The Anti-Museum Director: Alanna Heiss on the 40th Anniversary of PS1 Contemporary Art Center

View of P.S.1 Contemporary Art Center (now MoMA PS1) at its opening in 1976. COURTESY MOMA PS1

View of PS1 Contemporary Art Center (now MoMA PS1) at its opening in 1976.


Alanna Heiss founded the PS1 Contemporary Art Center in an abandoned school in Queens in 1976. The building had no roof, no windows, no plumbing, and no electrical wiring. This remained the case even after Heiss opened the first exhibition there in June that year, called simply “Rooms.” The show is now legendary—a remarkable sampling of contemporary art from the mid-’70s and probably the pinnacle of site-specific installation, with each work created for its sublimely decrepit context. Gordon Matta-Clark removed portions of the floors from the first, second, and third levels of the building, converting the old school into a massive sculpture of negative space. Alan Saret carved a hole into a wall on the third floor, which was designed to focus a beam of light from outside into the building, and it still exists today. The show positioned young artists who had received little to no attention from American museums on the frontlines of the avant-garde, and helped make Heiss into a folk hero in the process.

After searching for a location for a new museum across New York—everywhere from Staten Island to the ruins of Fort Apache in the Bronx—she decided on Long Island City, a transportation hub for the rest of the boroughs, and began work with a $100,000 grant from the New York State Council for the Arts and a $100,000 bank loan. This paid for a roof (of sorts; “an interesting roof” is how Heiss describes it now), and a $100 honorarium for each of the artists in the first show, but not much else. For electricity, Heiss ran wiring through the telephone poles surrounding the building using extension cords. She had her office in the diner across the street. The institution’s hours were subject to change at the director’s mercy. Heiss is not, among other things, a morning person. PS1 usually opened around noon, or whenever Heiss could get there.

“PS1, during my directorship,” Heiss told me recently, “I tried to adjust whatever was the prevailing mood or temperature of the outside world, to see what we could do that would open up another door.” She called the institution “an anti-museum.”

We were sitting in the courtyard of PS1, now known as MoMA PS1 as a result of its merger with the Museum of Modern Art in 2000, which Heiss orchestrated. This solidified the institution’s financial security, but also anesthetized some of its wildness. (Also with us, due to a scheduling snafu, was a “journalist sent here by Volkswagen,” who was a friend of Klaus Biesenbach, PS1’s current director. Remember also that Volkswagen is now PS1’s corporate sponsor and I guess one of the reasons why the museum still exists and has things like a functioning roof and plumbing and also an operating budget. This Volkswagian journalist was just cartoonishly German, down to his platinum-bleached hair and pretty aggressive use of Brian Eno-early-in-his-Berlin-phase makeup. Throughout the conversation—which was really Heiss giving a rambling lecture anyway—he’d occasionally interject with statements like, “I only know the Chrysler Building from Matthew Barney’s work” and “You can only revolutionize a country once.” I thought of him as a living metaphor for how PS1 and the rest of the art world have changed since the ‘70s—the corporate sponsorship, and there’s something to the unabashed self-seriousness as well—but rather than treat him as such for the remainder of the piece, I will merely allow his presence to haunt this encounter parenthetically.)

As part of the anti-museum’s 40th anniversary, Heiss has organized a show at PS1 influenced by “Rooms,” along with the rest of the first decade in the institution’s history, called “FORTY.” Currently on view are meat cleavers stuck into the floor of one room by artist Barry Le Va. Robert Grosevener’s sculpture of big black blocks of pinewood looks like something you’d find jutting out by a pier on the Hudson River and sits uncomfortably by a window. Robert Ryman’s white panels installed on white walls were so subtle that the focus becomes the walls themselves, their small imperfections and shadows. I paused for a time at an untitled installation by Doug Wheeler. It is a room in a corner of the building with nothing in it. There are six arched windows. One of the glass panes has been removed and the rest are tinted, going progressively darker from left to right. That was it. The empty room was curiously moving. I felt at once far away from where I was and intensely present. I stood there for a long while with the sounds from the city outside seeming distant, watching the light slowly move across the floor.

My biggest takeaway from the show is that, despite the vast changes in how PS1 operates, it remains a rapturous venue for looking at art. So-called alternative spaces are fast becoming extinct in New York. I was reminded of this by a piece installed in PS1’s lobby by Papo Colo, the performance artist who founded Exit Art, the beloved nonprofit that championed unorthodox histories until it closed in 2012. Since 2009, Heiss herself has only retained an honorary title at PS1 in its current incarnation, and her other exhibition space in the city, the Clocktower, which she founded inside the former New York Life Insurance Company Building in TriBeCa in 1972, was forced out of its home in 2013. (The Clocktower now hosts its long-running radio show out of Pioneer Works in Red Hook, Brooklyn.) Heiss’s was a time of makeshift exhibitions in abandoned buildings; the art world now makes me think of Scrooge McDuck gleefully jumping into a swimming pool filled with money inside a solid gold mansion. Heiss’s entire era is becoming an increasingly distant memory.

Heiss is herself a rarity. Of the unverifiable details she shared over the course of an hour and a half, the highlights were the following: she travelled from New York to Scotland to give birth to her firstborn because “you could smoke in the delivery room there”; she was a used car salesman (she used the word “salesman”) in Germany and France while the latter’s student riots were going on in 1968, during which time she sold actress Diana Dors’s Buick to a London filmmaker; the only sure bet in the sale of used cars is a model that has “some kind of connection to Hitler”; she worked as New York City’s first female parole officer for male felons, a job that involved her carrying a gun and getting to know the South Bronx “really well”; she does not trust art critics who don’t smoke.

Beginning around 1971, Heiss was living in New York City and started to set up a variety of uncommercial art spaces in downtown Manhattan. The first of these was at 10 Bleecker Street, an abandoned but very large space. (The building is now luxury apartments that rent for about $9,000 a month.) She showed sculptors there like Nancy Holt and Richard Nonas. Philip Glass—the first cousin of Heiss’s first husband—set up a rehearsal studio with his ensemble in the building.

“But that wasn’t in the end viable, because it was a burned-out building and there were no windows in it,” Heiss said. “So there was a limitation to the shows I could do. You could just run into the building anytime you wanted to and the gangs that were quite heavy duty at the time in Little Italy always just ran through it. They didn’t bother the art, but it wasn’t the most relaxing place to be. Cops would often be chasing them.”

Naturally, she didn’t want her shows to be so accessible from the street, so she scouted her next space by climbing onto roofs. She founded the Clocktower in 1972 on the 13th floor of 108 Leonard Street, a 10,000-square-foot space with windows on four sides that looked like “some Italian edifice,” Heiss said. (Developer Don Peebles is currently renovating the building into luxury condos, with a $334 million loan.) The first shows there included then-obscure artists Joel Shapiro and Richard Tuttle.

Soon, Heiss was seeking out a permanent space to create a museum. She saw museums as a problem. She wished collections could be accessed on-demand, and she wanted to see more artists of her generation taken seriously. “I thought, you know, I talk about museums all the time and what they do wrong,” she told me. “It’s all I do, is try to subvert the museum. I should do a long-term project that I don’t have to put so much energy into the lighting and the plumbing and everything, and I could run it in a way that would be an example.”

At PS1, she estimates she was organizing 200 to 300 shows a year, giving over a single room at a time to a rotating list of curators, who would present small exhibitions in short bursts. It’s probably worth saying something here about how this liberated take on running a museum is reflective of the woman herself. I would call her a freewheeling talker. A history of PS1’s Warm-Up parties, a series of early evening concerts that Heiss founded in 1997, in which, she said, “we were treating DJs very seriously, treating them like artists,” detoured into a long discussion of Heiss’s own music conservancy training, and the bureaucratic nightmare that is staging live music in New York City. Heiss talked about how she still attends community board meetings in her neighborhood to speak in support of music venues trying to get licensed by the city because “it’s really good for our children to see as an example these wonderful musicians.”

Most museums now host live music and events to appeal to wider audiences, but Heiss ran hers as a centerpiece of her programming, much as a media or performance department might function today. For a long time, Heiss said, PS1 was the only nonprofit member of the New York Nightlife Association. If anything, nightclubs were a bigger influence on Heiss than other museums. One of PS1’s longstanding advisors was Rudolf (no last name), the club owner who ran some of New York’s historic venues—including Palladium, Danceteria, and the Tunnel. As the institution aged, during the ’90s Heiss would often come to Rudolf with concerns about keeping PS1 relevant as it became more and more entrenched in the city’s art scene.

“I kept saying, ‘Rudolf, how do you keep running a museum or art space which is all about what’s most recent but still stay on top of it, still stay hip?’ And Rudolf said, ‘You’ve gotten something very confused, Alanna. You’ve already stayed cutting-edge for 20 years, which is 17 years longer than any club or restaurant has stayed, no matter what you do. You can’t do that anymore. What you can do is continue to show the best work you can, but search for new ways and new audiences.’ And I said, ‘But I don’t want to change the work that I show. I don’t mind PS1 being seductive for non-museum audiences, but I don’t want it to form shows for that audience.’ And he said, ‘You worry too much about the avant-garde. Nobody really knows much beyond the name of Picasso. So you can show anyone you want. The name of the newest artist in your address book is going to be the same to anyone coming in from the non-art community.’ So he said, ‘You should feel free.’ And that gave me a lot of courage.”

By this time, Heiss was already late for another appointment and she had to go. She asked that I write down my email and phone number, and handed me a piece of paper. I looked at it, perplexed. It was a certificate for the Honorable Order of Kentucky Colonels. “I was born in Kentucky,” Heiss explained, adding, as if she were in on a joke that the rest of the great state of Kentucky didn’t understand, “They just gave me the highest honor.” She encouraged me to deface the document.

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