Survival In New York: An Interview With Triple Candie

by Paddy Johnson on October 14, 2010 · 10 comments Interview

Triple Candie Screengrab

This month at Map Magazine I have a feature on what it means to survive in New York. The article won’t be online until the end of the month, but in the meantime I will be posting interview excerpts that didn’t make it into the piece. The first interview in this series is with Shelly Bancroft and Peter Nesbett of Triple Candie, a non-profit gallery located in Harlem.

What does survival in New York mean? Is it simply paying your bills? Is it the same as success?

Survival in NY for us means doing what we want to do in the place we want to do it in (Harlem) and not getting kicked out of our gallery, for non payment of rent, in the process….Sometimes survival means just not getting so far behind that it becomes impossible to continue.

Just being able to survive IS a form of success for those organizations that are truly trying to challenge and change the status-quo. But survival alone is not success. Success is doing something well and differently and being recognized for it and having others want to “copy” or refer to your model.

How important is longevity to defining survival or success?

If success is understood as leaving an influential legacy, then longevity is generally important, though not always. There are examples of spaces that existed for a very short period of time and that have had an important impact (e.g. Seth Seigelaub’s gallery) but they are rare.

Is Triple Candie your only job? How much time is necessary to invest in Triple Candie or other artistic pursuits in order to keep it afloat?

We’ve never taken a salary for the work we’ve done for Triple Candie; it has been all-volunteer, professionally run. So, no, it has never been a “job” in the sense of it contributing to our livelihood. This has been quite deliberate…Between the two of us we average about 50 hours/week on Triple Candie and 60-80 hours/week on other pursuits. From 2001-3, Peter ran a private arts foundation. From 2004-9, we co-published an art magazine.

How is surviving as a non-profit different from for-profit?

We don’t sell, don’t try to sell, never participate in art fairs, and generally destroy or recycle everything we show (but other non-profits do all or some of these things). The only sources of income for us are grants and contributions. Initially, the majority of our income was in grants (from foundations & governments). When we stopped working directly with artists, this dried up. Most foundations supporting the arts require that you directly support the work of artists. When they asked in their grant applications, “How many artists did you support in the previous year?” our answer was, inevitably, “none”.

Commercial galleries — even many nonprofits — are intentionally aloof vis-a-vis the non-art gallery visitor. For a commercial gallery, it is terribly inefficient and counterproductive to spend time on someone who can’t help advance an artist’s career by engaging with it professionally — collecting it, exhibiting it, or writing about it critically/historically. These aren’t our primary motives in deciding whether or not to engage visitors in conversation. Anyone who is curious enough to look and ask questions about what they see, we are happy to engage in conversation. We’re interested in how people negotiate their experiences in the gallery; what they see that we don’t see; what type of impact an exhibition has on them.

In what ways does the culture of New York inform your approach to living and working in the city?

It has informed it in two ways. One, we have reacted AGAINST New York’s overwhelmingly commercial art world by not selling art, but by also not showing it either. The most effective way we’ve found to do this is to look like an art gallery, to present shows about art, but not to show any actual art. The context is very important. So New York itself has been instrumental in the development of our curatorial philosophy.

But more importantly, the culture of Harlem — its low income levels, its ethnic diversity — has opened us up to thinking about what art means to communities outside of the art world, and what roles art might play in such contexts.

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