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Archival Legacies: The Art Spaces Archives Project, 2003-2019 by Ann Butler

“Because many alternative initiatives are ad hoc, time-based, or anti-institutional, documentation is frequently fugitive. Accessibility is another variable. For some long- defunct entities only a meager paper trail exists – a mention here and there in print.” — Julie Ault, Alternative Art New York, 1965-1985

The Alternative Arts Movement

By the early 2000s, the alternative arts movement had prospered in the United States for 40 years with support from a broad range of public and private funding. But after the public funding that had sustained artist-led initiatives began to wane during the culture wars of the 1990s, the future of the movement came into question. In 2003, a consortium of arts organizations including Bomb Magazine, the College Art Association, Franklin Furnace Archive, the New York State Council on the Arts (NYSCA), the New York State Artist Workspace Consortium, and the Skowhegan School of Painting and Sculpture established the Art Spaces Archives Project (AS-AP) to preserve the history of the alternative arts movement. Funded largely through the generosity of NYSCA, the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA), the Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts, and the Jerome Foundation, AS-AP advocated on behalf of alternative art spaces, artists’ groups and collectives, artist-run galleries, and performance venues throughout the United States by advocating for the visibility and preservation of the archives generated by these initiatives.

By the time AS-AP was founded, many longstanding artist spaces had amassed unique and extensive archives that documented their exhibition, performance, and programmatic activities over several decades. The archives housed in these spaces — as well as the unique cultural and artistic histories they represent — became endangered as public funding receded in the 1990s. Even if these organizations were not operating under the threat of closure, their archives which were largely analog or paper-based often languished in storage, hidden and unused — especially in cities like New York City where real estate was valuable and artists had historically gathered. Tragically, there’s also a long history of archives being destroyed through negligence. Generally speaking, archives accumulate passively until enough time has passed for an organization to acknowledge and evaluate its history. In other words, an organization must sometimes survive to discover and appreciate its historical significance .

Online Expansion

Public funding from state and federal funding agencies, such as NYSCA and the NEA was critical in developing and sustaining the alternative art spaces movement. AS-AP’s focus on New York based alternative art spaces reflected this long standing history of public funding, and the desire of those funding agencies, NYSCA in particular, to secure the legacy of those spaces by documenting the existence of their archives. Initially, AP-AP’s founders thought the organization should establish a large physical repository and acquire the archives of alternative art spaces. But they soon learned centralized collecting was not feasible. Instead, in 2004, opting to serve a broader constituency, AS-AP launched its website,[1] which would aid historians and scholars interested in alternative or avant-garde movements in the United States. The online interface gathered information about these archives and instructed users how to best preserve archival records as well as the cultural and historical legacies they document. More importantly, the website provided a directory of alternative art spaces. Later funding also allowed AS-AP to compile an online index that detailed the history and activity of alternative art spaces. Like Wikipedia, information about current and defunct art spaces was crowdsourced. Users could establish accounts and contribute information about the archives or art spaces with which they had been affiliated. Meant to accommodate the transient nature of these spaces, the index listed longstanding as well as short-lived alternative art spaces.

The website’s index was one of the early cornerstones of the project. The Jerome Foundation funded its survey component, which, using information compiled and submitted by staff or associates from contributing organizations, established a rich descriptive, public record about the archives. The survey documented the physical condition and scope of the reporting archives, noted potential risks that might endanger the physical records, and gave visibility to organizations seeking funding to actively manage and preserve their archives.

College Art Association and Center for Curatorial Studies at Bard College Partnerships

Because many nonprofit art spaces don’t possess the means and resources to fully document their own history, let alone manage the day to day preservation and access of the material, AS-AP also served as an advocacy organization for alternative art spaces wishing to place their archives in research repositories. In 2005, through the generous support of the College Art Association, one of AS-AP’s original founders, AS-AP was given a public programming slot each year at the annual CAA conference, which allowed AS-AP to advocate on behalf of alternative art spaces and their archives while promoting this work to educators. AS-AP also published transcriptions of the annual CAA panels online.

In 2007, AS-AP partnered with the Center for Curatorial Studies at Bard College (CCS Bard) in Annandale-on-Hudson, New York.[2] Situated within the educational context of a liberal arts college, AS-AP became a teaching resource for the graduate curatorial studies program and the organization’s goals, mission, cultural history were incorporated as key programmatic assets into CCS Bard’s educational and public programming. Graduate students at CCS Bard conducted many interviews that were later incorporated into AS-AP’s 2009 web expansion, which included oral histories with the founders and curators of alternative art spaces. This resource was intended to support scholarship about the history of alternative art spaces in the United States.

Building critical awareness and scholarly interest

In many ways, AS-AP’s mission to raise awareness about the alternative art spaces movement and preserve its archival legacy has been realized. Today, the historic value of archives within the arts as unique cultural records is a perspective that is broadly shared. As a result, art organizations build, manage, and maintain archives or place them with collecting repositories with their inherent cultural and institutional value in mind — organizations that, in sum, support the production of research and the historical contextualization required to fully appreciate the alternative art space movement. With the commercial market for archival materials continually expanding , the visibility of contemporary art archives has been, in a sense, overachieved.

Not only is there much more awareness of the significance of these archives today, but several longstanding venues in New York City alone have celebrated 30- to 40-year anniversaries. Additionally, new independent spaces and initiatives have flourished. Many of these newer spaces were highlighted as part of Exit Art’s 2010 exhibition, Alternative Histories; X-Initiative and Tate Modern’s 2010 No Soul for Sale; and the New Museum’s 2012 The Ungovernables, as well as the subsequent art spaces directory published in conjunction with the exhibition.

By 2018, AS-AP had fulfilled many of its original goals and mandates. The AS-AP website, for example, increasingly reflected a historic legacy as opposed to the current state of alternative art spaces and contemporary art. In 2019, after related initiatives such as Common Field had been established, AS-AP decided to fully archive its site and take it offline, treating it as a historic record and static primary source for future scholarship and initiatives. Webrecorder, Rhizome’s open-source web archiving tool, was used to fully capture the content on the site, including the complete index, surveys, and transcripts of all oral history interviews. The .warc files produced as part of the archiving now reside in CCS Bard ’s institutional archives along with paper files that document the original impetus, formation, and development of the project. An online finding guide for this material will be compiled and continue to provide online visibility about the legacy of the project to students, scholars, artists and researchers.

Inevitably, more work will need to be done to preserve the history of alternative art spaces. More regional academic repositories will be needed to safeguard and promote the archival legacies of artist-driven spaces, particularly those in the United States with strong regional ties such as Chicago, Houston, and San Francisco. Teaching and active classroom engagement with these unique cultural records will always be a necessary means of acknowledging the range of organizational models and artistic practices that have historically comprised the alternative art spaces movement; so to the transmission of historical legacies embedded within these documents. Finally, organizations like AS-AP will always be needed to further conceptualize the history of alternative art spaces as a continuing revitalization and transformation within art communities: raising awareness about these archives and their enduring cultural contributions remains a tantamount, open-ended field of inquiry.

FOOTNOTES

[1] Currently, the only online presence AS-AP has is on the Internet Archive’s Wayback Machine at http://web.archive.org/web/*/as-ap.org and reflects site captures dating between 2004 and 2019.

[2] CCS Bard is an exhibition, education, and research center dedicated to the study of contemporary art and curatorial practices from the 1960s to the present day.

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Ann Butler is the Director of the Library and Archives at the Center for Curatorial Studies at Bard College. For the past twenty years she has held positions within academic research libraries, archives, and contemporary art museums, and has been instrumental in building several archival programs and research collections including the Library & Archives at the Center for Curatorial Studies at Bard, the Fales Library & Special Collections at NYU, and the Guggenheim Museum Library and Archives. She serves as faculty at CCS Bard and teaches on subjects including: artists and contemporary publishing, contemporary art archives, and documentation practices for performance, and installation-based works. She was co-curator of the 2018 Hessel Museum exhibition, The Conditions of Being Art: Pat Hearn Gallery and American Fine Arts, Co. (1983-2004), and co-editor of the accompanying exhibition catalog, co-published by CCS Bard and Dancing Foxes Press.

Key figures in AS-AP’s 20-year history include: Elizabeth Merena, Director of the Visual Arts Program at NYSCA until 2011, who, as one of AS-AP’s core founding members, developed the initiative and remains deeply committed to the project; Martha Wilson, Founding Director of Franklin Furnace, a core founding member of AS-AP, visionary, and long-term supporter and advocate for the project; David Platzker was the first project director from 2003-2007 who spearheaded the production of AS-AP’s first website; CCS Bard Executive Director of the Center for Curatorial Studies Tom Eccles embraced the project in 2007 and helped to make the project a central component of the primary resources and initiatives available at CCS Bard; Ann Butler, CCS Bard Director of Library & Archives and the second project director for AS-AP, led the production of oral history interviews and developed the second iteration of the AS-AP website.