No Alternative: Soho Stalwart Artists Space Is Expanding to Tribeca

Can a German curator remake a New York institution?

“Stefan had that thing I used to have when I first came to New York,” Mr. Gillick told The Observer, “which is that New York has potential. I think the board got this intense feeling that he was coming with the idea that the place, that the city, has potential.”

These days, few doubt Mr. Kalmár’s ambition. “Stefan is plugged into what a lot of younger curators are interested in,” said the gallerist Mitchell Algus, who has worked with him.

Many of the artists Messrs. Kalmár and Birkett have elected to show are not emerging ones, but rather older, often-obscure figures whom larger institutions have ignored, like Charlotte Posenenske, who made mutable sculptures in the 1960s before quitting the art world to become a sociologist, and Mark Morrisroe, a photographer of downtown New York’s gay communities in the ’80s.

“People still saw Artists Space as a sort of advocacy organization that should promote young artists’ careers,” Mr. Kalmár said, “that we should essentially test run artists for the market, and I don’t think that’s what we should do. Our thing is to make a program.

“Unlike any other organization, we are the space for artists,” he said. “But we are not necessarily the space for artists by showing them.” Instead, it means providing a discursive space for artists (hence the 55 Walker branch) and meeting with a group calling itself Working Artists and the Greater Economy, which advocates that artists be paid fees when producing work for institutions.

In October, Mr. Kalmár also inadvertently hosted an event with a group inspired by the Occupy Wall Street movement, which took up residence in the building. The group, which included artists, held sometimes tense discussions with the staff and refused to speak with press. Staff claim that an occupier broke into a storage locker and removed a laptop. After about 28 hours, the board voted to ask them to leave, and, in the presence of security guards, they complied.

“The language used, the aggression used, didn’t make me believe that this was a utopian, more democratic moment.” Mr. Kalmár said, quickly adding, “I think for all parties this was an interesting experience.”

“I think it tells you something about Stefan,” Mr. Gillick said of the incident. “He would neither be the hip dad with the kids, sitting down and barricading himself in with them and hanging the banner outside to look good, but he also wouldn’t be the asshole either.

“He asked questions and tried to confront the situation but also be flexible and move with it. As we get further away from that event, you can see it as a kind of marker of something. It set a kind of line in the sand, and we’re not sure where it is. The thing’s not over.”

For the moment, things are looking up for Artists Space. Reviews have been largely favorable. The second location is set to open. The curators are at work on exhibitions with critical favorites the Bernadette Corporation and Chris Kraus. Revenue for fiscal year 2010-11 was up 35 percent over the previous year, according to Mr. Kalmár, mostly thanks to increased individual giving.

“We can’t offer them canapé-and-Champagne receptions,” Mr. Kalmár said of his donors. “What we can do is make them proud of being involved in something that contributes to the artists living and working in New York, and continues to generate discussion among them.”

“I have always believed that vision sells,” he continued. And he added later, “Pie charts and visitor profiles—this, in the long run, will cause disaster for the organization. Integrity and a vision are the only things we have, not much else.”

In an art world as large as today’s, and one so dominated by the market, that may be the key to successful alternative spaces’ appeal.

The board has attracted high-powered market types like Mr. Schwartzman, dealer Lawrence Luhring and Frieze Art Fair director Amanda Sharp, as well as prominent artists like Rirkrit Tiravanija and Ms. Harrison, and they’re all working to build an organization with an annual budget of only about $1 million—less than the price of many Damien Hirst spot paintings—into a place that can host important debates, and maybe provoke some arguments.

“We have always had a sort of a joke here,” Mr. Kalmár said. “Initially I wanted to use this as a slogan, but I was stopped from doing that.” A few staff members looked over from their computers with nervous smiles. “It was, ‘Forty years and still old school.’”

Correction: An earlier version of this piece incorrectly stated that Roland Augustine is a member of Artists Space’s board. Lawrence Luhring, however, is. In addition, we have clarified that the Wojnarowicz controversy led to the cancellation of grant money.