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The Principal of P.S. 1

Can Alanna Heiss’s vision for her museum outlast her?


Alanna Heiss in 1976, the year she founded P.S. 1.  

Alanna Heiss, the founder and director of P.S. 1 Contemporary Art Center, is walking through the Long Island City museum’s empty courtyard and pointing out the spectral traces of exhibitions past. “If you look there, you see the ghost of an outdoor Judd,” Heiss says, indicating where a stack of Donald Judd boxes left an imprint on a concrete wall. “Out here was John Baldessari and Lawrence Weiner, and Richard Nonas had a piece on the ground. You can actually see the ghosts.” A self-described “art radical,” Heiss is P.S. 1’s driving force, a woman whose freewheeling, quick-moving, anti-corporate style gave the center its vitality. Over 32 years, she built P.S. 1 into one of the city’s most refreshingly unpredictable venues for contemporary art, drawing crowds of young, aggressively hip visitors to see its exhibitions and join in its boozy summer dance parties. But when P.S. 1 was merged into the Museum of Modern Art in 2000, it became an open question how long its idiosyncratic impresario would remain at the helm. Last fall, with former Walker Art Center director Kathy Halbreich on her way to 53rd Street to revamp the Modern’s contemporary-art programming, MoMA director Glenn D. Lowry asked Heiss—the last founder to still run a major New York museum—to retire. Set to step down by the end of this year, Heiss faces the prospect of becoming a ghost in her own institution.

When P.S. 1 and MoMA first announced their surprise partnership, it was seen as a marriage of convenience. Located two subway stops from MoMA in an immense former public school, P.S. 1 has always functioned as an experimental staging ground on the fringes of the New York art scene—a place where artists can take flamboyant risks and newcomers can debut their works in a curated context. But while the center, which has no collection of its own, had long squeezed by on a hand-to-mouth budget, an $8.5 million expansion in 1997—which made P.S. 1 the second-largest contemporary-art museum in the country—left its financial future in question. The deal with MoMA, which is often criticized as overly cautious about showing cutting-edge work, promised P.S. 1 financial stability, managerial guidance, loans of art, and exposure to a larger audience—while giving the Modern some much-needed contemporary cred. P.S. 1 “can respond to the beat of the street much faster and much more effectively than any other institution,” says Lowry. “We understood that part of what we could gain from this relationship was a much more fine-grained feeling for what was happening.”

The deal called for an initial seven-year phase in which MoMA would have limited influence on P.S. 1. In June of last year, when that period expired, the Modern assumed command of the center’s financial management and gained the right to appoint its board members. A former MoMA finance official was installed as P.S. 1’s first chief administrative officer. Heiss was effectively demoted to running the curatorial department, which some staffers took as a signal that P.S. 1 would inevitably be MoMA-fied. The changes compounded a feeling of uncertainty at the center, which has been struggling to adapt to a changing and ever-professionalizing contemporary-art world. The proliferation of galleries willing to bet on younger artists and the enthusiastic embrace of contemporary art by institutions from the resurgent New Museum to even the Met have made crossing the river to P.S. 1 seem ever less pressing. P.S. 1 hasn’t made an effort to set itself apart from these competitors, according to one former staffer, who remembers that after the New Museum reopened Heiss said, “They’ll take some of the spotlight, but that’s fine.” Last year, four of the center’s senior employees—the deputy director and the directors of curatorial affairs, finance, and communications—left for more-secure perches. Then, in a September article about Halbreich’s appointment at MoMA, the New York Times reported that Heiss was slated for retirement. It was the first public word she’d be leaving.

Over pasta and fish at Manducatis, an old-style Italian restaurant near P.S. 1 that has long served as its canteen, Heiss and Lowry—the MoMA director was a last-minute addition to the lunch—recall the discussions about her departure. “I told him I didn’t want to retire,” Heiss explains. “And he said, ‘Why not?’ I said, ‘Well, I want to work another couple of years.’ And he said, ‘I think I’m going to go ahead on the retirement plan.’ And now we’re talking about what I might do.” Lowry says the discussions are ongoing—“These are not easy conversations”—but he made clear that he and MoMA’s board considered Heiss’s retirement necessary for P.S. 1’s evolving future within MoMA. “From my perspective, the seven-year period was a transition period; the goal was to get to know each other and make things work, and then at the end of that transition period to move on,” he says. Lowry has been emphatically gentle in easing Heiss out—the two have a warm personal relationship—but it’s apparent that MoMA’s board wants a more efficient manager running its Queens outpost, if only to bring it closer in line with the MoMA brand.

Heiss has been known to say that no one else could run P.S. 1, and in some ways she may be right. “She is P.S. 1, and P.S. 1 is her,” says John Baldessari. “It doesn’t seem like she could be replaced.” But while it is hard to imagine the center without her, it’s also surprising it’s lasted this long under her direction. A brassy, energetic woman with short, fading blonde hair and cherubic features, Heiss was already a pivotal figure in the seventies alternative-space movement when, with no prior museum experience, she founded P.S. 1 in 1976 in what was then a ramshackle abandoned schoolhouse. Artists were increasingly experimenting with video, installation, and performance art, and P.S. 1 joined institutions like Dia and Artists Space (and, a year later, the New Museum) as a venue for the most avant-garde work. For the center’s inaugural show, “Rooms,” Heiss allowed dozens of downtown artists to break through the dilapidated building’s walls and install pieces wherever they pleased. The exhibition, featuring Richard Serra and Walter De Maria, codified post-Minimalist installation art at exactly the moment it was occurring. “Alanna started out as part of a group of artists, and her art was finding ways to get the art out in the world,” says Richard Nonas, a “Rooms” alum. “Alanna is probably the most important single figure in that effluence of another kind of art-making or art-doing in New York in the seventies—not only the art itself but also the way the art existed in the city.”

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