The Independent Wedge: A Brief History of Alternative Exhibition Spaces in the United States with Case Studies from New York City

By : Betti-Sue Hertz, Curator of Contemporary Art, San Diego Museum of Art

Summary: This presentation will give a historical perspective of alternative exhibition spaces in the United States with a focus on New York City, beginning with the emergence of the concept of the alternative space in the early 1970s through the 1990s. Throughout the presentation I will insert case studies using slides of exhibitions, as well as descriptions of specific organizations’ missions and practices.

Some basic issues for the emergence and evolution of alternative exhibition spaces include:

1) The emergence and evolution of non-commercial not-for-profit exhibition spaces and their role within the context of established venues such as museums and commercial galleries
2) Innovation in approaches to organizing exhibitions by emerging artists and arts professionals including flexibility and responsiveness to new artistic trends, mediums, and historical circumstances
3) An emphasis on presenting work not easily accepted by a larger audience and a laboratory model valuing experimentation.
4) Fostering democratization and decentralization of the visual arts community
5) Pressure for presentation opportunities for the growing ranks of post- art school graduates.
6) Role of public and private funding

Although it may appear that alternative spaces sprung up spontaneously in the1970s there were specific cultural and economic factors that facilitated their beginnings. There were also historical precedents, which would provide some models on which to build on. The 10th Street galleries in Lower Manhattan, which supported the artistic activities of the Abstract Expressionists in the late-1940s and 1950s, are one example of an artist-centered alternative. 112 Greene Street fostered the radical practices of New York’s conceptual artists in the late 1960s and early 1970s allowing them, for example, to pull up the floorboards to dig a hole in the space. The anti-war artists’ collectives of the Vietnam era provided alternative models for the presentation of political art. What happened in the early 1970s was a response to a void in the art world that was not being fulfilled by the museums or commercial galleries. The emerging alternative spaces were artist-centered rather than object-based or market-based. As more and more artists were shut out of the relatively small and elite established systems the need for another layer of exhibition opportunities—an independent wedge—became viable.

On a national scale, the emergence of alternative spaces (as we now characterize them in the United States) had a slightly different function. They helped decentralize the contemporary art world, giving it new dimension that was not so New York centric and provided opportunities to emerging communities of artists through the country. Spaces grew up in smaller cities such as Birmingham, Alabama, developing cities such as Houston, Texas, and large cities such as Chicago. They were somewhat aligned with other alternative movements in the U.S. such as post-Vietnam war political groups, women’s liberation and gay liberation. They were also more sensitive to ethnic and gender diversity, although not altogether successful in their attempts at inclusion. These spaces appropriated the strategies of self-determination of progressive political movements and shifted them to the contemporary art sphere. However, they did not have political motives per se, instead they prioritized creative expression and the primacy of the artist’s individuality. Many of these spaces were started by maverick curators who were tired of the museum system, such as Linda Shearer at Artist Space and Jeanette Ingberman at Exit Art, although some of them such as Art in General (which emerged a bit later) began as artists’ collectives.

In the early 1970s, some visionary program officers in the Visual Arts department of the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA), a federal funding agency which began in 1962, began to encourage leaders of small informal exhibition projects to institutationalize their organizations, making them eligible for public funding. The internal organizational structure of these fledgling groups often shifted from something more like a loose collective to a small not-for-profit business model. During the next couple of decades, the NEA and then other public funding sources on the state and county level continued to fund these spaces at partially sustainable amounts. Their goal—the democratization and decentralization for contemporary art—would help booster these small and fragile organizations. These funds were then used to leverage other forms of economic support from private foundations, individuals, and fundraising events.

Each alternative space developed a unique identity over time, however all saw themselves as innovators and independents, able to use the larger art system or reject it depending on the mood or circumstance of a particular exhibition, artist, or series. Although some of these spaces eventually became feeders for the commercial art galleries, others retained their distance from the marketplace. From the beginning these spaces could quickly be turned into meeting halls for artists to form artistic responses to political issues such as apartheid or censorship. These spaces were the first to acknowledge the profound effect of the AIDs crisis on the arts community with exhibitions and special projects. In the 1980s they were the first to promote artists of color (ethnic artists) and present works by international artists known in their home country but unknown in the United States. New exhibition spaces, such as Longwood Arts Project (where I was director from 1992-1998), were sited within Latino and African-American communities to better serve those artists. With this shift some spaces began to include audience development as a mission alongside the development and support of local artists. In the early 1990s, after dramatic censorship activities, the NEA and other governmental support for alternative spaces declined and they were forced to reorganize their economic base to include a much higher portion of funds from private foundations, corporations, and individuals.

The National Association of Artists’ Organization was formed in 1985 to bring together the alternative spaces operating in disparate parts of the country. One of it’s main functions was to hold annual conferences which provided a forum for the presentation of new art and discussion of new trends and administrative issues. I remember the conference in Minneapolis, Minnesota in the late 1980s where we collectively decided not to use the word “multicultural” any more because it had been co-opted by the mainstream. This network encouraged collaborations with colleagues around the country, exposing artists from outside the artistic centers to new audiences.

Numerous artists who are now famous were first presented by alternative spaces. One of the best examples is art star Cindy Sherman. Her first exhibition was held at Hallwalls in Buffalo, New York, in the city where she had attended graduate school. Her work was subsequently presented at Artists’ Space in Manhattan, where she continues to serve as a member of the Board of Directors.

As the art world expanded in the 1990s, these older alternative spaces became more institutionalized often resembling mini-museums. With the extraordinary outpouring of young artists looking for exhibition opportunities after finishing graduate art programs, new opportunities emerged. This 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. In New York, as Manhattan real estate became overly expensive, spaces such as Momenta emerged in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, a neighborhood that now has one of the most lively arts communities in the city.