Tuesday, December 27, 2016

SITE VISIT #5 Lia Gangitano and Participant Inc

2016! 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.

PARTICIPANT INC : Interview with Executive Director, Lia Gangitano
(the basement office)
At a Glance
Founded: Participant Inc was founded in December 2001 as an educational corporation and not-for-profit alternative space
Budget: $300k
Board of Directors: 17
Board of Advisors: 17
Founded in December 2001 as an educational corporation and not-for-profit alternative space, PARTICIPANT INC seeks to provide a venue in which artists, curators, and writers can develop, realize, and present ambitious projects within a context that recognizes the social and cultural value of artistic experimentation. The mission of PARTICIPANT INC is to serve artists through in-depth consideration, presentation, and the publishing of critical writing; and to introduce this work into public contexts through exhibitions, screenings, performances, and educational programs. Our mission builds upon alternative space methodologies, particularly a commitment to interdisciplinary, intergenerational exhibition making, and an insistence upon placing together, in one space, work from various mediums — encouraging the coexistence of visual and time-based art. The programming priorities of PARTICIPANT INC reflect the premise that artists produce significant work through a deep relationship with an organization whose focus is its committed collaborations with them. By encouraging experimentation and project-based exhibitions for artists at many different stages of their careers, PARTICIPANT INC strives to address the changing context of alternative arts presenting and to respond responsibly to the diverse practices of artists.


We knew that meeting with Participant Inc’s director, Lia Gangitano, would be inspiring, but weren’t quite prepared for her idiosyncratic perspective on the work done by Participant. For god’s sake, she compared the approach of Participant to Fassbender’s film “Beware of a Holy Horror” and described herself as a “scrapbooker” when asked about Participant’s archiving practice!!!!!!!! Meeting with Lia painted a picture of a NYC alternative space as: ensemble cast, dysfunctional family, and a commitment to a labor of love. All things we could intimately relate to.

Lia had been the curator from 1997 - 2001 at Thread Waxing Space, a non-profit arts and education space, whose mission was:
To present exhibitions, performances, musical events, readings, and panel discussions by and with emerging or under-recognized artists to stimulate dialogue about the contemporary arts, to make artistic projects more accessible to the public, to encourage collaborations among different creative disciplines, to provide a venue in which artists, performers and musicians may realize ambitious projects, to educate the public about the contemporary arts in the immediate area of the Lower East Side, Soho, Tribeca, Chinatown, as well as throughout the five boroughs of New York.”

In 2001 TWS was losing their space and started a major real estate search. Eventually to the surprise of everybody, instead of announcing a new location, the director announced that it would be closing.

Lia spent time questioning and thinking hard about the continued relevance of an “alternative space” model. Commercial galleries had started to incorporate many of the approaches and concerns that had been at the core of the alternative space movement, yet were poised to leverage more resources.  With time and consideration, Lia redoubled her commitment to the “artist driven” model of Thread Waxing Space and began the process of simultaneously packing up an institution and starting a new one.

The last show at TWS with Sigalit Landau (where she constructed a room size cotton candy machine that started to rot and decay as the exhibit went on) ended in June of 2001. In September 9/11 happened and everything in NYC went into lockdown. Certain things like getting insurance became impossible, and the idea had surfaced to experiment with a nomadic model, as maintaining and paying for physical space was a huge undertaking. With consideration, Lia came to the decision that space was core to her vision for Participant. With this her vision sharpened and her commitment to starting a new project increased in intensity.

The decision to locate in the LES was based on the practicalities of that moment of time. It had been her neighborhood for years, and as post 9/11 logistics in general became more difficult, neighborliness became everything. In fact, the only way she could find an insurance carrier was through the help of long time neighbors rather than colleagues. By 2002 Lia had secured a physical space for Participant at 95 Rivington, using her severance from TWS to sign the new lease.  

With an annual operating budget currently of $300k, about a third of this is spent on rent. This is a business model that doesn’t make sense to lots of people attempting to understand it from the outside. However, conceptually the logic behind it is that as a not-for-profit, one of Participant’s goals is to broker assets that are critical to independent artists, yet often out of their reach. In NYC space itself is a resources that is necessary, scarce, and one of the things that an alternative space project, and its institutional credibility and infrastructure, can be incredibly useful in helping to navigate.

Participant was jumping off from in the 1970’s artist run space model which often involved a political imperative and a concern around what voices weren’t at the table. Not explicitly “artist run” Participant gravitated towards the term “artist driven”. Against a backdrop of diminishing resources and gentrification, Participant sought to continue the project of the original model of these past spaces; building community and growing through a network of artists bringing in other artists. In the early days of the Rivington space (Participant’s first location), the New Museum hadn’t yet moved to the area. The organization engaged a mixed audience of those seeking out art, and neighborhood passerbys.

The majority of Participant’s funding comes from private foundations. There are city and state grants in the mix, but these add up to less, and are slow to increase. Federal funding through the NEA has played a role in supporting specific projects, such as archiving and publications. One point that Lia made about funding that was interesting to note was that had she thought to (and had been able) to transfer the EIN from Thread Waxing Space to Participant, rather starting totally from scratch this would have given her an automatic leg up in the NYSCA granting pool as money to organizations is largely based on previous allocations and if you’re starting from zero, it’s a tall hill to climb with lots of hoops to jump through.

As with many small art not-for-profits (and businesses), Lia works hard to pay artists fairly, and often prioritizes paying other contributors to the project before herself. Her personal teaching, speaking, and consulting jobs often indirectly subsidize Participant.  Currently the staffing structure includes Lia as director, a publications associate, a development associate, a facilities manager, a curatorial associate, a curatorial researcher, and a web manager. Lia’s position is the only one that is full time and this fluctuates based on budget realities. She currently does not receive health insurance as part of her compensation package, though there are board members currently prioritizing this development.

A majority of the Participant board and advisory council are artists. The board meets quarterly and as needed on specific issues. There are no board dues or expectations around annual giving, however it’s fairly hands on with fundraising, editions projects and legal and logistical issues around the occupancy of the space . The board is close knit, works well together and does not involve itself with programming issues. The advisory board is located in various parts of the world and is fairly global and informal. It plays various roles including helping to tip Lia off to interesting artists, shows and work that she does not have the resources to see first hand.

Institutional knowledge and the history of Participant’s shows is fairly well documented in both paper and digital archives. Lia stressed the importance of her speaking and lecturing as an integral part of building institutional memory through documentation and dissemination, as the information is being recorded, and transmitted externally rather than just internally.

In the effort to articulate the “relevance of the small“ and the “deferred value” generated by smaller arts endeavors (ie. finding quantifiable measures and outcomes of value further down the road), Lia is part of a coalition of fairly established NY small scale alternative spaces called Common Practice. Common Practice New York draws inspiration from Common Practice, London, an affiliated advocacy group working for the recognition and fostering of the small-scale contemporary visual arts sector in England, and founder of the Common Practice Network.
The first Common Practice New York initiative included a series of three invitational roundtables on contemporary institutional practice organized in collaboration with students and faculty from the Center for Curatorial Studies at Bard College (CCS Bard), which took place in fall 2013, and a public symposium developed in response to these seminars on May 18, 2014. In 2015, nine new groups became members of Common Practice New York. Currently, the group is planning a number of new initiatives for 2016.

While we waded waist deep in the weeds of organizational systems and practices with Lia, the conceptual issue that kept surfacing in our conversation was “Do you have to be precarious to not suck?”. In other words we bumped up against that age old tension between institutional growth and stability and boringness of mission. She stressed the need to constantly re-evaluate and re-envision. This sentiment was inline with one of the more inspirational institutional practices that we heard about at this year’s Common Field convening from Director of Baltimore’s The Contemporary, Deana Haggag. The Contemporary’s board seriously discusses its mission annually, and in doing so has a built a board culture that values the process of continually evaluating their own relevance.
Within the collective structure of the Dirt Palace we hold an annual summit (an all day meeting) where we set aside time to ask big picture questions, check in on what is working and what is not, adapt and change practices. Listening to Lia was a reminder of the importance of diligent in asking these questions & building in structures that force us to consistently return to questions of relevance and purpose in crafting programs and approach.

Lia left us in a positive place in our thinking about precarity, and the challenge of cobbling together resources for small alternative spaces. “The thing about having money problems being your main problem, is that when the money comes in, the problems go away”.  Her reasoning was, that if/when the check clears, it becomes obvious that the organization, its systems, ideas, concepts, relationships etc aren’t broken at all, and that that is a good place to be. Lots of institutions and organization have huge issues that go way beyond cash flow. With Participant it’s clear that all of the “other stuff” is working really well. Its reputation is rock solid. Literally everyone who we told that we we’re doing a site visit at Participant had glowing things to say about the model, Lia’s stewardship, or some show that they’d seen there that was super exciting.

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