Expert Eye

Independent's Matthew Higgs on Finding Space in the Market for Underdogs

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Independent's Matthew Higgs on Finding Space in the Market for Underdogs
The curator, artist, and White Columns director Matthew Higgs (Photo credit: Aubrey Mayer)

Since assuming the directorship of the New York nonprofit White Columns in 2004, Matthew Higgs has functioned as something of a one-man corrective to the more venal, less fun strains of the city’s art scene, using the venerable space to launch offbeat alternatives into the artistic conversation. Sometimes these incursions involve young artists still a few years away from stardom; more often they probe the more interstitial zones of art-making, such as with his indispensable shows of work by artists with developmental disorders—frequently working with organizations like Oakland’s Creative Growth Art Center or New York’s Healing Arts Initiative—or who otherwise operate outside of the traditional gallery context.

An artist himself as well as a DJ, curator, writer, publisher, and former Turner Prize judge (in 2007), he has also for the past five years served as the creative advisor of the Independent art fair, using that platform as an opportunity to introduce a broad range of creativity into the traditionally staid, too-often straitjacketed art-fair format. Jerry Saltz has called him “a national treasure.”

Opening a new White Columns show this week to present “Margret: Chronicle of an Affair – May 1969 to December 1970,” a seductively unusual archive of documents related to a clandestine affair between a German businessman and his secretary, Higgs is also thinking through the future of Independent, which will have to abandon its serendipitous home in Chelsea’s former Dia Art Foundation building after this year’s edition—at the same time that the fair continues to expand, with its second edition of the November-sited Independent Projects and the first edition of a new Brussels fair both in the works.

We spoke to the White Columns director about how to make an art fair an artist’s idyll, why he is so intent on broadening the discourse beyond the confines of the professionalized art world, and how his curatorial approach arose from his early years in the gritty Manchester music scene.

This year marks the fifth anniversary of Independent, the art fair that you’ve helped guide from its inception as creative director. Generally speaking, what is Independent, and what is the fair "independent" of, exactly? 

When Elizabeth Dee and Darren Flook created the fair and I was brought in as creative advisor, I immediately liked the idea because of X Initiative, Elizabeth Dee’s previous event at the former Dia building, which is an incredibly iconic space that every artist aspires to. The initial idea was very appealing to me, too—that we were trying to find a solution to this narrow, persistent problems of fairs and how they assist galleries in terms of their economies and how they function. There's a reluctance of many galleries to take part in fairs, but it’s like a catch-22— they’re obliged to take part, but they find them unsatisfactory in terms of a place to see art, or a place for artists to present their work. The idea was to really create something of a hybrid— something that wasn’t exactly a fair, although there was a commercial aspect, and wasn’t exactly an exhibition, though it perhaps resembled one.

We also wanted to break down some of those hierarchies that exist in the art world between the blue-chip galleries—the galleries that do resale, the more established commercial galleries—and the emerging young galleries, and then also the galleries that are outside of those narratives. For me, it was an interesting opportunity to create space for all kinds of art, a marketplace for all kinds of art, where you’d see things alongside one another that you perhaps wouldn’t typically encounter elsewhere. I don’t think one could necessarily say that it’s a curated exhibition, but it’s definitely a curated forum or curated platform. From the outset, for me, it was very interesting to have more ‘maverick’ dealers included in the mix.

Over the subsequent years it’s been nice to be able to watch it expand and change. The strength of Independent comes from the mix of galleries and the works that they present. Even when we did Independent Projects in November, where a lot of the galleries were more established, they still brought quite maverick work. Consequently, I think of the Independent as two lists: one is the list of the galleries participating and the other is the material that they bring. I think that once you arrive at Independent as a viewer, it’s the list of artists that becomes more dominant than the list of galleries itself. It’s about trying to think about those hierarchies and structures that exist within the fairs and see if it’s possible to create something that felt different, that behaved differently. Consequently, Independent might be independent of some of those fixed, canonical narratives that we encounter at the larger fairs, where there are very clear zones, very clear hierarchies, and very clear positions. I think that’s fine too, but it just seems that we have an opportunity to behave differently.

One thing that has always been notable about Independent is that, unlike the more obviously commercial fairs, the selling component of the fair has been subsumed under its curatorial overlay—particularly in Independent Projects, the spinoff that launched last fall as a weeklong festival of solo exhibitions. Why is this downplaying of the commercial side important, and why is there a need for this kind of fair?

At the end of the day, as a curator who runs a nonprofit space and whose primary interest is in supporting artists, I know that artists are often reluctant to present their work in the larger fairs. We wanted to create an environment where artists were really interested to see their work. I think, to date, we’ve been fairly successful in achieving that.

How does the downplaying of the commercial aspect help accomplish that, exactly? 

I don’t have the statistics, but my guess is that the galleries make more modest sums of money at Independent, because that isn’t the thing that’s being privileged. I think it’s an opportunity for galleries from New York or from elsewhere to present a body or bodies of work that perhaps haven’t been seen here before. Because the costs are more modest than at a typical fair, it's an opportunity to introduce unfamiliar works to new audiences, and it’s also an opportunity to place that work within the context of one's peers. Consequently, you see very interesting dialogues gallery-to-gallery, presentation-to-presentation that you perhaps wouldn’t encounter in a typical fair, and that we wouldn’t be able to encounter as we go around the galleries in New York on the Lower East Side or Chelsea and elsewhere in Brooklyn because a lot of this work hasn’t been seen here yet.

So there they’re really just creating something that’s initially interesting for the community and then beyond that has a different kind of resonance, one of which is inevitably commercial because these enterprises, apart from the not-for-profits that participate, are primarily structured around the presentation and the sale of art. I think everybody of a certain age has fond memories of the smaller fairs, whether it was Unfair in Cologne—a satellite of the main fair that was founded by dealers—or something like the original Gramercy International Art Fair here in Gramercy Hotel, both of which were really curated by dealers for each other in a collegial atmosphere. The Gramercy fair especially was very much about a generation of dealers and peers coming together to create a narrative, and I would certainly imagine that’s Elizabeth and Darren’s intention.

It’s also somewhat organic in the current location, which we lose this year, because it ensures that the fair can only be a certain size. I think people like the scale of the fair, which is usually around 40 to 45 galleries, so it’s manageable, whereas I think some of the larger fairs are simply overwhelming in terms of their scale. The focused nature of Independent is to its advantage.

What will happen next year, when the fair has to find new lodgings outside the Dia building? 

We’re currently trying to resolve the subsequent venue, and it's complicated in New York City, with its large places like the piers or the armories. We’re trying to work out what makes sense for Independent, because one of the great things about it was that it occupied a space that other people had history with or retained memories of. So we’ll see what happens next, but Independent just announced today that they’re starting a third edition in Brussels in the spring of 2016 to coincide with the Brussels art-fair week. I know that Elizabeth has had connections to Brussels for quite some time, so that’s sort of the first attempt to take the idea elsewhere and see how it functions in a different community in a different context.

So, an Independent empire?

Well, talk to Elizabeth about that.

Going back to that idea of hybridity, it strikes me that you're the ideal genius loci for a fair like this, because of your history of finding liminal spaces for creativity, and producing shows that are hybrids of various disciplines. Perhaps some of this could be traced back to your youth, when as a teenage music fanatic in the Manchester scene you started out as a promoter for New Order on the DIY fringes of the music industry. What lessons did you take away from that experience, and how did it help shape your aesthetic worldview? 

I was a teenager at the time, but I used to write a small music-fan zine and I was also interested in the independent music scene and how independent record labels created a context for the artists that they were supporting. This idea of DIY, grassroots, independent culture was really, as a teenager, my first encounter with culture at large, and it very much conditioned my ideas about what culture’s role might be in one's life. Going forward, as I got interested in art and as I found myself running a nonprofit space here when I started at White Columns nearly 10 years ago, I believed there was a real opportunity to behave differently, to think about contemporary visual culture in a more expansive sense and to think about what a space like White Columns might do productively at this point in time at the beginning of the 21st century.

It seemed to me that the gallery’s history of mostly presenting very young artists who then might go on to greater success and gallery representation was actually a narrative from the 1980s. The gallery was pretty healthy and burgeoning at the time, in 2004, but I no longer saw an urgency for White Columns to focus exclusively on younger voices, because there seemed to be multiple and growing opportunities for younger artists to show. It seemed to me that we had an opportunity to change the narrative a little bit, so we started to work with self-taught artists, with communities of artists who had developmental or mental disabilities, and with a lot of older artists, and we started to present all of this work simultaneously without making any kind of categorical or hierarchical distinctions.

We wanted to create a kind of fluidity between different approaches to making and see what happened with it in quite an organic way. I think what’s happened over the last 10 years is that this approach has become a compelling conversation in the larger art world. We certainly saw at Massimiliano Gioni’s Venice Biennial, this privileging of self-taught art, but also the curatorial work of someone like Lynne Cooke, who is at the National Gallery now and is working on a large show of American self-taught and outsider art. There’s a persistent interest, I think, in giving a context for this material, as when Lynne did this exhibition with Rosemarie Trockel that came to the New Museum here, where it was juxtaposed with the work of someone like Judith Scott, who I presented here at White Columns before I co-curated her retrospective at the Brooklyn Museum. It seems to me that there’s a great complexity and a great degree of interest in how all these different voices and tempos in contemporary art might sit together.

I think that some aspect of that is really interestingly drifting into the Independent narrative. We invite an organization like Creative Growth to present their work in this high-profile contemporary art setting, and then we have a dealer like Kerry Schuss, who has been dealing with American folk art and this year will present these extraordinary collages by Birdie Lusch. White Columns bringing material to Independent has amplified our interest in these liminal territories. This field has obviously been around for a while, but the way it's being privileged in the context of contemporary art—in some of the larger curatorial initiatives in the last 10 years—is more recent.

I think our curatorial initiatives are always influenced by artist’s interests, and artists have always been interested in these liminal territories, and artists have always supported and collected the work of self-taught outsider folk artists. I think my interests really just reflect artists’ interests, such as Jim Shaw collecting thrift-store paintings, Mike Kelley looking at the creative endeavors of childhood adolescence, and so on. It’s a prevalent and ongoing story, so I think it’s possible within projects like Independent or Independent projects to acknowledge that and to allow for multiple voices to coexist and it seems to be just trying to move away from a fixed idea of our culture. It seems to me that things are shifting and they’re shifting quite fast.

Prior to coming to White Columns, you ran a small art press in England called Imprint 93, where worked with artists on the periphery of the Saatchi-driven YBA moment to publish editions and multiples. What attracted you to the idea of editions?

Well, in the early '90s I was starting to work with artists on projects, and I didn’t have a gallery at the time, so it was just about trying to find a platform that was cost-effective and also giving the artist that I was working with the opportunity to create work outside of the conventional structure of the studio and the gallery. What we were doing wasn’t antagonistic towards the art world, unlike mail art in the '70s, which I think was quite political with a small "p" in an attempt to negate the gallery system. That wasn’t my interest at all—my interest was to invite artists who hadn’t thought about making a publication or distributing their work by mail to think about how their art circulates. So when I extended invitations to people like Peter Doig, Chris Ofili, or Elizabeth Peyton, for the most part it was the first time they’ve produced art in that form and it was probably the first time that their work circulated independently of galleries and exhibitions.

I was interested in creating an ongoing curatorial project that didn’t necessitate a space. It also didn’t necessitate my identity, so the works went out anonymously. It was just an interesting way to produce things, because none of the things I modeled the project on from the '60s and '70s, like Fluxus publications and independent publishing, were really happening in the early '90s—it was really a time of emphasis on galleries and institutions and a burgeoning commercial narrative for artists, including the artists that became the YBAs. Certainly, the artists that I gravitated towards at the time were not the typical figures associated with Saachi—they were artists who were thinking about other things, like Jeremy Deller or Peter Doig. The nature of the work they were doing didn’t make sense with Saachi’s interest, and it also wasn’t contained easily by this YBA narrative of brash, theatrical work that was associated with that period.  

Was your editions program based on a subscription model?

No, we just sent it people who we thought were doing interesting things.

So it was a free service? 

Yeah, it was like the gift economy. Of course, now they’re very rare and, I imagine, quite collectable.

How did you evolve what you were doing at Imprint 93 into your very successful editions program at White Columns? 

We produce a fanzine at White Columns, which is called the WC. We’ve done about 45 or 50 issues of that now. We started a record label called the Sound of White Columns where we release records by artist-musicians or musician-artists. We’ve done about 14 records now. We also do a very low-cost series of editions by using Xerox machines as way to make art and the idea of buying art or supporting an institution like White Columns accessible and affordable to a greater range of people.

The White Columns editions are all Xerox-based?

Not the screen prints, but we produce Xerox editions every year. We’ve made about 35 to date. So we’re trying to think about ways of working that retain something of the sensibility of, say, the fanzine idea of DIY culture of the late '70s and early '80s. There’s something anachronistic about taking that sensibility and translating it into the context of the contemporary art space in the 21st century, but at the same time there’s modest pleasure to be had in old technologies. Again, it’s asking about artists to make a work in a way that they would’ve never would’ve been invited to before. So each person that’s contributed to the Xerox project, it’s the first time they’re making a work for the Xerox machine.

Since coming to White Columns, you've been extraordinarily effective at bringing previously unheard voices into the art conversation, from your work with developmentally disabled artists to  your showcases of older, underground, or peripheral artists, like the flea market-scrounging cult figure Robert Loughlin. Why do you see it as your responsibility to display this kind of work?

We’re only one organization, and we can only show so much, but it just seems to me that there are a lot more voices out there than historically represented by the contemporary art world, and we have an opportunity here to at least privilege some of these different voices. I think we have a lot to learn from this cacophony of different voices, because I think the art world can become quite narrow, whereas it should be opposite—it should be completely porous, and much more embracing of other ways of working and artists with different intentions, motivations, and histories. That makes it more complex, and more interesting.

You can see the appeal of this to a pretty broad audience because it's disruptive and creates problems within linear narratives or established histories if the work doesn’t fit any prescribed idea about it. Obviously that’s not all we do here, and we do show work from younger artists who we think are very interesting, often giving them their first shows. It’s really just trying to keep all these balls in the air, because the field is really complicated—it’s huge.

How do you keep your eye on such a gigantic field? That seems like it would require the opposite of specialization. 

I mean, we’re always looking to things that haven’t been acknowledged in this context of the community of New York City. We’re very interested in presenting work here for the first time, where it doesn’t have consensus yet, where an audience doesn’t necessarily exist for it yet, in the hope that presenting the work here will find an audience or a larger audience. We’re as interested in the centers that support artists with disabilities as the artists themselves. These places are usually extraordinary, they’re usually incredibly forward-thinking, even radical, in terms of their relationship to disabilities and disability rights.

It’s clear that these voices aren’t privileged yet within the mainstream contemporary art world, but they’re also very different from the classic, romantic idea of the outsider artist as an individual creating autonomously somewhere for no audience. A lot of the artists who we’re working with are in fact working in very social environments, at centers with their peers and other artists with disabilities, so the work is coming out of a very social narrative. We’re interested in what it means to bring that work into the context of White Columns for both them and us, and what kind of conversations come out of that. 

In Independent this year, you’ve brought an extraordinary archive called “Margret: Chronicle of an Affair – May 1969 to December 1970.” What is the story behind this body of work?

It's a group of found materials that document an affair between a German businessman and his secretary in the late 1960s. The man methodically documented their entire relationship, through photographs, typewritten accounts of all of their sexual contact, and all of the receipts related to where they ate, where they stayed, and what they did. It’s a meticulous documentation project of this illicit event—something that you typically wouldn’t see—but he made a decision with this obsessive-compulsive and probably controlling narrative to create a record of something that was covert and invisible. Many years later, the material came to light when it was found in a briefcase, by which time the two protagonists had in fact passed away. The collection came into the hands of Susanne Zander, who has an extraordinary gallery in Cologne and Berlin now. She started showing the work of outsider and self-taught folk and vernacular art, and this might fall under that rubric.

It’s found materials that have the kind of presence and atmosphere of art, and the way he went about documenting this messy emotional and psychological narrative of the affair through photography and text seems to relate very closely to the burgeoning conceptual art of the same period, which probably wasn’t on his mind at all. The photographs themselves conjure up historical references as well, and in some cases they seem to preempt certain kinds of historical approaches by other artists. The woman seems to be an actor in this drama, and she’s posed, of course. If we look at a lot of feminist artists in the 1970s and how they started to think about representations of the self, we see a sort of inversion of that in this project, where this man is choreographing, perhaps, this sort of narrative with the secretary. There’s just something extraordinarily obsessive about the entire thing.  

How did the story end? 

They separated, at the end of this brief affair. Since then the identities of the two main protagonists are known. It would make an extraordinary documentary, no doubt about that. I think it’s just an amazing glimpse into something that we would have had no access to if these materials hadn’t become visible or public, and instead it’s become a public body of visible evidence. Consequently, I think all of the images and everything in the collection has a strange charge.

How important is biography when it comes to our understanding of outsider or vernacular art?

With more classical outsider art, there’s always been overinvestment in the artist's biography. We want to know about James Castle’s life, about his death, and everything therein in order for us to try to gain access to the work, about which he never spoke publicly. Or with the Philadelphia Wireman, where the maker of the work remains anonymous, we have to construct a story around the origins of the work—so the fact that the Philadelphia Wireman work was discovered in an African American neighborhood in Philadelphia becomes really central to our subsequent understanding, and we start to make conjectures around that.

Regarding the Judith Scott exhibition at the Brooklyn Museum, Judith was born with Down syndrome and was also mute and deaf, so she never spoke about her work, yet it was made in a very social environment at the Creative Growth Studio over 18 years, with other people bearing witness to each of the objects. So the works were made in public yet they remains mute, literally, in the sense that we don’t know anything about her intentions. Again, what we project onto the work becomes a conjecture. Henry Darger would be the best example of an individual maker of art for his own purposes—he was the sole audience for the work and he created a staggering body of art that was only discovered after his death.

I think that that question of the artist’s biography is something that a lot of people have issue with in relation to outsider art. I was wondering why we don’t know more about the lives of contemporary artists, why it’s only when they suddenly get a 10-page profile in the New Yorker that we find out what their parents do. Unless an artist gets to a certain level of visibility, we know nothing really about a contemporary artist’s life. We don’t know about their home life, about their kids, what their kids do, what their parents did, or what their partner does. All of this is regarded as extraneous to the work, which of course it isn’t. It’s central to the work. So this way that the biography gets suppressed in the contemporary-art context is pretty interesting. Only when the artist becomes historical and paradoxically achieves a greater level of visibility do we occasionally get access to their private life.

There was an interesting profile on Rachel Harrison recently and, when you think about her work, we don’t know much about Rachel Harrison unless you’re a friend of hers or you know friends of hers. All of a sudden, we receive a very cautious, attentive insight into her everyday life, which probably is hugely illuminating in relation to the work. But that’s very unusual—while with some of the outside artists that we talked about, their lives are pored over for clues that would help us to develop a better relationship with the work.

This is less germane to White Columns, since you’re a nonprofit, but because of the rise of interest in outsider art and these kinds of archives, the market has grown in tandem—with work by prominent artists drawing high prices. Meanwhile, it seems that certain problematics would crop up due to the fact that many outsider artists are incapable of managing business matters, are dead, or are lost to history in the case of anonymous figures like the Philadelphia Wireman. How can a dealer of this art sensitively negotiate these kinds matters related to the selling of this kind of art?

I think that’s what’s great about all these centers, because they’ve been thinking about this for decades and they’ve created ethical structures. They’re very interested in the artists benefiting from their creative work, particularly people who don’t have access to conventional employment and are finding ways to support themselves and their family in some cases. They’ve created ethical structures where trusts are created for the individual artist and any money that they get from sales goes into these trusts, which can be used accordingly and in a way that doesn’t jeopardize their disability benefit payments. In a strange way, it’s in the interest of these centers for the artists to become more successful because the economic narrative from that success benefits both the centers and the artists. Of course, these are under-funded places.

We’re very excited that JTT gallery in the Lower East Side has just opened a show with Marlon Mullen. He is an amazingly interesting painter who works at the National Institute of Art and Disabilities in Richmond, California. We did a solo show with Mullen a few years ago, and Jasmine who runs JTT saw his work with us and is doing a solo show with him now. I think that’s a really amazing development, that Mullen’s work, which was largely only seen in the context of the center where he worked, is now finding multiple audiences. Certainly, from our perspective at White Columns, the goal is to create an audience for these ideas—we’re less concerned, or ultimately less interested, in creating a market for these ideas. But I accept entirely that sometimes a market will come.

That certainly happened with Thornton Dial, and there's still some measure of controversy over the collector who has bought up so much of his life's work, Bill Arnett.

That’s more complicated, because a huge part of that work is going to the Met, and it will now be part of the Met’s collection that will be shown in the former Whitney building, which again is an example of this material coming into the foreground. The guy that supported all that work, acquired all that work, and helped them out financially in many different ways when no one else was interested. No one else was supporting this material so by default he ended up with these huge holdings of artists’ work. It seems less exploitative to me than it is portrayed. I think now some of these paintings might be worth $200,000 or $300,000, as they should be, because they’re extraordinary. Now the subsequent narrative for that body of work made in the American South will become historical, especially now that the Met has acquired a huge group of them. Like the Gee's Bend quilts from a decade ago, this is major work produced in communities that are not typically part of the contemporary art conversation. So, in a strange way, we should be eternally grateful for the guy who collected all of this, because most of this work would have been dissipated or otherwise gotten lost.

And it was great to see Thornton’s work at Independent Projects in November. That was a great place for Thornton’s work because that’s not typically where you would see it, and, to see his work alongside other kinds of contemporary work, you realize the degrees of separation between is actually very modest and small. 

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