BY Matt Shaw in Reviews , US Reviews | 05 DEC 22

The Forgotten History of Storefront for Art and Architecture

A show commemorating the 40th anniversary of the downtown Manhattan institution conjures up its ethos as a scrappy advocate for public space

BY Matt Shaw in Reviews , US Reviews | 05 DEC 22

On a beautiful September afternoon in downtown New York in 1982, a crowd cheered as the artist Tehching Hsieh – his hair matted, his clothes dirty – entered his apartment at 111 Hudson Street. It was the first time he had stepped indoors for an entire year, and this ceremonious moment – the conclusion of his One Year Performance 1981–82 – was commemorated by a gathering of folks organized by Storefront for Art and Architecture, a new artist-run project space located at nearby 51 Prince Street.

'Retrospective of Storefront', 1986 and 'Performance A-Z', 1982. Courtesy: Storefront for Art and Architecture; photograph: Andrea Molina Cuadro

Hsieh’s performance was a gonzo investigation into what it means to live outside. Part activism, part research and a little comedy, it is a good example of the kind of itinerant urban strategy at the intersection of art and the built environment that Storefront was fostering at the time – and continues to promote today. The event was part of ‘Performance A-Z’, Storefront’s inaugural programming series, comprising 26 consecutive nightly performances – most of which took place on the sidewalk in front of the gallery – by a range of artists, including Des Refuses, R.L. Seltman, Arleen Schloss and Carolee Schneemann.

The gritty, chaotic energy of those early days is now the subject of an exhibition at Storefront’s Kenmare Street location – a space it’s occupied since 1986. ‘Public Space in a Private Time: Building Storefront for Art and Architecture’ is an archival exhibition featuring more than 200 artefacts illustrating the history of the institution. Architects at the forefront of art-adjacent and speculative practices – including Storefront founder Kyong Park, Michael Sorkin and James Wines – worked in dialogue with artists to bring fresh perspectives to issues concerning public space and urban architecture. The flyers, letters, writings and artworks on display are illustrative of how Storefront has always bridged the gap between architecture and art.

'Homeless at Home: A Public Project', 1985. Courtesy: Storefront for Art and Architecture; photograph: Andrea Molina Cuadro

The title of the show derives from Vito Acconci’s eponymous 1990 essay, which sought to define public space in an age of technological acceleration and the changing politics of the late 20th century. In describing how art might influence all aspects and audiences in his new conception of public space, he wrote: ‘The end is public, but the means of public art might be private. The end is people, but the means might be individual persons. The end is space, but the means might be fragments and bits.’

While Acconci’s prescient prose lends its name to the show, the exhibition’s subtitles are drawn from the writings of Park, who, along with co-director, the artist Shirin Neshat, organized many of Storefront’s events. The section ‘Margin as Center’, for instance, highlights how the space showcased artists and projects that large commercial galleries wouldn’t. In 1985, the group show ‘Homeless at Home – which invited artists to document homelessness, propose alternative housing solutions and tag public spaces to raise awareness of this growing issue in New York – had so many participants that they had to be grouped alphabetically, with well-known names such as Nam June Paik or Christo exhibited alongside younger artists in need of a platform.

'Queer Space', 1994 and 'NY Masjid: The Mosques of NY', 1996. Courtesy: Storefront for Art and Architecture; photograph: Michael Oliver

Storefront’s programme often shone a spotlight on communities and spaces that were not highly visible at the time. The 1994 group show ‘Queer Space’, for instance, was a series of installations, interventions and proposals around New York that asked how underrepresented groups could stake a claim to the city. In 1996, for ‘NY Masjid: The Mosques of New York, a team of architects, historians and photographers analyzed and documented the city’s mosques in order to portray them as part of the American cultural fabric and, ultimately, to challenge undue negative stereotypes about US Muslims.

In tandem with Storefront’s extensive programming, arguably the most important element in the institution’s history is the building itself. The facade of the iconic, wedge-shaped gallery on Kenmare Street was designed by Acconci and architect Steven Holl, its rotating facade panels acting as a public interface that exemplifies the institution’s mission by physically extending its presence into the immediate environment. The history of the building is examined in ‘Through the Facade, Onto the Sidewalk, Into the Street’, while a massive wall text on the second floor denotes how central the building’s design is to the ethos of Storefront.

'Public Space in a Private Time: Building Storefront for Art and Architecture', 2022, installation view. Courtesy: Storefront for Art and Architecture; photograph: Andrea Molina Cuadro

Public Space in a Private Time’ comes at an opportune time: more than ever before, New York needs a space like Storefront to galvanize the local community and reinvigorate the city in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic. Equally, this 40th anniversary celebration affords the opportunity to reflect on how the institution can draw on its history to evolve without falling into nostalgia. Storefront has always been a place for gathering, sharing ideas and platforming the best thinking of our time, without the elitism or molasses-like bureaucracy of other New York institutions. ‘Public Space in a Private Time’ offers a glimpse into Storefront’s past and, hopefully, its future.

Public Space in a Private Time’ is on view at Storefront for Art and Architecture, New York, until 10 December.

Main image: 'Public Space in a Private Time: Building Storefront for Art and Architecture', 2022, installation view. Courtesy: Storefront for Art and Architecture; photograph: Michael Oliver

Matt Shaw is a New York–based author, editor and columnist. He lectures at the University of Pennsylvania Stuart Weitzman School of Design, Philadelphia, USA.