Remembering Orchard, New York’s Iconic Artist-Run Gallery
In a wide-ranging oral history, members of the space recall its astonishing – and sometimes contentious – three years
In a wide-ranging oral history, members of the space recall its astonishing – and sometimes contentious – three years
Christian Philipp Müller We were such a tight-knit group of friends.
Nicolás Guagnini This was an incredibly acrimonious and contentious project. We were not holding hands towards a happy common goal of triumphing together.
R.H. Quaytman I remember there being two factions: the group that included me, Rhea and Andrea; and the one with Jeff, Nicolás and Karin. Nic had the idea to open an office; Andrea wanted to open a gallery and be the dealer. So, we ended up meeting. Then, Christian, John [Yancy], Moyra and Jason came on board. Nic and Karin originally wanted an office in the Flower District, but the idea of a gallery on the Lower East Side won out.
Nicolás Guagnini We were coming from separate fields. We had an ideological convergence in several things, but that didn’t mean we agreed on the forms or that the convergence was absolute.
Jeff Preiss One of the ideas was that we would all pay dues every month toward the rent. Rebecca [R. H. Quaytman] was justifiably anxious that we didn’t have enough people to add up to anything significant, so she wanted a larger group. I didn’t know Jason and Moyra very well at the time, but they were close to Andrea, who suggested them, and that sounded right to me simply because of that friendship. I had no particular criteria in mind in terms of what we wanted to do collectively.
Andrea Fraser The one non-white member was John Yancy, who worked in a different field and was not very involved in the artistic programming at Orchard, to my knowledge. I’ve heard from others that he felt misused in some ways, and that his contributions were under-recognized and undervalued.
Nicolás Guagnini In retrospect, I admire Moyra and Jason for bringing in sexual politics, often in a non-declarative way. There would be meetings in which they would say we needed to represent this or that constituency. They held an auction at Orchard to support the Sylvia Rivera Law Project – a not-for-profit organization that helps protect the rights of trans people in jail. Moyra and Jason were never explicit about it, but this was their agenda. It was very important and very radical and the most non-normative contribution from that camp.
Nicolás Guagnini Rebecca’s genius contribution was to locate the space on the Lower East Side.
R.H. Quaytman I was interested in that neighbourhood because I grew up on the Bowery with my father, who tried to reinforce my Jewish roots by taking long walks in the area. I was enamoured by that part of the Lower East Side as it was slowly fading away. There was an Eastern European way of life there, sustained by these old Jewish families. The gallery was in a building built exclusively for Jewish families and was gifted to our fierce landlady at birth.
Rhea Anastas This may be hard to fathom now but the Lower East Side was not a gallery neighbourhood at the time. There was Reena Spaulings Fine Art on Grand and Participant Inc. on Houston. We felt very much in kinship with Participant Inc., mostly because it was not a commercial programme, and a show could be something, for example, facilitated by Ridykeulous.
Jason Simon Jeff and Rebecca found the storefront with a three-year lease. That was it: three-year lease; three-year project. It was a small space. It followed this great rule of humankind: it’s better to have too many people in too small a space than too few in a large space. There was always this sense that you had to get there because otherwise it was going to be packed and you wouldn’t get in.
Bennett Simpson When you walked into the space, you would see the participants. If an artist curated a show, they would be there and you could talk to them. People would come into Orchard and sit there for two or three hours. It wasn’t the kind of space where you picked up a sheet at the front door, looked around for five minutes and left. It was the kind of place where you walked in and talked to people that you knew.
Andrea Fraser The space was a wreck. Instead of getting an architect or a designer to help, we decided to throw up floating plywood walls that were finished with drywall in the exhibition area. We left the ceiling, floor and front window untouched. It worked beautifully.
Moyra Davey Getting there, being there: that was the most logistically challenging part of it given that we had a small child. I can’t even remember how we managed it.
Karin Schneider Orchard was conceived as a three-year project. Each member had to pay US$150 monthly for the gallery expenses. I didn’t have a single penny, so I accumulated a debt. At the end of the three-year period, I sold a painting and then I paid back my debt to Becky and Jeff.
How It Worked
Jeff Preiss There was no common ideology.
R.H. Quaytman We wanted to tell you clearly what was going on, what we were thinking, but it turned out that everyone was thinking extremely different things.
Gareth James We would do things in a co-operative spirit, so there would be a kind of de-hierarchical structure where individual or group initiative was prioritized over achieving consensus on every decision.
Karin Schneider The management system was straightforward. Rebecca was the director; she was sitting most of the time with other members.
Moyra Davey In the beginning, there were regular meetings. We would all sit at these beer-garden tables that someone had imported from Germany and hash things out. After half the group left, however, those meetings stopped. We were working more as satellites. Jason, Rebecca, Jeff and I were all on the same page. There was a divide between us and Nic and Karin. I would say Jeff and Rebecca were the mediators. Jeff was an incredible mediator. I get along fine now with Karin and Nic when I see them, but there was a lot of anger at the time because we felt they were getting in the way a lot.
Gareth James People couldn’t help but bust out their favourite theorists to explain their preferences for decisions as banal as whether there should be shelving in the back of the gallery or not…
Nicolás Guagnini Early on, everything was decided by consensus. Later, at Andrea’s insistence, we moved to a voting model. I was against that because it’s political – you just have to get enough votes – whereas reaching a consensus is a full discussion. But, truthfully, the consensus model was inoperative.
Gareth James I put a soft boycott on the space when there was a determination to start doing solo exhibitions. For me, it was a breach of one of the core commitments that we agreed on at the beginning. Solo exhibitions are the default mode of the commercial gallery: insisting on group exhibitions was a way of operating as a commercial gallery without fully identifying as one.
Andrea Fraser I moved to Los Angeles the year after Orchard started, so I was only really there for the first of the three years, and I only got to see some of the programming that took place.
Bennett Simpson I was always listed as anonymous on the roster because I already had a job as a museum curator at ICA Boston. I felt like being outwardly identified with the project might be perceived as a conflict of interest, since Orchard didn’t rule out selling art and I was an institutional curator and couldn’t sell art, of course. So, we came up with the somewhat artificial notion that I should be anonymous.
Jeff Preiss To me, the arguments were not essential.
R.H. Quaytman We took it show by show. No one could quite agree on the first exhibition, so it evolved into two exhibitions. After that, we realized we had to address the issue of people showing their own work. It was decided that everybody had to vote for something for it to happen. I thought it was problematic to show our own work. There were so many arguments and fights about every little thing. That kind of distracted me. I wasn’t thinking about my own work so much as I was about the space.
Rhea Anastas We tried very hard to come to consensus. We didn’t really want to have voting because we didn’t want to create a situation where people could vote against things. We wanted to have discussions that led to a sense of cohesion, rather than have the people who voted against an idea harbour negative feelings. In hindsight it was naive to think coming to decisions didn’t also result in lingering negative feelings.
Nicolás Guagnini Every member had a shot at curating an exhibition and at showing his or her own work in conjunction with something else, so we each had two slots. That kind of democratized things because it was distributed evenly.
Moyra Davey I was not against solo shows. There were all these rules that people were putting in place, which I thought were fine, but I also thought it was fine to break the rules if it made sense to break the rules.
Christian Philipp Müller I couldn’t understand the logic [of the Martin Beck and Sadie Benning solo shows]. If we’d all agreed that we shouldn’t be doing solo shows, then why do them? It just didn’t make sense to me, but that’s why we had these heated discussions.
Rhea Anastas Those solo shows were the subject of quite a lot of debate: some people felt we would be changing our programme too much.
Karin Schneider The group had different approaches; reaching a consensus was often quite complex. That was Orchard’s ‘blessing in disguise’. Multiple internal conflicts forced us to create a programme where individual artists were obliged to engage different points of view.
R.H. Quaytman I feel like I was the most wishy-washy at Orchard. There wasn’t a show that enraged me.
Jeff Preiss We were not aspiring to the gallery model, but to the utopian model.
Karin Schneider When you are a foreigner and you hear someone speaking, you can really see language as a product of personal, and cultural heritage. I was not that interested in a certain kind of ‘language’ that Orchard produced, so I didn’t really engage with it. I wanted to experiment.
Rhea Anastas I think they were valuable kinds of fights. I really don’t regret any of them. We did try to meet a lot in person rather than get into arguments over email. I think about that now and how, pre-social media, writing tone over email could lead to disagreements, or exacerbate them.
Jeff Preiss The first exhibition – which opened in May 2005 with Andrea’s performance May I Help You? (1991/2005) – had three parts to it. It was organized by Rebecca, Rhea and Andrea. It was a contentious planning process, and really the beginning and the end of this idea of doing the whole programme collaboratively because, when they brought the idea to the group, it was suddenly open to debate, and there was a surprising amount of disagreement. It simply wasn’t sustainable to programme that way.
Andrea Fraser When I first performed May I Help You? in the early 1990s, it might have been seen as a kind of critique of the art market and class-based taste. By 2005, however, it seemed almost nostalgic and hopeful. With the financialization of the art market and the proliferation of art consultants, how many collectors did we actually know who had taste of any kind that was influencing their decisions? Very, very few.
Jason Simon ‘Part Three, “Last Minute”’ (2005) was literally a last-minute idea for a show based on an event Moyra and I had been hosting every summer upstate. It was a festival in a barn where everyone would show up to eat, dance, camp out and show a one-minute movie they had made for it. It was pre-YouTube; it was analogue. ‘Last Minute’ was just a way of showing a bunch of these movies from the one-minute film festival.
Moyra Davey The two shows that I did both started with reading, which is kind of how I do almost everything. I just reread the two press releases I wrote for those two shows. In the second one, ‘Reality / Play’ (2006), I’m talking about (Jacques) Lacan. I had no business talking about Lacan. There are some good ideas in there but why the hell am I talking about Lacan? I don’t know!
Jason Simon I was responsible for hosting the Sadie Benning show, ‘Form of a Waterfall’ (2007), which was kind of wild. She had never had a gallery show in New York before, and not everybody knew her video work or her work as a musician. Enough of us were devoted fans that, when she called me and asked whether she could do something with Orchard, we were happy to collaborate. Maybe, of all the shows we did, it was the most oh-my-god-suddenly-it’s-a-phenomenon kind of a show. There was a feeding frenzy.
Nicolás Guagnini In 2006, we had a show called ‘Heard Not Seen’ that only featured audio art. As part of the show, we had Louise Lawler’s Birdcalls (1972–81), which played on the hour. A Lincoln car pulled up at the door and a couple of really powerful collectors showed up and said: ‘We heard this is the most important place in New York. What do you have?’ Whoever was there – it doesn’t matter who, since that is absolutely in keeping with the ethos of the space – said: ‘We have Marcel Broodthaers’s Interview with a Cat (1970) and Adrian Piper’s Aspects of the Liberal Dilemma (1978). We also have Louise Lawler’s Birdcalls.’ ‘Can we listen to it?’ they asked. ‘It’s on the hour,’ we replied. ‘Yes, but can we listen to it,’ they insisted. And so on. We explained that the fact it wasn’t playing was the artwork. ‘Do you know who we are?’ they replied when we told them to come back on the hour.
Jeff Preiss One piece in that show – a really early work by Judith Barry [Untitled (Solo at the sink/So low at the sink), 1975] – was triggered by the water flow of our bathroom sink. Every time the faucet ran, a recording would play of her singing ‘solo at the sink’ over and over again. I loved that work so much. If I replay the melody she sings in my head, I can totally recall every aspect of being in Orchard – like a scent memory.
Karin Schneider In 2007, I presented ‘Image Coming Soon’. The show included six younger women artists with whom I presented collaborations. There was an open call, so that anyone could interact with the exhibition. More than 30 people presented their work. I was also part of the reconstruction of Michael Asher’s Untitled (1973) and Stephan Pascher’s Lucky Chairs (2005).
Andrea Fraser It was amazing to be able to do that with his blessing. Paul McMahon – who had originally invited Asher to make the film for a series of one-day screenings at Project Inc. in Boston – told us that the original films had been something of a dorm-room joke almost, with artists making shadow puppets in the projection light. But, by the time of our screening, Asher’s work was history. The first time it was shown, it was parody; the second time, it was history! Everybody at Orchard was breathless, witnessing the restaging of this historic event. Except for Dan Graham, who was cackling all the way through it!
Nicolás Guagnini Jeff’s show, ‘On The Collective for Living Cinema’ (2007), involved a full archive, a full community; it was an anthology of anthologies. It brought a whole culture from the 1970s and ’80s that we thought was dead. It brought so many important video artists and filmmakers from the just-past – a community of hundreds of artists. My own show, ‘September 11. 1973.’ (2005), combined art made in response to the 1973 coup in Chile with that made in response to the 9/11 terrorist attack in New York in 2001. In retrospect, this show stands out as one of the best things I’ve ever done, as an artist, curator, writer – however you want to classify me.
What Made Orchard Different?
Andrea Fraser From the beginning, we rejected the avant-garde myth of institutional co-optation. Of course, all alternative projects can only function as such at specific moments in time and place. After that, they become something else. That’s one of the reasons why we decided to make it a three-year project.
Gareth James In many respects there was no difference from any other artist-run space, but the contribution made by the presence of art historians changed that typical dynamic.
Jason Simon The interstitial events organized between shows, in shows or around shows became a kind of signature in that they embodied some of the contradictions of the space once you started asking about it. Something you can’t really avoid but have to work through.
Karin Schneider For me, it was a place for experimentation.
Rhea Anastas We were interested in getting pieces from older artists from the 1960s, ’70s and ’80s, and showing them alongside works that were being made at the time. In a way, we felt this was very different from what museums or non-profits were doing: a canonization of the work of the 1960s and ’70s. We were interested in countering those kinds of dynamics by bringing those artworks into a very simple storefront space and letting people of all ages see them, talk about them and experience the ideas that surrounded them.
Nicolás Guagnini There was a mandate that, every time anyone walked into the gallery, an artist would be there to discuss the work. And there was a table with books and written material. Coming to an exhibition at Orchard meant dealing with artists – something that wasn’t happening then and that hasn’t really happened since.
Bennett Simpson The thing that Orchard really affirmed for me was that artists could be in charge of the discourse not only around their work, but around art history, too. Often, artists had the most insightful reads on art history and could be in control of their relationship to it. They didn’t need to wait for critics or curators or art historians to situate them and tell them what their work meant: they could do it for themselves.
Andrea Fraser Unlike the market-driven galleries of Chelsea, we wanted to create a gallery with an artistic programme. I would describe that programme as committed to conceptual art traditions, broadly understood, including experimental film and video practices and spanning multiple generations as well as geographies, including Eastern and Western Europe and North and South America.
Rhea Anastas I’m just confused that people aren’t challenging the gallery model more, that they’re not asking more questions, that they aren’t wanting different things. I’m surprised, actually, at the extent to which everybody seems to want to follow the same model and open the same kind of space.
Jeff Preiss Orchard was successful because of how much it produced and how much it gave people personally. It was also a social experiment that had a terrifying outcome because it showed just how challenging the stresses are on the core group that has to agree on how to run it. I don’t think any permanent damage was done but, like most groups of this kind, there are always going to be tensions among people who go in as like-minded friends, as the family that you choose. Once you put a container around that, it becomes incredibly challenging.
R.H. Quaytman It saved my ass. It helped me understand what I was doing and the importance of the context. At the time, I was shaky on the site-specificity of my work. Orchard gave me clarity in terms of looking at art history and seeing what I was trying to come out of and what could be at the root of my practice.
Rhea Anastas I think it’s good to go through a process like that. Now, we have this capitalist siloing of everything and nobody really has these kinds of shared conversations anymore: there are no arguments, no negative criticisms. I think it’s much worse now because you have a lot of individualism and professionalism and careerism. Under these conditions, how do you know what you believe in or what’s at stake for you? How do you know what position to take if you’re not around vigorous debate? We all came out of New York during the 1980s and ’90s, when the art world was made up of artists and, after openings, you would go out and drink and argue about shows. I think that culture has been lost. Now, the point of tension is about money and success – whether something sells or not. And that produces a lot of terrible feelings between artists in terms of whether you’re in the market or not.
Christian Philipp Müller Orchard changed the personal relationships between a group of close friends. We felt, when we had these discussions before opening the space, that there was a vacuum, that there was a need for certain kind of works to be presented that we couldn’t see at the New Museum, at Artists Space, at White Columns. But then you have 12 members, 12 visions. So, what I really liked about the project was that it was limited to three years.
Jeff Preiss The very last show was a framework for a film of mine, Spring Wound (2005–08), which took on the idea of three-year duration because that was the duration of Orchard. It was a film that tried to point outside of itself, to the left and to the right, towards the other films in the show that were all the collaborations I had done in that very space. This was the last show and the peak of Orchard-mania. So, for me, going from feeling that I started it with Nic, in that very first phone call, to having completed it with this installation that looked into itself and had this super-charged audience because of all the steps in between, was a very satisfactory, very dramatic trajectory. The end of Orchard, for me, was a very well-balanced closure.
Christian Philipp Müller The memories are bitter-sweet.
Bennett Simpson The just-past is always kind of embarrassing.
This article appeared in frieze issue 235 with the headline ‘Sooner or Later, We All End Up in Retail’
Main image: Christian Philipp Müller, ‘Around the Corner’, 2006. Courtesy: Christian Philipp Müller