MoMA PS1 founder Alanna Heiss looks back on a lifetime of guerrilla art

‘It’s very easy to be a radical or guerilla by saying ‘this is no good.’ But it is hard to be a builder.’ The curator speaks with Tim Goossens for Document's Spring/Summer 2013 issue.

As a pioneer of the Alternative Art Space movement, Alanna Heiss has been a key figure in the New York art world for over 40 years. As the founder and previous director of the legendary art museum MoMA PS1, located in Long Island City, she is a mentor to both an army of curators (including yours truly) and artists alike, since so many of them have passed through the halls of the former public school-turned-kunsthalle at some point in their career. In total she has curated over 700 exhibitions: from guerrilla-style shows under the Brooklyn Bridge in the early days of SoHo’s rise as an art mecca to major museum retrospectives worldwide.

We met up just steps away from The Clocktower Gallery, the downtown art space she has been running since the early ‘70s, and where she has recently relocated her office to once again. As always our conversation covered the past, present and a lot about the future.

Tim Goossens: Let’s start at the beginning: How does a young woman from the Midwest end up in New York in the early ‘70s and create these new things?

Alanna Heiss: I am happy and grateful that I spent a significant amount of time doing one thing­—music—playing the violin and the piano. I was much better at the piano than the violin. I got a scholarship to go to conservatory for the violin. What I discovered was that I wasn’t very good compared to the young people my age from around the country. And simultaneously, that I was interested in a lot more things than just music. When you are a serious musician of the classic sort you spend maybe a quarter of your time in the practice room: you don’t run around, you don’t have the same kind of information coming your way like a liberal arts degree. When I realized I wasn’t so good I talked to my teacher (this was in my second year), I was about 18, and he said, “You’re absolutely right, you’re just not good enough to be an individual performer.” So I asked, “I can always play in orchestras, right?” He replied, “If you stop running around with all these boys and stop going to parties and you really recommit yourself to a solid five hours a day practice, you might be able to be second chair, second violin, in a third-rate orchestra.” So this was just a staggering piece of news to me. It put it in concrete forms, and I could just imagine killing myself for the the next three years and then sitting in that second chair: the person who has to turn all the pages and is sort of the “bring-coffee bitch” for the first chair. Playing the second violin is a very dreary place to be. You’re always doing the rhythmic side.

I realized that what I wanted to do was be with first-rate people in a first-rate city in a role which I would feel at the time was important within our cultural context. So it meant going to the U.S. and studying contemporary art. I’m lucky that I realized this early on.

Also, as a person who was going to be a performer and single performer, it helped me understand what living, contemporary artists faced. In either performance, or visual arts. You have to become vulnerable, exposed for an audience that is just sitting there or that is serial and going there daily to look at your work. Many curators or art administrators don’t have any idea of how scary it is to be an artist.

I also learned a great deal from musical performance that I carried over into the art world. Ever since I was 12, I had been living in small places in the middle of the country, performing as a rehearsal accompanist. I accompanied choirs. I played the organ. I played a lot of churches. I worked a lot with quartets, and while working with them they taught me a lot about harmony and how people work together. But there has to be someone who is leading this and that person needs to be ready at any time to give a note, or to pitch and do it with the least possible tension, as softly as you can when someone is off key. But being an artist is a very egotistical endeavor so, when I’m bossing an artist around and being too dictatorial­—which is my nature—I often try to flip back and ask myself if I’m being a good accompanist which is a good question for every curator to ask themselves.

“I never had the slightest interest in running a gallery. I don’t know anything about retail or exchange. My husband says I’m almost allergic to it.”

Tim: How do you feel about the enormous amount of curatorial studies that have developed all over the world in recent times?

Alanna: This background of being an accompanist, or having been vulnerable yourself on a stage, has been a very good training and much more useful for me than to have gone to a curatorial academy such as Bard. Honestly, I feel it is not the best training for curators. It eludes the most important thing which is working with living artists. By being their assistants or working closely with artists in a show, it’s information you can not get in a program, and you could be in such a program and never get it. You won’t be willing to work as an assistant because you are already “too important”­­—you got your masters in a curatorial program, and no internship will ever give you a real taste of working for an artist. It’s like getting into a sauna for two minutes. To be a good, experienced person who works with artists means being able to stay in the sauna for a really long time—to know what it’s like to sweat. I’m not very interested myself in those programs, and I tend not to hire people who have been in them. That is not to say they don’t learn anything, it’s just not the only way good, young curators are coming through the ranks.

Tim: You have always surrounded yourself with great team members. What’s your secret?

Alanna: I’m proud to say that because of the circumstances at PS1 in the last 40 years, or at The Clocktower until today, the people that I chose or who chose to work with me (even if only for a couple of years) are recognized for their brilliance and for their ability to produce. A PS1 team member has, at some point, been involved in almost every major important institute or staff position in the world. I don’t know how it happened, people call me up all the time asking me about it. I don’t know. I do know I’m a very good scout for people to work with. I have a good nose for this, I can pick good artists, but I’m actually even better at picking people to work with good artists. We had Carolyn Christov-Bakargiev, who is now at Documenta; Chris Dercon, who worked with us in the ‘80s now runs The Tate, and Claudia Gould is now the director of the Jewish Museum. And Klaus Biesenbach is currently doing a truly brilliant job of running PS1 today. You can almost name a place and there is someone there in some role from PS1 in the past. I think that the skills taught through PS1 have been enormously helpful to the people in all these jobs.

Photography by Hugo Lippe.

Tim: So with that background we just spoke about arriving in New York: Why become a curator? Why not a gallerist or impresario?

Alanna: I can speak now with the very happy feeling of success: I feel I’m a very good chooser and producer and the last 40 years has proven that. I never had the slightest interest in running a gallery. I don’t know anything about retail or exchange. My husband says I’m almost allergic to it. It interests me so little that I don’t even know how much art is worth. It’s not something to be proud of, it’s just an absence of interest. I find out how much something is worth when I fill out insurance forms for their value. I hate selling—I hate selling anything.

Tim: But you’re so very good at selling shows.

Alanna: No, I’m not (laughs). I’m really good at doing a good show, but have only had a few touring exhibitions in my life because I can’t put together a good sales pitch. I am very impetuous and I only want to do shows when I want to do them—which is the next day. What I am capable of doing is convening my belief or passion for an artist to do a show, and while the show is up. Or sometimes when it’s down. I really am responsive to an impulse. It’s a serial passion problem. Another reason I could never be a dealer is because I would never want to work with the same stable of artists. That would not interest me at all.

“I realized that what I wanted to do was be with first-rate people in a first-rate city in a role which I would feel at the time was important within our cultural context. So it meant going to the U.S. and studying contemporary art.”

Tim: Being a mentor for so many people, how was it to be a pioneer? Lonely?

Alanna: When I came back to England from 1969-1970, I had a lot of good ideas. I had done a lot of stuff in New York interning, working at the Hayward gallery, being an artist assistant. But it was during Vietnam, and as much as we liked being in the U.S., a lot of us chose to not surround ourselves with the daily horror of war. In Europe you could escape some of that. But after living in Europe for four years, I came back to New York with ideas mainly related to space. For instance, I went up to the Whitney, MoMA and the Guggenheim and asked them if they wanted to be part of an art storage project where we could have a storage facility to store their art and I would curate it, so people could come and see the art not on display. Back then, it made no sense to these museums, and through this year of proposing projects to museums I finally learned that, in fact, they didn’t want to show that art. I assumed they didn’t have the facility, I didn’t understand they just didn’t want to show it. It was a hard thing to realize, but it made me realize I didn’t want to work in one of those places at that time. I figured I will do a job, and then I will do others things too. I will be a producer, I will do shows.

I often wonder why I didn’t become a producer in a film setting, and why I didn’t move to Los Angeles. Probably because I was in love with people in New York. That would have been a very happy place for me, not as a director and certainly not as an actor, but I would have enjoyed putting it all together. This passion did make me look into film producing and a little later—thanks to Francis Ford Coppola and his artist friends—I was able to go to the Philippines and hang out on the set of Apocalypse Now for the last three months of the production. Also, I knew Dennis Hopper from before because he was an artist and a very good collector, so I did know some of the people in the film and that was a mind boggling adventure. I was actually pretty happy to go back to the art world after hanging around the madness and strangeness of the film world. It was only much later when I started to know filmmakers that they told me Apocalypse was a notorious decadent and extraordinary circumstance. But at the time I thought that was the way things were and I wouldn’t want to sign up for that. It made the art world look tame, but also made it seem like the art world was full of people who cared about ideas that were more interesting to me. The difference was who was having the ideas and how they were being expressed. I just realized I wanted to be around artists. So no, I never felt lonely. Everything I did in those years always was with an artist and art-related people. We were a team, Gordon Matta-Clark was a special friend of mine. He was a terrific organizer—anything from dinner parties to exhibitions—and cook. He helped me organize the lists of people to contact for the first shows. Richard Nonas continues to be a best friend, we did many shows together—and still do, including one that will be opening in May. We all worked together every day–there was no internet. There weren’t any civilians in SoHo at that time, except some people who owned bars and were very happy to have the artists around because they drank all day and night. The area was an isolated village that we only left for exhibitions uptown.

“[By] proposing projects to museums I finally learned that, in fact, they didn’t want to show that art. I assumed they didn’t have the facility, I didn’t understand they just didn’t want to show it. It was a hard thing to realize.”

Tim: So then you start doing temporary exhibitions all over the city. Would you now call them pop-up exhibitions?

Alanna: My concept in the ‘70s was to use spaces and buildings in the city. It was a very depressed city and so much was closed down, over all boroughs. I decided the places I would use should be owned mostly by the city, but I also experimented with private ownership. The difficulty in that was to make owners feel comfortable lending the space for a certain amount of time. Most people don’t realize, but having a sitting tenant in New York is one of the most horrible things to happen to real estate people, because an empty building is safe and then they can wait until the market picks up to rent out. Having it bound up with art projects was a nightmare for them. Really, only in last 10 years it has become a viable option for anyone. In the ‘70s it was almost impossible to get these spaces, but I would figure out ways to get them. I was always following five buildings at the same trying to get my hands on them. At the height of my ridiculous non-profit real estate empire I was probably running nine or 10 spaces. That means they were open and running but it doesn’t necessarily mean they were open all the time. In many cases I would put artists in the space with the idea they would build the show and it could open in three months. One space that came through very early on was a private space on Bleecker Street which was a source of two to three years of shows in a burned-out warehouse that was free, but it had no windows or no doors. Our space had no water or electricity either, and people would walk by and see through gaping windows that someone was in there. There was no way to guard it so the artists for those places were very carefully chosen. I also had a place in Coney Island that was owned by a development agency within the NYC government called the Coney Island Sculpture Museum, it was a huge warehouse and we did a series of shows there over the course of two years. I also had the two top floors of a police station in Crown Heights, which was a dramatic failure. I wanted to use it as a studio location for neighborhood artists who really needed the studios. The spaces available of course were the jail cells. The police were also quite mystified because they had hoped that the artists in the studios would be wearing berets and would be painting on an easel with naked models everywhere. So that of course was not the case and a downer for them too. So we gave that up in about a year, but you always learn from your failures.

Tim:The space you currently still run, The Clocktower Gallery, dates also from that early stage.

Alanna: The Clocktower is something I looked for, constantly almost every day for about two-and-a-half years. I finally opened it in 1972. I looked at towers all over New York, climbing to the roof, making notes before moving on to the next building. I wanted the Chrysler Building tower, but it turns out to be a very rotten space for art. It was being used as a radio station at the time. But The Clocktower is of course the most beautiful tower, designed by Stanford White, this great cube of 28x28x32 feet: the golden ratio. It took about a year before we finally did got it, and we’ve had it ever since.

I also had a house on top of a roof on John Street, near Wall Street. To get there you had to walk across the roof. The building was governed by the Dutch Reformed Church and nobody was remotely interested in walking across a roof to a house which had no plumbing. There was always something missing in my places: plumbing, electricity or heat and occasionally it was up on a roof. That cute little house became my office while I was managing all these different buildings. We had an umbrella organization called The Institute for Art and Urban Resources, which is too long for the police to remember when they issue summons. Eventually I moved my office to The Clocktower, and gave up the John Street address.

These shows were as far away from pop-up as you can get. But I also had the Idea Warehouse in Tribeca. It was hugely important in setting a standard for how to show performance art. The idea at the time was that an artist would be in a show for three-and-a-half-weeks and in the two day period before the next show very farsighted dealers like Paula Cooper would invite a dancer to do something in that gap. Since performance was so much part of the ‘70s community I reversed the gap: you were in residency for three weeks, and in the gap between the next performance you need to do a public performance for us. The first person at the Idea Warehouse was Philip Glass, and that set the bar very high. Anthony McCall was in a beautiful show there. A little bit later the place caught fire, and we had to give it up.

“We didn’t have the luxury of sitting back, we made choices like medics in war zones.”

The spaces were so successful that in the middle of the ‘70s city leaders came to my team with the idea of opening an art center in one of the boroughs. I could choose and they would back me. The one in Brooklyn was in the Brooklyn Navy Yards, the one in Queens was PS1. The one in the Bronx was more like an area in the South Bronx, but at that time it was unworkable. I had spent a lot of time in the South Bronx when I first moved to New York, actually one of my first jobs was as a woman parole officer for male offenders between 18 and 25. It was an experiment to choose a 100 pound blonde woman, and for six months I saw all these criminals who took me to the Apollo Theater, so I learned about early hip hop. I was a good experience for me, I wasn’t scared of the Bronx, but I also wasn’t willing to put any more effort in burned-out buildings. The artists and collectors I took around all said PS1 is the place–the light comes so beautifully off the river, and it was easy to get to. Instead of being a guerrilla and using all these empty spaces—which by then was being done all over the U.S.—I thought great I’ll keep The Clocktower and PS1.

But PS1 was never about alternative spaces: I wanted it to be an anti-museum, to run it like a kunsthalle, European-style—no trustees, ticket distributions or collecting. Once you are passed the age of 26 you start to recognize that it’s very easy to be a radical or guerilla by saying “this is no good.” But it is hard to be a builder, because you have to say this is good for the following reasons. I changed from being the adored child of the radical art world to being that person that had to go to work to the same place every day, and answer a lot of phone calls, and do a lot of things that were not my first choice. I of course hired people to help me and created terrific teams throughout the years, allowing me to be the chaotic one, which was true all the way through the merger with MoMA in 2000. PS1 had proven by then it was what it was, it wasn’t going to be anything more than it was, or any better than it was, it could only be different. So let’s do the next next thing, let’s get in with the best museums in the world. No longer second violin in a third rate city, but first-rate museum in a first-rate city. Once PS1 was in the MoMA family, it had to prove itself within that setting. I found that enormously interesting and still think it was a great thing to do. It has been said by many that the old PS1 is now gone, but I think the new animal is worth it.

Tim: New York has also changed, so maybe a place like that can’t and doesn’t need to exist anymore within this context?

Alanna: Right. We never had any money, and many of the shows were so good because of this spontaneous approach, we were impulsive and largely driven by artists. We didn’t have the luxury of sitting back, we made choices like medics in war zones. But these days, with galleries having emerged as really important show makers—which I say with sadness—I don’t see the romance in the whole artist-gallerist relationship. Now, often galleries show the artists first. It was unimaginable to me in the first 20 years that I would be showing artists that I saw first in a gallery, I would have seen that artist first in another exhibition or their studio but never through a gallery introduction. Today’s challenges are just so very different, and I think that PS1 has been meeting those challenges in very different ways. Klaus Biesenbach has embarked on a very ambitious program, with projects that need money, like the Performance Dome. We together talked for years about a circus tent, which was for a long time a wild dream. Him being the much better fundraiser, dreamed of a dome, and he found the money.

At The Clocktower, I am so happy that everyone who works there do projects that they want to do and that we don’t have budget meetings every day. It’s a very different model. I know it means that nobody has any money, including me. I wish we had the money, but that’s not really the point. It has been a joy to be there in this old-fashioned way. Visitors come and they say they feel like they are in a time-warp. Artists that are older, and who remember the old days feel like they are back in the ‘70s or the ‘80s music scene. It’s utopian, not realistic, nothing that helps pay the rent, but it does help foster truly original ideas.

Security has gone up significantly since the attacks in 2001, so we don’t get a lot of visitors but the online radio station we run since 2003 is a way to reach many people who tune in to hear about our projects from all over. It is not pop radio, but it is more music and talk show for artists, and people can learn about many things.

“Once you are passed the age of 26 you start to recognize that it’s very easy to be a radical or guerilla by saying ‘this is no good.’ But it is hard to be a builder.”

Tim: Do you see places in the world that remind you of New York in the ‘70s?

Alanna: The place that was always a particular parallel world for me is Berlin, and thanks to friends, I was an early invitee to be a judge for the DAAD program. The grant program brought in artists from all over the world before the fall of the Berlin wall. Because I was involved early on, visiting at least once or twice a year from 1974 on, I feel as if I really know the city.

Right now I have two places that really interest me: one of which is the Bronx. It’s hard to get to, and I don’t want to be so sadistic as to make everyone visit places they don’t want to go. But the Bronx seems wide open, the people there are “big city people” but they are also very friendly the way people are in a small town. The city is planning to sell The Clocktower building, which is horrible for me because I love it so much, and for the organisation, but progress is progress. We are hoping that whoever the developer is would want to keep this landmark art space and give it a future, but if we have to look for another space, with the city of course, we can hopefully find a space in Lower Manhattan, even though Brooklyn is a logical place to go for us since there are so many musicians, but The Bronx is very tempting, and there are so many good people working there like Holly Block.

Another place that I don’t know much about, but would love to go to is Detroit. There seem to be a lot of interesting artists, and they are there for some of the same reasons why artists came to New York in ‘70s: it’s the wild west, an environment that is decayed and any answer at all must be listened to. I think the idea of reopening the Homestead acts, allowing people the have an acre of ground is a remarkable idea in an urban city.

Tim: Sounds like you found your next project.

Credits for The Clocktower image, from left to right: Sebastien Levin, volunteer; SeanErnestCarter, volunteer; David Weinstein, Clocktower Program Director & Member; Richard Pandiscio, Clocktower Design Consultant; Todd Eberle, photographer; Mary Heilmann, artist; Marina Abramovic, artist and Member, Clocktower Board of Directors; Alanna Heiss, Clocktower Director and Member, Clocktower Board of Directors; Lawton Fitt, Chairman, Clocktower Board of Directors; Sanford Krieger, Esq., Member, Clocktower Board of Directors; Beatrice Johnson, Clocktower Managing Director; Will Corwin, artist and Clocktower radio host; Dan Taeyoung Lee, Clocktower Web & Systems Technologist; Rufus Wainwright, musician and Member, Clocktower Board of Directors; James Franco, artist; Jeannie Hopper, Clocktower Station Manager; Lex Fenwick, C.E.O., Bloomberg Ventures; Ben Gottlieb, Clocktower Production Assistant; Joe Ahearn, Clocktower Curator of Performance and Installation.