Curating Alternative Spaces

The focus of alternative spaces was clear from the beginning. Focus on artists, not the objects and markets that traditional museums and galleries are primarily concerned with. Although some alternative spaces may have lost their focus over time, artist-centered spaces have continually evolved and succeeded in supporting artists in a variety of ways that traditional galleries and museums are not capable of. Alternative spaces create community, allow flexibility to new and experimental art, and provide a venue in which to present work not easily accepted by a large audience and/or not conductive to sales. As alternative spaces spread throughout the United States, they helped to decentralize the contemporary art world—providing opportunity to artists regardless of location, and granting artists a much-needed break from what many artists felt was a stifling and rigid commercial art world in traditional, established museums and galleries.

Alternative spaces in the United States may have come into their own in the 1970s, but artist-centered spaces had been in the works since as early as 1862, with establishments such as the Art Building Gallery in Chicago, which provided free exhibition space to artists. The late 1940s and early 1950s saw a rise in the formation of alternative spaces, including the 10th Street Galleries in Lower Manhattan, which supported many artists who have since become well-known. During the 1970s, and again in the 1990s, many new alternative spaces were formed, and older alternative spaces became increasingly influential to new generations of artists, curators, and art-lovers. Today, alternative spaces continue to expand the definitions of art exhibitions, curators, and art.

As sales are not the main priority of alternative spaces, and since much of the work exhibited is not conductive to sales, (being experimental, temporary, conceptual, site-specific, etc.), many alternative spaces have struggled for economic support over the years. In the early 1970s, the National Endowment for the Arts saw the value in the leaders of this new, less formal exhibition scene and started encouraging them to institutionalize their organizations, in order to make them eligible for public funding. Other public funding programs on a state and county level soon began to help alternative spaces as well. The goals of alternative spaces and the funding programs were the same—decentralize and democratize the contemporary art world. This helped to sustain and develop alternative spaces, and was a contributing factor to the rise in numbers of alternative spaces in the 1970s and beyond.

However, in the early 1990s, the National Endowment for the Arts and other funding programs had to reduce their support for alternative spaces after censorship activities. Alternative spaces were then forced to rely more on fundraising, individual contributions, and private foundations. Many of the alternative spaces eventually shifted their business structures into not-for-profit models, sometimes including boards of directors. The younger generation began to view established alternative spaces as yet another aspect of the mainstream art world, and rejected them, seeking out other options, or creating true alternative spaces of their own.

It is difficult to label alternative spaces into one category, because as each developed individually, they took on a life and mission of their own. Most were adamant about having zero ties with the traditional art world and existing in opposition to commercial galleries and museums; others used the art market to their advantage when it was convenient to them. Some spaces became feeders for commercial galleries, and many artists who are now famous had some of their first exhibitions in alternative spaces. Other spaces became meeting halls for artists to discuss political and social issues.

“As the art world expanded in the 1990s,” Curator Betti-Sue Hertz explains, “older alternative spaces became more institutionalized often resembling mini-museums…[A] fresh generation of savvy artists and curators adopted new attitudes towards the concept of alternative creating hybrid models with not-for-profit and for-profit components.” Today, there are still many alternative spaces and artist-centered venues. They constantly evolve their structures, concepts, and exhibitions to stay on the cutting edge and promote the decentralization and democratization of art.

The decentralization of art was not a new concept. In his 1946 text, The Grass Roots of Art, Herbert Read stated, “There should be no barriers between the people and the artists, for every man is potentially an artist, liable to be inspired by the sight of another artist…Then, perhaps, a little moisture might reach the dried roots, and a vital art once again flourish from the soil.” Read also felt that the theatre might be “the best medium through which to effect the decentralization of the arts. It is an art which calls for the living human co-operation of many persons within a community; not only for its acting or presentation, but for its appreciation and growth.”

The Happenings of the 1960s and 70s were a movement that embraced this way of thinking about alternative exhibitions of art and called into question the nature of art itself. The Happenings artists took risks, and succeeded in programming that traditional galleries and museums, based on commerce or controlled by a board of directors, could not viably participate in.

21st Century models of alternative spaces include hosting exhibitions in places such as garages, offices, hallways, closets, bathrooms, on the street—anywhere and everywhere that art can be displayed. These spaces form a new level of subversion. Places, according to writer Petra Royale Bibeau, “where currency ceases to hold the reins of priority and artistic experimentation is the driving force.” Bibeau goes on to state, “the reverse [economic] platform of alternative spaces has broadened the scope and freedom of contemporary art in ways that allow the curator to account visually as an author, an artist as an educator, and the audience as a participant rather than consumer-venue dweller, a change from the traditional gallerist-aritst relationship that presents more of a transaction heavy dispensary for sellable art.” Now, even exhibitions held in coffee shops, on the street, or in bars are curated.

The role of the contemporary curator in alternative spaces is highly creative—some would even say the curator’s exhibition becomes artwork itself. Curators are producing exhibitions that explore contemporary issues on social, political, and cultural levels, considering and encouraging audience participation, and challenging viewers to re-think their definitions of exhibitions, curators, artists, and artwork. Contemporary curators are also expanding the horizons of the art world by working in cities that have little in terms of contemporary art. Here, they can have a bigger impact than over-saturated cities such as New York. Alternative spaces have had a huge impact on the decentralization of art from urban centers like New York City. There is no doubt that New York is still a mecca of the art world, but alternative spaces have helped to create a world where artists from every corner of the United States are able to be recognized. The role of the Internet and alternative spaces has massive potential and is yet to be fully explored as well.

Being a curator, critic, or arts administrator as an artist challenges the foundations of the traditional art establishment. Since the notion of curator as artist developed during the late 1960s and early 1970s out of alternative spaces, this is not surprising. Many of the authority figures in the contemporary art world disagree with the statement that a curator can be an artist. This stems from the stereotypes that artists can’t function outside of their studio, are unorganized, inept, and shouldn’t be concerned with the business of art. Breaking these stereotypes is yet another way artists/curators can challenge the traditions of the establishment and become aligned with the values of artist-centered spaces.

Yet contemporary, or independent, curators are gaining recognition from a broad range of arts professionals that recognize the limitations of the traditional art world and are poised to reform the division of power in the art world. According to artist, curator, and writer Susan Myers, “The art world has successfully perpetuated the belief that formally trained critics and curators are needed to provide artists with the concepts and vocabulary required to discuss their work. This assumption is terribly antiquated and tiresome.” Myers goes on to state, “Some in the art world would argue that artists active as curators and critics lack the ability to remain objective…but professional curators and critics are just as likely as artists to bring their own agendas and limited interests to a curatorial project or critical review. And to a certain extent, don’t we expect them to contribute their point of view? Ultimately, we should encourage a diversity of viewpoints…artists are just as qualified, capable, and well-positioned as any academically trained art professional to…help define the history of art.”

One example of a contemporary alternative space is the Hideout in Seattle, a bar covered floor to ceiling in paintings, photographs, and drawings, curated by Greg Lundgren. There is a jukebox with art instead of songs, and if you order an “Andy Warhol” drink, you will receive a Cosmopolitan and get your Polaroid picture taken. Lundgren has been very successful—the place is packed with artists and dealers frequently, one dealer even used the space for a temporary office. The Hideout has hosted unique exhibitions such as the one-night show “Overdrawn” in the late 1990s, in which Lundgren asked his artist friends to go through their storage and donate an artwork that they didn’t plan on selling. The artwork was then available for free at the exhibition, but only people who could prove that they had been overdrawn in their bank account within the last year could receive a piece of art.

Lundgren is best known as a “curator of ideas” and describes himself as a “speculator and a prospector…Art is an experiment here, and there are a million ways to screw it up, mostly by doing nothing.” Upon the subject of the growing trend of viewing art in bars, patron Eric Hahn notes, “You might react to it without the filter of thinking of what you’re seeing as art.” Additionally, exhibiting art in a bar may expose people to art who normally would not seek out an art exhibition. It puts art in a place where people actually go, as well as removing any pretense and intimidation that people are sometimes afraid of in a more formal space. Another advantage to bars is that they are not dependent on generating income from the sale of artwork, so the artists and curators have a lot of freedom to take risks without pressure.

Curating alternative spaces has become a way of evolving and shaping the art world to become the type of world that artists, curators, and buyers want it to be. If an artist or curator is not happy with the current state of the art scene, their only limitations are their willpower and imagination. The climate of today’s art world is receptive to new forms of art and new techniques of organizing exhibitions. As Alan Jones states, “In the end, each generation of artists gets the kind of art world it deserves.” The moral is, if nothing is happening, make something happen.

Not to say that it’s easy. With the rise of costs and economic climate of today, many alternative spaces have been challenged to find new modes of exhibiting or being forced to shut their doors. This has led to an influx of independent curators who are not associated with a particular space, but who are more flexible in terms of exhibition location—exploring new avenues and pushing the boundaries of exhibitions. Curator Fionn Meade states, “What it means to be a curator is more agile and open than it used to be…We have to be flexible about where we organize shows and what kind of shows they are. I’m thinking about a publication as a project space..to create an arena of provocation and response. I’d like to think that…independent curators can get together to offer exhibits collectively around the country.” Collaboration, creating community, and focusing on artists rather than commerce continues to be the main goal of many alternative spaces and contemporary curators in the 21st Century.

Unfortunately, there are also a number of alternative or independent spaces today, along with a number of contemporary curators, that base their practices solely on careerist pursuits and are not committed to individual artists. In direct opposition to these tactics is Artist Michelle Grabner and Brad Killam, who run The Suburban, an artist project space located in their garage in Oak Park, Illinois. Grabner and Killiam were frustrated with Chicago art scene and thus created their own space dedicated to artists over ten years ago. Grabner compares The Suburban to a “sketchbook” and describes the space as “a site where artists negotiate every raw aspect of an idea. No curator, no preparator, no dealer, no money. The Suburban offers a small audience of intelligent and articulate viewers…And of course it is located in the unfashionable suburbs. Most simply, The Suburban is an argument that favors artists and their thinking, and not their careers.” The Suburban succeeds in standing entirely outside of the influence of the art market. Those who come to The Suburban and those who don’t are a good measure of who really cares about a particular artist and their projects and who doesn’t.

The Suburban doesn’t aim to dramatically change the art world and does not pretend to have connections with a particular community or alternative values. Grabner states, “I am not convinced that a proper community has announced itself…why I don’t dwell on the question of community is that I am an unyielding supporter and enthusiastic viewer of every single project. So with Brad and the kids we have a solid community of five. That is really enough….I am not interested in the alternative or in counterculture activities, and I do not see The Suburban as such. I believe in artists and I believe in the imagination. I also happen to delight in and value my mid-western, middle class, middle-age life with a mortgage and three kids.” By not automatically associating themselves with other alternative spaces or values, The Suburban succeeds in being truly innovative and supporting the efforts of artists in an entirely unique and sustaining way.

Still other alternative spaces today serve as concepts to question the definition of alternative spaces. The Back Gallery is one such space that attempts “to offer and develop concepts, theories, and practices for alternative art spaces.” The goal of The Back Gallery is to “be illustrative of the divergences and varieties of art being created in the now, or in the contemporary existence we all share in the act of being in time.” Their only curatorial premise is the physical limitation of the space, which they refer to as “a space of conversation.”

While some traditional museums and galleries may view the alternative space as second-rate, many people agree that the alternative space allows viewers interpretations not associated with traditional, stifling, and out-dated notions of the value of art. Individuals, including viewers, artists, and curators, are all encouraged to bring their own ideas to the work, providing an experience that is much more fulfilling and thought-provoking than an exhibition in which you are simply told what you should think, feel, and believe.

Alternative spaces invite the viewer to become more involved with the art, many times even participate (in some cases whether they want to or not). Artist Pedro Cabrita Reis created a forest at the reopening of P.S. 1. in New York in 1997. An entire room was filled with looping, dark, plastic garbage bags filled with shredded paper, entirely consuming the room and making it impossible to walk through. Visitor and critic John Haber recalls, “At first I tried to step over and between them. In a museum, one does not touch the art. It did not take long, though, before I understood that the straight way was lost. I started kicking strands aside and using my hands to pull them apart…By the time I caught the elevator at the far end, I had attained nothing one could measure, merely the chance to keep exploring. I had grown perhaps a tiny bit more at home with the refuse of childhood, an arts institution, and the creative work.” P.S. 1. has now merged with the Museum of Modern Art, disappointing some people and delighting others.

As with everything else in the art world, there is always going to be a high level of subjectivity and a wide variety of opinion surrounding the definition of alternative spaces and how they should be curated now and in the future. Alternative spaces will continue to evolve, form new definitions, and expand upon new horizons in the contemporary art world. The goal and aspiration of true alternative spaces will always be to stay focused on the artist. The importance of supporting artist’s work will continue to grant freedom of experimentation and contribute to the creation of unique, powerful exhibitions that showcase original concepts and communication in contemporary art, regardless of location, medium, or venue.

Back to Writing

Bibliography

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Seidell, Marla. Raising the Bars: The Growing Trend of Art in Saloons.

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