Other People and their Ideas No 17: Stefan Kalmar

The executive director and curator of New York-based not-for-profit Artists Space talks to Tom Eccles about common practice

By Tom Eccles

Stefan Kalmár. Courtesy Artists Space, New York

Tom Eccles

You recently were involved in the formation of a group for not-for-profit organisations in New York called Common Practice, including your own Artists Space, alongside White Columns, the Kitchen, Triple Canopy, Light Industry, Participant Inc., and Printed Matter, to discuss issues that affect and influence your organisations. The central question was, ‘What is our common practice and why do we value it?’ What have you found?

Stefan Kalmár

In a context such as New York, where every institution is overly keen to brand their unique individuality, it seemed important to us to state that we indeed share common values. The fact alone that in 2014 the simple gesture of articulating communality is considered a political statement is quite telling, I think. Most organisations in this group share similar histories – Artists Space, White Columns, the Kitchen and Printed Matter being founded during the early 1970s, and younger organisations such as Participant Inc., Triple Canopy or Light Industry being founded since 2000 – together we have shared values, such as a different sense of programmatic integrity, not pandering to populism and putting artists at the centre of our programmes, but more than this a shared critical awareness towards the culture that is produced in this city and, equally, towards the culture of how we go about our ‘business’, if indeed it is a business at all.

TE How would you describe the ‘state of museums’ in New York today?

SK Desperate and unimaginative.

TE Where do you think the problem lies? The embedded structures of private and corporate wealth? Curatorial timidity? The structural logics of these institutions? Are there examples you could cite that you do approve of?

SK I guess one can’t really separate those questions from each other, and I don’t believe that the influence (or call it support) of ‘the private’ and ‘the corporate’ is something entirely new to the institutional landscape, but what is indeed new is that this support no longer comes in the form of selfless philanthropic giving and sharing for ‘the public good’.

Today’s museums and their donor programmes look more like an exclusive concierge or escort service. It used to be that curators and directors taught their donors and collectors; indeed not every donor used to be a collector. Today programming itself is often deployed to attract and expand one’s donor base, so what is happening today in institutions – catering to the interest of ‘a few’– is exactly what happens elsewhere in society, the result of the all-encompassing neoliberal project that started some 25 years ago, and the logic of which has now become naturalised. ‘Being greedy is awesome’ or ‘Dress normal’ have become totally ‘normal’ advertising slogans. How has a society that is so rich become so poor?

Of course there are examples that I, as you say, ‘approve of’. The voice of the Dia Art Foundation has been missing for too long; it was and still is an exemplary model. Also what one hears from the Metropolitan Museum’s plans for its new venue (the former Whitney Museum) is exciting. The Lygia Clark, Sigmar Polke and Christopher Williams exhibitions at moma have been recent examples of how to manoeuvre an organisation that was largely irrelevant to artists back into their focus. The universal free admission of the Bronx Museum shows that it can be done. The work of the [Elizabeth A.] Sackler Center for Feminist Art at the Brooklyn Museum or indeed galleries such as Real Fine Arts, 47 Canal, Essex Street Gallery, David Lewis or Callicoon are driven by conviction rather than returns. The many organisations that provide (free) art education to schools, foundations that were founded by artists that redistribute their wealth to artists or art organisations: I do think that the flipside of these extreme developments has resulted to some degree in an increased and more outspoken civic responsibility. Of course you could also say it only buffers the fallout.

TE There is a wonderful Lutheran saying which you might appreciate: ‘A timid arse seldom lets go a joyful fart.’ Far be it from me to offer lectures from the pulpit, but I have witnessed some shocking behaviour of late. One example would be a major museum benefit last year in which two red Ferraris were promotionally parked outside the venue on Wall Street on the very spot where protesters were dragged into NYPD paddy wagons less than a year earlier. Literally occupying the same spot! That didn’t shock me so much as a leading curator of another major museum saying to me with the straightest of faces: “Oh, Tom, it’s just the way things are.” I quote the Luther from Peter Sloterdijk’s 1983 Critique of Cynical Reason. How do you think we got to this place specifically in the so-called artworld? And I say this without the slightest suggestion of innocence.

SK Hasn’t the ‘artworld’ always been a microcosm of the world we inhabit? The perversions that are played out here make the state of affairs very transparent, but it is also a question of where we look and how we define progress. There are hopeful examples of a different practice, based on different values that don’t make the Power 100 and don’t drive Ferraris.

TE Perhaps. I thought the artworld actually offered an alternative or at least potential alternative. Maybe that’s more prescriptive than reflective of realities past but now certainly present. How do you think the role of so-called alternative spaces has changed in the last decade? This must have been an issue in the Common Practice debates. On a certain level they have been revived from a period of inertia during the late 1990s. Perhaps you could be more specific as to the ‘different practice’ and ‘different values’ they represent?

SK I am not saying the artworld doesn’t offer an alternative – or at least a space that can and should project one – but it doesn’t help if we pretend that we are not implicated, to some degree. It would be simply tautological to say that we are outside of reality. I guess that’s what was wrong with the historical conception of the alternative: it had gotten a little cushy with the naive notion that pluralisation, integration and participation alone would destabilise the hegemonic order. Of course organisations such as Artists Space have historically contributed to and created a more pluralistic institutional landscape in New York and elsewhere, but this alone does not any longer constitute ‘alternative’. What the organisations of Common Practice do have in common I believe is that we are putting artists first; that our programme is not conceived to attract maximum visitor figures (most of us don’t charge anyway), but rather in terms of what intellectual impact it has on our constituencies; that we don’t shy away from pointing out the elephant in the room; that we value the community that is created around, through and supported by our organisations; that we redistribute our revenue to artists and not to a marketing machine.

I think it’s important for any artist, but particularly for a younger generation of artists, to work outside the constraints of immanent commodification. Many of the exhibitions we did in recent years – Danh Vō, Sam Pulitzer, Marc Camille Chaimowicz, Hilary Lloyd, Duncan Campbell – had no commercial afterlife. Like it or not, of course, we are involved in creating (symbolic and monetary) value, but the intent, outlook and agenda of our programme are different to elsewhere.

TE You recently worked with W.A.G.E. [Working Artists and the Greater Economy], which is an artist collective that raises awareness of the lack of remuneration for artists showing in museums and not-for-profits. I think you asked them to assess your organisation in terms of fairness. What did you find?

SK Artists Space is the first W.A.G.E.-certified organisation in the US. Over the past 18 months and using the example of Artists Space, W.A.G.E. has developed a certification method that can be applied to all institutions. For too long institutions of all sizes got away without paying artists at all or only disproportionally little in terms of their annual revenue – there is a telling correlation that the higher the presumed symbolic value of an institution, the lower the remuneration to the artist.

TE What do you pay artists to show their work?

SK $3,500 per solo exhibition and $900 for participation in a group show. That is in addition to travel, production and per diems.

TE You ran the Kunstverein in Munich for a number of years, quite a different organisation, yet not without parallels to Artists Space in New York. If you say that the artworld is a microcosm of the larger society, something I’m not sure about, or at least I don’t think it’s necessarily so, then how would you describe the differences between your German experience and that of New York City?

SK A kunstverein is an association, meaning it has members that every two years elect a board which in turn appoints a director, so the constitutional setup of such places for over 100 years has always had a somewhat democratic moment, but let’s also not forget that Germans have associations for all sorts of things – say the Association for the Appreciation of Angora Rabbits. Artists Space in turn is set up as a not-for-profit corporation: the board is appointed, not elected. The Kunstverein is (or at least was back when I was running it) up to 60 percent supported through public funding; Artists Space is largely funded through foundations and private giving. So, now you might ask what is for me the better model, fully aware that I am going onto a very slippery slope. While I strongly believe and advocate for public funding, I unfortunately can’t fully side with the European model of public funding in its current form, as it itself employs ‘performance indicators’ that are reminiscent of how, say, Google measures effectiveness.

TE You have also to some extent embraced the art market as a form of fundraising. I guess you could say, “Who hasn’t?” But I’d love to hear from you about what you think of not-for-profits setting up booths at art fairs. It all seemed so harmless just a few years ago, with the occasional limited-edition print for $800. Not any more.

SK Yes, we have. This is obviously a much larger discussion, complicated and I admit not free from contradictions, but we would certainly not be in a position to do the programme that we do if it weren’t for the generous support of over 40 artists that contributed to the 40 Years Artists Space Program Fund, and let’s not forget that we are talking about a programme that addresses the needs of and is largely attended by artists – these funds benefit artists very directly. So while we engage in ‘transactions’, we are not doing this for profit. But recently I was thinking that maybe Artists Space should rather buy land in the highlands of Puerto Rico and collectively grow ecological, sustainable and fair-traded coffee. I am not joking, it’s an option.

TE Your programme directly addresses ideas as much as objects, and you set up a space specifically for discussions bringing together participants who might not otherwise speak in a collective forum. You’ve also presented work that has little presence in the market and historical exhibitions that uproot less well known works and contexts utilising archival material rather than primary artworks. Not to mention the film and performance programme. Maria Lind once suggested that institutions should be reviewed by their overall programme, not just single exhibitions. What do you think she would say about yours?

SK I always say that Artists Space doesn’t do exhibitions, but a programme, and that exhibitions are (only) one part of its programme. This programme works on many different levels and in many different formats and speeds; it contracts, expands, zooms in, zooms out, looks back and looks forward; it is visible or hidden; it is public or intimate. The narrative that we have been working on becomes fully legible in the relationship of all our activities to each other, and it is maybe in this that we define our greatest difference and are a real alternative to the given. I hope that we manage to transcend some of the established dichotomies – say, between the emerging and the historical – if you look at propositions such as, for example, [Charlotte] Posenenske, Christopher D’Arcangelo or our recent Capitalist Realism exhibition, then they unfold their logic and potential as much in the present as they might have in the past. 

This article was first published in the November 2014 issue.