive of “outside” or “oppositional” models against a “center;” instead, they are quite self-aware of their implication and participation in larger systems and economies. They work constructively within and alongside [those systems] instead of against them. Through our conversations, we found this to be fairly consistent.

Are the new spaces then operating with a different set of ethical assumptions than the spaces that were founded in the 1970s or 1980s?

The groups we spoke with do not feel motivated by a staunch political imperative or even the desire to “fill a void.” Instead they want to create culture on their own terms; to experiment and pose curiosities for themselves and their communities, even if those activities have taken place on other turfs, at other times. Many have worked with commercial or institutional peers for specific projects, depending on need, and they see this hybridization as just matter-of-fact. It’s telling, for instance, that the four curators of Cleopatra’s (the co-organizers of this project) have all worked day jobs in the commercial art sector, using their salaries to fund their independent exhibition projects.

They have also conceived of and presented projects within commercial settings—a crossover that is now common. Commercial galleries present more varied, even museological exhibitions curated by independent curators, and similar hybrid projects. Jon Rubin, now based in Pittsburgh, has a similarly telling story. He founded and maintained the Independent School of Art, an alternative barter-based art school on the West Coast, but he now uses his teaching position at an established university, Carnegie Mellon, as a means to undertake projects, involving students and the support of the university. His Waffle Shop and Conflict Kitchen projects are also hybrid, operating as successful commercial restaurants (and participating in the local economy) as much as artistic practice and community organizing.

Max Schulze, Radar. Installation view at Popps Packing, Hamtramck, MI, October 2012. Photo courtesy of Popps Packing.

Let’s talk about how much the social landscape has changed, and the impact that has had.

In the late 1970s and early 1980s, artists responded to what they saw as an inadequate system. They felt a political imperative to make room for alternative forms and presentation models, and to make heard voices of disenfranchised racial groups, women, and queers. The same degree of institutionalized exclusion doesn’t exist now. Although we are constantly reminded of the very serious problems of discrimination and occlusion (very recent examples include the David Wojnarowicz scandal in D.C., Michelle Handelman’s video debacle in Austin, the reaction to Marina Abramovic’s treatment of performers in her retrospective, etc.), there are spaces and organized groups that step in to monitor these problems. Wojnarowicz’s video, for example, screened constantly after the scandal at alternative and commercial galleries and museums worldwide.

Do the new spaces have a different relationship to funding or organizational models?

The late 1970s and early 1980s saw a serious increase in state and federal funding for startups (only to be completely quashed in the later 1980s), but responding to funders’ programming guidelines eventually caused alternative spaces to become entrenched in routines, and less nimble in reacting to contemporary issues. Also during this period, neighborhood museums like the Studio Museum in Harlem and El Museo del Barrio opened up, dedicated to previously disenfranchised groups, and became stable institutions. The idea of artist-as-curator was normalized as part of the proliferation and eventual acceptance of artist-run spaces. Now, the players involved in this scene have become professionals in more influential institutions and intellectual spheres. All of this has contributed to the muting of the political imperative previously intertwined in the very idea of self-organization.

What impact has geography and real estate had?

We found that in post-industrial cities still plagued with poverty and urban planning issues, like Detroit and Pittsburgh, self-organizers are as committed to their local communities and neighborhood revitalization as they are to artistic practice. Activities such as Transformazium’s local screen print shop (Pittsburgh), UFO Factory’s bar/music venue cum gallery (Detroit), and Conflict Kitchen’s ethnic restaurant series with political implications (Pittsburgh) respond to local needs and the transformation of city spaces to create cultural communities and space for political discourse and action. In Detroit and Pittsburgh particularly, conditions are remarkably similar to New York three or four decades ago: abundant cheap space, an ever-increasing influx of artists (many fleeing New York), and revitalization funding available.

In New York, the situation is different. Affordable space has become obsolete, and the city’s undisputed designation as the “center” of the art world has become, at the very least, problematic. We found that many projects require little space (publications, multiples, broadcast TV, or radio.). But there are still spaces devoted to the presentation of visual art: 47 Canal, Regina Rex, and Soloway, among others. These spaces pay homage to their predecessors and borrow inherited structures while remaining aware of the changed landscape. They operate in many ways like commercial ventures, without the same infrastructure or funding, and they aim to be taken seriously, even given their limitations and spare resources. They value the freedom that comes with neither relying on profit nor succumbing to the pressures of the non-profit system.

Philadelphia, particularly, is freed from competition with a commercial market. Its proximity to New York and generous funding community, along with abundant affordable real estate, allows self-organization to thrive and gain relative local mainstream attention. Projects here tend to be artist-driven; often groups of artists band together and find a low-cost rental space to present projects.

Do the new spaces think differently about their audiences?

The “first wave” of alternative spaces seemed invested in multiple audiences. Other players in the scene were a core audience, along with the more general public. Taking messages to the streets was a high priority. Politics were more clearly meshed into artistic practice, as issues like women’s rights/feminism and AIDS became visible culture wars. Now, the question of audience seems to vary with location. We found that Detroit and Pittsburgh projects were much more likely to “take it to the street” than spaces in Philadelphia or New York, and participation seemed to be a higher priority. But this wasn’t a generalization across the board.

What was your biggest discovery?

While we realized we were speaking to a great many young spaces (three or four years old), we were surprised to learn just how many of those spaces started up during the major economic downturn of 2008. We didn’t anticipate that the crash would have spawned so much new energy in the self-organized sphere. When we asked people to help us understand this phenomenon, they explained that it was a time when real estate became cheaper, and since so few of them rely on any kind of government funding, that aspect was moot. The contributing cultural factors remain unseen to us at this point, but we’re anxious to better understand it as we move forward.

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