Interview with Lia Gangitano, Founder/ Director, PARTICIPANT INC.

Posted December 03, 2014 by Anonymous
Andrew Blackley, Independent Curator
Interview Date: 
Tuesday, June 18, 2013
Person Interviewed: 
Lia Gangitano
Place of Interview: 
Participant Inc., 253 E Houston (New York)

ANDREW BLACKLEY:  The following interview is being conducted with Lia Gangitano, on behalf of Art Spaces Archives Project (AS-AP), a project of the Center for Curatorial Studies at Bard College. The interview is taking place on June 18th, 2013 at Participant Inc., 253 E Houston (New York). The person conducting the interview is Andrew Blackley.   Hi, Lia.




BLACKLEY:  Would you introduce yourself and spell your last name?


GANGITANO:  Sure. Lia Gangitano. G-a-n-g-i-t-a-n-o.


BLACKLEY:  Well, to get started, I wanted to ask you to give a description of Participant, Inc., its aims, and mission statement, and [mention] how you would introduce Participant to a viewer, one that may not be familiar with its programming or history.


GANGITANO:  Participant was founded in 2001. At that time, there was an impulse to leave our mission deliberately vague. The key word that I would point out in our mission statement is ‘in-depth’. Basically, Participant is modeled on a seventies alternative space model, in that we really see physical space as an asset that artists need and want to use for the production of work. We also highlight the co-existence of different formats and media—live, visual, film, and video. Really, the core of the prior iteration, or the alternative space movement, is also the political imperatives and recognition that the commercial and institutional sectors are not fulfilling the needs of artists and audiences; and that there are things that need to be done in a non-commercial, non-institutional setting. So we wanted to be able to grow into the mission statement, but emphasize the depth of our involvement in instigating projects with artists that wouldn’t otherwise exist, providing opportunities that many people say are no longer available in New York City. We wanted to leave ourselves room to grow into it, because when you set out— or when I set out to create an artist-driven curatorial program, I really wanted it to be just that, in terms of letting artists’ projects create the identity of the organization, rather than a curatorial platform that knew what it was going to be. So ten years later, I’m still not sure what we want to be when we grow up. But you know, there’s definitely an observable trajectory of projects from the beginning. We got our first space in 2002; so technically, we opened in November of the following year, after our founding as an organization in 2001. We had been doing some off-site projects, mostly music related, while we were looking for a space. I tend to point out certain projects that shaped the way we grew. I don’t know if this is the best time to go into those?


BLACKLEY:  Yes, that would be a great way to continue describing your programming and history.


GANGITANO:  Well, I usually cite Charles Atlas, whose exhibition was being planned. You know, it was our first season. And Charlie, at that time, while a legendary video artist, was not working within an “art career” model. I see Charlie as someone who has spent a lengthy career working outside of any sort of traditional commercial or museum model, even though he has participated in zillions of museum exhibitions and screenings. He’s really an artist who tends to work outside of the mainstream of contemporary art, which, in some cases, is within the dance world. We had been talking about doing a project; and, of course, I had some notion that there would be a presentation of existing work or an installation. As the date drew closer, Charlie—in thinking about our storefront space and reflecting on the work that he had been doing theatrically, for live theater pieces—decided that he wanted to do an exhibition that featured no existing artwork at all, just to use the space and time of the exhibition as an opportunity to make this live work, basically, the equivalent of a street portrait in video. Our first space on Rivington Street had a lot of interface with the street. It was very visible to the public, with two floors viewable from outside. And so Charlie set up a studio in the lower level. And when someone would enter the gallery, they would normally just look up to the space above, where there was a large-scale video projection, a highly manipulated image through digital and analog tools; with two live camera feeds on small monitors. People would often go up into the gallery and see this video image and not realize until maybe the sound would tip them off, that what they were seeing was occurring in the space below them.


BLACKLEY:  And this was simultaneous?


GANGITANO:  Yeah. People would make appointments if they wanted to sit for a portrait. And basically, in a sense, the project not only addressed the notions of redelivering the exhibition format as a live experience, and having an exhibition with no existing artwork; it also set a tone for a social exhibition site. Because, of course, people we didn’t know would make appointments for portraits, but also Charlie’s friends and colleagues—Merce Cunningham, Hapi Phace,  Michel Auder , Joe Westmoreland, Julie Atlas Muz, Yvonne Rainer—it basically put this instant wacky family in proximity to the organization. So for me, it was extremely formative, in that it showed me that an exhibition is not static; it was an evolving event, really. Also so the live and durational qualities, involved a community. These notions propelled us forward to do other projects such as Julie Tolentino’s For You, which was partially an architectural intervention, scripting a site for a fifteen-minute performance that was performed for one visitor at a time. So again, viewers needed to make an appointment. They would have certain choices that would affect the performance itself. They would be guided through an experience that was basically an encounter with Julie, which was substantial. It wasn’t a very fleeting experience; it was a commitment and quite an intimate exchange between spectator and performer, alone together for a period of time. I was like, are people really going to do this? Is it scary? It is too confrontational? And I found that there was a very eager and willing audience, and people really appreciated these experiences. This also made us want to work with filmmakers like John Brattin to actually make a film in the gallery. That was a response to this idea that you can’t make a no-budget film in New York any more. I mean, even though our budget is rather sparse, we do have certain things in place because we have a physical space, which requires millions of dollars’ worth of liability insurance. This enables an artist to rent lighting equipment, for example; such things that can be very prohibitive in New York, if you need to start from scratch with a space to shoot a film. Working with John’s cast of actors, set builders,  Director of Photography and art department this whole ensemble idea, really—it felt right to us. So we went on later to stage a play written by Tom Cole and designed collaboratively with Lovett/Codagnone. I was relying on artists’ experimentation to define what we were, in an evolving way.


BLACKLEY:  It sounds like you were at that point recognizing and then very much filling a void; that you …— With the decline in the number of alternative spaces or maybe even artist-run spaces in New York ten years ago, that Participant was necessary to sustain an artistic community, or the artists that you were working with.


GANGITANO:  Yeah, the founding of Participant came directly out of the closing of another alternative space, Thread Waxing Space, where I had worked as a curator from 1997 through 2001. Thread Waxing Space was a vital and— How to describe it? When I started working at Thread Waxing Space, there was an understanding that its existence occurred in the aftermath of the movement proper, which historians of the period of the alternative space movement would say ended around ’86 or something. Of course, there were organizations like Exit Art and Art in General, Artists Space, and White Columns that kept going through that period. But there was some idea that starting one in that moment where all things alternative were being rapidly absorbed—alternative music, independent film, media, et cetera—that the activities of Thread Waxing Space reflected that it was trying to be the Knitting Factory and Artists Space and all these things rolled into one, because there was a very ambitious music and performance program. The organization not only offered experimental opportunities to artists, but also to curators, such as Christian Leigh, who was one of the rogue curators of the period. Basically, the fact that Thread Waxing Space was trying to do so many things was viewed as something that needed to be fixed. And so my joining the staff was supposed to help clarify this.


BLACKLEY:  Okay. You served to condense some of the activities or focal points of the space? Or something else?


GANGITANO:  Supposedly. But, in a way, I quickly came to appreciate its interdisciplinary approach as its best quality. Tim Nye, the founder of that space, has always been a visionary, someone ahead of his time. Meaning, the ideas that he put in place are exactly how we experience art now.


BLACKLEY:  Influential for the way that Participant is running, operating?


GANGITANO:   Yes. What I arrived into, however, in terms of what alternative spaces were doing at that time—it was the dawn of the star curator, clever thematic shows. In a sense, this is where the depth part comes from, in that I found it very unfulfilling for myself, and I think for the artist, to be in sprawling thematic group shows, and that their relationship with the alternative space was something like: drop it off at the beginning of the show and pick it up at the end.




GANGITANO:  It just seemed like not really having a real relationship. So although I did several group exhibitions at Thread Waxing Space that I feel really proud of, exhibitions that were in conversation with exhibitions that had come before, such as Christian Leigh’s I am the Annunciator, I wanted to talk back to certain curatorial strategies. And I think that was fulfilling; but, at a certain point, I no longer wanted to curate group exhibitions. So we started to work with solo artists in this 7,000-square-foot space, and it really became more about producing projects, often with artists who were not based in New York. We did Borre Saethre’s first US solo exhibition, and the last exhibition in Thread Waxing Space’s history was Sigalit Landau’s first US solo exhibition. So it was really going to the other extreme of saying here’s a huge loft space. Let’s build it. Let’s do it.


BLACKLEY:  Speaking of extremes, would you briefly describe Sigalit’s installation?




BLACKLEY:  Even in documentation, it seems to have been an extremely ambitious project. Perhaps describing it could serve as a lens in understanding some of the other exhibitions you organized or supported at Thread Waxing before Participant.


GANGITANO:  We had been talking for years about what Sigalit’s project would be. And let’s just say all the plans, all the preparation that was done before her arrival, basically got scrapped, and a new project was hatched on site. I can’t remember exactly the point at which we knew everything we had done before—searching for airplane cargo containers and various materials and large-scale objects—was not going to happen. Sigalit wanted to make something else. We basically built a spiral ramp that occupied the majority of the space. There was a structure underneath that one could enter. It was kind of a riff on the Guggenheim spiral. And the idea was that you could go up this ramp to a point where you could almost touch the ceiling. And, from this vantage point, you would look down into what looked like a conical nest, quite large. I can’t really estimate the diameter, maybe, twenty-five, thirty feet?


BLACKLEY:  Thirty-five, forty?


GANGITANO:  Thirty-five, forty feet? [laughs] I think our initial order was five tons of sugar, which was put inside this structure. A metalworker built an apparatus that attached to the central column in the middle, which was basically an armature that Sigalit would push around and around, laboring daily; she lived in the gallery. An industrial cotton candy machine was mounted at the end of the armature. So it was basically spewing cotton candy all day. Much like her work in general, this had to do with un-nourishing food, gorging yourself on something that doesn’t make you un-hungry. Also, the nest itself was a home that is not home-like. This futile labor leading to a sort of cyclical, spiral nothingness. It was very much about something very sweet and fluffy turning rancid by excess.


BLACKLEY:  I mean, it was rotting in the space, right?


GANGITANO: Well, maybe more burning, turning brittle.




GANGITANO:  So there were a number of performances where a bunch of us got in there, and Sigalit would mummify people in the cotton candy. And there was some idea that in the end, the sugar and charred cotton candy would solidify into a petrified nest, which we could somehow extract from the wooden structure. We tried to find an outdoor space where we could tip it over …


BLACKLEY:  Oh, like a dome or something.


GANGITANO:  …like an igloo, that would then melt in a sugary puddle. I wrote to PS1, asking them if we could do this in the courtyard, but they never responded….


BLACKLEY:  What other spaces could you have seen this project imagined, realized in at that time? Were there peers in New York that would have taken a project like this?


GANGITANO:  You know, I never really thought about it.  I don’t know. I guess, in a sense, if you don’t open the door for that kind of project to occur…


BLACKLEY:  Then it’s not possible, really, right?


GANGITANO:  Yeah. I think the idea was just letting Sigalit do whatever she wanted. This yielded something that she wasn’t planning to do, basically. It was something she thought was possible, given the set of circumstances-- it was the last exhibition in the space, for example. I don’t know if we would have filled that place with sugar if we knew we weren’t moving out.


BLACKLEY:  Right, yeah. Yes.


[they laugh]


GANGITANO:  It cleaned up okay. But we didn’t really know that it would.


BLACKLEY:  I was going to ask you your thoughts—maybe for today, but maybe also looking back and for when you started Participant—about differences or any sort of relationship between alternative spaces and artist-run spaces. You’ve developed a model of a very artist-driven space. You’re open to these (and their) projects and programs. And just as you were talking about Charles Atlas, you were open to his project and that’s kind of what happened, right?


GANGITANO: Well, I think that artist-run is very different than artist-driven, in terms of just the practicalities and administration. We worked pretty closely with an artist-run space in Philadelphia called Vox Populi. So it helped me to understand the difference, because I didn’t have any direct experience with that model before. I had sort of placed it in an historical context, how I understood COLAB or, you know, this kind of cooperative model.




GANGITANO:   So it was really great to be introduced to a current manifestation of that model. And I think recently, there’s been a big resurgence of collaboratives in terms of artists and arts organizations. But at the time Participant was starting, my way of incorporating artists’ organizing had more to do with curatorial programming. While the majority of what we do seasonally is solo exhibitions; we have, almost every season, invited artists to curate an exhibition. So, artist-curated exhibitions have been, for me, a way to re-embrace this format.




GANGITANO:  I felt like I was more interested in artists’ ideas than curators’ ideas. And I realized pretty quickly that in my new role as a director-slash-fundraiser-slash-janitor of Participant, when curating solo exhibitions, most people don’t even really see the curator, if you’re doing a good job. So the way in which a season could constitute a curatorial premise or five solo shows over a period of time might build into a constellation or something like a curatorial gesture. I also wanted to mess that up. I didn’t want the authorship of the program to channel back to me, specifically. Meaning, I just wanted to get away from that form of authority.




GANGITANO:  Inviting artists to curate shows— I think the first one was in our second season, an exhibition called Indigestible Correctness. It was curated by Rita Ackermann and Lizzie Bugatsos. The exhibition was about flattening hierarchies among formats, media; but also career status, in that it included unknown artists alongside extremely established and well-known artists. It was very aggressive in its design. There was a tipped-over piano and a lot of dirt and mud on the walls where we hung, for example, a bronze sculpture by Louise Bourgeois and a pristine white Lutz Bacher “Playboy” painting, [chuckles] which really frightened me from a registrarial position. But, basically, the liberties that Lizzi and Rita took as artists were very different than what I would take as a curator. But, in a sense, it was such a dynamic exhibition, and it was so effective in bringing certain artists to the forefront by deploying the fame of others. The individual works were highly regarded, even though the image of the exhibition as a whole was very much an entity unto itself. It just worked.  And I learned about so many artists I continued to work with. I felt like this exhibition format was somehow being redelivered to me.




GANGITANO:  So we continued to do artist curated shows like Blow Both of Us, which was curated by Shannon Ebner and Adam Putnam. It was about photography that was made for very personal use, rather than public. We borrowed some beautiful Mapplethorpe polaroids, Jimmy DeSana, Mark Morrisroe, but also Luther Price, Gail Thacker, Emily Roysdon. It was a very quiet exhibition, but again, it introduced me to new ideas and other artists. More recently, Jonathan Berger’s Stuart Sherman: Nothing Up My Sleeve amplified this kind of relationship. Maybe because I had worked with Shannon and Adam and Lizzie and Rita, and also Ridykeulous--Jonathan’s project went even further in a direction of showing artists, non-artists, historical and contemporary artists--all centered on the work of Stuart Sherman, and drawing on themes of magic and performance, creating alternate realities. It was the beginning of our relationship with a collection of Andy Kaufman materials, which we continued to work with. In trying to secure loans of Harry Houdini’s stuff—I learned that people who collect magic are way more eccentric than people who collect art. It just opened up all these areas of interest, and things that occurred then bred other projects that are still ongoing.


BLACKLEY:  And those two projects that you described curated by Jonathan Berger both had mirror exhibitions happening. One was Stuart Sherman’s solo exhibition, [which] was at NYU’s 80WSE; and then for Andy Kaufman, was it at Maccarone Gallery?




BLACKLEY:  I’m interested in asking you about your situation at Participant now, with commercial galleries or other more institutionalized or long-standing nonprofits, such as White Columns or Artists Space, and this kind of peer group or any sort of commonality or common practice that you may share.


GANGITANO: Participant has collaborated with a lot of different organizations in its ten-year history. We used to host this film program called the Roberta Beck Memorial Cinema. And we’ve done a lot of companion programming with Anthology Film Archives. We’ve worked with Visual Aids, Light Industry, and Dirty Looks. We used to share space with an educational organization called Echo Prosocial Gallery, as well as TRANS> So it’s not just the thirty-, forty-year-old veteran alternative spaces that we aspire to, but also younger models, and those not entirely focused on visual art. We are also in the process of forming Common Practice, an advocacy group, which has to do with assessing and considering the value of small-scale organizations.  We also did this big collaboration with Vox [Populi], an artist cooperative space in Philadelphia. Roberta Beck—formerly the Robert Beck Memorial Cinema—was all about small-gauge film. And we shared a lot of interest in artists like Luther Price—who also had a major solo exhibition at Thread Waxing Space, which was an installation, but also a marathon, three-day film-screening series. Part of the success of that project—and this was probably in 1999 or 2000—is that Luther’s exhibition at Thread Waxing Space got a review in Artforum. This was a coup because, mainly, they were talking about the film program. It was very uncommon for a theatrical screening series to be written up in an exhibition review. I felt that a huge boulder had been moved, in terms of bridging this gap between the visual arts audience and the experimental film audience, because there didn’t seem to be that much crossover in these worlds. Obviously, this is changing for Luther right now, and he’s having this kind of burgeoning career in galleries and the 2012 Whitney Biennial. But back then, this was just unheard of.




GANGITANO: So there was a strong impulse to try to bring these audiences together, which is why we did stuff with Roberta Beck, Anthology, later Light Industry and Dirty Looks, because these audiences are really starting to overlap— I couldn’t have predicted the way in which Luther’s work is now on the radar of people who probably haven’t sat through that many screenings of small-gauge film. So it’s really great. That was the rationale. And in terms of working with a two-venue format, it’s really been—it has depended on the needs of the project.




GANGITANO:  It’s not like we set out to do that; it’s more that this configuration suited the project. And we’re actually going to collaborate with Third Streaming next year, on another project with Jonathan Berger.  He doesn’t like to be called a curator, but part of his artistic practice involves organizing collections of other artists’ things. Because of our collaborations of this nature, I became very interested in the work that he himself makes. So at Participant, there will be an installation of work by Jonathan Berger that is paired with a solo exhibition of work by Exuma, a musician and artist from the Bahamas. Jonathan’s project is based on one of his songs, called “Twenty-second Century,” involving ideas of the future that come out of moments of decline. The song was recorded and made famous by Nina Simone, and more recently recorded and performed by Justin Vivian Bond. So basically, it just made sense that this portion of the project would be at a venue such as Third Streaming. It seems a very appropriate place. And then the built environment will be here at Participant.


BLACKLEY:  Speaking of this kind of historicizing sense, and joint venue operations that have happened on occasion, will you talk about the Dead Flowers exhibition and publication? And then maybe a little bit about Participant’s publishing endeavors?


GANGITANO:  Oh, sure. Well, Dead Flowers is kind of an anomaly, in terms of our publishing because initially, the idea of Participant Press is that we would produce artists’ works of fiction. Our first publication was a novella by Kathe Burkhart. Then we published a collection of screenplays by Laura Parnes. And as with our program in general, we’ve deviated from a strict mission of the press and produced a catalogue for the Stuart Sherman exhibition, in collaboration with Regency Art Press; and then Dead Flowers, which is a collaboration with Vox Populi. So we’re flexible, and break our own rules, often.




GANGITANO:  We’ve gone in the directions that the projects have taken us. Dead Flowers was instigated by Andrew Suggs, the director of Vox [Populi] in Philly. They have a program where once a season, they invite a guest curator to produce an exhibition for them, because much of their seasonal programming is by the artists who make up the collective. Initially, I was like, no way. I can’t. I’m too busy. I have no business curating group shows elsewhere. Because of the day-to-day operations of Participant, I just wasn’t thinking my own thoughts that much. But I was talking to him, and asked if it was within the parameters of the grant for this project, if we could share the exhibition, meaning it would premiere at Vox and then could travel to Participant. And that made everyone happy. So not unlike projects I had done in the past that came from writing, this exhibition was born from an essay that I was asked to write for the 2006 Whitney Biennial, Day For Night, where there was an assignment to address ideas of the underground and the alternative space. Which, of course, are very  different things.  But it led me to do some exploration of what these things might mean and where they come from; and their connection to film, mainly, because underground film is probably a little bit better understood than underground art, for example.


BLACKLEY:  Right. Yeah.


GANGITANO:  The brief version is that working on that essay got me very interested in the work of an underground actor named Timothy Carey, who worked with directors like Stanley Kubrick and John Cassavetes and was relegated, in the more mainstream jobs that he got, to character actor status. He would often steal the scene from the likes of James Dean or Marlon Brando, and had a reputation for eccentricity. He also spent much of his life working on his own independent projects, which I had the opportunity to see—I think it was more than ten years ago—through a screening series that Spencer Sweeney was doing at Greene Naftali. The World’s Greatest Sinner was basically Carey’s masterpiece. It had become a cult film. But in a sense, it made me understand Timothy Carey as a unique figure who understood what it meant to be an artist, what it meant to be successful, completely on his own terms. Much like Paul Thek or—who’s another good example? Kembra Pfahler—who will make their work, and in some ways, almost repel the obvious touchstones of success—i.e. money, fame, et cetera. There’s something inherent to their value system that does not comply with the way that we understand what it means to be a successful actor, filmmaker, or artist.


BLACKLEY:  Do you feel like you share that value system?


GANGITANO:  Repelling money? Yes. [they laugh]


BLACKLEY:  Or an excitement over making something on your own terms, and standing for not only these artists that you support, but this mission or this perseverance...


GANGITANO:  Yeah. Because I also live a very different life and I have a very different understanding of what art is. Even though I’m part of the “art world,” I don’t always understand its predominant values. To me, art is what you throw in the dumpster when you’re done with it. It’s not an object or commodity. I’m in this field, but I understand it differently. And I find it really gratifying to learn about someone like Timothy Carey, who did the same thing, in relation to Hollywood.  The exhibition was centered on Timothy Carey’s life and work, but also his philosophy. It included artists who work in performance, such as Marti Domination, Kembra Pfahler, Tabboo! (Stephen Tashjian) and Brandon Olson, Breyer P-Orridge. It also included Charles Atlas, Scott Ewalt, Cynthia Plaster Caster, Alvin Baltrop, Paul Thek, Johanna Constantine. Johanna is a great example of a brilliant artist and performer whose interest in the art world proper is, you know, not very much.


BLACKLEY:  So Lia, I wanted to maybe change gears and ask you to outline the organizational and financial structure of the organization, including your Board of Trustees and your Friends of Participant and then staffing and things like that.


GANGITANO:  Okay. Sure. Well, when we first started, our structure was that of a fairly traditional non-profit, in that we have Officers of the Corporation and we have a Board of Trustees, which consists of twelve to fifteen people. Our board consists of a lot of artists, some art dealers, colleagues from museums that I’ve worked with in the past. It’s also a working board with our lawyer, accountant, architect, stuff like that. We also, since the beginning, have had an Advisory Board, because I knew, from early on, that there’s not a big budget for me to travel. So our Advisory Board consists of artists and curators from abroad. They have no fiscal responsibility. It’s basically a group of people that I rely on to share ideas and information about artists and programming. It’s informal, but I’ve been introduced to many artists that we’ve shown through the Board of Advisors. Also certain of our projects, such as Julie Tolentino’s project, went to Berlin because of one of our Advisory Board members, Frank Wagner, saw the show. Basically, it’s a way for me to stay connected to people elsewhere, and for them to have some kind of outlet here. The staff has remained very small, despite the fact that we turned ten. The core staff is myself, and our installation and facilities manager, Tom Leach. On and off, we’ve had development associates, such as James Hoff, and currently David Everitt Howe and Olga Dekalo, who also have a hand in curatorial matters. We’ve always had a great abundance of volunteers and interns, who pretty much work side by side with us on everything. There’s no hierarchy whatsoever. Our budget has also not changed that dramatically in the course of ten years. It’s hovered in the $250,000 a year range for a while now. Traditionally, half of that is rent, which we’ve always understood is a bit of a strange business model, and one that most people would consider kind of crazy; but we do consider the space to be an asset that we utilize to its fullest, something  needed more and more in Manhattan. Most of the artists we work with do not have studios or production facilities, so a lot of that work happens here.


BLACKLEY:  Will you describe your finding the first space on Rivington, and how the Lower East Side was different ten years ago than it is today, and then also your move from Rivington to where you’re located now, on Houston.


GANGITANO:  Sure. Well, I guess sketching out the dates, it might not be necessary to point out that the shutdown operations of Thread Waxing Space occurred throughout the summer of 2001. So Sigalit’s show went through June or July. And then we were actually preparing to transfer the programming archive to the Center for Curatorial Studies. It was initially acquired as the first institutional archive at CCS Bard. It has since been transferred to the Smithsonian’s Archives of American Art. But initially, we were packing up Thread Waxing Space to go to Bard. There had been a lot of soul searching, and due diligence or whatever you call it, during the period when Thread Waxing Space was trying to decide what it was going to do at the end of its long-term lease on Broadway. A massive, long real-estate search had gone on when we thought Thread Waxing Space might just move. Williamsburg, Harlem, Meat Packing District—basically all corners of the five boroughs were considered and explored. And really, we had not come to any solid decision about where we should be or needed to be at the time the decision to close was made. After working, in the brief aftermath of Thread Waxing Space that summer, from home—I’ve lived on the Lower East Side since 1997—obviously September 11th happened. I was pretty much in lockdown for several months, and continued to work on the business planning aspects of Participant. But what I realized at that time was that what I needed in terms of advice and assistance, as someone who had never started a small business, and certainly never done anything like what I was doing, I needed my neighbors. For example, I needed insurance to get a lease. And it wasn’t like I needed art world advice; I basically needed a friend to hook me up with an insurance broker. What I was finding through the normal channels was that no one was writing insurance policies for Manhattan; it just was impossible, in the aftermath of 9/11. So it was through my friend who had a store on my block that I was able to get insurance. And that’s just one example— going through that situation made me have this moment of saying to myself, why am I looking everywhere else except where I am, and where I actually have resources and knowledge—in my own neighborhood? At the time, there was a history of longstanding places like ABC No Rio and Angel Orensanz, and lots of alternative theater spaces; but really not a lot of recent growth of galleries. At the time we opened in 2002, around the same time as Rivington Arms opened, and Michele Maccarone had her gallery on Ludlow and Canal, it was just us three. And it’s hard to imagine, in those early years, that the New Museum would visit the space with their trustees, as they were trying to decide about building on the Bowery. So the whole Lower East Side situation happened really, really fast. I felt very connected to the history of the East Village and Lower East Side. And I realize that everyone has a different version of it like, oh, it’s graffiti writers, Keith Haring, Basquiat; or, it’s the Pyramid Club, Blacklips Performance Cult. There are many, many periods and communities of artists that have come to define the neighborhood. And I’m interested in a lot of them, so I felt it was a very rich history to build upon. Also there were so many artists living and working on the Lower East Side, and like I was saying at the beginning, there was a built-in local audience open to the sort of programming we were figuring out. I attributed that openness to the fact that the Lower East Side, basically, was a place where you would, at that time, encounter art everywhere. Everything’s a club or a rehearsal studio or a theater space. When I moved here, there were places like House of Candles, and basically, the whole neighborhood was permeated with live art venues. So when we were branded early on, because of the look of the Rivington Street space, as “a storefront performance space,” or “storefront gallery,” I think people were referring to a previous incarnation of the way that the East Village galleries looked in the eighties, or the way that theater and music venues or poetry venues looked. It was all street-level interface with art.  I felt that all of these things contributed to the way in which we were part of something and were embraced by an audience that was very welcoming and completely not alarmed [chuckles] by what we were doing. So, we were five years in the Rivington Street space. By the end of that first five years, real estate in this area was at its pinnacle. At the time we were to renew, the rent was doubling. So we decided that we would look for a new space, also in the neighborhood. I was looking more in Chinatown. But we ended up signing a fifteen-year lease on East Houston Street, pretty much right before the economic downturn. We’re very happy with the length of the lease. And we’ve been trying to adjust to a new economy in the neighborhood. Now there are, I don’t know, a hundred galleries. This is completely new terrain.


BLACKLEY:  Many of which in easy walking distance...


GANGITANO:  Yeah. It’s too soon to really assess if there is a particular mood or style— It’s not as clear to me. There was a moment within the past decade where the term “alternative commercial gallery” became common. I’m not sure if that would describe the galleries on the Lower East Side. I feel like it’s too early to say. And you know, even though we’re ten years old, I feel like— we’re kind of new kids on the block. And what was the other part of your question? Am I forgetting a part?


BLACKLEY:  I think that answered it.


GANGITANO:  Oh, great.


BLACKLEY:  And that’s really a great place to end our interview today.




BLACKLEY:  Thank you very much, Lia. Thanks to Glen Fogel for recording this interview.


GANGITANO:  Thanks, Glen. Thanks, Andrew.