Given that New York’s New Museum pursues an aggressively contemporary agenda, it surprised us to learn that the feisty institution has been keeping an eye on the past. This backward glance is known as the Bowery Artist Tribute, an ongoing project that seeks to record the oral histories of the neighborhood’s former and current resident artists. We spoke with project coordinator Ethan Swan about the BAT, the new New Museum, and the neighborhood’s legacy of both creativity and squalor.
Flavorpill: What does the Bowery signify as a neighborhood?
Ethan Swan: The relationship between the neighborhood and some sort of creative energy has a long history. It’s not just the area’s more recent reputation as a place where artists could live cheaply with no rules.
We’re situated next to buildings and sites which formed the theatre district for much of the 19th century. It’s always been a neighborhood in constant movement. At the beginning of the 19th century, these theaters were producing Greek tragedies for the high-art crowd. 30 years later, it’s populist Italian melodramas. Then, Yiddish theatre, Chinese theatre, Vaudeville. That’s the amazing thing about this street: There’s such a long history of change and flux.
FP: What does it take for a museum to be a good neighbor?
ES: Just for starters, we’ve encountered many people who’ve said something like: “I’m just so happy it’s not another bar.” When I think about what our neighbors want, I’m brought back to the notion of refuge — spaces that are maybe just a little more flexible and open than similar settings in other parts of the city. Places where anyone can go. Like in [nearby] Roosevelt Park, where one day it’s bike polo and the next, it’s a street fair.
When you look at the design of the New Museum, the ground floor is very open. You can see straight through to the back from the street. By comparison, you can barely even recognize the door on the more exclusive bars and galleries around here. The intention of the Museum’s entrance is to be completely transparent, to show people exactly what they’re getting themselves into. And all this speaks to creating a new building that is welcoming, and open, and feels like a comfortable space.
FP: What is the Bowery Artist Tribute?
ES: This project is designed to tap into the artistic legacy of the Bowery by recognizing the community that has sustained this neighborhood for decades. When we interviewed [local artist] Scott Ewald, he described it by explaining that everything he really cared about seemed to emanate from the Bowery. When you’re a kid, it’s punk rock and CBGBs. Then you discover jazz and learn about the Five Spot on Cooper Square. Andy Warhol talks about the neighborhood, William Burroughs lived here, and it’s in Wee Gee’s photographs. It all goes back to the Bowery.
But for decades, it was skid row, too. The area was constantly ignored by the City. As late as the ’80s there was no trash collection; the residents would have to sneak their trash out with the commercial waste. The loft spaces were zoned industrial, so you could be evicted if you were caught.
The BAT exists to both document the artists who lived here, and to collect histories of the neighborhood’s social and economic transformations.
FP: It’s interesting that the New Museum would end up documenting the past.
ES: Yes, the project operates with a different mission in that respect, given that it’s housed in an institution that has no real permanent collection. In 1995, the Museum put out a book called Temporarily Possessed that addresses its “semi-permanent collection.” There’s a notion that — like the neighborhood — the collection is in flux, with works being purchased, held for a decade or so, and then sold in order to acquire new art. Works could be made into shows and lent out, but would ultimately never become permanent. In a sense, the BAT is the only real archive that the Museum has. It’s the only element that reaches back to a time before the museum. That said, the project isn’t just concerned with the past — it’s here to reflect the artists who still live and work in the neighborhood. Although the BAT is absolutely an attempt to capture these histories, it also operates with an eye open to what’s still happening here.