Volume 75, Number 23 | Oct. 26 - Nov. 01, 2005

Villager photo by Clayton Patterson

Bobby G and Charlie Ahearn at the ABC No Rio auction last Thursday night.

Punk rock to riches; Rio raises big bucks

By Sarah Ferguson

Several hundred people turned out last Thursday for ABC No Rio’s 25th Anniversary Benefit Auction, held at Deitch Projects on Wooster Street in Soho.

Megadealer Jeffrey Deitch’s uber-hip exhibition space was an unlikely venue for the defiantly downscale No Rio, the Lower East’s original “anti-space,” which was founded in 1980 as an alternative to the moneyed gallery scene.

While Paper magazine editor Carlo McCormick spun ’80s New Wave from the balcony, patrons sipped cocktails and munched on platters of sushi and hors d’oevres donated by local restaurants 71 Clinton Fresh Food, Mo Pitkin’s and Two Boots. By contrast, at most No Rio shows, you’re more likely to be treated to a bowl of overspiced vegan stew made from dumpstered vegetables cooked by the Food Not Bombs crew.

But the sleek environs was proof of how determined No Rio is to raise funds to preserve and win title to the dilapidated tenement at 156 Rivington Street that it has occupied for two and a half decades.

“It may be ironic, but it’s dead earnest,” said Alan Moore, an art historian and one of the instigators behind the infamous “Real Estate Show” on New Year’s Eve in 1979, when he and more than 30 other artists took over an abandoned storefront on Delancey Street to protest skyrocketing rents along with the city’s refusal to lease them the space.

The Koch administration’s response — padlocking the storefront and confiscating their art — proved so controversial that it quickly agreed to lease the group the storefront and basement at 156 Rivington, never realizing that this feisty arts collective would eventually turn the place into a neighborhood institution.

“Even we didn’t expect to get a permanent space,” said Moore of that founding art action. “That was kind of a byproduct. Now, of course, it’s the goal.”

But permanency has been an uphill battle. Many may have thought No Rio saved in 1997, when after years of heady protest, the city’s Department of Housing Preservation and Development agreed to turn over the building for a dollar as long as No Rio came up with the funds to renovate it.

But the cost of a near-total gut rehab — currently estimated at $700,000 — has proved daunting for the volunteer-run art and activist center, which prides itself on its anti-commercial, even anti-capitalist ethos.

“For the first few years, we were caught in a catch 22, where H.P.D. wanted us to raise all the money before they would give us the building,” said director Steve Englander, who remains No Rio’s only paid staffer. “The problem with that is major foundations and government agencies don’t want to give you money until you own or at least have a 10-year net lease.

“Finally in 2003, H.P.D. agreed to allow us to break up the project into three phases and let us acquire the building if we raise the funds for phase one,” Englander said.

Yet even that amount — about $300,000 — has been tough to come by for a not-for-profit kept afloat by small grants and the donations it receives from its weekly punk rock shows, poetry readings and experimental music jams. No Rio’s annual budget is less than $75,000 a year.

Hence the importance of Thursday night’s gala benefit, which featured works donated by some of No Rio’s now famous alumni such as Kiki Smith, Tom Otterness, Judy Glantzman and Rebecca Howland, along with scores of other artists.

Upstairs in the gallery’s balcony space were selections from the No Rio archive, which underscored the center’s gritty beginnings. At the top of the stairs perched one of Christi Rupp’s cement rats cast in a pile of rubble, near a Harvey Wang photo of a young Latino boy smashing a car window with a baseball bat. Magic-marker-scrawled fliers announced group shows with themes like “The Crime Show” and “Murder, Suicide and Junk.”

“We were really dealing with the raw urban fabric of the Lower East Side,” said Moore of No Rio’s first shows. “It was a major drug market, so there were people shooting up in the hallways and the local kids would go through your purse or jacket to rob you. Yet for a lot of artists, that’s why there were there: to confront that and deal with it.”

Painter Bobby G, who moved into No Rio’s basement in 1980 and served as caretaker until 1992, recalled just how ad hoc the collective’s hold on the building was in those days.

“I went out for breakfast one morning and the junkies set the place on fire,” said Bobby G, whose real name is Robert Goldman. “The people who lived upstairs used the fire as an opportunity to have the city relocate them to hotels and put them up in the projects. So the junkies took over their apartments as shooting galleries. It was really scary.

“I was so stupid and naïve, I went upstairs and rousted out the junkies and changed the locks,” Bobby G continued. “Then I went to the city and told them their responsibility was to secure and maintain the building and I was the only one doing that, so they should write me a lease for one of those apartments. Incredibly they did, so I got an apartment on the third floor. They even made me the super.”

Other artists and activists took over other apartments on the upper floors and No Rio eventually colonized the whole building — much to the chagrin of H.P.D., which considered them squatters.

Giving up those squatted spaces was one of the sacrifices made to save No Rio, but Englander says the tradeoff has paid off because it enabled them to turn the whole building into a community center. In the place of those apartments there is now a ’zine library and computer lab, a communal dark room and a silkscreen print center where anyone can walk in and run off a screen for just $5.

“There’s nothing else like them in the city,” said Anne Arden McDonald, a photographer based in East Williamsburg who donated several photographs to the auction. “I did a plastic camera show with them years ago, and then I just kept in touch because of all the good things they do for young people,” said McDonald, speaking of the free art and photography classes that No Rio offers to junior high and high school kids, some of them in collaboration with Cooper Union.

For all its hole-in-the-wall ambience, supporters say No Rio remains vital to young artists seeking to explore new ideas. “No Rio is the only place where you can go in and do a show about whatever you want,” said 30-year-old Vandana Jain, a Queens native and member of No Rio’s board of directors whose own work explores the intersection of advertising and religious symbology. “As long as it’s not racist, homophobic or misogynist, you can do it. If you’re an artist and you want to give a voice to your community, they’re right there.”

“They’re sort of a clearinghouse for people to go and show work that wouldn’t normally get exhibited, especially work with a political nature that is not especially saleable,” added David B. Frye, who donated a large and rather provocative painting of Christian-right zealot Neal Horsley having sex with a mule.

Frye pointed to an upcoming show entitled “Three Cities Against the Wall,” which features artists from New York, Tel Aviv and Ramallah protesting the separation wall that Israel is constructing through the occupied Palestinian territories. “Nobody else would touch that,” Frye said of the show, which opens at No Rio on Nov. 9.

But edgy shows and good works can’t renovate a building, and while the benefit attracted many ardent fans and veterans of the East Village culture wars, many were disappointed that it didn’t draw the kind of deep-pocketed collectors that No Rio was counting on.

There was a flurry of bids for a signed “Imagine Peace” poster by Yoko Ono, which went for $465. But no one bid on Kiki Smith’s gold-and-palladium-leaf bird print, which had a starting price of $7,500, let alone the original oil-pastel rubbing on newsprint by Claes Oldenburg, which was offered at $1,000.

“It was the first benefit like this that we’ve done in like 20 years, so it’s going to take some time to reach people who can afford those kind of things,” conceded Englander, who called the auction a “bargain hunter’s paradise.”

Indeed, a scrawled “concrete poem” by sculptor Carl Andre, a leader of the 1960s Minimalist movement, was snatched up for a mere $600 — despite protest from performance artist Carmelita Tropicana, who objected to Andre’s inclusion in the show because of lingering suspicions about his possible role in the death of his wife, famed Cuban artist Ana Mendieta. (Andre was tried and acquitted of her murder.)

Despite the light bidding and Deitch’s last-minute decision to move up the auction date three days, Englander estimates they raised about $20,000 — which would put No Rio about $10,000 or so short of the funds it needs to begin renovation. The first stage involves structural work to bolster the tenement’s sagging exterior walls. They also plan to install all-new plumbing, electric and heating systems and an eco-friendly green roof.

Englander expects the project to move through the final phase of the city’s uniform land use review procedure (ULURP) by the end of November, and says the rehab could begin as early as next spring if the money is there and the Buildings Department approves their plans.

That wouldn’t be a moment too soon for Steve Harrington, a former squatter and longtime supporter, who spent a recent night tarping over the roof, which has been leaking like a sieve. Although No Rio is festooned with wildly creative art, like the intricate collages that grace the stairwell, or the Roy Lichtenstein-esque paintings in the print room, Harrington concedes the mildewed gallery space and crumbling walls are now hindering the center’s ability to attract neighborhood youth, who may not be enamored with the grimy, punk rock aesthetic. “The local kids and their parents don’t want to be going into a bombed-out building,” he said.

But expect the place to be jammed on Halloween, when No Rio puts on its annual free Haunted House for area kids. And expect more fundraising appeals in the near future.

“This is not a place that’s accustomed to making money. This is a place that is run on goodwill,” said local artist Marguerite Van Cook, whose son Crosby took photography classes there when he was in high school and had his photos shown with other No Rio students at Cooper Union. “If you ever wanted to give a penny to a real organization that really delivers for the young people it serves, this is a place to do it.”

To donate to ABC No Rio’s building fund, go to www. abcnorio.org or call 212-254-3697, ext. 13.

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