by Jonathan T. D. Neil


by Domingo Mestre


by Noah Marcel Sudarsky


by Juanli Carrión

Lower East Side, New York City. We are interviewing members of Participant Inc., a not-for-profit organization created in December 2001 and having its first exhibition in November 2002. Since then the organization has presented individual and group exhibitions, performances, screenings, site-specific projects, literary readings, book launches, and educational programs reflecting contemporary cultural reality and serving artists through presentation and the publishing of critical writing. In this interview, I am speaking with Lia Gangitano, director of Participant, Inc., and Mari Spirito, director of the 303 Gallery (an established gallery in Chelsea) and also independent curator, who has done shows also at Participant Inc. and in the Cuchifritos gallery at the Essex Street Market.We had a conversation discussing how the current economic situation is affecting the art world.

Participant Inc.

ARTSCAPE: One of the biggest problems facing artists today is that they have projects, they have the idea, sometimes they even have the place for the show, but they don’t have the money to produce it. In Europe, often artists obtain money for production from public funds, or from private banks, who give funding. In any case, it is hard to get a large amount of money to provide for the production and

MARI: I’m kind of stuck on just the word “production” a little bit, because you wouldn’t say, if your mother’s making you a quilt, that she’s “producing” a quilt. I mean, you’d say, “My mom made me this quilt.” It’s very intimate, personal, [made] from whatever’s around. But if you’re getting, like, Nike sneakers, you’re talking about a big corporation producing a product. I think using the word “production,” using that in the context of making art, in the context of making are is just strange. … Artists are making things out of ... you have Arte Povera … [so] having the money has nothing to do with it, you just do it.

LIA: For us as a non-profit that made a decision to be a physical space, [it came from] our interest in the idea of production in that most of the artists we work with don’t actually have studios. They don’t have space to work in so a big part of our identity is that we have a physical space in which larger projects can be conceived or produced. Not that it’s a residency or a work space, but it’s an opportunity. [In that way,] the physical space is an asset, which we see as additional to any sort of fee or funding for production. It offers the resource of the space, whether it’s just to shoot a film, [for example,] because we have insurance, we can rent equipment, it can be here. There are certain things in New York that people find prohibitive, and so, as a space with tiny financial resources, this other asset has been pretty important. What we can give to an artist, is weirdly uncommon. Of course, it’s not a production studio.

MARI: It would be “weird” to call it that. It’s community specific since, in New York there is not a lot of space and real estate is really expensive. [It might not be as necessary] somewhere else where space is not a big deal.

Participant Inc, installation of Psychology of a Pawn,

Participant Inc, installation of Psychology of a Pawn, curated by Mari Spirito,
November, 2008. Courtesy of Mari Spirito.

Do you think that it’s necessary for artists to reconsider their art-making process? I am thinking of this situation. There are some artists who make works without too much equipment and media, such as video monitors, technical apparatuses and so on. But other artists use expensive paraphernalia in their shows. This second group would seem to be under greater pressure in the current climate in that they need to make their works in a professional way for them to be acceptable in the art world, yet to do so they would need much greater funding than the first group.

MARI: Even this question, “Do you think it’s necessary for artists to reconsider their art-making process” makes it sound like they have a choice. The whole world is changing just because things change, it’s the natural cycle of things. We all have to do something different now because times are different. It’s not like they’re choosing [whether] to reconsider. They have no choice [but to reconsider]. It’s just the way it is now.

LIA: What you were talking about in terms of the problematic nature of production, in a sense, has been created over and over by artists in the way, for example, that Warhol redefined production with the factory, and Matthew Barney redefined production via having stockholders. Those things do reflect the times and either supported or critiqued the sort of general culture of the times. But, I think -- and I think you feel similarly – that artists can direct that process. Even kids going to fancy MFA programs are going to have to readjust. [We are going through a] cycle that [will lead to] something different. And there are always artists and communities of artists who’ve worked completely outside of the [general way of doing things]. I think we share an exhaustion with talking about the downturn and sort of “the unprecedented time.” I think [that] in New York a lot of the newer generation of artists and galleries and professionals have only existed in the financial bubble. So you see these people really trying to figure out how to do what they do in a completely different context. That’s difficult but can be interesting.

And you think it’s necessary?

MARI: Well, it is what it is, right?

If you go to the fairs, even now you see really crazy, lavish, big productions and projects. Maybe the gallery owners are thinking: “Let’s go and sell these very pricey artworks now, because in a short time it’s not going to be not possible to move them.” We continue seeing colossal, “big-ticket” productions, but, let me add, that recently there’s nothing new. It used to be that every other year you could go and see new things, new ways, new production, new artists. But this year there are no risks.What do you think about my perceptions?

MARI: I did see some new things at the fair. It might have been art that’s already been around, but, because the art fair is so big, you can’t see every single work of art [every year] and remember everything. So, my experience was different from yours. Lia, what was your experience at ARCO?

LIA: I was there to speak on a panel about performance, so [it wasn’t the normal visiting experience.] My general feeling about art fairs is that they’ve gained too much importance. I never really thought of them as an exhibition platform. You read in the New York Times someone comparing the Whitney Biennial to the Armory Show, which in my mind is absurd. A curated exhibition is not the same as ostensibly a trade show. I think it has harmed galleries to place too much emphasis on the fairs. It has seemed to detract from actual gallery exhibitions when people are so busy going to too many fairs. If you allow that to become the main viewing platform or experience, it’s unfortunate. There was some aspect of a public going to visit shows in galleries [that is significant]. I miss the time and effort that used to be put into gallery shows. The fairs have impacted people’s ability to just focus on exhibitions. I mean it’s fine when people do a crazy installation at a fair or people do a performance, because it gives you a break from the redundant experience of going booth to booth, but, ultimately, it’s still not the ideal conditions for experiencing art.

I totally agree. These big fairs are not an exhibition. They are just a commercial center. If you want to have the art experience, you can’t go to the fair. You must to go to the shows in the galleries, go to the museums, go to the non-profits, and go to the artists’ studios. Not the fairs.

MARI: But, you know, the art fairs are important for other reasons. If you’re a curator and live, let’s say, in S.F. or L.A., you may not have the budget to go to all the European cities, and all the galleries. The fairs are where people see more art. Of course, you go knowing it’s not an exhibition. It’s kind of a survey of what’s going on in the art community at the time. Often really good things, some dialogue happens, in addition to placing work in collections. I’ve met lots of really important people ... for our artists to stay in touch with, such as curators and writers. The fair is not just about placing work. Still, people get confused and they think of the fair that it is an exhibition. The same thing happens when these collectors open their homes and have shows at their foundations or museums. People get confused and think that if an artist has a show at a collector’s foundation, it has the same credibility as [it would have if the exhibit were at] an institution when it’s not [the same]. It’s the collector’s collection, it is but it’s not a museum.

LIA: I think things have been more confused in the recent past, because there has been a conflation. In my mind, there a constellation of values in terms of art where actual [monetary] value is just one of many ways in which art is valuable, But it seems people did think that [value was the only one]. There was an over-prioritizing of monetary value that the fairs support in that you read about a fair and all you read about is what sold for how much. Not really talking about any other attributes of the work. And I think museums have had a part in this very problem, aligning themselves with these same sort of limitations [of perspective]. It’s not [simply] about worth in terms of money. Historically, it’s not always been like that [where cash value is the only measure]. This is just a downside of our sort of cultural preoccupation [with making it big monetarily], which we see reflected in everything going on. And that’s just not the only thing.

MARI: [The economic dislocation is the same] with cars. We’ve made so many cars, and our auto industry is so big with so many people working for it. Now, suddenly, we realize that we don’t need these many cars, especially when we’re trying to not use so much oil. That’s why so many people have become unemployed and unable to support their families, because we’ve been over-producing something we don’t actually need. It’s going on with a lot of other things, too, that are being made and [bringing us to] over-production problem.

Well, it’s not only over-production of commodities, such as cars and refrigerators. Some would say there are too many art galleries, not-for- profits, cultural spaces, artists, curators, magazines. Just as certain car companies seem on the verge of shutting down, I’ve read in the news that non-profits and some galleries are closing. Others are considering staff reductions ...

MARI: Downsizing.

What do you think about that?

LIA: I wasn’t really aware [that it was going on to the extent you are bringing up]. I knew about MOCA and what’s happening at Rose Art Museum. There’s always downsizing in these large institutions and hiring freezes but it’s always scary. In an organization like ours, which has always been tiny, with a small budget, we should be totally well prepared. Maybe that’s naive. But that was the most the alternative way we could be as an alternative space. Our budgets were very modest and yet we were always able to produce extremely ambitions projects. That was, during the moment of excess that we are exiting, that was our alternativity. We responded to the equation of art and money [made by some people], by saying, “Look what we did! with no money!” That was how we were different and I guess that has always been the role of alternative spaces. So I don’t know. I feel like saying, “Sure, it stinks that budgets will be reduced, but they’re not going to disappear.” Hopefully. the NEA is going to continue. There is huge funding going to the federal budget to state governments to save arts jobs. [To be specific] I’m hoping that we might be eligible for that through UNESCA. People who’ve receive any NEA money already can apply for this funding. You know, it’s different in this country. Traditionally, there isn’t a lot [given to culture]. I remember when I started working in museums and the NEA funded American artists to travel all over the world. It hasn’t been like that for a really long time. Nowadays, there seems to be an attitude in this country, that no one is really proud of arts and culture. [To reminisce,] I worked in the late ’80s and early ’90s in a very struggling institution, the ICA in Boston, which, as you know, had tough periods in time. There were huge layoffs, with the staff being cut in half at one point. But those times also produced some of the most interesting projects. A scarcity of resources means you’ve got to get really creative and really innovative about your approach. That happens with artists and it happens with galleries and museums. If you can’t readjust …

MARI: You have to readjust, you have no choice.

Times of crisis are times of action and reaction and maybe we need that. There’s another important question that I’ve been pondering. Maybe the problem is not only the economy, but that creativity is exhausted.

MARI: [Let me say one thing] about having to tighten the belt. For me, it’s just about [dealing with] reality. If it rains, you have to put up the umbrella because it’s raining. That’s the climate. Now the cultural climate is that there are less resources available so everyone’s tightening their belts. You have to be nimble and change with whatever is going on so. It’s horrible that people are out of work and people are struggling, but you can’t get hysterical, because panicking is not going to create anything or make anything better. It’s just going to make you hysterical.

In my opinion, this recession is going to be good insofar as, right now, there is too much of everything, too many galleries, too many museums. Unfortunately in this type of shakeout, when galleries and non-profits are going down sometimes the ones that don’t make it are the ones that were most promising, most creative.

MARI: I don’t want to see any galleries or museums close, and it will be horrible. [However, there will be one shift in that] there will not be as many resources for having an international dialogue, because it’s expensive for shipping and traveling. So maybe galleries and museums will be more focused on local artists, artists in the communities where the institutions are situated. It would be interesting.

To return to my earlier point, we have the economic problem, but, maybe, we also have a problem with creativity. Some critics are boldly saying that Western art is over, and we need to look for creativity in another country and other cultures.

MARI: I completely disagree. Maybe the people who are looking are exhausted, not the artists. You have to wait and see what happens [and remain] resourceful.

MARI: ... to cultures they just don’t understand.

Here in New York you can find artists from all over the world. That’s not what I was getting at. I mean, Moroccan artists here in New York do not necessarily make the same kind of art as they would if they were still in Morocco.

MARI: Well, there’s definitely interesting art being made in the Middle East and people are looking for new things all the time. [Nonetheless, we have to be careful about getting caught up in] always looking for the cult of the new. This might be a part of the problem, which is kind of a consumption problem, [the desire to] always to consume something new that hasn’t been consumed before, instead of looking more closely at what you have.

LIA: [One also has to beware] of this exoticism idea. [Think of] these shows that are like “Ooh China! Oooh Africa!” They’re so incredibly totalizing and generalizing about “otherness.” I find it bizarre that people still want to objectify and market a new brand. It seems [wildly] inappropriate when people throw around terms like “globalism” and yet their thinking [is still in the framework where they are] making generalizations about “art from the Middle East,” “art from China!” It’s a very traditional, outmoded approach ...

It’s almost a fad. Every museum in Europe wants to have a big China exhibition.

LIA: I think it was at ARCO where they had “Focus: INDIA!” Of course, it’s great to see “art from China.” We’re learning about an interesting realm, but really the discussion [at the show mentioned] was so much about the market, this idea that art is a commodity only to be acquired for its investment value or perhaps as a luxury item.

MARI: A luxury good.

LIA: A luxury good! This attitude is incredibly disturbing.

MARI: People combine art [with other articles of elegant consumption, putting] champagne, cars, diamonds, and art, all in the same [category].”

LIA: I mean I never thought of art like that, [as nothing but a commodity], so I’m psyched [to imagine that in the current downturn] that view may go away. I don’t think of art as a business. I don’t think of art as a luxury good. I would be happy to see those ideas go by the wayside.

MARI: It will be good to try to find a balance where we’re still having exchanges of cultures and learning about each other through art and literature, and performance and films. [Hopefully,] we’re not going to obliterate that because, you learn so much about another part of the world when you start to talk to the artists and find what their ideas are about and what their visions are. In that way, we can escape the idea of a cultural nationalism where we’re competing against each other and making the boundaries stronger by defining all these sections of the world.

To conclude, because, though there is still so much to learn from you, we don’t have a lot of paper on which to print the interview, I would like to ask both of you: What direction do you think art will be taking in this new climate?

MARI: What makes art interesting is that we don’t know.

Granted, but, in your personal opinion, how will you weather this crisis?

LIA: What did Holland (Cotter) say? “Get a day job.”

MARI: I’ll keep working as hard as I’ve always been working, keep doing what I’ve always been doing, hopefully doing interesting things. I’m not about to change my vision because the market changes. I might change how I do it to adapt to the environment. I’m not going to change how I am.

You know sometimes the market changes a gallery. If the market doesn’t buy more of one kind of work, the gallery change the work it handles, gets a new roster of artists.

MARI: We don’t change the artists. We make commitments to our artists and keep working with the them.

You are bucking the trend. Your gallery should be a model.

LIA: I would hope that galleries wouldn’t change, of course, because that would show a real problem. [Still, I must acknowledge that] that’s been a problem with galleries in the past. They became very client driven. Galleries tailored their program to what people wanted to buy. I think it will be good if that changes. To me, that’s [reactive response to market pressures] is not what an important or visionary gallery does. A good gallery has a platform of artists that they believe in. Above all, it’s about a curatorial vision, not about serving, you know, collectors. You have a good plan but there are others that don’t have a good plan. Before I was talking about ARCO. There you would only see the works that they are sure that they’re going to sell.

You have a good plan but there are others that don’t have a good plan. Before I was talking about ARCO. There you would only see the works that they are sure that they’re going to sell.

MARI: I’m not going to stop working with an artist because the economy gets difficult. We’re going to continue working with them, no matter what happens. We’re going to stick it out and work together. Because i believe in the artists.

There are other kinds of galleries that believe in money. They don’t believe in artists.

LIA: I have very little interest in the market. What we are supporting here are artists who, for whatever reasons, have worked outside that model, on purpose or not. There’s been a strange transition. The role of a place like this used to be so defined. Ten years ago, in order for a young artist to show in a gallery, he or she would have to have a show in a non-profit. There was a very clear path. You do a white room in a “white box” and then you can show in a commercial gallery. But, recently, there’s been a period where young artists completely skipped the alternative space. They go directly into the market and their marketability is enhanced by how young they are when they’ve had a show in a commercial gallery context. That became a value as well. So, for us, it was like, “Oh, well young artists don’t need us [Participant Inc.]” So, we became interested in artists who have been working for much longer periods of time, but outside of that context. These are artists who always have made art, but have never made a living selling their work. There are many examples. For instance, Charles Atlas, who has worked in broadcast television and documentary films. To me, he’s like a legendary artist whose career has not been dictated by commercial success in any traditional way. Many an artist has conducted a career in that way. So I think that’s that. If artists are looking for models of what to do in an economy that’s not going to immediately support them through their actual art making, there are tons of examples. We’ve been focused on those artists who don’t make anything to sell or don’t want to market it or, who, for whatever reasons, have chosen other ways of getting their work to audiences.

Thank you so much for your time and for your ideas and opinions.

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