Monday, January 2, 2017


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.

COLAB (Collaborative Projects, Inc.)
Interview with founding members Robin Winters and Coleen Fitzgibbon
At a Glance
Founded: 1977
Board of Directors:
Board of Advisors:
Colab started in 1977 with a large (sixty-plus, in three waves thru 1985) group of young artists, writers, filmmakers, musicians & performers living in grungy downtown Manhattan who decided to work together, creating such group efforts as X Magazine, live Colab TV performances on Manhattan Cable, open-call art theme shows (such as Times Sq. Show 1980, the Real Estate Show, Manifesto Show, The Dog Show, The Income & Wealth Show, Just Another Asshole Show, the Doctors & Dentists Show, Exhibit A, etc) and helped create and assist other artists’ venues with Colab’s funding (ABC NO RIO, New Cinema, Nightshift Theater and Spanner Magazine).  Colab was closer in nature to a very large wide open Bloomsbury Group where no one was in control but most of the arts were represented.

P: Ok, full disclosure: When I was in the Art Practice graduate program at SVA, Robin Winters, one of the founding members of Colab, was my “mentor”. (Admittedly I have some weirdness around how infantilizing that term is, used by the institution for what was basically your main advisor expected to be on call for intensive “one on ones” - but ultimately it was a wonderful and magical system that worked well when the parties were compatible). I knew that working with Robin would be great, but super felt like I had won the lottery in terms of how generous he was with his time, insight, and perspective. Robin was probably one of the only options of potential advisors who I knew had DEFINITELY done way more illegal things than I had (Definitely a plus, especially while insecurities about buying into the ponzi scheme of art graduate programs were running high). I remember hearing stories of Robin and Coleen Fitzgibbon doing their performance “Take the Money and Run”, where they essentially convinced the audience to give them the contents of their pockets and purses (ie. all of their money!) and then locked the audience in the space and left. I think there was some caveat that, if the audience worked together to get out of the locked space, they may get their money back.

While we were doing research on the history of the Alternative Arts Space movement, it was clear that Colab, although they didn’t run a physical space, had inspired so many other groups, projects and spaces. If we had an opportunity to talk to some members about their history with Colab, we should jump on it.

Anyone could join Colab. All that was required of a potential member was that they attend three consecutive meetings. To have a project supported or funded by Colab, it required three people (two of which had to be official members) and to receive a majority ¾ vote.

A lot has been written about Colab in the last decade or so that we came across in our research: Julie Ault’s Alternative Art New York 1965 - 1985, Exit Art’s Alternative Histories: New York Art Spaces 1960 -2010, Printed Matter’s A Book About Colab (and Related Activities), not to mention the New Museum’s XFR STN” (Transfer Station), media archiving project. Still, given that Robin was a friend, it seemed important to get some stories straight from, at least two of, the horse’s mouths. After poking around Robin’s studio looking at his glass head sculptures and marveling how we had the same antique turquoise sink as we used to have at the Dirt Palace, we sat down with Robin and Coleen at a cafe by both of their studios.

We were interested how exactly Colab was run and how power, duties, and roles were assigned and distributed, and how exactly accountability worked in such an anarchistic scene. With so many people involved over a period of 7 years, we wondered how things played out over what was described to us as three different waves of artists.

There was no ideological united front amongst Colab members, which is something we’ve often thought was important to how the Dirt Palace organized. While we call ourselves a feminist space, there is no hovering ideology that members must adhere to. It’s been a significant part of our project to provide a space and resources to artists with different relationships to feminism, gender and politics. Robin and Coleen explained that there were many disparate points of view  - some were “cottage industry capitalists”, others were interested in anti institutional models, and at one point a group of socialists (not artists socialists) tried to take over a meeting and usurp the group . The initial ideas around organizing had more to do with pooling resources than with shared political agendas. No critics and curators were allowed to join and 50% of Colab members were women.

Early on, Colab meetings adopted Robert’s Rules of Order, and had four officers to make sure that no one “ran off with the money”. But how were roles divided up? Who wrote the grants that funded projects? Coleen recounts that the grant work was mostly done by the women of the group. Having had some short lived experience living in radical communes, where labor was still neatly divided along gender lines, she pointed out that,  because the group did not have a living or space component, that there was more opportunity for equity within gender roles within Colab. Yet some things like grants, more often than not, she remembers, fell to the women of the group. Robin jumps in and disagrees with this version of history. The two go back and forth. We laugh. We’d been warned about the famous Colab arguments. But to be fair, it wasn’t the kind of argument filled with vitriol and real conflict that you want to run from. But rather, it was the kind argument filled with fire that’s safe and warm like an internet play-fighting kitten meme.  Robin and Coleen switched argument topics, and squabble about a summer house that Colab had rented together one time. Coleen’s take on the rental house was that it was a great time where they shared some bonding experiences. The time spent outside the city brought them together and allowed them to have experiences other than meetings and fighting.   Robin counters - The whole summer house thing just codified how bourgeois the roots of Colab were!

We ask about the arguing.
Oh yeah they tell us, only half joking…”the thing about Colab was that most people dropped out because it was a lot of arguing over very little”

Walter Robinson (the brains behind the rental house) writes in A book about Colab:
“Colab held regular meeting, of course, to scheme and plan and do a little bit of work. The greatest attention was typically focused on allocating grant money for a wide range of projects. Meetings were frequently acrimonious and almost universally considered to be pure torture. In fact, you could say that Colab democracy worked because nobody could stand being in charge for very long. It’s an amazing thought: Colab managed to sustain itself as a democratic, collaborative consensual organization because the meetings were unbearable.”

But Robin continues, we also generally got along and enjoyed each other, and most of us are still friends today.
Well there’s Diego, Coleen chimes in.
Yes, Robin agrees, Diego officially disbanded, but we’re still friends.  

While it’s always fun to talk about the drama and disagreements, you can’t talk about Colab without addressing some of its visionary ideas pertaining to organizing artists. Part of Colab’s legacy are some ideas that never got traction in the day, but are still relevant to our current times. Robin had ideas of forming an Artists’ Union and an Artist Bank. The artist union would negotiate and ensure fees for artists working in public venues such as museums, similar in concept to the work W.A.G.E is just doing now. The Artist Bank would own a collection and you couldn’t buy a work of art from the artist union unless you used the artist bank. The bank could be used to leverage capital and directly support artists while simultaneously acknowledging the art world as a 1% system. The bank would serve as a huge resource that could directly empower artists as an organized group within the economic system. Then Robin mentions that the plan had been for Jeffrey Deitch to run the bank.

The mind boggles at all the possible outcomes had this scheme ever been put into motion.

This reminds us that we have been meaning to check out local PVD braniac and artist Tom Sgouros' book on community banking Checking the Banks. More Research to come!

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