Volume 76, Number 14 | August 23 - 29, 2006

A gallery without borders

East Village curator William Smolen creates alt spaces for art

By Steven Snyder

In the art world there always seems to be a new ingenue, but for many artists in recent years, the hot new thing has been the alternative art space. William Smolen, a 25–year–old East Villager with his own lifestyle consulting practice as well as an eclectic background in art (Sotheby’s and MoMA’s Junior Associates Board), business (Goldman Sachs), government (he interned in Britain’s Parliament) and fashion (Armani), is the latest in a long line of curators trying to rethink the concept of the traditional art gallery.

Teaming up with Christine Maxon and Nick Herro, both 24–year–old New York artists, the trio recently founded the East Village–based Project 1981, an unlikely arts organization with an unusual mission: To operate independently of established art galleries and to serve as the middle man between independent artists and art buyers, all while showcasing their works in unconventional ways.

Smolen says one of those ways is abandoning the entire notion of a stationary gallery or a fixed space, instead establishing an arts organization that is always on the move. Think of it as a gallery on wheels with a constantly changing interior. The group’s first major show is scheduled for later this fall.

Why the name Project 1981?

There’s a theme right now that people are getting younger and younger in the art world. You look at Zach Feuer, who opened his own West Chelsea gallery at only 26, and others like him and you realize how much young talent there is in this city.

But so often young artists aren’t getting discovered, or their work is being presented in these sterile, large galleries. So in picking a fixed date for the name Project 1981, we’re both celebrating the fact that we’re younger and trying to pair artworks with a space and an attitude that compliment them. I mean, being an artist is all about making exact decisions, so why shouldn’t the curator do the same thing?
 
What kinds of decisions?

Christine and Nick, for example, put on a show while at college in Wisconsin that was called “Sensual Tensions,” and it was put together in the school’s run—down exhibit space just before they moved in together. And what they did was cram all their artwork on to one cluttered wall, reflecting their cramped studio space, and then they set up the rest of the exhibit like their apartment, bringing two of everything — two coffee tables, two chairs, two couches. It was hilarious.

In another show, called “Office Kiss,” the space was set up like an office while soft jazz was pumped in. People had to wear business casual and the exhibition became part of the art itself.
 
What’s the Project’s first project?

Starting next month we’re going to have a series of mini-exhibitions, using smaller spaces — like a roof, an apartment — to display smaller collections of work from two or three artists. We’ll post photos of those smaller collections on our web site, and use them as a run-up for a much larger show later this fall called “Hometown Hero.” The idea here is to build off our common experience [all three founders of Project 1981 are natives of southeast Wisconsin] and the experience of so many artists here in New York who left their homes to come here and try their luck in the big city. It’s partly a celebration, partly a tribute to the cliche.

How will you customize the space for that show?

We’re not entirely sure yet, but we’re toying with lots of ideas. One idea we like, going along with the 1981 theme, is to have a kid, maybe 13 years old, greet people outside the venue in a suit and tie...kind of taking the whole idea of people getting younger to the extreme. Imagine people showing up to an art exhibit and they have to have a conversation with a kid at a booth before going in.
 
Do you think the idea behind Project 1981 — focusing on the venue as much as the art — is something that will resonate with people?

Sure, it’s already working for groups like art collectives. But so often groups like that are more concerned with supporting and encouraging their friends, and with Project 1981 we want to be more critical and discerning. If you look at the Feuer gallery — I don’t know if this is true or not — but I heard he showed Dana Schutz in an apartment space.

When you hear something like that, it becomes pretty easy to believe that people are ready to embrace this idea that the space isn’t something that needs to necessarily stay the same, but that it can change, evolve and even relocate with each show.

I see you’re a lifestyle consultant. Would you advise your clients to go to a show like this?

Well, they’re usually more interested in things like furnishing their apartment or getting info on restaurants or clubs, but yeah, I definitely would. You know, I’m always heading out, whether it’s to Barbara Gladstone, Gagosian or even Metro Pictures...and I know that some of the artists and some of the works we’re finding with Project 1981 are just as good as anything out there. Sure, they’re not in Chelsea, but sometimes the best things aren’t.

Learn more about Project 1981 at www.project1981.org.

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