Terri C. Smith of Franklin Street Works in Conversation for 10xCommunity

It is a personal pleasure to feature the incredible work of the versatile and dedicated Terri C. Smith, whose leadership at Franklin Street Works yielded meaningful, community-based exhibitions such as “Otherwise Obscured: Erasure in Body and Text and “Acting on Dreams: The State of Immigrant Rights, Conditions and Advocacy in the United States.” A thoughtful curator, and alumna of the prestigious Bard Center for Curatorial Studies, Smith dedicates herself toward contextualizing conversations around art and social conditions within spaces ripe for critical inquiry.

We sat down to learn more about her time specifically at Franklin Street Works, and how the organization is dedicating its next chapter to archiving its powerful body of programs, events and exhibitions, contextualizing them for a new audience.

(Below image, Cut Up: Contemporary Collage and Cut-Up Histories through a Feminist Lens curated by Katie Vida, installation view. Foreground: Faith Ringgold. Background (L-R): Meredyth Sparks, Martine Syms, and Lourdes Correa-Carlo. Photo by Object Studies
Lead image, Roots & Roads, curated by Anita N. Bateman, installation view. Foreground: commissioned site-specific installation by Nontsikelelo Mutiti. Background (L-R): works by Jay Simple and Bryan Keith Thomas. Photo by Object Studies.)

 

ANTE. Thanks, Terri, for sitting down with us! So Franklin Street Works was known as a contemporary art space but during your time working there, it achieved recognition for engaging with social justice as well. Can you elaborate on the founding of the space, its evolution and how social justice aligned with FWS’ mission?

Terri C. Smith. Being the founding creative director of an arts organization is a unique perspective because you are steeped in its institutional history and have a deep on-the-ground understanding of its growth and impact. When I was invited to co-found Franklin Street Works by Stamford lawyer and philanthropist Kathryn Emmett she had the idea of an art space with a cafe. It was up to me to craft the specifics in terms of mission, vision, and programming. I had been in Connecticut working in the arts for a few years and had a sense of that scene. When I began conceptualizing what FSW might look like, I was thinking a lot about NYC alternative art spaces from the 60s and 70s like Artists Space, The Kitchen, and Food and their commitment to emerging artists and grassroots principles. I also had 15 years of experience working in two accredited museums and valued good scholarship and museum best practices. So my thinking was to create a program that included rigorous exhibitions and also integrated values of community inclusion – a discursive, social, and activist community hub with contemporary art at its center.

When we first opened in Stamford, Connecticut, showing conceptual art necessitated a lot of interpretation and direct conversations with visitors. In the beginning, merely showing conceptual art felt like a form of activism! All of our exhibitions were original, thematic group shows curated in house by guest curators or myself. This thematic approach aimed to build an audience beyond arts-interested individuals by drawing connections between contemporary art practices and events in our day-to-day lives.  In other words, if an exhibition included work about the environment, the idea is that it would attract folks who might not be familiar with contemporary art, but, because of their interest in nature, science or conservation they would have a point of entry. It was an individualized approach that aimed at connecting, often challenging, contemporary art to a broader public.

As far as how the social justice trajectory connected to our mission, these key factors spring to mind: our coincidental opening of the space when Occupy Wall Street was encamped in Zuccotti Park; an archive of artist activist collectives we developed for a 2013 exhibition; our exploration of Franklin Street Works’ values with a 2014 strategic plan; and a show on immigration Yaelle Amir curated for us in 2015 (see above, “Acting on Dreams.”) I’ve only recently realized it, but Occupy Wall Street was a profound influence on the formation and direction of FSW. I knew some artists who were involved in the Park – many of them affiliated with Bard MFA. It was intriguing to me how artists brought an unmonumental sculpture/MFA materiality to activism and how an alternative, pop-up social system that shared qualities with social practice projects was being constructed from scratch there. I now understand FSW was influenced by OWS’s materiality and its creation of an inclusive, activist space that interrogated the status quo and posited corrective, world-building scenarios.

Social justice as an exhibition theme was directly addressed for the first time with our 2013 exhibition Working Alternatives: Breaking Bread, Art Broadcasting and Collective Action, co-curated by Mackenzie Schneider, Jess Wilcox and myself. We were thinking about how artists used food, broadcasting, and collective action during the early history of alternative spaces in NYC, and how artists were still using these tactics. Jess explored artists who use food, Mackenzie looked at artists using media like television and newspapers, and our gallery manager, Sandrine Milet, and I explored collective action, sending out an open call for materials from self-described artist/activist collectives. The starting date for our artist/activist collectives was the end date of an existing archive organized by NYC artist/activist collective Political Art Documentation & Distribution (PAD/D), which included socially conscious arts organizations working from 1979–1990. We put a call out to more than 90 collectives and received materials from approximately 30.  While the show was on view, Brooke Singer, a Professor of New Media at SUNY Purchase (who was in one of the collectives we exhibited) invited us to take the archive out of its boxes and present it as an exhibition at the College’s Passage gallery later that year. Sandrine and I curated Collective Action Archive with Purchase students Stephen Barakat and Gina Mischianti, writing additional interpretive texts about the collectives and exhibition essays from various points of view. Eventually the materials were accessioned into the SUNY Purchase Library zine archive, making them available to students and scholars.

Nadia Wolff-commissioned performance, A Litany, at the opening reception of Roots & Roads, curated by Anita N. Bateman. Photo by Terri C Smith.

This year-long immersion into collective action art practices was followed by Franklin Street Works’ 2014 strategic plan, which re-emphasized our commitment to socially conscious art and community engagement. In the strategic plan, we described our core values, “Art is part of a larger social enterprise and thereby serves as a catalyst for social action. Both the individual artist and our communities are vital partners with us. The artist creates new models and impacts our communities. Our communities generate creative conversations within our space and elsewhere about our production.”

The next year, when Yaelle Amir curated Acting on Dreams: The State of Immigrant Rights, Conditions, and Advocacy in the United States, FSW’s work in social justice really began to crystallize. I personally had an “ah ha” moment about how actionable elements could become part of an art exhibition when Yaelle asked us to create a resource list of regional immigrant organizations for the catalog. I was energized by how Acting On Dreams was firing on all cylinders. The artworks and commissioned installations were well executed and materially interesting, but it was also exhibition as logistical support, community gathering place, investigative journalism platform, educational venue, and more. From then on, we were off to the races in actively planning exhibitions that addressed social justice issues head on. 

ANTE. The pandemic has affected everyone in the arts, and has required flexibility and resourcefulness. Your team has recognized that the time has come to put future exhibitions in the physical space on hold. What are your goals moving forward in building an archive? In addition, how do you hope this archival project will evolve? What resources in particular are you seeking to help achieve this goal? 

TCS. It is important to me that the legacy of Franklin Street Works lives on through a digital archive that is organized and accessible to anyone interested in contemporary art history or any of our 415 past exhibiting artists and collectives. I’m working with a handful of past board members to map a path forward in creating that. Right now we are exploring the best approaches in applying for archiving grants. I’ve also been talking to other small art spaces that no longer have physical spaces but still have an online presence, and chatting with archivist friends about the best order of operations in getting started. Since the entirety of FSW’s institutional memory is in my brain and my computer (and back up disk, of course!) it is my responsibility to organize the materials in preparation for a professional archivist. In a perfect world, I’d like to have the spirit of FSW live on in a less localized way. It would be exciting to see the archive combine with a national program of grants for emerging artists and to create and/or support commissioned projects.

Love Action Art Lounge curated by Terri C Smith, installation view of Carmelle Safdie’s commissioned, site-specific installation. Photo by Object Studies.

 

 ANTEWhat particular aspect of your tenure do you reflect on with satisfaction?

TCS. There are so many, but two aspects that come to mind immediately.

First, the transformative nature of Franklin Street Works’ educational programming. The physical space of FSW is an intimate repurposed Victorian row house. So when we had tours, talks, and performances, there wasn’t much physical distance between the community and the presenters. I also intentionally set a very welcoming tone that signified there wasn’t much, if any, hierarchical distance between artist and audience either. I think this intimacy and casual, social vibe created a comfortable space for learning, questioning, and authentic connection that was memorable and resonant. There were dozens of times when a past event attendant would volunteer specifics about how it changed their perspective or affected the course of their work or life. 

The second aspect is a personal one. I developed so many wonderful relationships with FSW’s artists, curators, staff/board, interns, and contract workers these last nine years. So many of the people we partnered with on projects were collaborative, talented, and conscientious. My life is vastly enriched for having known them. I was 43 when I co-founded FSW. Frequently in middle age we can become set in our ways, but my life was infused with an endless stream of compassionate critique, encouragement, and aspirational thinking. Many of the folks I worked with became my teachers, modeling generosity and inquisitiveness, pointing out when I was being old fashioned or on auto pilot, and perennially challenging me to work toward optimal equity and inclusiveness. As stressful as the labor of running an art space can be, the love, laughs, and learning outshone the fatigue that sometimes accompanies this type of work.

Sherry Millner artist talk on the occasion of In this place where the guest rests, curated by Jacqueline Mabey. Photo by Michael Mandiberg.

 

ANTE. How have you focused your energy on moving forward during the pandemic as a cultural producer?

TCS. With the COVID-19 pandemic, this is such a universal question right now in the arts and beyond. Right now my energy is focused on staying connected with close friends, taking care of my body with exercise, and connecting to nature (and my dog) with walks and gardening. I’m also doing some freelance grant and copywriting for an Alzheimer’s organization which has me thinking about how the labor of families, especially women’s labor, is literally keeping eldercare afloat in the U.S. I am thinking there is a feminist exhibition on labor, healthcare, and ageism in there somewhere. Things are still fresh with FSW closing, and I lost my mother recently too so there are a lot of new normals to digest, consequently, I am doing a lot of reflection right now, in a good way, I think, I hope..! Haha.

As we touched on earlier, I am starting to organize materials for an FSW archive. I am also awkwardly working to shift the Feminisms and the Arts class I teach at UConn-Stamford to distance learning and continuing ask colleagues and friends –  especially those whose practices are about creating more equity and inclusiveness in the art world – how I can support them and their work during these difficult times.

In contemplating the last nine years, I’ve realize that curating for me is most rewarding when it’s in collaboration with a community where I feel a significant connection. Ideally, if I were to commit to another full-time position in the visual arts, the community I choose to work with would be as important as the organization. The places that feel like home to me are Bridgeport (where I live) and New Haven (where I have friends and there is a vibrant art scene) as well as my hometown of Nashville, TN. So I hope to stay put in Connecticut or move back to Tennessee. That said, we never know what the future brings, so I’m keeping an open mind at the same time

Shelley & Donald Rubin Foundation | The 8th Floor Interview for 10xCommunity: “By Addressing Real Life in our Work, There is More Potential for Change”

ANTE Mag is focusing on ten projects that span creative disciplines and seek to build wider community ties between creative disciplines in our new series of interviews 10xCommunity. Featuring artistic projects, community-building initiatives and interdisciplinary platforms, ANTE is sharing these interviews on the mag and across social media that spotlight these endeavors through the current social crisis to pivot to sharing positivity and uplifting creative news to our audience. Shelly & Donald Rubin Foundation, The 8th Floor is a platform for socially engaged exhibitions and programs featuring artists of diverse backgrounds involving communities in dialogues around a range of social issues. ANTE contributor Mariel Tepper touched base with Executive/Artistic Direction at The 8th Floor, Sara Reisman, in order learn more about what types of initiatives they are enacting and following during CoVid-19.

(Lead image credits: Jane Benson. A Place for Infinite Tuning, 2014. Plywood, steel, mirrored plexiglass, wooden vase, latex paint, hand-cut artificial flowers, hand-cut oud and viola Photograph by Matthew Johnson, courtesy of the Shelley & Donald Rubin Foundation.)

 

ANTE mag. How did The Rubin Foundation’s The 8th Floor get its start? What was the initial vision for how The 8th Floor could explore the intersection of art and social justice?

Sara Reisman. The 8th Floor was founded in 2010 by Shelley and Donald Rubin to showcase their private art collection, which, at the time, was focused on contemporary Cuban art. When I started at the Shelley & Donald Rubin Foundation, as Artistic Director, in 2014, part of my charge was to help refine the mission of the Foundation, which was founded in the mid-1990s. The Foundation had supported arts and cultural organizations – ranging from visual arts presenters in New York City, to Himalayan art projects – as well as social justice organizations advocating for freedom of expression, gun control, and access to health care. In the process of identifying that the mission could be more precise in its support of organizations in New York City that were bringing art and social justice together, we determined that The 8th Floor could become a platform for art and dialogue around social justice themes. Initially, I thought there would be a few shows to articulate the Foundation’s interests. The first show I curated at The 8th Floor in 2015 was Mobility and Its Discontents, which included artists Jane Benson, Ángel Delgado, Lan Tuazon, and Javier Téllez, whose projects expressed the impacts of borders and strategies for transcending them. As we – my colleagues George Bolster, Anjuli Nanda Diamond, and I – continued to develop ideas for exhibitions, it became clear a series of shows on social justice themes, building upon one another, could be ongoing. In addition to the exhibitions, public programs and workshops are integral to providing audiences and the communities we serve with a discursive environment that is both communal and supportive of free expression. Without public programming, I think the effect of the exhibitions would be very different, less engaged. 

ANTE mag. The COVID-19 crisis has deeply impacted our society and the art world in unprecedented ways. What are some ways that the Rubin Foundation will stay connected and active in the arts community during this time?

SR. We recently launched a virtual series called Performance-in-Place, which we thought of as a way to engage with artists, providing them with support and a platform, to present new performances generated by the new social distancing measures (whatever that might mean for each of them.) Performance-in-Place will happen every third Tuesday evening (times depending on where the artists are located), our first event was led by Nicolás Dumit Estévez Raful Espejo, in the Bronx, with two collaborators Anna Recasens, and Laia Solé, who are based in different parts of Spain. Their conversation, On Art and Friendship, also showed excerpts from a new video piece they began working on in February to document the aspects of art praxis, that are often not shown in art spaces. For our team, it was moving to see how the three artists facilitated a discussion of sharing and connecting with a group largely consisting of individuals who are often in attendance at The 8th Floor. Forthcoming performances include presentations by Alice Sheppard with Kinetic Light (June 9), From the Collection of Eileen Myles (June 30,) Maria Hupfield (July 11,) a new piece titled Hotline by Aliza Shvarts (September 1,) and Latasha N. Nevada Diggs (September 22.) To complement the performance series, we are hosting monthly talks online as well. On May 28, I will moderate Places of Isolation and Healing, a conversation between Edgar Heap of Birds and Douglas Miles, and on June 18, I’ll be in conversation with artist and activist Carmen Papalia on facilitating accessibility in virtual spaces. 

Initially, I felt that the pressure to generate programs for virtual experiences was uninspiring. But two months into this, I’m realizing there is great potential to connect people internationally, across geographies. Of course, more than ever,  the notion of the digital divide is an issue, but I can see that as we learn to operate virtually, there is an opportunity to approach accessibility in new ways, online and eventually as we make the shift back to doing programs in person.

Mobility and Its Discontents, installation view at The 8th Floor From left to right, works by Alberto Borea, Jorge Wellesley, Lan Tuazon, Jane Benson Photograph by Matthew Johnson, courtesy of the Shelley & Donald Rubin Foundation

 

ANTE mag. Your organization’s past exhibitions explore pressing social issues and concepts, from healthcare to mass surveillance to “different modes of resistance” in the series Revolutionary Cycles. Why is art and culture necessary in times of crisis such as the COVID-19 pandemic?

SR. Revolutionary Cycles was conceived as a series of six exhibitions to examine the instruments of social and political transformation. In the first exhibition Revolution from Without…, which opened in January 2019, artists featured in the show – Chto Delat, Kameelah Janan Rasheed, Dread Scott, and others – expressed how change often comes from those on the margins of the polity, and the condition of being without – without rights, without representation, and without capital. It’s clear to me that in the current climate, a crisis of a failing health care system, capitalism run rampant, and rights being stripped away in the name of national security, art is essential for its capacity to communicate conditions that would otherwise be obscured. I also believe that even as the decision to make art is perceived by many to be one of privilege, being an artist is a precarious existence, and yet, artists constantly take risks in representing unpopular ideas, that question authority, that challenge the status quo. The next exhibition in the Revolutionary Cycles series, To Cast Too Bold a Shadow (originally scheduled to open on May 14 and postponed until at least the fall) is focused on entrenched forms of misogyny in our culture, and will feature works by Betty Tompkins, Joiri Minaya, Yoko Ono, Tracey Emin, Mierle Laderman Ukeles, and Aliza Shvarts, among others. With support from the Italian Council (a funding body of the Italian government) we are commissioning Maria D. Rapicavoli to make a new film, The Other: A Familiar Story, about immigration based on the life of a close relative. The project charts the oppression of a woman who emigrated to the U.S. from Italy, forced to leave her children behind, surviving an abusive relationship in the process. A Familiar Story becomes more timely given the immigration crisis we’ve been witnessing over the last decade, and now with the pandemic in which domestic abuse is compounded by quarantine. The logic behind Rapicavoli’s film demonstrates how artists are often thinking about what is below the surface.

ANTE mag. What have been some of your organization’s narrative goals with past exhibitions and programming, and how might those narratives come into play after this crisis?

SR. We obviously have no real idea what the outcome and conclusion of the pandemic will be, but our exhibitions together present a narrative in which questions of equity and human rights – whether they be LGBTQi rights, disability rights, or to do with reparations – are at the forefront. Regardless of what happens after this crisis (if there is a distinct ‘after’), I hope politically engaged art discourse can continue to be more grounded – as I feel we have been since the pandemic took hold –  in the realities we face as cultures, as communities, as a country. And to understand that reality is not always pleasant, or fair, or aesthetically digestible – but that by addressing real life in our work, there is more potential for change.

Betty Tompkins Apologia (Caravaggio #1), 2018 Courtesy of Betty Tompkins and P·P·O·W, New York

ANTE mag. Public events and programs are a vital aspect of The 8th Floor, with frequent artist talks accompanying exhibitions. During this time is your organization considering any alternative types of programming such as virtual talks or exhibitions?

SR. As I mentioned, last week (on May 19) we launched Performance-in-Place as a virtual series, and monthly talks, which right now feel like a good alternative to the fact that we can’t gather people in real time and space. With that in mind, if the pandemic means we can’t return to doing in-person programming in the fall, or by the end of the year, we will have learned how to conduct virtual programs. We are taking the time to do certain projects that are less immediately visible. For the last year we’ve been hosting a series of closed conversations called Access Check: Mapping Accessibility 2.0, which actually started with a public program last July at The 8th Floor. Organized in collaboration with choreographer and artist Jerron Herman, the talk brought together a group of artists, activists, and educators who have consistently advocated for disability rights and access in the cultural sector. We quickly realized there was a need to continue the discussion, and now we’re in the process of finalizing a survey for the field, split into two tracks: one for artists with disabilities about what is needed from institutions in terms of accessible and equitable programming; and another geared towards organizations and institutions, to understand what their capacity is in terms of facilitating accessible cultural programs. We hope the survey raises awareness about what institutions can do to become more accessible, while helping to formulate tools and language for artists with disabilities to advocate for what they need, similar to the way in which WAGE guidelines provide artists with talking points about payment for their work.

ANTE mag. Are there any current projects, funds or resources you would like to promote for artists or fellow organizations who have been impacted by COVID-19 shutdowns? 

SR. There are so many incredible efforts that have emerged in response to the pandemic. Here are a few that have impressed me in their concern for vulnerable communities:

  • COVID-19 Dance Relief Fund – Linked here.
  • Tri-State Relief Fund to Support Non-Salaried Workers in the Visual Arts – Linked here.  
  • Artist Relief – Linked here. 
  • The Crip Fund – Linked here. 

I’m also impressed by mutual aid efforts that have emerged. The Sunview Luncheonette set up a fund for workers at the Met foodmarket in Greenpoint – Linked here. 

ANTE mag. Can you tell us about your recent initiatives and what projects may be in store for the future of The Rubin Foundation?

SR.  After To Cast Too Bold a Shadow, we will stage the fifth exhibition in the series, titled In Kinship. The show will look at alternate family structures over the last 30 years, expanding the notion of family beyond heteronormative, nuclear, or government mandate, in the contexts of queer culture and immigrant communities. The sixth and final show of Revolutionary Cycles is After the Fall, which will reflect on the political moment to consider methods for the societal change needed to move beyond the political binaries that currently shape U.S. culture. The exhibition is conceived to anticipate various outcomes in our collective political future as articulated by artists and cultural producers, while simultaneously recognizing the need for spiritual transformation in times of crisis. Originally, After the Fall was meant to open around the time of the next presidential inauguration, with ‘the fall’ being open to interpretation. It makes me think of one of Dread Scott’s artworks featured in Revolution from Without…, titled Overthrow Dictators, which was made as part of the J20 inauguration protest in 2017. It’s a stencil with the phrase: by reading this, you agree to overthrow dictators.

Chto Delat
To those who (Migrants), 2019. Photograph by Julia Gillard. Courtesy of the artist and the Shelley and Donald Rubin Private Collection.