This is the third and final post in our series of interviews with the ArtPrize 2013 Grand Prize jurors. Manon Slome is the co-founder and chief curator of No Longer Empty, an organization that reaches new audiences for contemporary art through site specific exhibitions in non traditional spaces. Since 2009, No Longer Empty has staged 14 exhibitions in a variety of spaces all around New York City, including historic 10 Downing Street; the Clock Tower in Long Island City, Queens, the iconic former home of Bank of Manhattan, and the Andrew Freedman Home, which was built to be a haven for the rich elderly who had lost their fortunes.

This series of interviews is serving as a prelude to a panel discussion that will feature the three Grand Prize jurors, titled "Can Art Save Cities?" The free event will take place at 7:00 pm on Thursday, September 26 at Ladies Literary Club, 61 Sheldon Blvd SE Grand Rapids, MI.

The other interviews in the series can be accessed here: Anne Pasternak, Mel Chin.

Kevin Buist: Can you start off by explaining what No Longer Empty is and what you do?

Manon Slome: No Longer Empty creates site-responsive exhibitions in empty or underutilized spaces throughout the five boroughs of New York City. Our tag line is ‘Revitalizing Space: Unlocking Creativity’ and that, in essence, is what we do. Our exhibitions are supported by extensive educational and cultural programming so that a formerly empty site becomes a hub of creativity. Our process always begins with extensive research into the nature of the space – what was its history, what is the nature of the surrounding community, what are the demographics of a given area, what are the agencies, social services, and cultural institutions that serve those communities? From all that research, the possible themes for an exhibition begin to emerge. What I am trying to stress here is that we don’t have an exhibition in mind for which we then try to find a site. We always begin with the site itself; everything grows from there.

We share our research with the artists we invite to participate, and it oftentimes infuses the work they create for the exhibition. About 90% of the works in our exhibition are commissioned, so they are very specific to the site.

In addition, we create extensive cultural and educational programming to support each exhibition. This is crucial in fostering the accessibility that is so central to our mission. We reach out to schools in the area to offer tours. We host cross-disciplinary events in collaboration with other organizations in the area. And again, all the programming is based on the theme of the exhibition to draw out its many layers of interpretation.

For example, if there is a dance organization, we might invite them to come and see the site, learn what the exhibition is about, and then choreograph a new piece for the site so that a strand of the exhibition might be interpreted through dance. We invite musicians and spoken word artists; we organize panel discussions and Family Days to enable parents to experience art along with their children. We run the Y.Dot Youth Docent Program in which five or six students from area high schools work with us to learn about all aspects of the exhibition – the program culminates in them giving personal tours of the exhibition to friends and family. So No Longer Empty realizes a very extensive program of activating the site and bringing the public together to engage with it in a wide variety of ways.

When we say ‘public,’ we mean a whole gamut of what comprises the diversity of New York City's communities, including all ages, interests, and backgrounds. We stimulate tourism to the area, which contributes an economic benefit to the neighborhood because there are literally thousands of people who come from around the city to our exhibitions. In this way, we foster both a new awareness of the site and of other happenings in the area.

KB: I was reading on your website about the cultural tourism program. Is that what you’re referring to? Can you talk more about that component of the exhibitions and how that functions?

MS: Over the first four years of our operation, we have built up a following in the city and beyond for the work that we do. Our outreach begins with the local and then extends through a wide range of press and social media. Through the NLE newsletter, we also keep in touch with former visitors, and they continue to be engaged and curious about NLE as we exhibit in new locations. For example, we have a huge following now in the Bronx because of a very popular exhibition we curated at the Andrew Freedman Home, and many of them came to our next exhibition in Queens.

Happily, our visitor base keeps growing. We place great import on the public's experience from the time they step in through the door, welcoming them as they arrive, explaining the nature of the exhibition, and generating conversation around NLE's efforts to activate the space. Encouraging dialogue about the art and the site, in addition to a warm welcome, creates a feeling of comfort so different from the often alienating institutional or commercial environments that I think we have all felt.
In the Bronx, we initially kept hearing, ‘You know, it doesn’t matter what you’re doing, not many people will come to the Bronx.’ So my response to that was, ‘Well, there are more than a million people in the Bronx, and that’s more than enough of an audience for us.’ But it turned into a case of ‘if you build it, they will come!’ And they did come. Thousands of people came from all over the city.

To encourage people to explore the area beyond the exhibition, as we did in the Bronx, we produce a map of each neighborhood where our site is located that highlights other local cultural attractions or places to eat, drink, and relax, and this helps promote the area.

From a business owner's point of view, this is a very satisfying development from bringing art into the area. As part of our initial research, we work with the BID (Business Improvement District), local chambers of commerce, and/or local city officials, because I think that they are realizing more and more that when NLE comes and activates a site, it’s a true benefit to the area.

KB: Yeah, definitely. Talk a bit more about that. Do people ever wonder about it being beneficial to the businesses in the area? Is that taking precedence over the artwork itself?

MS: Precedence, no. The artwork and the artists are the epicenter from which the other benefits radiate. We are the cultural force we have become because people know that, coming to our exhibitions, they can expect quality and innovative work. Artists want to be in our exhibitions because they trust they will be shown professionally and have the opportunity and support to expand their practice through the commissioning process. Essentially, we are a curatorially-based organization, and so our focus is always on creating a high-quality, well-presented exhibition. And because of that emphasis on a quality product - to put it bluntly - everything else follows. That is why people will travel to our exhibitions, why artists exhibit with us, why schools know that our programming is worthwhile and meaningful. NLE's reputation is why landlords trust us to take over their spaces for a time.

KB: Can you talk a little bit about the NLE Curatorial Lab that you do?

MS: No Longer Empty is very much about transparency, because although we are in a site for a relatively short period of time, we want to create templates and models that will enable stakeholders to continue with revitalizing empty spaces. An empty site is a detriment to a community – the space starts disintegrating and foot traffic goes down and often there begins a spiral of economic decline. We wanted to try and create at first a ‘kit’ of community empowerment. But as we got more experienced with the process, we began to think that our curatorial approach brought whole new areas of knowledge into the process and we wanted to impart that expansion of the field to others.

The Curatorial Lab is an extension of our educational outreach. What we’re doing there is training young or emerging curators in our practice. Unlike more theory-based curatorial programs, ours is constantly learning by doing. It’s a twelve-week intensive where participants go through the exact same process that we do in each exhibition – site research, community outreach, studio visits, reaching out to artists, commissioning work, opening the exhibition, running the exhibition, and creating public programming. Our current session is being lead by Sara Reisman who is the director of Percent for Art in New York City, and we have selected 6 truly amazing young curators to be in the program.  I’m very excited to see the results of their study and work.

KB:  That’s great.  How do you select sites?

MS:  How do we select sites? In a variety of ways. Four years into the process we are offered a wide variety of sites and opportunities.  This has allowed us to become somewhat selective and we have created something of a check off list in helping us decide whether to go ahead with a proposed site. Is there an interesting narrative to the building? Would we be useful in an area? Is the area under-served for cultural opportunities? Is the reclamation of site something that would give a piece of history back to the community? It’s a combination of how useful our presence could be in the site and how well of an exhibition we could do in the area. I think those two [considerations] would be the prevailing decisions on whether we accepted a site or not. 

KB: There’s a buzzword that’s gaining a lot of popularity, especially when it comes to how a lot of projects are gaining funding recently, and that’s Creative Placemaking, this idea of a blend of contemporary art and urbanism and urban planning. What are your impressions of that? It feels like we’re in a movement, or a moment. That’s what the NEA is pretty tuned into, along with a lot of other foundations.

MS:  I think it’s a really interesting time to be doing what we’re doing because a lot of institutions are questioning issues of audience and how much contemporary practice – such as collaborative works can be shown inside a museum. At the same time many urban planners are considering how can art be used to revitalize urban spaces, how an artist’s perspective can be usefully incorporated into different areas of research and planning.  I think that we’re in a wonderful moment where disciplines are breaking down a little bit. We have just entered into a two year collaboration with the New School in which their courses related to special justice, urban interventions that help give community a voice (to choose but two areas of interest) are being linked to our curatorial initiatives. I am really looking forward to sharing in some of their methodologies. I am travelling to Guadalajara and Oklahoma to give talks and workshops on how the NLE model can contribute to creative place making so its an exciting time to be sharing and learning from related fields.

I think there’s a growing awareness of the value of art being expanded to a broader audience and how art can open up lives and cities! This is why I think art is such an important element of education (and shame on those who slash school budgets for art and music) because in art there isn’t a right and a wrong answer – it’s everything in between. What art does is open up and explore different ways of looking at the world, different ways of seeing or ways of thinking. That is art’s main contribution to creative place making.

KB:  What are some of the principles that you think artists and art institutions should adhere to when they’re working to revitalize urban spaces? What do you think works, and what do you think doesn’t work?

MS:  I can’t tell you what works and what doesn’t work because I don’t think there are universal solutions. What works in one place might be a total disaster in another. But I think that one always has to start with the local. Understand the narratives of a space. Talk to multiple stakeholders. Create local partnerships – be prepared to listen and not rush to solutions. Respecting the local – because it has a sense of place already, the people there live there and have opinions, it’s important to engage with those. When I say local, I’m not talking about dumbing down. What I am saying is that any intervention has to have origins of thinking in the local environment, rather than imposing the solution from the outside. 

KB: Whenever projects like this come up, especially within urban environments, there’s this narrative that pops up of artists investing in a community, and as soon as the revitalization starts to take hold, business leaders and developers begin to take those…

MS:  Gentrification is what you’re talking about.

KB:  Yes, the big G word. So talk about that. Is there a stopgap against that? Is it inevitable? What about it? Have you dealt with it with No Longer Empty, with your own practice?

MS:  We’re nomadic, we go into a space for three to four months, and that is not going to change the nature of a community and sense of whether developers want to go in or not. Does our project lead to gentrification? Not really. Does Art? Since there was a notion of bohemia wealth has followed where the artists are, and art leads the way. On the bright side, there are many developers who have become more conscious about their social commitments to areas in which they own properties. Just as there is a trend to building green, we are also seeing landlords who want to support local organizations, beautify public plazas or empty lots and offer their spaces for interim use.

I think that one of things that organizations like ours or Creative Time and similar organizations who are working in the public realm, can do is really help to educate landlords in their responsibilities to the communities they can help shape. I personally have given testimony to the DCA (department of cultural affairs) urging tax credits for landlords who donate empty space to public good and penalties for those who keep there properties vacant for long periods of time.

KB:  That’s really a good point.  What do you think that artists can do to make the cities they live in a better place?

MS:   Well, I would reverse the question and say what can cities do to sustain the artists who live in their cities so that they don’t have to move? I think artists more than fulfill their responsibilities to their areas. They move into an area, and the rent goes up. That is a problem. I think a city, any city, any community benefits by having artists, and the conversation really is, or the question should be how to sustain artists so that they can continue to live and thrive in an environment. So many people ask artists to do something for nothing – ‘Oh, it’s good exposure for them,’ – even galleries will often expect artists to cover the expenses for putting up a show. Would they call a plumber in and say fixing a bathroom is good publicity? Of course they wouldn’t, but it’s felt that artists can always be taken advantage of in that way. But in answer to your question, I think a city should strive to sustain its artists because artists give more than enough just by being there and doing the work that they’re doing.

By Kevin Buist on