Last year, Zainab Saleh, a Ph.D. student in anthropology at Columbia University, sat on a couch on the second floor of the New Museum in New York and answered visitors’ questions about everything from the book market in central Baghdad before it was bombed to her life as an Iraqi expat and scholar. British artist Jeremy Deller had invited her to participate in It Is What It Is: Conversations About Iraq, which brought 33 speakers to the New Museum over a six-week period. Then Deller, who won the Turner Prize in 2004, took the project on the road—along with the remains of a car that had been bombed in Iraq—holding conversations in 13 towns and cities, before arriving at the Hammer Museum in Los Angeles.
Writing about It Is What It Is, the New York Times art critic Ken Johnson declared, “There is no way to make any critical or evaluative judgment about it in artistic terms.” Johnson continued, “Its potential for doing good and raising consciousness is great,” but it could not be called art. “What it is is an educational program.”
Art or not, Deller’s project is one of several politically progressive programs and works that Creative Time, a 36-year-old nonprofit public-art organization, has sponsored or commissioned in the past three years. Other examples include Paul Chan’s Waiting for Godot in New Orleans (2007), a staging of Samuel Beckett’s play in neighborhoods damaged by Hurricane Katrina, and Democracy in America: The National Campaign (2008), a yearlong project that stationed artists around the country, to create installations such as an anarchist ice-cream truck and protest karaoke.
Last fall, the organization backed the Bruce High Quality Foundation University in New York, an amorphous collaborative that aims to remake art education with seminars such as “Art History with Benefits.” It also awarded the Situationist-inspired political pranksters the Yes Men the inaugural $25,000 Leonore Annenberg Prize for Art and Social Change (named for the communications heiress, whose granddaughter Elizabeth Kabler sits on Creative Time’s board). The ceremony took place last October at the first Creative Time Summit, which set out to tackle “urgent issues of social justice.” The Summit, a series of presentations by artists and curators, is expanding this fall.
“This is a moment of great political upheaval and social change,” says Creative Time’s president and artistic director, Anne Pasternak, who notes that Creative Time’s support of overtly political work is not new, but rather experiencing a renaissance. Three friends, Karin Bacon, Susan Henshaw Jones, and Anita Contini, founded the organization in 1974, when New York City was in financial crisis, the Watergate scandal was brewing, and the Vietnam War was winding down. Early projects reflected the times: in 1975 Red Grooms produced his massive installation Ruckus Manhattan, designed to capture the city’s decay and splendor; in 1982 feminist artist Ida Applebroog placed a small bronze sculpture of a woman in the New York Chamber of Commerce, adding a speech bubble that read, “Gentlemen, America is in trouble.” Later that decade, the organization supported Gran Fury, a collective that brought attention to the AIDS pandemic. In the early ’90s, it funded the provocative performance artist Karen Finley, after the National Endowment for the Arts had withdrawn her grant to develop a monologue she planned to deliver in the nude, with chocolate smeared on her body. That incident became part of a national debate (and U.S. Supreme Court case) over government support for the arts.
By the late ’90s, Creative Time had become less involved with political works. It sponsored such projects as Teleport Diner (2000), a re-creation in Stockholm of a Williamsburg, Brooklyn eatery named Diner, and Leap (2000), a video projection in Columbus Circle showing New Yorkers jumping. “The growth of the art market made it harder to find artists who were willing to be more socially engaged,” says Pasternak, who has been with the organization since 1994. There was a “lull” in political art, says Tom Eccles, executive director of Bard College’s Center for Curatorial Studies and former head of the Public Art Fund in New York. But both Eccles and Pasternak now see a new generation of engaged artists addressing such topics as the environment and the presidency.
Three years ago, Pasternak hired Creative Time’s now chief curator, Nato Thompson, with the clear understanding that he had an interest in artists with social agendas. Thompson, in his previous position as a curator at MASS MoCA in North Adams, Massachusetts, had organized a large-scale exhibition, “The Interventionists: Art in the Social Sphere” (2004–5), devoted to 1990s political art. At Creative Time, he has worked with dozens of concerned artists, including Chan, Deller, and those involved with Democracy in America. He is currently working on Key to the City, a project by Paul Ramírez Jonas, which opens in May. From a booth in Times Square, passersby will be able to pick up keys that give access to more than 30 community institutions across New York City, such as police stations and churches.
Thompson, whose book Seeing Power: Art and Activism in the Age of Cultural Production is set to be published this summer by Autonomedia, has an answer for critics like Ken Johnson who question whether works about community or social change are art. “Duchamp made it quite clear a long time ago, and so did Warhol,” says Thompson, “that art isn’t an inherent form but a lens and set of tools to interpret the world around us.”
Creative Time has an annual budget of $2.2 million and receives support from private and public sources, including board members who have backed “favorite projects,” says Pasternak. The Annenberg Foundation gave a $250,000 grant to Creative Time for it to establish the Leonore Annenberg Prize. The NEA is contributing $40,000 to help fund Key to the City, which is expected to cost more than $100,000. Pasternak says there has never been a conflict with government funders over programming, at least since she’s been there.
Meanwhile the organization continues to sponsor nonpolitical public art, including Pae White’s poetic The New Oceanfront, a collection of fabric containers made for last year’s Art Basel Miami Beach. “It’s not that everything has to be about war or feminism, for instance,” says Thompson. “Nonetheless, as an organization we are not interested in status-quo esthetics which reaffirm the values that exist in our culture.” To illustrate, Thompson quotes Jeremy Deller. “‘I went from being an artist who makes things to an artist who makes things happen.’ That shift,” Thompson says, “is what we’re interested in.”
Carly Berwick is a contributing editor of ARTnews.