Artists Space Director Stefan Kalmár on the Changing Art Economy

Artists Space Director Stefan Kalmár on the Changing Art Economy

In the two years since Stefan Kalmár joined Artists Space as its latest director, the fabled SoHo nonprofit has gone through a raft of evolutionary—if not revolutionary—changes. Down came the walls splitting the institution's spacious Greene Street loft into partitions, and up sprang probing, politically engaged shows that breathed new life into what had become, to many, a 1970s time capsule. Now that Kalmár, the former director of the Kunstverein Munich, is presiding over the 40th anniversary year of Artists Space, even more developments are in the offing, including a new venue a few blocks away that will open in March. Plus, if that wasn't enough, Artists Space is participating in the Whitney Biennial.

Artspace editor-in-chief Andrew M. Goldstein sat down to talk to Kalmár about the new developments, the Biennial, and the thorny matter of one other Biennial participant, Take Artists Space radical Georgia Sagri.

You are expanding Artists Space's footprint soon, adding an additional space. What will that be?

In early March we are going to be opening a second venue, which is two floors—a ground floor and a basement—on 55 Walker Street, and it will be dedicated to a more discursive practice as well as being a more social space. And we will have a bookshop where 100 artists will suggest 10 titles each, so we will initially have 1,000 titles, with the idea that the revenue it generates will be reinvested in the bookshop itself. Hopefully within a year we are able to have 200 artists, meaning 2,000 titles. That's sort of the fun part of the space, and the second part will be dedicated to an auditorium allowing for screenings and talks and seating between 100 and 160 people. The whole venue will be about 5,000 square feet, so it's kind of the same as our home on 38 Greene Street, although the basement, with a small cinema, won't open until the second phase. Then the original venue will become Artists Space: Exhibitions and the other one will become Artists Space: Books & Talks. The new space will allow us to have dinner together after the openings here and things like that. In a way it will be like how I imagine the early years at Dia must have been.

The last few years have seen enormous economic and political ferment both in New York and around the world, and, in a way, it's similar to the historical moment when Artists Space was founded. The '70s were also a time of economic upheaval, political upheaval.

There we have to draw more of a distinction. I do think that the world today it better than the world in '72. I think the world today is more just than the world in '72. It is to a certain degree far more unjust, but at least capitalist structure mutated itself to the extent that it is seemingly more democratic, seemingly more emancipatory, seemingly more integrated. But, of course, the climate of efficiency and capital runs everything, as much as it did in '72. But in a sort of old Marxist dialectic, one shouldn't underestimate the emancipatory good forces of capitalism for negating conservative structures like monarchies as well. One shouldn't forget that. So, in a way, the world today is far more differentiated, perceived as much more complex. I don't necessarily agree that it is more complex. But in an institutional sense, at least if you look to art, it's probably more transgressive. And that also has economic implications: The market has understood that if it can launch a career younger there will be a longer harvest period, and similarly, for institutions, if they are more adaptable to the new it has implications, since the new has become sort of the dictator of every larger institution. You have to be new. That an artist could show one week at, let's say, Reena Spaulings and four months later at a project space at MoMA? That wasn't the case in 1972. In that sense institutions are seemingly more transgressive than they used to be, but you can also argue that it's part of the flip side of an economy.

Speaking of museums and transgression, you recently staged a powerful show of work by Christopher D'Arcangelo, a young artist who created unauthorized anarchist interventions at MoMA, the Whitney, and other New York museums in the '70s before killing himself at the age of 24.

The Christopher D'Arcangelo show went to the core of questioning what is alternative, and his work and his legacy still pose a question that hasn't been answered. So it brought the discussion back to the early history of Artists Space—it sort of complicates our critical legacy—but it also brought a discussion into the present that is still not answered. I mean, if you want to go further, it raised the sort of relationships between capital and the alternative that are ever more convoluted. I think that played out, for example, in the controversies over our occupation.

That occupation took place last October, when a band of protesters led by the artist Georgia Sagri occupied Artists Space for over 24 hours, objecting to such grievances as the fact that you have a "luxurious bathroom" while the demonstrators at Zuccotti Park had none. Eventually they left. What did you make of the event?

Look, I think the protest action was totally legitimate. The criticism was not a criticism of us but of the need to find a space for discourse and discussion surrounding the relationship between cultural production and other forms of production, and in the current state of economy it was totally welcome—that's something we have been busy with anyway. It's just then a bit fraught if the people involved weren't aware about what Artists Space is and what our history is. And since Georgia is an artist who had a show here and knows that we are paying fees, knows that we paid for her production, and knows what Artists Space has been up to preceeding the occupation, the fact that she did not share this knowledge with the other occupants seems a bit strange. If we have a show like Christopher D'Arcangelo's, to ignore that totally and not relate one's own activity to that seems naïve. And at the end of the day, we had to literally protect Artists Space staff, Artists Space property—a laptop got stolen, for example, and books from our artist library by people like the Invisible Committee were just thrown around. If you can't agree to the basic point of no harm to Artists Space staff, that is outrageous.

How were they physically violent?

I mean they pushed me out of the way and threatened me, saying "We know where you live" and things like that. And they wouldn't agree not to damage property, which jeopardizes our lease because it's only rented. If these are not points we can agree on together, there's no point in going forward, and then also I'd rather defend the form of democracy and of working together and creating a place for criticality that we have established here than the one they would seem to be proposing.

Why did they target Artists Space?

Well, you know, we would be the organization that is most sympathetic to their cause. Do you think if they went across the street to occupy John Currin's studio, which is by the way much bigger than Artists Space, they would have hesitated a moment before calling the police? Because we are friendly, we are on their side, and therefore, as they said, we were a "weak target." If you call people who side with you a weak target you are already wrong.

And now, interestingly enough, Georgia Sagri is in the Whitney Biennial, and so is Artists Space.

See, isn't that interesting. You know how the big institution can absorb every seemingly conflict in the same community. I don't know, maybe there will be an opportunity to revisit that moment. I don't know. We would be open to it.

Also, it was kind of interesting to learn how little aware people were about the history of Artists Space. And I think the occupiers thought that because it's called Artists Space it should be given over to all artists. It's funny that often the people that demand exactly that are the worst artists. They are the ones with the big brush who sign their paintings on the left corner, you know.

What exactly will Artists Space be doing for the Biennial?

Twice a week, on Mondays sand Tuesdays, we will be using our new venue to stage talks. We have literally been given free range to involve artists who are a part of the Biennial or, in a more opaque way, to relate discursive activities to certain issues by focusing in on aspects of the Biennial. For example, since Robert Gober choose to work with Forest Bess [the late artist Gober is showcasing in the Biennial], what does that mean in terms of rediscovery? What does the work of Forest Bess mean? What does it mean in terms of gender politics? [Bess operated on himself in a failed effort to become a hermaphrodite.] Also metaphorically, why at this point does the institution and artist find themselves in this position like this, and how much is it about recapturing a lost moment of authenticity? We are questioning why that effort to recapture the moment of the authentic seems to be reappearing throughout the Biennial, with people like Red Krayola, and whether this is combined with something that might be nostalgic. The live performances, the happenings—why is that? What does it mean? What discussion is acted out here? Why?

And then we have three symposiums planned. One is looking at gender politics, partly in relation to the Biennial, but also to post-gender politics period. This is under the title "Public Bodies, Private Parts." Then there is one aspect that looks at different forms of economies that relate to the idea of perversion, and how sexuality can relate to different forms of desire but also monetary economies, And the third one is about "Papier-Mâché Modernism."

Will there be anything addressing Mike Kelley?

No, they're going to do that. They said, "No, we'll do Mike Kelley—you can't do Mike Kelley." I think also Elisabeth [Sussman, the Biennial's co-curator] has a stake in Mike's history. But anyway, in relation to the show, we're going to be sort of the phantom limb of the Whitney Biennial, which sometimes itches. It's not really there, but it still itches and sometimes causes bodily pain. It will be interesting to see how that pans out.

Going back to the occupation, one thing that makes it especially surprising that they would target you is your work with W.A.G.E. [Working Artists and the Greater Economy], the artist collective dedicated to ensuring that artists are paid fairly for their work with museums and nonprofits. Can you tell me what you are doing with them?

We asked W.A.G.E. to work with us to sort of assess Artists Space in terms of how good or bad our payment practice is to our lecturers, artists who we have commissioned, artists who we have in group shows, et cetera, and to hopefully become the first W.A.G.E.-certified organization and set a good example there so that other organizations can see that it's possible and achievable. It's a question of where you put your money, and if you put your money where your mouth is. So I think in 2012 you can't necessarily strictly divide the line between the public and the private anymore because you can probably say that everything has become private somehow. This also allows us to look at what has to become public again, and how we now want to define public, and also how we define ethical business models and means of operations.

In that respect, if you look at the early architectural history of Artists Space, the corner office between Greene and Grand used to be the director's office, and next to it there was an assistant-to-the-director's office, and then there was development, and then there was curatorial. It was literally pigeonhole after pigeonhole, and then there was a boardroom. So the question we all have to ask is when and why did organizations like Artists Space become these little mini-kingdoms. And also bigger institutions like the New Museum, every institution should ask themselves, "What do you want to model yourselves on?" If difference is not possible at institutions like Artists Space, where is it possible? If we can't find a more just system of working together, a more communal system of working together, a more justly paid system of working together, where can we then if not here? If we talk about models of society and we don't pursue that model specifically—not metaphorically—within ourselves, then where else? We are here to experiment, and that also means to experiment with organizational models. But that we are here to experiment also means that we are allowed to fail. What sets us apart from other organizations is that the financial pressure of succeeding is not as high here as somewhere else. And as we are not-for-profit, we are supposed to not make profit, and you have to be aware of that. We are not supposed to go out of the year with a surplus. We might be able to therefore have different structure and different relationships among ourselves and also how we relate to artists and how artists and Artists Space together relate to the outside. That's what sets us apart from other organizations, too. We are Artists Space, you know. It's the artists' space.

As the director of Artists Space, you must have to contend with the legacy of the Pictures show. What impact would you say it had on the institution, and on contemporary art in general?

I think there's one exhibition that sort of exemplifies the innovative political legacy of Artists Space, and that's the Pictures show [1977], and, attached with it, the artists who were involved and that generation of artists. Today we talk about branding and we talk about artists finding themselves playing with popular culture imagery, and it goes back to Douglas Crimp and Helene Winer's Pictures show. What does the circulation of the popular image create within society? What is it vested with? How does it create identities, ideologies? How is it a representation of ideology and how is something like an imagery of dissent or of critique possibly within the now global economy of images? While in the 19th century to the middle of the 20th century the textual was a model, and we now have this sort of shift away from the textual to the visual and the visual narrative—the visual language—has replaced the written word. So in terms of educational function, one role that art can have here is to create a sort of critical awareness about the visual imagery that surrounds us.

The "Pictures" show was commenting on the era's proliferation of advertising and mass media. Now the technology that was at the heart of that phenomenon—the industrial printing press—has been superseded by online media. And I think it's interesting that there hasn't really been a "Pictures 2.0."

It's so funny. It's something we internally think about, and this year being our 40th anniversary it would be a part of looking back at our legacy but also looking forward. One of the questions that we are sort of busiest with is, "What would it mean if you update something like the Pictures show? Which artists would there be? How would that translate today?" I mean if you really go far, would it even be artists, you know? So that's sort of the exhibition we are working on at the moment for the summer. How would something like that look? Where was Pictures fooled, where was it naïve, and where was it successful, and how could you carry it on? I mean it will be interesting to see Cindy Sherman's exhibition at MoMA. Looking at her career, it partly looks at an Artists Space career, because she used to be a receptionist in the mid '70s at Artists Space.

Isn't the story that when she was a receptionist here that she would come into work every day wearing a different outfit?

She often didn't change from her photo shoots. So it wasn't necessarily a different outfit, but just didn't change you know. She came from the studio with her costume into Artists Space.

That's so funny. And that was before the prosthetics so it wasn't so strange.

Yeah. [laughs]

A "Pictures 2.0" would look both forward and backwards, and since you came here in 2009 it seems that you've been doing both of those things.

Well, there's no secret that there were, let's call it, the Problematic Years, and it's no criticism to previous directors or anything. It was just that Artists Space was structurally sort of in between phases somehow and maybe forgot what its strong point was and what its possibilities could be, and maybe there was a slight decrease in its competition for public funding competition and it wasn't approaching its own legacy and future in a progressive and sovereign manner. So therefore I thought it was necessary to remind people of its history, and its successful history at that, because I think the history of Artists Space till the early '90s, at least, is unparalleled in New York. I mean nobody did such coherent discourse or have a program of such integrity and political conviction. I mean Artists Space was always a political and, in some ways, activist institution. You can't say that of many other organizations to that extent. So I always think it's important to remember your legacy to point to it, but it's always very important to forget about it and move on. That's the reason why we got rid of the Artists Space archive, sending it to NYU's Fales Library, because they can look after it and I'd rather have our history contextualized in a downtown context that is composed of music, literature, and fanzines rather just in an art historical context. Symbolically, it also meant we are looking forward, not getting busy with our own history. I think you will find historically that when institutions start showing their own archive they are fucked—there's always something wrong, and they get busy with themselves.

You also knocked down the walls of the space, clearing it out to be a spacious, airy loft and seeming to sweep away any remaining cobwebs. What other changes did you make?

I mean like 70 percent of the board changed at Artists Space, and there was a rethinking process on the board level and staff level. We maintained our activities without losing one member of staff. There was not one member of staff fired through that transitional period. It was applied institution critique, and as someone who grew up in the early '90s who knows the policies of Christian Philipp Müller and Andrea Fraser, I had the liberty and the obligation to also apply it to the institution itself.

And then, the first exhibition we did was with Marc Camille Chaimowicz, who is in his 60s, and he showed work from 1972, the year Artists Space was founded, and it was his first show ever in the U.S.A. So just like that we already broke some of the doctrines that prevail about Artists Space, that it has to be about young artists and local artists. I think that the new Artists Space, in 2012, defines itself only in respect to how it unfolds meaning to the local artists living and working here. And that can happen by showing their work, but more often in the case of bringing in positions from outside that people may not have heard of and igniting a discussion among the local artists.

Another breaking of doctrines can be seen in the makeup of your board. Your newly announced board president is Allan Schwartzman, a former New Museum curator who is now an art advisor. Was his appointment part of a rethinking about the way that commerce and art interrelate?

I mean, it's partly that I have great trust in Allan Schwartzman as being a good president, and, if you look, the previous president was an investment banker. And Artists Space is proud of its history that nearly 50 percent of the board members are artists, and that sets us apart from any other institution in New York. But Allan Schwartzman put himself up to lead the organization in this sort of interesting year of the 40th anniversary, and the board—and I, myself—liked this because it does break the mold of how we normally think about an organization if an art advisor becomes the president of an alternative space. I like that friction because it makes something transparent that is existing, and I'm more than happy to lean myself out of the window to receive that criticism that could be directed at such an appointment.

Well, you are in good company this year, with Whitney Biennial being co-curated by Jay Sanders, who until taking the job was an art dealer at Greene Naftali Gallery.

I think one contour of a sort of naïvely ideological divide is that the market is stupid and public institutions are intelligent. I could literally name examples where we both could probably agree that that's not the case. You find amazing, smart people who work in the commercial sector and you find amazing, smart people who work in the private sector, and for one reason or another they ended up in those institutions. However, what you can say when you look at each individual case is that there is a such thing as organizations that do good practice and that you find them in the public sphere and you find them in the private sphere. There are galleries that do everything for their artists and then there are galleries that are busier with asset stripping. They never build up one of their artists on their own, they'd rather go around shopping for successful artists. So I mean there are different business ethics that you find in public and private institutions, and I do think my board shares the same ethics and the staff of Artists Space shares the same ethics and we are fully aware that it doesn't have to stop there.

So at this moment in time, what is it that appeals to you about what Artspace does, and our new partnership, where you are now selling editions through the website?

To be totally blunt, I have been told that it's very successful and that lots of likeminded institutions are very involved. And we are not structured in a way that we would be capable of marketing our editions stock. For us it's a way of using an innovative tool as a potential revenue generator. But again, that revenue generated for us contributes to side projects that Artists Space does, commissioning projects and programming. I mean, if that's an economy where you gain and we gain, but some of the funds are redistributed within a different system of producing meaning, discourse, and knowledge, I mean, yeah, why not?

Could you tell me a little bit about Artists Space's editions program?

Artists Space has always directly relied on some of the artists it has been working with to raise funds, and these funds always go straight back into the programming. It's not spent on staffing, not spent on building—it's always spent on programming. So we have been historically, I mean before my time, always asked artists to either donate to our program or Artists Space or to produce editions. Since I started in 2009 we have nearly produced a yearly Artists Space edition portfolio. This year it was with Thomas Bayrle, Rirkrit Tiravanija, Allora & Calzadilla, and Wolfgang Tillmans. It's always artists that we relate to and we are working with.

Aside from editions, how are you working to raise money for Artists Space?

Well, I started a program called Friends of Artists Space, which didn't exist before and also is unlike any other "friends" program. We literally don't do anything for our friends. I mean, we do a good program, but I want to go back to the sort of classical notion of philanthropy where people take pride in what they support because it's good, not because you get soggy sandwiches and a plastic chair. However, once a year we host a dinner for our friends. They don't have to buy a ticket, they don't even have to come if they don't want to come, but it's a dinner honoring someone who is meaningful to our history—last year we honored Yvonne Rainer, the year before that Julie Ault—and instead of buying tickets people can just attend. So this year we're going to do that during Frieze, and we're also going to have a show then of the Irish filmmaker Duncan Campbell, and we're going to have a panel discussion of four of the past directors of Artists Space.

Also, and I think you are the first person I am telling this to, we are going to have an apartment for artists to stay in. It is through the generous support of Helene Winer [a former director of Artists Space and the co-founder of Metro Pictures Gallery], and it will be called the Helene Winer Artists Space Apartment.

A residency?

It's not necessarily a residency, it's more a place for artists we are working with, but also for other not-for-profits, and also for people who on a kind of casual basis can call in. Like if a curator from London is coming to New York and says he can't afford a hotel and doesn't have so many friends here, he can stay here for free during that time.

Is it by need, or could Eli Broad call and say he wanted to stay there?

I mean, it's a bit by need. And Eli Broad wouldn't want to stay there, it's a fifth-floor walk-up. It's like investing the funds we have like the books and talks, places where very basic things are most needed. And at the end of the year we decided together with my board that we will begin doing a big fundraising auction with a major auction house. It's not to raise money for the company or anything, it's to raise money for programming. At the end of the day it will all get reinvested into artists either through programming or through direct commissions of exhibitions.

It sounds like a big year for Artists Space.

No, it is a big year. I mean like yeah it feels good and it feels that we do what we can do and we are not stretching ourselves fiscally speaking. You know, we've had our revenue grow by 35 percent, and that was during the crisis, so we must be doing something right there. And I think the appreciation people have for Artists Space in terms of our relationship to our core constituency, meaning artists, is growing, so we can really justify the name that we have. It does feel good all around, you know.


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