Interview with Susan Miller, former Executive Director, New Langton Arts Center
The following oral history transcript is the result of a tape-recorded interview with Susan Miller on July 13, 2010. The interview took place in San Francisco, CA and was conducted by Christina Linden. This interview was funded by the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA).
Susan Miller and Christina Linden 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.
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial 3.0 Unported License.
CHRISTINA LINDEN: This is Christina Linden and I’m sitting with Susan Miller on the 13th of July, 2010, at her home in San Francisco, and we’re here to talk about New Langton Arts for the AS-AP Oral History Archive.
SUSAN MILLER: Hi, I’m Susan Miller. I’m a curator, producer, and the former executive director of New Langton Arts, a San Francisco artist-run gallery and theater.
LINDEN: Okay. So to start, maybe you can tell me about how you got involved with New Langton Arts…
LINDEN: …how you first found out about the space, if you were involved in some capacity before you became the director in 1993.
MILLER: I had been a regular Langton visitor since I moved from Boston to San Francisco in 1986. Through its commissioning and presenting program, Langton was having a huge impact on the creative thinking and practices of a number of artists in the region and elsewhere. I loved the mash-up of disciplines and the shape of the work coming out of the space. It was very fresh, even if now and then some experiments failed. I was particularly drawn to what was going on in the exhibition space, the performance and video art programs, and how those media were conversing and blending with each other. I was generally surprised by what I saw. That was important to me.
I was aware of Langton’s program before I relocated from Boston, while at the Institute of Contemporary Art in Boston working with David Ross. He had run the Matrix program at UC Berkeley and spent a great deal of time in the Bay Area before his move to the east coast, so through him I had direct access to a lot of the history in the Bay Area. He brought an informed sensibility and talent to the ICA that was along the lines of what was being explored at places like New Langton. I wasn’t very aware of how large the Bay Area’s community of artist-run spaces was until I moved here though. As soon as I arrived I started working at ArtSpace, and later at several other nonprofit institutions in my first years here .
I became more involved after Langton hit some bumps in the early ‘90s, around the time founding director Renny Pritikin transitioned to a job at Yerba Buena Center for the Arts in 1992. There was no issue over his departure. YBCA presented him with an opportunity to seed more new work in a highly professional setting. It made sense. However the new hire, Nancy Gonchar, and her team were challenged to fill the vacuum created by his absence. Talent, funding, and resources seemed to slip away and Langton found itself in a near closure scenario for the first time in its history. Eventually Nancy moved on. At the time, it was hard to imagine Langton had a future, but it did.
I recall attending a noisy town hall meeting in Langton’s theater one evening in 1993. The board was seeking feedback from the community about Langton’s future. It was packed with artists and supporters. Had I not attended that meeting, I probably would not have applied to fill the director vacancy. What I saw was tremendous community cohesion and concern. Most of the people there had some meaningful past experience at Langton, and to me it seemed they could be recruited to help rebuild it.
Also at that meeting I met a colleague, Chris Robbins, who invited me to apply to Langton with her as co-director. I had just had a baby so returning to full-time work was not something I was prepared to do, let alone take a job as potentially arduous as rebuilding a cash-strapped non-profit.
So in 1993 I was hired with Chris by a few committed board members to work with them to reconstruct the place. There wasn’t much of a financial cushion to rebuild from. We had us and a community who cared enough to contribute time and resources, and attend the events.
LINDEN: Quite a challenge.
MILLER: Sure, it was a challenge, but we made progress pretty quickly. Believe it or not, it was fun, in a way, to have so few material resources and to see what could be made with very little. With help, Chris and I were able to stabilize the organization in a number of ways. Artists who considered themselves alumni of the space, who had built the languages of their practices through the artists space community and on whose volunteer efforts the space had first been founded, were willing to jump back in again at this point when we didn’t have any money. The politics and organizational structure were about maximizing everybody’s skill sets in a really coordinated way. We pulled together a few solid exhibitions, even produced a couple of catalogs, brought some money in, worked on the archive, and added to the board and staff. When Chris resigned in 1995, I took over as Executive Director.
Gratefully, many key funders stayed involved. San Francisco Hotel Tax Fund, Lannan Foundation, Gap Foundation, and others stuck it out. The NEA had been a primary source of funding, but Langton’s downsizing knocked it out of competition at the federal level completely. By the time we were stable, the NEA had eliminated all artist and alternative space funding. So we had an entirely new and unanticipated challenge and had to find money elsewhere. We did this by going to the social network around the organization and expanding the board. A new generation of Langton advocates was energized and engaged bringing cash, contacts, and talent. Lewis Butler, Millicent Powers, Margaret Youngblood, Meridee Moore, Monica Komives, Simon Frankel, Gretchen Hillenbrand, Bob Shimshak and artist-curators Barrett Watten, Glen Spearman, Donna Graves, Bruce Tomb, Paul Dresher, and a number of other highly skilled and articulate members on the board were memorably present and very active in this recovery period.
LINDEN: You mentioned that there was a broad network of artist-run spaces in the Bay Area when you moved here. Could you say a few words about what characterized New Langton in relation to those other spaces, and what set it apart?
MILLER: Sure, sure. Langton was one of many early-era artist-run spaces. It opened in the 1970s, 1975 actually, in a warehouse space on Langton Street. It was, in fact, an old casket factory in a light-industrial building of the kind common to San Francisco’s South of Market district. The building and facility were owned by a founder, artist Jock Reynolds. The gallery and theater shared one space in a loft rented from Jock by artist and founding member Jim Pomeroy. Together, with a number of artists experimenting in art installation, poetry, performance and sculpture, they organized a program of alternating original live and static art presentations in a single room.
Structurally Langton followed the conventional artist-run model. Some of the early adopters, including Renny Pritikin and Judy Moran, contributed to the articulation of that model, both by example at Langton, and through advocacy efforts with a number of other spaces nationally. Renny and Judy are certainly worth approaching at some point for their perspective.
In any case, that model, as you know, requires that practicing professional artists direct and manage the organization and make all the artistic and curatorial decisions – artists are empowered at all levels. These spaces were alternatives to traditional museums and theaters, places that were without artist representation in management, had more conservative artistic values, and mandates to collect and preserve art. And they were intentionally designed as non-profits out of concern over how the market place for art limits its expression and form. Artist-run spaces like Langton, in the early days, were more concerned with making art that was not collectible and had little apparent sale value. Today it’s widely accepted that because of those priorities these spaces seeded and amplified the growth of a number of new art forms —video art, experimental music and literature, art installation, performance, conceptual art, and other practices—that today make up the mainstream of contemporary art. Back then; they were praised as experiential, ephemeral activities. You had to be there to see it.
Talking about this reminds me of a quote by Jim Pomeroy, a vocal advocate for artist-run spaces, and as I mentioned one of Langton’s founders. Do you mind if I read it? It’s from Langton’s 15-year catalog.
“New forms emerge in new environments, speaking to new, real issues. Their ephemerality is augmented by the potency of a unique occurrence. Their spectators are eyewitnesses and discerning auditors. Performance doesn’t always entertain, and installations are hard to move, much less sell. This isn’t bush league, and the roads don’t all lead to the top. Lenny Bruce, Christa MacAuliffe, and Victor Jara died for our sins. Praise be. Rest in Peace. Next act, the show must go on.” (Jim Pomeroy, May 1990)
There were several legislative or structural initiatives built into Langton’s bylaws and protocols to ensure that artists were central to the organization’s operations and vision. Many of these initiatives were coordinated with and shared by a number of institutions across the country—Artists Space or the Kitchen in New York, Hallwalls in Buffalo, LACE in Los Angeles, Nexus in Atlanta, Project Row Houses in Houston—and hundreds of others, as well as a few in Canada. The National Endowment also adopted these standards through the Visual Arts Organizations (VAO) grant program. Simply put, for an artist-run space to receive funding as a VAO, artists must be fully empowered and at the highest level of decision making on both the staff and board; artists must be paid for their work; and artists always own their own work.
By way of VAO, other funding sources and grant panels, the National Association of Artist Organizations (NAAO), and the myriad of artist-run organizations nationally, a large network of talent emerged through which ideas were exchanged, work was made, movements were started, permanently changing the way art was created, thought of, presented, and discussed.
I guess Langton was distinctive in that it was built and structured to support a number of artistic movements and art forms simultaneously. Originally, as I mentioned, it presented both live and static art alternately in a single space on Langton Street. When Langton moved to 1246 Folsom Street in 1983, the theater and gallery space were split, but the emphasis on interdisciplinary and experiential was retained. It helped that the artist-curators on the board would meet and select work together, even if they worked in different media. This ensured crossover. Yes there were defined programs—Performance Art, Experimental Literature, Experimental Music, Visual Art and Installation, Video Art, and Net Art—but there was also plenty of natural blending.
In terms of any specific cooperation with institutions outside of the Bay Area, when I came in, Langton was in process on a couple of major (and expensive) commissions: Adrian Piper’s Black Box/White Box and Alchemy, a project with the Harris brothers. We sought partnerships that could give these projects some leverage and visibility. We co-produced Piper’s show with the Wexner. Alchemy was developed with media and photography curator Philip Brookman at the Corcoran in Washington, D.C.. Philip also brought an exhibition of Gilles Peress’s photographs of Bosnia to Langton. As with the Mapplethorpe “censored” pictures that had an early show at Langton in the late 70s, I felt it was important to show Peress’s very difficult pictures of Bosnia. Of course Mapplethorpe and Peress have very different interests in photography, but both artists were exploring very compelling images that were unacceptable to a number of mainstream presenters. We had to show the work.
LINDEN: Was there a specific focus to the programming and to the type of work you were presenting at the time you took over? Would you say you played a part in how this focus developed during your tenure as well?
MILLER: I’d like to think I had a subtle, more indirect role. I was busy putting fires out for the first 5 years. I was in the mode of building on the organization’s past strengths. As I’ve said, I was hoping to fortify the social model, based largely on volunteerism and connectivity, and to infuse greater sustainability. To do that I believed people needed to feel like Langton was theirs. I put a lot of time into building the board and turning the organization into something they could own. In turn, the artist-curators on the board took over the artistic program. I felt more like a conductor.
I did curate a number of projects and programs, but these were highly collective endeavors. I’m not avoiding the question, I just have to say it feels more honest to recognize that the work we did was collaborative.
In any case, personally I was interested in the gallery and theater as spaces of public engagement and the interaction that occurs at the point that the work and the audience intersect. An early curatorial project was The Library in 1995. We built a reading room with WPA-style murals in the gallery, on the occasion of the 50th anniversary of the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Visitors entered the gallery space to find a few large, library-style tables, chairs, and reading materials in a room filled with floor to ceiling murals commemorating the bombings. There were lectures, film screenings, and conversations. People hung out, became a part of the project.
I was interested in thematic programming that could incorporate exhibitions, performances, readings, lectures, and such. This allowed the artist-curators and staff opportunities to collaborate across media and platforms. Of Sound Mind, for example, was a project about artists and mental health that had exhibition, performance, and video components. I developed a short-lived series on international experiments in documentary and journalistic practices called Cultural Attaché. And we rebooted an annual program that showcased new local talent.
My professional background as a curator favors video, installation, and performance art. I put together a few monographic exhibitions with catalogs. I chose local artists who had careers that were under-seen and under-documented, but were who were influential—Jim Pomeroy, Jeanne Finley and John Muse, and Tony Labat.
LINDEN: Okay, great. In your post of August 4th, 2009 on the SFMOMA blog site, which produced quite a lot of writing about New Langton Arts’ final crisis—
MILLER: The blog did, not my particular entry but yes, that was quite a bit of participation from the community.
LINDEN: Right, thanks. In your post, you cited especially the importance of the organization’s original bylaws as providing a foundation for its function as an artist-run space. So you touched on this a bit, but is there anything else that you’d like to elaborate on, in terms of the specific strengths you saw in the working methods laid out in that document, and/or just in the legacy left behind by Renny Pritikin and Judy Moran, who ran the space prior to your tenure there?
MILLER: Sure, it’s pretty straightforward. Langton’s founding leadership chose to constitutionalize the values and priorities of the artist-run space into the governing documents, the bylaws. People didn’t believe that one director, staff curator, nor a board without significant artist representation could make decisions that reflected the values of artists. So the bylaws were crafted in a way to protect the artists’ voice. The Langton bylaws stated artists needed to be voting members with ample representation on the board. There was a provision for ousting the board at an annual meeting, should the membership deem them unfit. There were fail-safes and checks to keep the vision intact.
LINDEN: And other than Renny and Judy, are they any other key figures that you’d like to talk about, in terms of the laying of the foundation?
MILLER: Sure. Definitely talk to Renny and Judy, if you can though. Paul DeMarinis, an artist and founding member, was particularly articulate and active. Jock Reynolds and his wife Suzanne Hellmuth. Jim Melchert, Peter Richards, Constance Penley, and many others. Nayland Blake, for example, was a young artist on staff in the late 80s who also went on to lead the board in the early 90s.
LINDEN: Okay, great. And then the next question: What changes did you make? You’ve spoken to what you wanted to retain about those bylaws; but while you were there, what changes did you feel like it was important to make? And also, are there other changes that you would have liked to have instituted, but weren’t able to?
MILLER: Well, aside from change by growing it, by focusing the institution back to its historical and operational successes, I don’t think I made many changes. Sure, we had a much larger board, different staff configuration than previous eras, but we were in the same building, operating mostly with the same bylaws and standards. The programming mutated as often as it had in the past, open to whatever new ideas were taking shape. For example, in 1998 I believe, Mary Ceruti, Ken Goldberg, and I started an online program that showcased art made for the web. Net art was just making itself present, and nobody on the west coast was presenting it yet. So that was a change, but nothing out of natural programmatic rhythm. Seeing an emerging trend and attempting to address it programmatically was how we conducted business every day.
I had hoped to find Langton a new home. The last few years before I left, we were looking to relocate. Folsom Street was not a terribly audience-friendly location, and our facilities needed a face-lift. We looked around both for spaces and funding. We ended up talking with a number of other non-profits about sharing a larger building, and there was a lot of available square footage hanging around after the economic bust of the 1990s. Seemed like the right time, but we never found a way to make it work. The price to own commercial space never really sunk enough to make it affordable. Our lease was reasonable, and we had a useful, albeit funky, theater space that would have been too costly to reproduce elsewhere, so we stayed.
A working method that remained extremely important and that I might have built into an even more solid model, if I were to do it over again, was to workshop and develop projects from scratch; commissioning artists significantly to do the work they need to do, in the way the need to do it. A strength of the artist-run space is the opportunity for artists to prototype, to exchange new ideas and get a lot of feedback on these. Where museums and larger institutions started to commission artists, I might say there was a kind of bleeding of the magnetism that was happening in the artist-run spaces in their strongest periods. Yes, there was greater visibility in the larger institutions, but there was often some kind of raw deal cut with the artist or their dealer about that commission: We get to own it afterwards, or it’s going in the collection because so-and-so’s paying for it, etc., which artist spaces wouldn’t tolerate if those strategies limited artists’ rights and experimentation. I would have liked to address this in a better way institutionally.
LINDEN: How you would characterize your audience? And where you mention the commissioning model being taken up by other institutions and a certain magnetism being lost—did that also correlate to a loss of audience or a change in your audience, in any way?
MILLER: At its core, Langton’s audience was highly educated and knowledgeable about art, but I believe that is common in most cultural institutions. We tended to have a very direct relationship with the artists, art students, patrons, and critics who regularly visited or attended events. What was pretty cool about Langton is that you would see some of the same disciplinary crossover in the audience that you saw in the programming. In this way, the audience was a hybrid. And we usually had a pretty full house, so there was demand.
LINDEN: So definitely not really a populist aim at all, then. It seems you held a kind of specialist audience in a really important way, for a very long time. Would you agree?
MILLER: Yes, the audience was specialized in terms of its training and education, but it was also generalist in that the audiences’ knowledge base encompassed a number of artistic disciplines. I would also say that the audience was very receptive to new ideas, even if there was occasional failure in execution. People came hoping to see and experience something they hadn’t before, instead of something they were familiar with. So you didn’t necessarily have to be an art expert if you were open and not risk-averse.
LINDEN: Were there efforts or intentions to build a larger public? Or were you concerned in different ways with attracting new or different people to the space?
MILLER: Very concerned, but we had a decent size audience for an organization of our size. I don’t recall exactly how many visitors a year, but we kept track of it. We were very aware of the potential to make connections with the working community on Folsom Street, and with getting people to visit. We’d do events with neighborhood orgs. The style we used for supporting texts mirrored a general approach we used for everything we did; it was meant to educate, not translate, and was intended as accessible in order to give the viewer or listener the tools they needed to appreciate the work on their own. We partnered with other presenters, like SFCamerawork or the Corcoran Gallery in Washington, DC, and got some visibility with their audiences. If you are asking about our marketing or audience size, we were attentive and aggressive.
LINDEN: How did the structure of New Langton’s funding change while you were there? And what, if any, effect did this have on your programming or your approach in running the space?
MILLER: Langton’s was largely funded by private and public grants. Once we got our finances stabilized and funders become more confident in our management, we became competitive again and eligible for more foundation and government support. As I mentioned, this was also the time that federal support was dwindling, so we did have to change our funding model slightly.
There were two areas we expanded, which meant redirecting our resources a bit. One was to offset facility costs by offering space to other presenters in a kind of residency program. Thick Description, SFCamerawork, and a few others took over parts of the building at various times. And we rebooted the annual art auction. It was a sleeper with good underwriting potential. We went for it and doubled the proceeds.
Generally speaking, the budget had been at about six or seven hundred thousand before the crisis that preceded my arrival as director, but had been cut to around $280,000 when I came in. By the time I left it had grown to around six hundred again, maybe $650,000. I’d like to reiterate that building the program as we did required a huge amount of energy and input from a very broad, diverse community of people. Some people who could write checks, some who could provide pro bono support, and others who were just really excited about working on a project. That network is actually what allowed us to build it, and to remain very stable in moments that were more difficult financially. There were nearly thirty board members on the board when I left; that’s a big board. People were very engaged, though, and we had to have a system in place for that board to function. We had regular meetings, observed Robert’s Rule of Order, facilitated committee leadership transition pretty smoothly, and charged committee chairs with responsibility for their committee’s effectiveness and output. It took a lot of effort to maintain, but it gave us tremendous stability in tough times.
Worth mentioning that this strategy helped us survive a huge drop in funding after the economic bust of 2000, the financial meltdown that deeply impacted the Bay Area and the South of Market community of dot-com start-ups around us.
LINDEN: Would you be willing to name a few projects that stood out in some special way for you during your time there?
MILLER: I think Langton’s role in Pacific Rim Sound Art Festival of 1996 was particularly memorable. A number of Bay Area institutions coordinated a series of sound art exhibitions and performances -- The LAB, Headlands Center for the Arts, and others. We installed Trimpin’s PFFFT in the gallery and hosted a number of performances. D-L Alvarez’s exhibition Tiny Shoes in 1994 was smart and fun. It riffed on the work of Jack Chick, the evangelist/cartoonist of the 1960s. Rex Ray and a number of experimental writers contributed to the catalog. Oh, and I especially appreciated the performance writing series that Jocelyn Saidenberg and Brandon Brown curated in Langton’s theater for exposing a very lively, regional practice of integrating writing and performance.
And there was a project with Jon Brumit and Marc Horowitz for a live gallery event called Sliv and Dulet’s Summer Line. Jon and Marc were Sliv and Dulet, the would-be sales and corporate directors of Sliv and Dulet Enterprises. The two artists invited teams of artists to come into their makeshift office in Langton’s gallery space. For each week of the 5 week show, a new group of artists would set up in the space to make and sell some product, or pitch some testimony about a product, to the visiting audience. Seemed as if everyone was in character.
On a more general note, I didn’t know much about experimental music in the Bay Area when I arrived, but it’s very powerful here. It comes out of both a jazz tradition and out of experimental electronic music, like what was happening at Mills College. There were a number of pretty telling events at New Langton for this community.
LINDEN: Okay, great. Excellent. The archive today, what forms does it exist in?
MILLER: You know honestly, I’m not sure where it is right now or what condition it is in. I’m guessing it is well cared for. We were very attentive to the archive when I was there. And when we found it, it was in good shape. Lots of well-organized documentation, especially photography of all the events. I think there is a greater concern over institutional archives, thanks largely to the work that people like you, Franklin Furnace, and others are doing to preserve them.
LINDEN: Let’s return again for a moment to that entry you made on the SFMOMA blog in 2009. You wrote, “It wasn’t much of a space when I was there, but it was functional and affordable, in a city where space is such an expensive commodity. Now it’s very pretty, very sad to see it go.” You mentioned that you chose not to invest in the building because you didn’t own it, and that wasn’t what you felt kept the program steady. I just wanted to talk a bit about New Langton as a less pretty space and what you felt that did allow.
Well, I’m not in the camp that believes that a kind of bohemian, impoverished, you know, make-do-with-what-you’ve-got kind of setting makes for great work. I don’t agree with that. We really did long for a highly professional setting because we wanted the art to be presented at the highest level. It was always very important to us. A new space just didn’t work out. In fact, I think Sandra Percival and her board’s makeover of Langton was an attempt to follow-through with what we had started and hoped for. But to answer your question directly, being less pretty at Langton meant we could focus our energy and resources on the work.
LINDEN: Can we talk a bit about a network in an extra-institutional sense? Were there other spaces, institutions, venues that became especially important to you or whose program you were following while your were at Langton?
MILLER: We were all very conscious of what was going on in each other’s spaces. Obviously Southern Exposure, SFCamerawork, The LAB, Galeria de la Raza, the Luggage Store, Headlands Center, Intersection, Small Press Traffic, Capp Street Project, Cinemateque, ATA were all important. John Simms Center, Josie Juice Joint, and Trannyshack were pretty amazing, a lot of experimental performance. There were some small, fresh, privately-held gallery spaces that started to come up in the 90s – Kiki, ESP, scene/escena, and four walls to name a few. The San Francisco Art Institute and CCA were always producing new talent.
LINDEN: Now that New Langton Arts is no longer operating, I’m curious what other spaces or programs you consider especially important in San Francisco and the Bay Area. Who has taken up producing the kinds of activity that New Langton had provided? Can you comment on the space that was left behind after Langton’s closure?
MILLER: I think the biggest loss with Langton’s closure is that San Francisco is down a theater and gallery space dedicated to the commissioning of experimental work. What’s also missing is the kind of fusion that was going on among the different media there, between the theater and gallery programs. Seems that conversation is harder to have somehow without the space and model. The people who make that work are still here and those traditions are still very deep in the community so it hasn’t gone away. Some of the places to look for that conversation now are Queens Nails, Baer Ridgway Gallery, 667 Shotwell, or the Berkeley Art Museum (BAM). BAM has a Friday night series that has invited a number of artists who have presented in Langton’s theater and gallery. Margaret Tedesco’s 2nd floor projects is another example. She was Langton’s board for seven years and you’ll find a lot of shared sensibilities with Langton in the work she books in her gallery space.
The Luggage Store is still presenting a tremendous amount of performance and visual art in their Market Street facility. Also The LAB. ATA is a reliably alternative venue for video. Southern Exposure has moved into a beautiful new building and doing some very strong work. They also recently inaugurated a re-granting program that gives small grants to informal collectives. Re-granting directly to artists was something Langton did for years, with funding from the Warhol and Rockefeller Foundations, and SF’s Hotel Tax Fund.
I always thought that one of the biggest contributions that Langton, and artist-run spaces, made was to show that collective practice could be organized in a highly professional manner, that artists are capable thinkers and competent workers, and that it is possible to influence history through action. It’s probably highly idealistic for me to characterize Langton this way, but I’m trying to point to the value of having a working model as an example for others, to show how certain behaviors and strategies can effect change. I always felt that in the modeling, others could see and know what was possible. Seems important, maybe more so now.
LINDEN: Great. So I think that’s a good note to end on, unless there’s anything else you feel like adding. Thank you so much.
MILLER: Sure. Thanks. [END]