What Happens When a Group of Artists Is Put In Charge of a Presenting Organization?

June 23, 2020

When Performance Space New York artistic and executive director Jenny Schlenzka asked choreographer Sarah Michelson how they should commemorate the venue’s 40th anniversary, Michelson joked that Schlenzka should just turn over the keys to a group of artists for the year.

Schlenzka took her seriously. Throughout 2020, control of Performance Space New York (previously known as P.S. 122) is being shared between the staff and a cohort of artists, who have offices and salaries. The cohort—which includes choreographer Monica Mirabile and interdisciplinary artist Jonathan González, as well as members of art collectives BRUJAS and New Red Order—also controls Performance Space’s programming budget. (Michelson is technically not part of the cohort, but is the group’s “ecologist,” bridging the gap between the artists and the institution and “witnessing” the activities so that the model can be replicated elsewhere.)

The 02020 project reflects a time when institutions are assessing whether they are actually living art-world buzzwords like “equity” and “accessibility,” and whether they’re truly serving artists. “The limitations of institutions are a real problem not only for the people who are excluded, but for the institutions themselves,” says Schlenzka. “They stop feeling vital and necessary and alive.”

A barefoot man dressed in white creates angular shapes while standing inside an open rectangular pyramid, set in the middle of a dirt-strewn yard. Three men wearing black clothing and sneakers surround him.

Jonathan González’s ZERO

Ian Douglas, Courtesy Danspace Project

The coronavirus pandemic will inevitably shift what 02020 looks like. Though the cohort hypothetically has access to Performance Space’s entire programming budget—normally $500,000—the institution’s two biggest fundraising events (a gala and an art sale) have been postponed. It’s possible that the pandemic will only push the cohort further in the direction they were already heading: Based on their unconventional approach, and their focus on community over performance, a traditional season for Performance Space was probably never in the cards this year anyway.

Indeed, much of what’s been planned so far has been aimed at opening Performance Space’s doors wider, both to artists, for whom finding space to work in New York City is a growing challenge, and to their neighbors in Manhattan’s East Village, who are facing gentrification. “Public space is basically disappearing by the minute,” says Schlenzka, “and our community needs a space to just be with each other.”

The cohort has reinstated Open Movement, one of Performance Space’s oldest programs, which invites the public to work in the theater for free two days a week. (In mid-March, this program moved to a virtual Zoom room, where artists can work in one another’s presence while social distancing.) They also set up a radio station in Performance Space’s lobby, with couches and a bed where anyone can lounge or work, though that too was temporarily shifted to remote operation.

Schlenzka hopes that 02020’s impact will be lasting—in fact this was one of the conditions the artists demanded in order to move forward with the project. At the very least, the Performance Space board plans to revamp the institution’s mission statement later this year, with input from the cohort.

“We need to change the way we make budgets, the way we communicate,” says Schlenzka. “Will this all happen starting 2021? I doubt it. It’s going to take longer than a year, but just doing diverse programming didn’t feel like enough anymore.”