Interview with Edmund Cardoni, Executive Director, Hallwalls Contemporary Arts Center

Posted October 31, 2010 by Anonymous
Carolyn Tennant, Hallwalls Media Arts Director
Interview Date: 
Friday, July 30, 2010
Person Interviewed: 
Edmund Cardoni, Executive Director
Place of Interview: 
Hallwalls Contemporary Arts Center, Buffalo, NY


The following oral history transcript is the result of a recorded interview with Edmund Cardoni on July 30, 2010. The interview took place at Hallwalls Contemporary Arts Center, Buffalo, NY on July 30, 2010 and was conducted by Carolyn Tennant. This interview was funded by the New York State Council on the Arts (NYSCA).

Edmund Cardoni and Carolyn Tennant have reviewed the transcript and have made corrections and emendations. The reader should bear in mind that he or she is reading a transcript of spoken, rather than written, prose.

Creative Commons License This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial 3.0 Unported License.



CAROLYN TENNANT:  OK, now we’re rolling. OK, great. So first of all, I think it’s a really fantastic opportunity that Art Spaces Archives Project has given us to go over, in many ways, the history of Hallwalls. And of course, your experience here as one of the longest— well, the longest executive director, but also person that’s worked in many different capacities at Hallwalls. Also as a programmer, doing not only literature events, but also programming films and that sort of thing. My interest in Buffalo and my decision to come to Buffalo really started with finding out about arts organizations like Hallwalls and the community that existed off campus. I thought maybe it would be a great opportunity to sort of get a sense of your background and how you came to be in Buffalo, and then how you came to be at Hallwalls. So maybe you could start with that.


EDMUND CARDONI:I moved to Buffalo in 1981. I had gotten my masters in creative writing at the University of Colorado at Boulder, and I had gotten involved already there, in organizing reading series and things like that. In fact, Alan Bigelow and I—he later moved from Boulder to Buffalo, too, at the same time I did—we had a reading series at Brillig Works Bookstore and Coffee Shop, which was on The Hill. The Hill was the campus district of Boulder, where all the dorms and frat houses and apartments and all that were. So there was a great bookstore-coffee shop called Brillig Works. It was actually one of the first combination bookstore-coffee shops—now there’s lots of those—but we started a reading series there. And Allen Ginsberg was one of the people we had read there, because he was there for the Naropa Institute. So I’ve been doing that kind of programming for a long time, on that level. I came here in 1981, at that time ostensibly, or intending to get my Ph.D., which I never ended up finishing because I got involved in Hallwalls instead. I got my Masters, as I said, so I came here to get my Ph.D. in the English Department. And I immediately was immersed—You know, that was still kind of the heyday, or maybe the end of the heyday of the English Department at UB, in terms of creative writing. The Olson Lectures were still here. That was a project that the English Department and the Poetry Collection did at that time, kind of carrying on the legacy of Charles Olson. Each year they would invite a poet associated with Olson, either at Black Mountain College or, you know, a friend of his, a disciple of his, or a student of his; someone influenced by him, usually people that he knew personally, like Robert Duncan or Ed Dorn, who was my professor—the late Ed Dorn now—but he was my professor [in] the poetry classes I took at Boulder. And in fact, in retrospect, it was when I was in Boulder that he came here to do the Olson lectures. So he did the Olson lectures long before I ever knew that I was going to end up moving here. But the ones that I saw were great. They were Ed Sanders, Joel Oppenheimer, Diane di Prima. You know, that was a great series. A poet would be here for a week, and there’d be lectures about Olson and lectures about poetry; and then they would do a big reading, usually at the Albright-Knox auditorium. So there were all kinds of great things happening in the community at that time.


I lived in an apartment within walking distance of the South Campus. And at that time, of course, most departments had moved to the Amherst campus and [so had] the English Department, to Clemens Hall [on UB’s North Campus]. I had my office on the sixth floor of Clemens Hall and the English department was headquartered on the third floor of Clemens Hall. That’s where I had all my office hours, but also all of my graduate seminars and courses that I was taking. But I actually taught on the South Campus my first two years. So that was within walking distance of my apartment; I had no car. I lived on the corner of East Depew and Main Street. Just north of that there’s a fire station, and then just north of that is Bennett High School. Then there was Bethune Hall, which at that time was the Art Department. So right from fall of ’81—having just moved here—I started hanging out at the gallery at Bethune Hall. That was UB’s art gallery at that time—not knowing what would happen in the future, when UB Art Gallery opened up at the Center For the Arts on the North Campus later. And certainly not knowing about Hallwalls and Hallwalls’ history with other UB galleries—Gallery 219, primarily—in its early history. I learned all of that later. But I would go Bethune Hall. And as we had done at Brillig Works, Alan Bigelow and I started a reading series at the gallery. I remember having lots of writers, but also Tony Conrad, as a performance artist, was part of that series. It was called the Writer’s Cramp Series. Other people took that series over and moved it to the Central Park Grill, but we started it at Bethune Hall, at the UB Art Gallery there. So I started getting involved that way right away, even while I was taking courses, while I was teaching as a TA at UB. But up until that point, I hadn’t really been involved in the visual arts. I mean, my background was literature. Actually, I had started out as an undergrad as a theater major, an acting major at Brandeis University. So going back a little bit farther that’s what I thought I was going into, theater. I quickly switched from that to first psychology, then communications, and ended up in creative writing and English. Other than theater originally, and then literature, I wasn’t really involved in the arts. I should say I was always really into film, and I took some film studies courses at the University of Massachusetts as an undergrad. I actually was the film writer for the UMass Boston student newspaper, so I did write about film. In fact, when I was thinking of graduate schools, I was thinking of possibly being a film critic. So I was involved on that level, too. And then I started, you know, getting more involved in creative writing and the literary magazine, the undergraduate literary magazine and creative writing courses. I started to move more in that direction and away from film—I was never planning to be a filmmaker, but I was interested in writing on film, film analysis, writing about film, maybe being a film critic. But anyway, I ended up picking grad schools based on creative writing programs. There just happened to be this poster or brochure tacked up on the wall of UMass Boston that had this great picture of a piñon pine on a ledge of the front range of the Rockies, and that attracted me to apply to Boulder, and I was there for two years. But even there, again, I was very, very much involved in the poetry scene, both at the University, at CU, as it’s called, and also at Naropa. They would have all these poets come to town to teach for the summer: William Burroughs, Gregory Corso, Allen Ginsberg. One of the last jobs I had there—because we weren’t getting paid as TAs during the summer—was selling Italian ices on the mall at Boulder, right outside Naropa Institute. A lot of those famous poets, those Beat poets and writers, were my customers and bought Italian ice from me. So that was really cool.


When I got to Buffalo we started that reading series at the UB Art Gallery at Bethune Hall. I think in the spring of 1982, my first spring semester, is when I came to my first event at Hallwalls, just as an audience member. That was a reading by Walter Abish. It was part of the Fiction Diction series [NOTE: Abish’s reading actually took place earlier, on October 7, 1981]. And I started going to all of those. Bob Pohl, R.D. Pohl (who’s become an old good friend, and still very important figure here, writing about the literary scene) was the curator of Fiction Diction at that time, and brought some amazing people. Grace Paley and Samuel Delany, and Raymond Carver, you know, it was incredible. That was Hallwalls. I first came drawn by the writers, by the reading series, but then I started coming to all the openings. I started coming to performance art. I saw Karen Finley’s first performance in 1982. I Like The Dwarf on the Table When I Give him Head, you know, which is a great title. (And then now I’ve become, you know, real good friends with Karen; never thought that would happen.) That was her first performance. I was actually just talking about this after her performance the other night, when Tony Billoni came, because Tony Billoni at that time was the curator of the performance program. She had sent out a bunch of letters after she graduated from the San Francisco Art Institute saying, “I just graduated from the San Francisco Art Institute. I’m a performance artist, and I’d like to perform at your space.” He was the only one who responded and invited her. Hallwalls was her first professional gig and she always remembers that gratefully. She’s been so supportive over the years, and we’ve presented most of her performances over all those years. But she always remembers that, you know. I knew that this was her first gig, and I had actually seen the letter that she sent; but I didn’t realize that she had sent out so many letters and that he was really the only one at that time who responded. So that was great, but, you know, I was just a spectator. All the performances and readings and film screenings—which at that time were all 16mm or Super 8—and video screenings, which was a whole separate program at that time, were all in the gallery. So sometimes you’d just be in the middle of the floor with wooden folding chairs and you’d put the standing screen up. Or sometimes you had to take work off the walls to have a performance, so that people wouldn’t bump into the work.


TENNANT:  Or splatter things on the work. [laughs]


CARDONI:  Yeah, yeah. So I started coming to Hallwalls pretty early, and I especially came to all the readings. I started coming to a lot of artist’s talks, too, and not just Hallwalls, but CEPA, because of course Hallwalls and CEPA shared contiguous space on the fourth floor of 700 Main Street at that time. I was never here for the Essex Street days. Hallwalls moved from Essex Street to 700 Main Street in the fall of 1980. I didn’t move to Buffalo till a year after that, so I never knew the Essex Street space. But 700 Main Street, I really got to know very well, as just a member and a member of the audience. I remember that events for non- members the admission was $2, and free for members at that time.


TENNANT:  Oh, wow.


CARDONI:  And I think membership was $15. But I couldn’t even afford to be a member then. I did have a stipend for teaching and I was living on that pretty much, but I was also on Food Stamps. $15 a week is what I got in Food Stamps. So $15 to be a member was a lot, but I would pay the $2 to see events. I can’t remember when I finally became a member; I certainly did, though. And now for a student it’s only $25, so it hasn’t gone up too much.


Now, at that time, Main Street was torn up for the construction of the subway. And that was devastating to Main Street because it was just a huge construction site. Traffic was gone. Automobile traffic was rerouted and couldn’t go down Main Street anymore. But the subway hadn’t opened yet, and the pedestrian mall wasn’t built yet. So you know, it was like a wasteland, like a ghost town. It was really horrible. Alan would often come to the readings, too, and we’d hop on a Main Street bus and just go all the way down Main Street as far as the bus could go until it couldn’t continue. And then we’d get off the bus and walk to 700 Main Street. So that’s how we would do it. You know, Bob Pohl always curated Fiction Diction as an avocation, because he always had his day job that he still has, which is managing the Hearthstone Manor banquet facility. He gave up running Fiction Diction, and for one year, Nancy Peskin did it. She decided that she was done after a year. I’d got to know Bob, and I’d got to know Nancy so when there was an opening for someone to carry on Fiction Diction, I took that. I knew them, I said I was interested, and so I started doing that. That was in the fall of 1984.


I think in my first year, it wasn’t even a half-time job; it was not really a job to speak of. I think in the whole first year, what I made from that was about $600, total. Like every once in a while, I’d get $100 or $150, and the first year it added up to an extra $600 for the year. But I had a budget where I could invite writers to do readings, mostly from out of town, mostly from New York City at that time. And, you know, you could bring a writer from New York City on People Express. At one point, People Express flights were routinely, for quite a while, $27 each way, $54 round trip. But occasionally, you could actually get one for $19 one way, $38 round trip. So not only was it easy to fly artists and writers up here to Hallwalls on People Express, but I could go to New York a lot. Even though I had no money, I could go to New York.  I was able to go to New York several times a year and really get to know the East Village gallery scene, and the performance scene and the literary scene. And you know, whenever I would go there, I would pick up all the ‘zines and the literary magazines that were around at the time. I know the one that really excited me was Between C and D, which was very early use of desktop publishing. They had these old Epson computers, and they would print out each copy on, you know, perforated computer paper, right? One copy at a time. And then they would put it in a Ziploc bag and then they would have original artwork that they’d include inside the Ziploc bag. To me, that was like the most exciting new literary magazine that I found there, and I invited a lot of writers and editors from that in my first couple of years. The first writers I actually invited were Mark Leyner and Marianne Hauser. That was in September, maybe, of 1984, or October [October 23, 1984]. In November, I invited Catherine Texier, who was one of the coeditors with her then husband Joel Rose, of Between C & D, and Lisa Blaushild [November 28, 1984]. And I brought a lot of other people associated with literary magazines that were coming mostly out of the East Village. That was consistent with what the performance curators were doing. First it was Tony Billoni and then it was Steve Gallagher. They were bringing performance artists from the East Village club scene—Darinka and 8BC and all these great clubs that were down there. And also the curators. Later I got to know [Visual Arts Curator] Roger Denson but that was sort of later. They brought a couple of curators from New York to be curators of Hallwalls, so the first one I knew was Claudia…


TENNANT:  Gould? Is it Gould?


CARDONI:  Yeah, Claudia Gould, sorry. I was just blanking. Claudia Gould. She came up and she was the curator for a couple of years. So there was always this connection to New York, and a lot of the artists were coming from New York. And that was important, I thought, because it meant that people here, if they weren’t getting there themselves, could get to see what was happening in the New York gallery scene then. But after her, Robin Dodds came and I got to know her really well. In fact, when I started working here, she was still the curator so I got to know her as a colleague, co-worker. And she was a lot more interested in— yes, still bringing artists from New York, which the founders of Hallwalls had always done from the very beginning—but she was also interested in re-involving the local artists. And she kind of brought that balance back. I think Claudia was more focused on New York, not so much on the local scene as Robin was later, and Robin struck a balance. I think we’ve always had that balance, ever since. Not only local, so not parochial; of New York quality, but not only centered in New York. I think we’ve gotten a lot more away from just New York over the years, and brought people from the West Coast and Chicago and all over the country and internationally. And Canada, Toronto. You know, we still have that balance of responding to the really interesting artists who are living here and working here locally and giving them shows. But not just because they’re local, but because their work is of the same quality we’d find in New York or Toronto or L.A. or San Francisco, or wherever else. We’ve had that since then.


So in 1984, as I said, for virtually no money— I got this budget that I could bring writers I was interested [in]. And it’s incredible, when I think of some the writers I brought for hardly any money. You know, hundreds of them by the time I finished really running Fiction Diction. I later actually changed from the name Fiction Diction and just called it the Writers Series. But I had had an amazing number of really important writers whom I could get for $150, $250, $300 to come and do a reading. You know, when I think of what the writers who come to Babel [International Writers Series produced by Just Buffalo Literary Center] now get paid. I mean it’s amazing to me.


TENNANT:  What do you think brought them? I mean, aside from money, there had to be some payoff. And there had to be payoff for the programmers, also that weren’t necessarily getting paid substantially, but were as committed to working at Hallwalls.


CARDONI:  Right. Well, you know, one important thing—and for the most part, this was true and continues to be true, but with some exceptions—the curators always came out of the art form that they’re curating. In many cases, as in the case of the first curators of course, and then Cathy Howe—visual artists as curators. Steve Gallagher, a filmmaker, was the film curator and then he was a performance curator, too. And he wasn’t really a performance artist, but he was involved with performances, and certainly producing performances. I think what happened was he was performance curator after Tony [Billoni], and Barb Lattanzi was film curator. And then when she decided to turn to video, as opposed to film, Steve became the film curator and Hallwalls hired Ron Ehmke. He was the fulltime performance curator for like eight years and Steve was still here. He eventually left, moved to New York. In addition to working at Hallwalls, Tony Billoni had this idea for this thing called Artists and Models, and it started in 1984. But he brought in partners and the main partners were Cathy Howe, who was by that time visual arts curator of Hallwalls and a painter (and was Tony Billoni’s girlfriend at the time) and Steve Gallagher. Together with a few other people, they started Artists and Models. So even before Hallwalls took over Artists and Models as a fundraising event ten years later, Hallwalls people were always involved with it as artists, as producers  helping Tony Billoni with the artistic programming of it. That’s kind of an important point. I was involved with a group of visual artists called the Red Hots, and we did installations at several Artists and Models. I’m not a visual artist, but I was, you know, doing visual art with them at that time, kind of participating. I think I might be the only person who’s been to every Artists and Models, because Ron missed one and Tony even missed one, but I’ve been to every one, so—


TENNANT:  Right. But getting back to the idea that people, when you were programming…

CARDONI:  Oh, right sorry.


TENNANT:  …would come for such little money, and people would work for such little money, what was the mutual—


CARDONI:  Right. Very important point. So obviously, the experience was the same that I had. Right? So it virtually wasn’t really a job. But I had this little budget and because I could write, I could write grants and I increased the funding for the literature program a lot. So I was able to bring more writers and I was able to do a publication, Blatant Artifice; and I was able to bring a writer in residence, the first one being Holly Hughes, and then Ana Lydia Vega. I started the bilingual poetry reading series at La Palma de Oro, which was this salsa bar on the West Side at Hudson Street and Busti Avenue. So I was able to get a bunch of different grants. That’s when the New York State Council of the Arts, NYSCA, didn’t have a limit on how many grants an organization could apply for. And so for literature alone one year I had four different grants. Right? I had a publication, Blatant Artifice; the outreach program, which was the bilingual series; the regular reading series; and an artist in residence. And now we don’t even have any funding for literature at all. But—


TENNANT:  But you were able to grow the program.


CARDONI:  Absolutely. At that time I was able to grow the program. But the reward was always not the money. It was being able to bring these writers, present them to the public, get them an audience. You know, help them sell their books and get to know them, hang out with them. So that was really the reward. And I think that that’s still an important part of the reward for curators, is to be able to see artists you’re interested in, and approach them and bring them, and help them in their careers by giving them the opportunity to come to Hallwalls but also to hang out with them and finding out from them about other artists. And that’s kind of invaluable. It’s not something you can really get as a student or as a graduate student, or from school, or even in most curatorial jobs in museums. I mean, it’s very different.


TENNANT:  The premise that Hallwalls was founded on, as a vehicle to create connections— not only for the community to see art and expose themselves to artists from all around the world, but for the people that were actually behind the scenes to make those connections, as well—it’s not something that’s ever gone away.


CARDONI:  That’s right.


TENNANT:   It’s still very much a part of—


CARDONI:  Absolutely. But in the very beginning, when you had the founders of Hallwalls—primarily Robert Longo and Charlie Clough and the small group of artists around them: Nancy Dwyer and Dianne Bertolo, Cindy Sherman, Michael Zwack—they saw right away that it would be important, that it would extend what they could ever learn from just their art classes in college and that they could get in the classroom, if they would start this space themselves, their own space, and right from the beginning invite people from out of town to come. When Hallwalls started, it really came into existence with the first event; they invited Robert Irwin to come and give a talk. And that’s what we call the first Hallwalls event, in December of 1974. Now, it turns out that Robert Irwin had this project of his own, which was that he would make himself available to groups like that: to teachers, you know, to bring to their classes or places like Hallwalls. There were a lot of alternative spaces that had just started or were starting around the same time as Hallwalls, or started a little bit later than Hallwalls. So there were all those spaces all over the country, but it could be art schools and Robert Irwin would basically come for virtually nothing. Like, it was his artist project to go around and speak to young artists. And so that’s how they got him. Right? It was sort of like two projects coming together.


TENNANT:  Right.


CARDONI:  The artists who started Hallwalls, that was their project, Hallwalls. His project was going around. They were able to take advantage of this project, of him being this sort of itinerant visual artist who was going around giving lectures and talking and meeting artists. 


TENNANT:  Sort of the perfect storm.


CARDONI:  Yeah, yeah. But then they started inviting people from one of two places; usually either New York City or CalArts. Those were the two kind of feeders for Hallwalls, because those were the places where artists were doing work that they were interested in, that was exciting the artists who started Hallwalls. And that was all sort of recognized and documented in the show at the Metropolitan Museum last year, The Pictures Generation. There was this group around John Baldessari at CalArts, and all these young artists who were students of his, and all these young West Coast artists; and then there were the East Coast artists, and they came from all different places but ended up in New York. And they were kind of brought together at Hallwalls, and Hallwalls itself became a place for connections to be made and artists to do work that made Buffalo almost on a par with Los Angeles and New York, to that extent—as was recognized, I thought, fairly and accurately in The Pictures Generation show at the Metropolitan Museum.


But what I was getting at, though, was that in the beginning, the artists showed their own work too, right? It wasn’t only about showing their own work, though, see? Some spaces that started, they started sort of as cooperatives and it would be, “Let’s start a gallery. It’ll be a cooperative gallery, and we’ll take turns having shows and we’ll show our own work.” And that was really all—some of those places never evolved beyond that. Some of them, when they expanded, they said, “Okay, well, we can’t just keep showing our own work, so we’ll have a call for work and slides will come in, and we’ll select artists to show.” So some spaces evolved in that direction and there would be an exhibition coordinator. But Hallwalls wasn’t like that. Right from the beginning— I mean, yes, they wanted to show their own work. But more importantly they recognized that they had ambitions and they were interested in bringing in artists to present to the community, but also to hang out with themselves and to learn from themselves. And then within a few years, many of them moved on and became, like super, super influential. They had established this pattern of both importing art and ideas and artists, and exporting them. That’s continued to this day, and that’s really important. The thing that has changed, is that now the staff functions more only as curators, in the sense that we’re not about showing our own work anymore. Like it’s almost— That’s not part of it anymore. And in a way, the staff, as curators or as arts administrators, has become more professionalized. They function more as— never purely as curators, right? Because as you know, curators here have to do everything: from doing the curating, selecting artists and working with the artist to either put together an exhibition or to commission a new installation or project, whatever it is, but also to raise the money for it, to write grants for it, to host them when they’re here, to publicize the events and the exhibitions, write about them, produce the catalogue, deal with the budget for the project. All those things that, you know, there’d be a division of labor within a museum, where you’d have the budget person, then you’d have the publicity person and, of course, they also have to help hang the show, right? So in a museum, you have preparators and you have publicity departments and you have development departments, and then you have the curators and publications departments and all that. But anyone who works here has to do all of those things. But usually they learn those things on the job; they don’t have a lot of experience in doing those things. They’re coming out of the field as artists, with a love for the field, for the discipline, for the art form. And thenthey learn how to do publicity, how to do a budget, how to write a grant, how to hang a show, even.


And then there were some exceptions, as I said. When they hired Claudia Gould and then Robin Dodds, that was really the first time that the curators were not artists themselves. Like Roger Denson was an artist himself. He’s turned more to being a writer and a critic; he’s working on a couple of books right now and he’s written a lot of published work as a critic. But he was really an artist and a painter himself. Of course, you know, all the artists who sort of functioned as curators in the early days were primarily artists themselves, and they were just curating what they were interested in. John Maggiotto was an artist. They were all artists first. Then there was this sort of brief period where there were a couple of curators and then Cathy Howe came back. After Cathy Howe, though, we hired Charles Wright. He was really a curator, not an artist. After him was Sara Kellner, an artist who had just graduated from Rhode Island School of Design. And she learned curating and arts administration on the job, and really became more of an arts administrator than a practicing artist, although she is a very talented artist. 


TENNANT:  Okay. So one of the things you mentioned was alternative art spaces, and I’d like to sort of shift gears a bit. At the very beginning of Hallwalls it was situated as an alternative space and perhaps provided a venue for more radical activities for not only the artists, but the community that was gathering around Hallwalls at the time. One thing, though, despite some of the institutional critique that these artists were engaging with, they were not afraid to collaborate with the institutions in the community. Meaning collaborating directly and to the point of getting mentorship from the Albright-Knox…


CARDONI:  Oh, absolutely. Correct.


TENNANT:  …and from the University at Buffalo. And so I’m thinking about the ways that collaborating has always been a strategy for Hallwalls.


CARDONI:  Right. Well again, going back to the founders—and they kind of set the pattern that we’ve followed—they were ambitious. They wanted to have an impact on the art world, not just create an alternative that would remain marginal or would remain on the fringe and therefore be able to do whatever they wanted, but not have much impact, right? They wanted to have a space where not only radical things, but where things could be raw, where things could be tried out that were new and different, and often interdisciplinary, multidisciplinary. You know, Cindy Sherman doing performance and photography and then putting those things together; Robert Longo doing things that later would come out not only in his work as a visual artist, but as a filmmaker, a maker of music videos. Right from the beginning, they wanted also to have an impact, and they reached out to these institutions. And they were reaching out as young people, unknown artists, sometimes students. So, you know, Cindy and Robert were at Artpark as basically park rangers but that means that they got to be involved with some of these really well known artists who were being invited there, like Vito Acconci and Charles Simonds and all those artists who were being invited to do installations at Artpark. But also they reached out to the Albright-Knox. Many of them submitted work to the Western New York show at the Albright-Knox and were put in the shows. You know, Cindy Sherman, Robert Longo, they were all in Western New York shows when they were unknowns and they’re probably happy now that they put them in those shows. But luckily, at that time there was a director, Robert Buck (who later went on to the Brooklyn Museum), and also two curators, Linda Cathcart and Charlotta Kotik, who were very interested in being aware of and responsive to what young artists were doing and what a space like Hallwalls was doing. Those collaborations started almost right away, in the late 1970s and into the early 1980s. I mean, first of all, the artists at Hallwalls weren’t just hanging out at Hallwalls. When there were exhibitions, visiting artists, and lectures by artists, critics and curators at the Albright-Knox, they were there because they wanted to learn that stuff. And then they submitted their work and were in Western New York shows. So that’s how they were connected at first. But then they actually started to partner and present exhibitions together.


TENNANT:  Exactly. Charlotta Kotik actually bringing Czech and Polish performance art to Hallwalls, and then Hallwalls also collaborated directly with the Albright-Knox to help Simonds, who you mentioned, do an exhibition in residency. The exhibition was at the Albright-Knox, but his residency really took place at Hallwalls, so—


CARDONI:  Right, right. And yeah, there would be things that would happen at the Albright-Knox, things would happen at Hallwalls. And then a little bit later in the early eighties, they had that series and CEPA was involved with the Albright-Knox. They partnered on exhibitions. So part of the exhibition would be at the Albright-Knox. Maybe paintings would be there and drawings would be at Hallwalls. Or there’d be an installation at Hallwalls and existing work would be shown at the Albright-Knox. So you know, Jennifer Bartlett and…


TENNANT:  Four by Three at the—

CARDONI:  Yeah, yeah, yeah. You know, Robert Mapplethorpe, Rafael Ferrer, Judy Pfaff. So all those shows were Hallwalls, which was being recognized in New York at places like the New Museum and Artists Space, and in Chicago, at Name Gallery. And in Toronto at YYZ, A Space, and other places. Hallwalls was already making a name for itself nationally, really, from the end of the seventies, so that was a way for an institution like the Albright-Knox to be in touch with what was young and what was new at that time.


And then there was sort of a period after Doug Schultz became director, where he wasn’t really interested in that. Although as a curator at the Albright-Knox, he actually participated in some of those things with Hallwalls. But as director, he and his curators then were not so open to partnering with Hallwalls. It was really not until Louis Grachos came that we’ve gotten back to that and now we collaborate a lot. And you know, one of the things that attracted Louis to Buffalo—besides the Albright-Knox itself—was the fact that there was this heritage of Hallwalls and Creative Associates and the Festival of the Arts and CEPA and all those places that—you know, Artpark—that were so important starting in the seventies and into the eighties. He was well aware of that, as someone who is from Toronto, but then moved around—New York City, Miami, Santa Fe. He was well aware of Hallwalls. Sometimes we think that they’re more aware of Hallwalls nationally if they’re aware of contemporary art at all. You know, it’s always a struggle to try to raise awareness within our own community. And yet it’s very well known within contemporary art circles, everywhere. All over the world, literally.


TENNANT:  Right. So I wanted to just jump ahead a bit. We talked a bit about the founding years and of your beginnings at Hallwalls. But also what was really happening in the eighties nationally, and how was it happening in Buffalo and Hallwalls in particular? And I’m thinking of issues around the culture wars. You mentioned Karen Finley’s performance; she obviously is a name that’s associated with that. The institutional critique that I was talking about before, a lot of the artists being very aware and critical of the larger art establishment during the Reagan years, then into the nineties and the backlash. So thinking about those years and what was happening at Hallwalls and what you saw across disciplines.


CARDONI:  Right, well— Yeah. As I’ve written—and Julie Ault has written a lot about this—some of the alternative spaces that are still around or that were important in their time were founded around political issues primarily. Artists got together against the Vietnam War. Women got together around the dominance of male artists within the art establishment. So there was a lot of political impetus behind the creation of some of these alternative spaces. Political in the broad sense. Well, in the direct sense, too in terms of anti-war. But you know, political in that really profound sense of feminism that was part of the feminist movement, which of course, in the seventies, was still very, very vibrant and then later focusing more on the pro-choice movement. And then after the Vietnam War, you know, artists organizing around the wars in Central America and that kind of thing. Hallwalls, in its early days, wasn’t—You know, it was just after the Vietnam War had ended and there were things happening, certainly, in Latin America. I mean, 1973 was the CIA-backed coup in Chile. But the artists at Hallwalls weren’t so directly interested in political issues, in that sense, you know? Sort of big P politics. I mean, they were interested in art world politics. Cindy Sherman was really embraced as an important feminist artist, although I don’t really think she thought of herself that way then. But she certainly is a really important artist, sort of predating Laura Mulvey and the whole idea of the male gaze and being an artist who, in her practice, already embodied something that critics of the male gaze could look at. Patrick O’Connell, who was briefly a director of Hallwalls in 1978 (less than one year) went to New York and within a few years, started Visual AIDS and A Day Without Art and the whole red ribbon thing. That was an important legacy that came out of Hallwalls, too. But it was really in the mid eighties, around the time I came—not because I came, but because of what was happening in the world politically. There was a kind of uprising of artists against Reagan’s policies, economically but also in Central America. There had been this backlash after Roe v Wade against abortion, and so the pro-choice movement became very important. And then of course, AIDS happened in the mid eighties, and ACT UP was formed, and Gran Fury and other artist collectives around AIDS activism. So right in the mid to late eighties, AIDS became really a rallying point for artists, partly because so many were stricken by that disease and died in the prime of their creative lives; and the attacks on women’s reproductive rights, and what was happening in Central America. I was very interested in that, and you sort of just couldn’t get away from it if you were a progressive person, part of the intelligentsia or whatever you want to call it. So it did become much more about the political world. But what they also had in common—you know, the pictures generation—is that they were always involved—and this is a really broad way of saying it, but—in the critique of mass media. With someone like [Hallwalls’ Video Curator] Chris Hill, I mean, she was very interested in pure video art—obviously, because she’s one of the major scholars and curators and compilers of the history of video art, even in its purist experimental, abstract form. But she got very interested in video activism all over the world and started the Video Witnesses Festival. And how video was being used the way Samizdat Press had been used behind the Iron Curtain, the way that art had always been used in revolutionary movements and the way now, someplace like Iran, where even things like Twitter and cell phones and social networking are being used to get the word out, you know? At the time that Chris Hill started getting Hallwalls programming involved with Video Witnessing— I mean, she was really in the forefront of that, along with people she was in touch with and who frequently came here like Dee Dee Halleck with Deep Dish TV, Paper Tiger TV, that kind of thing. So it became very political because Chris Hill was very political, I was political. The visual arts program was kind of less political at that time. CEPA was more so, I would say. There was a show called Images of War (a collaboration between Hallwalls and CEPA) that was really interesting and very timely but also included things like Nazi art from the US Army’s collection of Nazi art that had been captured after the defeat of the Nazis in World War II. That kind of thing. Propaganda art, Nazi Propaganda art. But again, looking at that not just like propaganda is something that Nazis did, but propaganda is something that our own powers that be do, whether it’s mass media, commercial media itself or the government, you know. And so—


TENNANT:  Or gallery art.




TENNANT:  Coco Fusco, I’m also thinking about, the work that she did and brought to Hallwalls and—


CARDONI:  Oh, absolutely. Right. You know, Steve Gallagher invited her to put together this show Reviewing Histories: Selections From New Latin American Cinema. We did a publication where she wrote an essay, but it was a compilation of writings about Latin American cinema and it accompanied this touring exhibition of films. Some of those were not necessarily political films, but it was a new cinema coming out of Latin America. Many of them werepolitical films too if they were coming from Cuba, if they were coming from Chile. And you know she was very political, first as a curator and later as a performance artist. Then she also did another project that Steve initiated, Young British and Black, dealing with the film and video workshop movement of Black artists in England.


TENNANT:  Sankofa…


CARDONI:  Yeah. And Isaac Julien was part of that, became very well known later. But that publication [Reviewing Histories] was so important. There was literally nothing like it at the time and so for several years after it came out, it would be ordered as a teaching text by either Latin American studies programs or film studies programs all over the country, until it ran out. We could have easily reprinted it and continued to sell it but Coco wasn’t interested in it at that point because she didn’t want it to be only that book—which was really just a catalogue for that exhibition. It was very substantial, but she said, “Well, if there’s this need for a textbook, I’d like to do a full fledged textbook and make it into something more than that.” So because she wanted to do that, she didn’t want us to reprint that one. But we should have because she never ended up doing that particular project. She hooked up with Guillermo Gómez-Peña and started doing performance. In retrospect, you know, it would have been great if we had been able to reprint Reviewing Histories, because it would have been used a lot. For years, we’d get orders from universities and colleges for this as a textbook, and we’d have to say, “That’s out of print, out of stock, we don’t have it anymore.”


TENNANT:  Right. What about the nineties, just a few years later? We were talking about the end of the eighties.


CARDONI:  Well, okay, then when you get to the end of the eighties, there’s the culture wars, right? So by the time Robert Mapplethorpe is attacked, Hallwalls already has a history, because we’ve done a Robert Mapplethorpe show in the early eighties, in partnership with the Albright-Knox. When Karen Finley becomes one of the NEA Four—and Tim Miller, for that matter, and Holly Hughes—those are all artists that we had brought, starting in the early eighties. Tim Miller, the first performance he ever did here was in the early eighties, maybe ’82 or ’3 or ’4, I forget which, but— Live Boys, which was him and his partner, his performance partner and his life partner then, John Bernd.


TENNANT:The Harvey Milk performance?


CARDONI:  Yeah. So it was already sort of in the pre-AIDS era, but was already dealing with gay rights in the aftermath of Harvey Milk’s assassination. So that was a performance, you could say, that over twenty years later, Hollywood movies caught up with, with Milk. And Tim Miller presented many things over the years after that, but—


TENNANT:  So then [inaudible]—


CARDONI:  You know, another one would be Kathryn Bigelow. You know, they invited Kathryn Bigelow to show her very first film and last year she won best director for The Hurt Locker, you know. So it takes a long time for that stuff to gestate. It’s risky at first, because by definition— You know, like I’m thinking about the Members show, which is being installed upstairs. And the first Members show was thirty-five years ago, this is the thirty-sixth annual Members show. The first Members show had people like Robert Longo and Cindy Sherman in it. Did they know they were going to be, you know, Robert Longo and Cindy Sherman then? No. So maybe upstairs some young artist is going to be famous, but it might take thirty, thirty-five years to know that. But that’s the place that Hallwalls carved out for itself, and has continued to do so. And it has a little bit more— probably more than any alternative space, has that remarkable story because those artists moved on when they were still young, went to New York and had this incredible impact, but had coalesced here, had done their first work here. And remain, you know, mindful of and grateful for that experience that they had, which was so formative in their careers.


TENNANT:  And then later being thankful for Hallwalls being a voice for freedom of speech.


CARDONI:  Oh absolutely.


TENNANT:  So lets get back to the NEA and just the culture wars of the nineties.


CARDONI:  Oh right, right. Yeah, yeah. Well, it sort of goes back to the late eighties, really starts in the late eighties. So first of all, we had started doing a lot of work around AIDS. You know, inviting artists who were involved with Act Up New York to come up here and talk about it, which directly spawned Act Up Western New York.



Artists and Hallwalls staff people like Ron Ehmke, who were part of— you know, who started ACT UP Western New York. And they had their weekly meetings at Hallwalls. So that was really important. Same with a local feminist performance group, organized by some people who were artists and performers, but many of whom were just from other walks of life. But they were all members of this performance troupe called Ladies of the Lake, which was a satirical performance troupe started by women. And it satirized— I guess by that time, it was the George Bush Sr. administration—but they were really organized around issues related to reproductive rights. And by the time the culture wars started, we already had established this really strong, decade-long connection to artists like Robert Mapplethorpe, to Video Witnessing, to gay rights, to reproductive rights and free speech. And so it was already a tradition, in a way, you could say, by the time the shit really started to hit the fan in ’89-90. And we had stood up to the Mayor of Buffalo and we stood up to the NEA when they took away a grant. That was actually quite a bit later, 1997. But we had established a track record and a reputation for that. So it was solid by then. And we were actually— You know, we had— Steve Gallagher was gay himself. He’s actually HIV-positive. He’s still doing really well. He’s been HIV-positive probably for twenty years. Ron Ehmke [founder of Hallwalls Ways In Being Gay, 1988]. Charles Wright, sadly died of AIDS. We had a lot of gay staff members and whether we did or not, we’ve continued to be really supportive of gay programming. You know, the other day somewhere we were people were saying, “Well, we always thought that Squeaky Wheel was a lesbian media arts collective,” you know? And “Well, we used to think that about Hallwalls, too.” Which, you know, that’s fine.


TENNANT:  Maybe this is a good time for you to, for the record, read the quote that’s on your mug.


CARDONI:  Oh, this is my mug, yeah. So for one of the first Ways In Being Gay Festivals— Well, I should say, going back to Chris Hill, she was also involved in starting Public Access Cable here in Buffalo, and connecting that to the bigger Public Access Cable movement in the country. (Unfortunately, that battle was ultimately lost in Buffalo because it came back under the control of the city. And now it’s more like an organ of city hall, instead of true public access. But you know, we fought the good fight. And especially Chris and Tony [Conrad], you know, lots of people who were involved with that.] But so we invited these two drag performance artists who had a show on Manhattan Cable named Glennda and Brenda. We invited them to be artists in residence here during Ways In Being Gay, and produce some cable shows that we put on our cable station. One of the things they wanted to do was go to city hall and, you know, they were thrown out by the mayor. And so Mayor Griffin, in 1992, was interviewed by the Buffalo Newsand they said, “How do you feel about censorship in art?” (I’m reading this right off the coffee mug that we had it printed on.) “Well, they got this one thing in Buffalo, Hallways or whatever the heck it is. To me, that—” I can’t do his accent, sorry. “To me, that’s strictly trash that they put out. And again, getting back to times when I was growing up, some of these things, they’d laugh those people right of the country. They’d put them in the psychiatric center over there. Who in common sense would do some of the things they’re doing?” That’s Buffalo mayor James Griffin, Buffalo News, June 21st 1992. So we’re very proud of that. And in fact, they are going to put artists in the psychiatric center, so that part’s going to come true, also.


TENNANT:  Right. Well, 1992 was a big year for Buffalo. Hallwalls had, you mentioned, become involved—through Chris and Armin [Heurich] and many of the people who were working here on staff, with video production and, in many ways, became a resource for the community and activists in Buffalo who could not access video editing equipment. So, [Hallwalls was also] in the role of a media arts production space. While Squeaky Wheel was renting equipment and providing a lot of the training, the editing often times was happening here. And I’m wondering if you could talk about the spring of 1992 and Hallwalls’ relationship with what was happening.


CARDONI:  Right. Well, there had been a show put together by Kathe Burkhart and Chrysanne Stathacos. Kathe Burkhart was one of the East Village painters, who’s still very active as a painter; Chrysanne Stathacos was a Buffalo native, who had moved to Toronto and was involved in the early days of Hallwalls, and also in the early days of A Space in Toronto. And they were invited by Real Art Ways, in Hartford Connecticut to co-curate a show called The Abortion Project. It started with this idea that maybe twenty years earlier, notable women—intellectuals, artists and public figures—women who had themselves had abortions publicly declared that they had had abortions, and they signed their names and they were painted on the wall. So they recreated that with all those names—Simone De Beauvoir, all these people—and current prominent women who had had abortions added their names to the wall. And then they had all these artists do work on the theme of reproductive rights. So that was called The Abortion Project, and Sara Kellner our Visual Arts curator at the time, brought that show here. Sara curated an upstate and local component of it, with artists from up here, so all of these names were painted on the walls around the gallery, and all the galleries (this is still 700 Main Street) were full of artwork related to abortion. That was already scheduled and was going to open in May of 1992, when we found out that Operation Rescue, after trying to shut down clinics in Wichita Kansas and being successful there in closing down the clinics during the time they were there, their next target would be Buffalo. And—


TENNANT:  Invited by the mayor.


CARDONI:  This same mayor Griffin, whose quote I just read, welcomed them with open arms. “Come to Buffalo and help us shut down the abortion clinics.” Because he didn’t like those any more than he liked alternative arts spaces or gay people. So we happened to have this show up that very same month and that became kind of a rallying point for the organizers of the clinic defense. They actually had, you know, training sessions in Hallwalls for clinic defenders. Most of us were involved, also. We had a group called Media Coalition for Reproductive Rights. I had not been a videographer, but I became a videographer during that time. Not just for when Operation Rescue was here, but showing up at the clinics and videotaping the anti-choice protesters who were harassing patients who were going there for all kinds of women’s health services, not just abortions. They were harassing the patients, they were harassing the doctors. Some of that footage, like by Armin Heurich and others, was used in cases that helped to establish the distance— You know, the federal order that kept clinic protesters at a certain minimum distance away from the entrance to the clinics [Later overturned by . So yeah, that was really important, in terms of kind of the arts and the media arts community coming together with the activist community, around the defense of the clinics. And of all the clinic defenders, the Media Coalition of Reproductive Rights was one part, one small part. But the clinic defenders and all the people from here locally and all the people who came from out of town who defended the clinics and prevented them from closing our clinics at that time. Now, that was a short-lived victory because since then, all but one of clinics that we kept open have been closed anyway. Only one is still open. And their main doctor was assassinated by a sniper in his suburban home, in his kitchen, when he was getting dinner ready for his family. So you know that chapter, we kind of won that one; and then things have gotten worse in terms of the reduction, nationally, in availability of abortion services and doctors being intimidated out of providing aborting services. Another doctor was killed more recently. The fight never ends, whether it’s for artistic freedom or reproductive rights or the fight against getting involved in places like Iraq. Or AIDS— that fight’s not over. But I think that Hallwalls was able to maintain a balance throughout all that time, between the political and really the artistic, in terms of the adventurous approach to art making, the support for work— not just work that was political in its content, but challenging in other ways—aesthetically, philosophically, in terms of its critique of mass media. All those things continued to be true. There was a time when we were considered, like, more gay than straight, or more political than artistic. And I always thought those were kind of red herrings, because I think that the balance has always been good.


TENNANT:  Right. But there’s also an interesting relationship, in terms of the political art that was being produced and what Hallwalls eventually became for artists that could no longer receive funding at the national level as individuals.


CARDONI:  Oh, sure.


TENNANT:  And so I’m wondering if you could talk about HARP [Hallwalls Artists-in-Residence Project]—


CARDONI:  Right, right. Well, you know, Karen Finley talks about how it wasn’t just that she lost a grant. A grant that she had earned through the merit of her work was taken away from her, and then that was upheld by the Supreme Court, and she lost the grant because her work was considered, quote, “indecent.” It wasn’t just her losing that grant and then the National Endowment for the Arts eliminating most categories of support of individual artists and for commissioning of new projects by individual artists—which we did a lot of in the eighties and very early nineties, until they changed their policies there—but it was that a lot of places, institutions, were afraid of even presenting her work anymore. So she’s very grateful not only that we gave her her first gig, but that we continued to show her work as it evolved later in her career, when she was actually kind of blacklisted, in a way, you know? Not quite as literally blacklisted as happened in the forties and fifties in Hollywood and television in New York, you know, but kind of. People were afraid. And it was the alternative spaces that kept the faith with those artists and provided them with a place. Not just Hallwalls, but all the spaces that are our peer organizations, that we’re part of with the Warhol Initiative, for example. When NEA changed its policy they limited— Again, as I talked about before with NYSCA we could apply for, we could get, two dozen grants in a year. Then we had to cut it down to three, and now it’s four. I actually had to make the decision to eliminate our literature funding. I had to make the decision as executive director, that our three primary programs were visual arts, media arts and music.  So my own program that I had come here to run, literature, was not as high a priority as those three. So I talked about NYSCA, but the NEA also changed their policy. For one thing, Hallwalls used to get funded as a visual artists organization and that’s what they were called, VAOs, visual artists organizations. You know, the NEA only started in ’66, I think, and in the late seventies and early eighties they created these programs that were specifically to support the growth and development of alternative spaces. They were very progressive. Not only alternative spaces, you know, in terms of new aesthetics, but also they had another program called Interarts. That had to do with fostering all kinds of interdisciplinary and multidisciplinary work, so not just painting or just film or just music, which were the more traditional categories.  Interarts was for this new kind of interdisciplinary, multidisciplinary new media, multimedia work that was becoming so prominent. That Interarts program helped to foster that. They also had another program called Advancement Arts—I believe that’s what it was called—that was to develop organizations of color and to decentralize arts organizations, so they weren’t all just located in big metropolitan art centers like New York and Chicago and Los Angeles, but so they could be all over the country, including a place like Buffalo.  [It was] Expansion Arts. Advancement [Arts] was a different program. That was to help organizations’ capacity building. So they had Expansion Arts which helped organizations of color, including African American organizations here in Buffalo, like the Center for Positive Thought. And then they had Interarts, which we got a lot of grants from both to run our performance program, which enabled us to have a fulltime performance curator (Ron Ehmke, at that time), but it also provided opportunities for us to commission new performance works or, you know, interdisciplinary, multidisciplinary works by artists like John Jesurun, Erica Beckman, Pat Oleszko, Julia Scher, all these artists. So anyway, NEA got rid of Expansion Arts, right? So sort of putting the power back in the hands of, like the institutions and the white male cultural perspective. Eurocentric, that kind of thing. Got rid of Interarts. Why? Because that had been the program whose artists had caused all the trouble with Congress. [They] changed the Visual Artists Organizations to just Visual Arts Program. So everything sort of moved back in the direction of the gallery and museum orientation, and away from the alternative spaces. It was really partly the support at NYSCA and NEA, that a place like Hallwalls could flourish from the late seventies until the early nineties. And by that time, we were well enough established that we could keep going, even though a lot of funding was cut.


So one of the things that happened with the restructuring at NEA, was that you could only apply for one grant. I mean, you can also be part of a consortium on another grant; but basically, each organization had to apply for one grant so, again, I had to make the decision. Do we go to the visual arts program, thereby leaving out music and media arts? Do we go to media arts, thereby leaving out music and visual arts? Do we go to music, and leave out visual arts and media arts? I couldn’t see doing any of those things, so instead— And those were our strong programs. In other words, those were where we have the strong relationships with the program officers at the NEA—in visual arts, in media arts, in music. Right? We took a risk to go to this area called Multidisciplinary. Even though we always were multidisciplinary, we weren’t funded through multidisciplinary. (Multidisciplinary kind of evolved out of the Interarts program, then became Presenting, and that’s where we still get our funding for HARP.) So the concept I came up with in 1996 was we would go in through Multidisciplinary, and we would propose a multidisciplinary artists residency project, where all of our curators would be involved, all the disciplines that made up our programming would be able to benefit much less, but at least a little, from NEA funding. So each year, we would put together a slate of artists-in-residence that the curators would identify and invite, and then we would apply for those artists to come to be artists in residence. There would be maybe a couple of visual artists; a media artist (a filmmaker or a video artist of some kind [or] a new media artist like Siebren Versteeg later); usually some kind of jazz musician would come; sometimes writers and performance artists. All the disciplines would benefit from the funding that we used to get separately, in separate grants for all our different programs. We now could only get one grant, but at least all the programs could still benefit from it. So that was one piece of the reasoning behind it, but then the other piece was that now that there’s not support for individual artists. This would be a way of supporting individual artists. We made the argument, and we were funded right away that first year that we applied. We were given a grant of $35,000. That was the grant that we then had taken away by the National Council, on strictly political grounds. Of all the, I think almost 500 grants that were awarded that year, ours was the only one that the council went in and vetoed, basically. And I appealed to Jane Alexander, who was then the chair of the NEA, and she turned down our appeal. We ended up, though, with the help of the Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts and just our own— you know, persistence— we ended up bringing pretty much all the artists we had proposed to bring that first year, even without getting the grant. For example, we were able to bring Shawna Dempsey and Lorrie Millan. Their work sample, a short film called We’re Talking Vulva,had been the piece that had cause us to lose the grant. We still brought them for an artists’ residency. We still brought Bobby Previte. We still brought Pauline Oliveros. Not that they were controversial, but they were part of that first grant. We still brought all of the people we had proposed to bring, either that year or eventually. And then when we applied again the following year, also for the Hallwalls Artists-in-Residence Project, with a whole new slate of artists. We got a grant again. And we’ve pretty much gotten funded every year by NEA. Including this year, we got the biggest grant since the one that we didn’t get, that $35,000 grant. After that, it was always like $30,000, $24,000, $20,000. One year it was $10,000, but we always got something. This year we got $33,000, which is the biggest we’ve gotten for HARP since the first one of $35,000, that we actually never ended up getting. So it’s been a successful program. It’s got a very loose structure—different artists from different disciplines, who are going to be in residence and create new work or do projects here. But it’s always new, also because it’s always different artists. It started out with more well established artists like Split Britches and, as I said, Pauline Oliveros. You know, people of that stature. The jazz masters that we’ve brought Odean Pope and Roscoe Mitchell and Kahil El’Zabar—these great jazz artists. So more established artists. Now we continue to bring really young emerging artists as our Hallwalls artists-in-residence so I think that that’s a super successful program. It depends on the curators finding interesting artists and then conceiving with them interesting projects that take advantage, often, of being in Buffalo, the partners that we have and the resources that we have here. And it’s still a centerpiece of our programming, and what we get our NEA funding for. With the consistency of that, we’re probably the most successful organization locally, in terms of getting NEA support. Of any size, any discipline. We pretty much get it every year. Just recently I had to quantify that for Erie County. As far back as we can find the records for, we’ve brought in, you know, over a million dollars, just in NEA funding, over a period of under thirty years, let’s say.


TENNANT:  You’re bringing up an interesting point about needing to demonstrate the value that cultural and arts organizations have to communities, when we see, not just at the state and national level, a shrinking of the ways that they can provide funding for arts organizations, but also foundations support. You know, private foundations move from supporting arts and culture to strictly focusing around issues around health, poverty and community development.


CARDONI:  Right. Which are really important, of course.


TENNANT:  Absolutely. But I’m wondering how you and others in this area— rust belt town, still struggling but still vibrant, and known internationally as an arts destination— have tried to affect change with policy at the local level.


CARDONI:  Right. Well, you know, it’s an uphill battle because usually, we’re doing this in spite of our elected officials rather than with their support. We have to do it for ourselves. And I mean for ourselves. As artists and as arts organizations, we have to do that work. We get some help now with the concept of cultural tourism, with the development of our architectural treasures. But that’s only part of the picture. We’ve recently formed an organization called The Greater Buffalo Cultural Alliance. It’s really grassroots organizations coming together and for ourselves, trying to create a critical mass that will have some clout and some influence, so that we can advocate for the arts and for artists in this community, influence cultural policy, and make sure that cultural policy is part of the larger policy issues of this community as it develops. Just as the University medical campus is, just as tourism is. We want to make sure that the arts—and not only the arts that draw cultural tourism, but the arts for the people who live here and for the artists who live and work here—we want to help get the message out to the public and in the media, to the public officials, to the elected officials, and to the funders. Of course, corporate funders, the corporate sector. They all have to recognize how important arts and culture are to this community. It employs people. It’s quality of life. And one of the ways that our image externally is most enhanced is by what we have here culturally, architecturally. Not only in the sense of heritage. I mean, there’s a very important historical heritage here, whether it’s related to the beautiful architectural treasures that we still have that are being preserved and opened up to the public; whether it’s the underground railroad, because this was such an important stop on that railroad between the American South and Canada, because of our border location; whether it’s the War of 1812.  You know, whatever it is, there’s historic heritage but there’s also a tradition of artistic experimentation going back to at least the sixties, but certainly even farther back when Charles Burchfield came here, when artists organized themselves in the thirties in Buffalo.  But certainly, especially in the sixties, [when] they started the Creative Associates; the Department of English at the University, when they brought Charles Olson and all these great important contemporary, creative writers. The BPO had artistic directors like Lukas Foss and the UB music department—


TENNANT:  Media Study.


CARDONI:  Media Study/Buffalo that Gerry O’Grady started, and then the department of media study [UB’s Center for Media Study]. And all of these things—Hallwalls is part of what carries on that tradition. Most of these things predate Hallwalls. Artpark flourished and then was no more, in terms of what it was doing then. But there’s going to be a really interesting exhibition about those important years of the mid-seventies to the mid-eighties at the UB Art Gallery this year, curated by Sandra Firmin. And Creative Associates, you know, there’s still a legacy of that in the Center for 21st Century Music at the University. The department of Media Study is now kind of morphing into the program of visual studies at the University. The Poetry Collection was always an important part of— You know, their collection was built on modern writers like James Joyce, on little magazines, small press poetry. And now we’re part of that collection, too. So that’s a really important resource that we have. They were the ones behind the Olson lectures.

You know, when I first moved from Boulder (I’m from Boston originally) I thought it was to get a Ph.D. and then move on. I never thought I’d still be here. But once I became aware of  the legacy that was here from that English department, those writers, the Poetry Collection, Just Buffalo Literary Center, and CEPA and Hallwalls, you know, the Albright-Knox— And then to become involved with Hallwalls and help to continue to try to make sure that Hallwalls is always  connected to those things so that we’re influencing and having an impact, and yet also remains rebellious and renegade on another level. To me, that’s my challenge, is remain connected enough to young emerging artists and what they’re doing and to challenging material, whether it’s in the art forms or the content—to always remain in touch with that, and yet still take advantage of Hallwalls’ heritage and reputation to continue to have an impact and have an influence. Because you know, a lot of these groups come and go. Young artists start their own thing and they’re great. We are always supportive of them, try not to co-opt them, let them happen, support them in whatever way we can. We are the fiscal sponsor for the Infringement Festival because, you know, as small as we are, we have the financial expertise (if you want to call it that) or structure to be able to do that. And so we support Infringement, and we provide space for some Infringement events. But mostly, we kind of let that happen. And we actually stopped doing stuff during Infringement because we do that kind of stuff year round. We sort of let Infringement happen on its own, in its own way and we support it with what we have to offer, which is some experience and expertise and a bank account and a space. And other things come and go, whether it’s— oh, what was the one that was over on Auburn Street?


TENNANT:  Cornershop?


CARDONI:  Cornershop, or now Sugar City. Kamikaze. You know, and some of these things come and go, and that’s fine. Like, that’s healthy. Maybe they’re not intended to last, as Hallwalls has. But we have a slightly different mission, which is to continue to be part of the artistic flux and ferment. And yet you have to say we’re established. I don’t think we’re part of the establishment, but we’re an established outpost of the new. That’s how I like to think of it. It could be that when the artists who started Hallwalls moved on to New York, it might have fallen apart, too. The same thing might have happened to it that happened to Cornershop when those folks left town. Or who knows what’s going to happen with Sugar City? You know, that’s now, and will that outlast the people who started it? Or when they move to New York or Brooklyn or wherever— I mean, Big Orbit was started by some artists who were here at the time, and moved, and some other artists took over and they moved, and it’s still going. And part of that is that CEPA has given it some institutional support so that Big Orbit can keep going. And I mention Big Orbit because they’re basically at the same address where Hallwalls started, although not technically; their gallery is not the same space that was Hallwalls’ gallery, but it’s one door over. I think that to me, when I’m representing Hallwalls to the establishment, I want us to be like the troublemakers, the renegades, the rebels. When I’m representing it to, like the young rebels, I want to be there to support them with whatever reputation and resources we’ve been able to establish, you know? So it’s sort of like being in a pivotal position, I think, to be able to do both. We maintain relations with the other spaces like our own all over the country, through our fellow participants in the Warhol Initiative. And the Warhol Initiative also recognizes the importance of those established organizations that are still around after 30, 35, 40 years. They’re all part of the Warhol Initiative and then there are new organizations that just started within the last few years that are part of the Warhol Initiative. The younger organizations kind of infuse the whole Warhol Initiative group (which is now over sixty organization) with new energy and youth. You know, that kind of street level stuff. We’re all still under a million dollars in size, because that’s sort of the definition of Warhol Initiative participants. We’re established enough to be, let’s say, that bridge. Then when you start to see an exhibition of the Hallwalls artists at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and that period from 1974 to 1984 becomes part of art history, as recognized by the Metropolitan Museum of Art—that’s sort of a good symbol of that, you know? And all the museums, even in New York, are only now starting to really catch up with time-based work, video, installation, performance art.  All the things that were the hallmarks of places like Hallwalls are now finally making it into the museums. So you have a retrospective of Dan Graham; you have a retrospective of Christian Marclay. Both of them did lots of things early on at Hallwalls and other spaces like Hallwalls.


TENNANT:  Right. Well, hopefully with this newly formed alliance, there will be an opportunity to affect change, but also reclaim or recuperate some of the ways that the arts community—I’m thinking about here in Buffalo—have really lost the support of the city, post-9/11.


CARDONI:  Yep. Well, that was an excuse.


TENNANT:  Right. The loss of funding, but also, you know, the ways in which smaller cultural organizations are being essentially—  With CDP. I’m thinking about the Cultural Data Project and how that could be a really wonderful model to help organizations learn more about themselves; funders have a chance to learn more about what’s going on and what the needs are. But in a specific context, it could be used to harm organizations by basically weeding out those that don’t have the capacity, because of years of cutbacks, because of the loss of administrative support and the ability to underwrite that type of help, or—


CARDONI:  Right. Well, I think the CDP— I think everyone involved in the creation of the Cultural Data Project, had the best interests of organizations in mind. Paul Hogan here, from the Oishei Foundation, was part of the statewide taskforce that got that going in New York State. It’s all a positive, as far as I’m concerned. The way that the county was adopting it— or this current administration, you know, county executive Chris Collins—he wants to so-called “weed out” the small organizations, which just so happens to include all the organizations of color, as few as they are. There’s no support from City Hall so the only public funding we’re getting locally is from Erie County. And so there’s no fallback. I mean, City Hall (when it gave arts funding out a decade ago and before that) supported all the cultural organizations and major institutions located in the city, small and large, minority and not, Hallwalls as well as others. And the City Council, even when Mayor Griffin would try to cut all the city funding, the council would restore it. But now you’re not getting any leadership from either Mayor Brown or the City Council to restore the [City] arts funding. And it’s one thing— well, they had to cut it in the wake of 9/11, but that was a long time ago, almost a decade ago. And they still haven’t restored city funding at all.


TENNANT:  One Percent for the Arts?


CARDONI:  One Percent for the Art, new public art, none of that stuff that they’re supposed to be doing at the Buffalo Arts Commission, that the city’s supposed to be supporting. All of this development of, you know, cultural tourism, of the architectural treasures, of artist housing— You know, I think Artspace Buffalo Lofts got some help from the city. But for the most part it’s happening without the help of city hall, and despite the agenda of the current administration in Erie County. But I don’t want to vilify the CDP, because it’s been abused by the county. And as soon as I got this letter that said, “If you want to be considered for county funding—” And this letter went out to everyone who’s currently being funded by the county. “If you want to be considered for county funding in 2011, you need to be in compliance with the CDP.” And we already are, thanks to Polly [Little, Hallwalls Development Director] going through all the work of putting in years of our financial information; 2007, 2008, and now we’ve got 2009 in there because we’re still in 2010. So we’ve got our last three completed fiscal years are in there, but it took a lot of work. And they sent out a letter, basically giving groups two weeks. Which would have been impossible. So I immediately called Paul Hogan. I said, you know, look what they’re— They’re kind of using CDP, in a way, to weed out these so-called weak organizations. And it could work, because it’s going to be hard for them to get it together in two weeks, because it took us more than two weeks to do it when we did it.


TENNANT:  And that’s with staff and support.


CARDONI:  Yeah. Well, that’s with Polly, yeah, for sure. [chuckles]


TENNANT:  Right.


CARDONI:  But let’s say Polly had been on vacation for the two weeks that we had. I wouldn’t have even been able to do it myself.


TENNANT:  Exactly.


CARDONI:Because Polly is the one in our organization who did the work of learning how to do it, right? And it took her a ton of time. So I called Paul, and it looks like it had some good effect, because the deadline was extended for an extra month to August 31st. It’ll still be a challenge for organizations that aren’t already on file with the Cultural Data Project to get that in. At least now instead of being two weeks, they have a total of six weeks to get it together, so they probably can do that. But there are even organizations who don’t have the staff to do that. But on the other hand, they’re already the other organizations that were, quote, “weeded out” last year: El Museo, Locust Street Neighborhood Art Classes, Buffalo Inner City Ballet. Now, there are some good things happening. There’s The Collective, which is a coalition of organizations of color of various sizes, and they’re all doing a lot of capacity building. We have a partnership with Buffalo Arts Studio; The Collective is a group of minority organizations; Just Buffalo Literary Center is working with Western New York Book Arts Collective, which is a new organization. We’re all part of this thing called Fund for the Arts and the Peer Learning Network. So the funders are doing stuff to help us, no question about it. And the CDP is a good thing. Especially if in the end, when it’s adopted everywhere, it’s going to make putting together financials for grant applications actually easier.


TENNANT:  Right. Right.


CARDONI:  Right? But at this point, it’s still transitional. Like for example, last year when we applied for NYSCA, it was suggested, recommended that people do it, but it wasn’t mandatory. In the spring, this coming spring, when organizations apply for NYSCA, it’s mandatory. So we actually started ours then and pretty much had it ready for last year’s deadline, even though it wasn’t mandatory. But if anybody put it off until next year, they were taken by surprise when the county sent out this letter. Once everybody is on file with it I think it will be a good tool. The county— You know, Chris Collins will find some other way to hurt organizations.




CARDONI:  You know, what they’re talking about now is a 20% cut in all agencies, including cultural funding. So for us, that could mean, you know, basically, almost $10,000 we would lose.


TENNANT:  Right. I mean—


CARDONI:  And then someplace like the Albright-Knox or the BPO, they’re going to lose, you know, $40,000 or $50,000 so—


TENNANT:  You’ve seen so many [funding cuts] over the years, especially in the nineties, and now with the more recent developments at the state level. How have you— We talked about ways that you were able to change programming and kind of change the scope. But to maintain the mission, has the mission itself changed…




TENNANT:  …in order to meet the needs and the mandates of funders? Or have you seen that sort of effect, in terms of just being able to survive?


CARDONI:  Right. No.


TENNANT:  At the programming level.


CARDONI:  Well, it’s kind of leading question, which I appreciate. But no, the mission has not changed. And we have to always make sure that our board of directors is on board with that mission and that they realize that it’s not about— I mean, organizational capacity is important. Financial stability [is] important. Those are all important things for survival. They’re not the only things important for survival, though. What’s really important for survival for the long term—and I can say this because as hard as this year is, I’ve been through even harder times— you stay lean. We had to definitely downsize and then sort of stay small, in terms of staff size, and rely more in interns, bring in people for small project jobs as needed, whether it’s related to the archives or to a project director. But I remember the year that I had written this grant to the Ford Foundation— That’s a good example of a foundation that for this one year, they offered these huge grants to alternative spaces for major art projects. Then they kind of got out of that business, and now they deal more with international development and very important matters of life and death and health. You know, water and food and major issues. But that year, I applied to the Ford Foundation and I got this grant of $35,000—which at that time, was a huge grant for us—to bring Border Art Workshop from the San Diego-Tijuana border. Or no, actually, the whole US-Mexican border was their theater of operations, but they were based in both sides of the border, in Tijuana and San Diego. We brought them up to our border and they did this amazing project in the summer of 1991. But that summer was also the summer that we had cuts in NYSCA, cuts in NEA funding, a huge internal financial crisis that I only discovered after I took over as director. The summer of ’91 I had to lay everybody off, including myself. The only person working was a project coordinator, Brian Springer. He was the only person working on the staff of Hallwalls but he was the project coordinator for the Border Art Workshop Project in Western New York and so he continued to be paid and answer the phone and all that stuff. That was also the summer I got married. It was just a few weeks, a couple weeks before I got married in June of 1991, that I had to lay everybody off, including myself. But you know, that was for two months. And then we came back and we had to downsize and fulltime people had to go to halftime. Most accepted that, and then we were able to restore them to fulltime, eventually. Some, like Charles Wright, our [visual art] curator at that time, didn’t want to continue at a halftime basis, so he left. I brought in Sara Kellner, who had just graduated from RISD, and she was happy to work, you know, every waking hour for half salary and then turned that into a career that’s gone great places, in Houston, Texas now. Some people were leaving anyway and they left by attrition. We didn’t fill those positions. In 1989-90 was the peak of our staff size. There were seventeen people: seven fulltime and ten part-time. And we got it down to six, and we’ve pretty much stayed at six for a decade— for, sorry, twenty years. And that enables us to be more—One of our survival tactics in the long run is you’ve got to stay lean. You’re adaptable; you’re flexible. When one area of funding dries up, you have other ones to fall back on. And it’s the individual commitment to their art fields, to the mission of Hallwalls, and the intangible rewards that [staff] get for that, that enable us to survive. That’s even more important than financial management, organizational capacity. Those things are important and we participate in every opportunity that comes our way to improve our organizational capacity, build our organizational capacity and improve our managerial skills. But that alone wouldn’t be enough, if you didn’t have the commitment to the mission on the part of individuals who keep it going. And the board has to recognize that— any board has to recognize that about the organization whose board they’re serving on.


TENNANT:  Well, I personally have learned a lot from working at Hallwalls about how important it is to stay true to the mission. And not just for the public and for the artists that we serve, but for ourselves as staff members of an organization that has this legacy. To be fearless in the face of financial troubles, but also repression. And that was demonstrated beautifully when Hallwalls helped to organize around the persecution, prosecution of Steve Kurtz…


CARDONI:  Right.


TENNANT:  …and support that effort to make sure that the word was out on a national and international level; from the auction that took place and, you know, as a sort of ground zero for—


CARDONI:  Absolutely, yeah. That was a really important case. And I’m glad that Steve was in Buffalo, so that we could be here to help. It was not officially through Hallwalls, but Hallwalls did hold one of the fundraisers, one of the many fundraisers that were held all over the world to raise funds for Steve’s defense. And it was more in my capacity at that time as a board member of the National Association of Artists’ Organizations, through NAAO (which is the shirt I have on right now, although it’s more of a historic relic since NAAO eventually folded). The National Association of Artists’ Organizations was formed in 1982. Hallwalls was just six years old, but it was one of the organizations, one of the charter organizations that got together to form that association. And that lasted, certainly, for twenty years. A few years ago we tried to revive it and there was too much baggage, dating from when it disbanded just after the conference in 2000. NAAO had a lot of its own internal issues and it folded. The funding dried up for it but some of us got together because we felt that there wasn’t really anything that had come along to replace it. Now, to some extent, the Warhol Initiative itself has replaced it. That started out with eight organizations and Hallwalls was, in its first year, one of those eight. Then they added eight more in the second year and of those sixteen organizations all over the country, CEPA was added that year, and so you had two in Buffalo. Like I said, now it’s up to over sixty organizations so the Warhol Initiative, to some extent, provides that network in a really important way. They convene us, every two or three years, nationally, and we get together. They provide funding; they provide organizational capacity building consultants and so forth. But that’s by invitation, and we were lucky to be invited to apply. We were lucky to be accepted into that program in its first year, and to continue to be supported by the Warhol Initiative. But it’s not the same as NAAO and I don’t think NAMAC [National Alliance for Media Arts and Culture] is the same as NAAO. And so we failed to revive NAAO, but there still isn’t anything like NAAO was at its best for our field. I hope something will come along but anyone who thinks that any of the existing organizations takes the place of NAAO is kidding themselves. Like I said, the Warhol Initiative is great; it’s keeping us going. It’s both sustaining the organizations that have been established, but reinvigorating the field by supporting new organizations. That’s fantastic. Americans for the Arts is this whole different thing. That’s really important, what they do. But there’s just nothing for our particular field, no national association like there was. Maybe there’s not a need for it now, as there was, say, between 1982, when it started, and 2000. There are other conferences that people go to—The National Performance Network, NAMAC, Americans for the Arts—but nothing quite like the NAAO conferences that I remember. So I’m kind of sad about that. But NAAO was revived just long enough to serve as the fiscal sponsor for Steve Kurtz’s defense. As sort of an offshoot of that, Steve’s group that he works with, Critical Art Ensemble, also got a grant from the Warhol Foundation of $100,000.  It’s actually an award for their work standing up for artistic freedom. So that was separate from all the funds that we raised for the defense fund to pay the lawyers. Critical Art Ensemble got this big grant from the Warhol Foundation so that was great. But you know, the fight never ends. I mean the NEA just got a small increase, but NYSCA had a huge cut. County’s going to cut and the City of Buffalo doesn’t support its arts organizations at all. You know, even though during the campaign, the candidates all paid lip service too it, including…


TENNANT:  The “Year for the Arts”.


CARDONI:  …including Byron Brown. Yeah, he declared it the year of the arts. That was meaningless. It was just lip service, empty rhetoric. He said he was working on restoring arts funding. Didn’t do it. No new public art. I mean, the partners in Beyond/In Western New York, through our collective efforts, are going to be placing several public art projects, which are really exciting. That’s with no help from city hall. And we still don’t know if city hall’s going to help with the opening event, which is the wire walker walking between the two Statues of Liberty on the Liberty Building. [They did not.] We still don’t have [and never did get] a commitment of funds from Mayor Brown. Where that really hurts, though, is that the county, Erie County. Because there’s more population outside the city in the suburbs than in the city, and that’s where all the wealth is, and there are a lot of Republicans there. There’s a Republican county executive, and he seems to have contempt for the City of Buffalo, and isn’t giving any support to the organizations of color. The city used to be—the city council, at least—more diverse and there was support for organizations like the African American Cultural Center and El Museo and Inner City Ballet, Locust Street. But without the city supporting those, and now with the county cavalierly eliminating them from the funding pool, it’s a real bad situation.


TENNANT:  Well, in one way, through advocacy and exposing people to the problems and the challenges that we’re facing as a field and as a city, maybe we can affect that change.


CARDONI:  Yeah. But as usual, as always, we have to do it ourselves, from the grassroots up. There’s a lot of great things happening in the city unrelated to the arts, around housing, around food. You know, Massachusetts Avenue Project, PUSH (People United for Sustainable Housing), Urban Roots, Grassroots Gardens. I mean, there are great things happening, and it’s all done by collectives and individual activists, built from the grassroots up in spite of city hall. Sometimes fighting against the obstruction of city hall to make this a better city. That’s were it’s going to come from and the same really goes for the arts. So you know, it is a tough time economically. The foundations have fewer resources to contribute, even those who are inclined to support the arts. Because of what’s happened in the stock market, the value of their endowments are down and, therefore, they have less money to give out these recent and current years. But that will come back. Hopefully, the economy will improve and there’ll be more corporate support and there’ll be more individual support, when people feel a little more secure economically. But everyone’s hurting now. Attendance at events is down everywhere, large and small organizations. Attendance at museums, at concerts is all down. Giving is down, foundation resources are down. New York State’s a mess, you know, cutting funding. I mean, we got away with just a 16% cut this year from New York State. It could have been a 40% cut! But we’ve actually lost almost 40% over the past three years already, so that would have been 40% on top of the last two years of cuts. We have gotten by, by the skin of our teeth, but we’re seeing significantly less funding from NYSCA in the coming year. More funding from NEA, thankfully. Less funding from the county. No funding from the city. Less from foundations. Less from individuals—not because they don’t want to support us, but because they’ve got less to give and less to spend on attending events and special events. So it’s tough, but we’ve survived worse with the help of major funders that are helping sustain us and our field. Like the Warhol Foundation, which also supports this project, [they laugh] this archiving project— And then, you know, it’s great that we’re (thanks to you Carolyn, and the leadership of organizations like ours) attending to its legacy through its archives and its history. So that’s great. 


TENNANT:  Well, this conversation has gone a long way towards keeping that legacy alive and…




TENNANT:  …getting the word out.


CARDONI:  Right. We have a film screening [interviewer laughs] by a couple of local food activist groups coming in here in forty minutes, so—


TENNANT:  So we better wrap this up. Thank you so much, Ed. I really appreciate it. And thanks again go the Art Spaces Archives Project for allowing us to participate in the oral histories project.


CARDONI:  Alright. See, I didn’t have to refer to the book at all, because I have it all in my head, right?


TENNANT:  [laughs] That’s right.


CARDONI:  Thank you. [END]