The Dirt Palace is getting strategic (making a plan)! As part of this process we're visiting some organizations/space that we admire and hope to learn from. This post is part of a series of profiles of spaces that we have visited. This project is supported by the Robert Rauschenberg Foundation.
Interviews with Founder Becky Howland and Director Steve Englander
At a Glance
Board of Directors: 11
There are no program directors at ABC No Rio. Projects and programs are run by sub-collectives of volunteers.(volunteer run programs, consensus based, fluctuating numbers of volunteers):
Punk/hardcore matinees - usually 8-15 people
Visual arts - 7 - 10
Darkroom - 4 - 6
Zine library - 3 - 5
Print shop - 2
COMA experimental music - 2
About (from ABC No Rio website):
ABC No Rio is a collectively-run center for art and activism. We are known internationally as a venue for oppositional culture. ABC No Rio was founded in 1980 by artists committed to political and social engagement and we retain these values to the present.
We seek to facilitate cross-pollination between artists and activists. ABC No Rio is a place where people share resources and ideas to impact society, culture, and community. We believe that art and activism should be for everyone, not just the professionals, experts, and cognoscenti. Our dream is of cadres of actively aware artists and artfully aware activists.
Our community is defined by a set of shared values and convictions. It is both a local and international community. It is a community committed to social justice, equality, anti-authoritarianism, autonomous action, collective processes, and to nurturing alternative structures and institutions operating on such principles. Our community includes artists and activists whose work promotes critical analysis and an expanded vision of possibility for our lives and the lives of our neighborhoods, cities, and societies. It includes punks who embrace the Do-It-Yourself ethos, express positive outrage, and reject corporate commercialism. It includes nomads, squatters, fringe dwellers, and those among society's disenfranchised who find at ABC No Rio a place to be heard and valued.
(book by Alan Moore and Marc Miller)
(brief history recounted in greatly expanded versions in countless other locations on the internet)
ABC No Rio came out of the The Real Estate show, when a group of artists broke into 123 Delancey Street, right before New Year’s Eve 1979, to create a gallery exhibition criticizing the city of New York’s development policies and disinvestment of the neighborhood. On January 2nd the NYC Department of Housing Preservation and Development padlocked the building, from the inside, locking the artists from their work and show. Through negotiations with the city, the artists were granted use of a building that subsequently housed ABC No Rio from 1980 - 2016. Currently the ABC No Rio building at 156 Rivington is slated for demolition with plans to build a new building for the organization at the same address.
ABC No Rio holds a space in both of our imaginations for the punk matinees of the early to mid 90's that we attended as teenagers. (a fact we found out about each other only when we began discussing ABC No Rio recently). What a long history and series of transformations from 1980 till now! It was amazing to interview both Becky Howland who one of the founders, and Steve Englander who stewarded ABC No Rio as its director from the 90's to the present day,.
We've been told over and over by Becky, and others’ involved in the early days of ABC No Rio, that everyone who was part of that history has a different story and version of the events that went down in 80's that led to the procurement of the No Rio space after the publicity of the shutdown Real Estate Show. For the most part our blog posts have been based on the oral conversations that we’ve had with people. However, Becky’s writing on the early days paints such a portrait of the history that we’ve excerpted a bunch from what she wrote about ABC No Rio in Printed Matter’s, A Book About Colab (and Related Activities).
We broke into an abandoned building for our show about real estate, which opened New Year’s Eve, 1979. Our ragtag bunch did it - and, were rewarded for it- with the space that became ABC No Rio. Amazingly, 35 years later, we own the building. With its program of art and activism, it will remain as what might be called a shrine to defiance, long after we are gone.
Everyone loves a good outlaw story, and, for me this is how it began:
Growing up with the Tumult of assassinations, feminism, and protests against the war in Vietnam - dissent is in my bones. Wending my way from a small town upstate, I arrived in Lower Manhattan in 1974, seeking the community of artists. Nights of gliding to openings, and days of grappling with the reality of the precarious life of an artist. Most artists were living illegally, in commercial loft buildings. If an inspector saw a house plant in a window, a bag of groceries, or a bathtub - Eviction!
By 1979, globally, tension was high - 60 American hostages were taken in Iran. Here at home, real estate values began to climb, and stories emerged of fire marshals forcibly evicting artists from lofts; paintings and possessions dumped on the street. Then, as now, a black woman - Elizabeth Mangum was brutally killed as she resisted eviction from her home in the dead of winter. Under the city glitter, it felt grim, explosive.
Becky recounts how Alan Moore wanted to do a show about real estate and had the idea to break into 123 Delancey to do the show. Becky says “Alan’s friends in Colab weren’t keen on this, so it simmered until we decided to do it anyway, and dedicated it to the murdered woman, Elizabeth Mangum.” This was the first we heard about the Elizabeth Mangum story as impetus and fire for the Real Estate show.
The memories of the early days were fast and loose and somewhat based on timing and coincidence. One of our favorite stories is that, when things started heating up with the city around the Real Estate show, Becky peripherally ended up knowing a woman who was one of the city bureaucrats who had they had to negotiate with. In the not so distant past the woman had been a waitress at a restaurant near where Becky had been working as a plumber’s apprentice. It was a small town coincidence that we are very used to in Rhode Island, where individuals end up having connections from “previous lives” that become part of how people, who might have oppositional interests, are able to see each other as reasonable humans and form unlikely alliances.
Becky describes the course of events leading up to the founding of ABC No Rio: One night we were going around to bars to talk up the Real Estate Show, and then suddenly less than 3 weeks later we were having to figure out how to handle actually having a foot hold into Real Estate. Colab was firm about not wanting to have a fixed location and so we had to regroup from there.
In the end, Becky put her name on the month-to-month lease because no one else would do it.
After a seven year stint, Becky quit the board around 1987. While relaying this long history of ABC No Rio, from 1980 to the present, well past her own direct involvement, Becky still used the word “we” when describing the changes and fluctuations of the organization. She says “ABC No Rio was important of it’s time because there were virtually no artist spaces in Manhattan and the ownership stake in the building was a toehold in NYC for future ruckus”.
Contextually, in the mid-80’s the whole scene started shifting because of the AIDS crisis. A lot of activity had been happening in bars and clubs, but as people got sick, people started staying home. New York’s landscape started to shift.
Steve Englander had been involved informally in ABC No Rio in the 80's. He left for a bit and came back into the fold through his personal history with squat movements when the group was fighting the city in 1994. It was during this period that No Rio started operating more collectively. Programming came organically. Who showed up is who decided what the programming was. Decision making was based on general consensus. There was a lot of trust and goodwill at this point amongst a group that knew each other well.
It was fascinating to hear Steve riffing on the power of the secretary within boards and organizations, pointing out that the secretary actually writes the history of an organization’s decisions, formulates the language for proposals and resolutions, and can have a huge amount of influence, even in collective structure. When pressed on how ABC No Rio can exist in NYC with such a modest budget Steve cited two reasons.
- “Through ABC No Rio's fabled resourcefulness”
- Because of Steve’s personal history with the squatter’s movement and his current residence in a former squat, with incredibly low rent, he is able to have a salary much lower than most people could afford with normal NYC rents.
Steve sees his role in the organization as more of a coordinator than a director. His job outside of budgetary administration is to work with the collective members to ensure the success of their programs. However, he is a “dictator” about safety, security and cleanliness. He spends about 10-25% of his time managing volunteers.
What will happen to ABC No Rio? With 7 million dollars raised for their new facility, they still have quite a lot of fundraising to do. However Steve, who seems incredibly pragmatic, is optimistic based on the logic that they represent a part of New York City that’s integral to its identity that has almost vanished, and that elected officials also seem to understand and have nostalgia for.Drawings by Becky Howland for "Dear Ivanka" protest