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The Principal of P.S. 1

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Heiss, with a portrait of her by Sabina Streeter, in her office at P.S. 1, ca. 2006.  

From the beginning, Heiss had a guerrilla approach to management that emphasized the immediate over the long-term. She never made fund-raising a priority, preferring to solicit money for shows at the last minute. “To say it’s not well run—you wouldn’t say that a social movement is not well run,” says Tom Finkelpearl, P.S. 1’s deputy director when it merged with MoMA and now executive director of the Queens Museum of Art. “It’s more like ongoing fiscal brinksmanship.” To keep costs low, P.S. 1’s staff has always been largely composed of fresh college grads working there as a kind of finishing school. Heiss runs the center on a relentless schedule, with meetings often lasting into the early morning. Lower-rung employees rarely last longer than a year or two. To ease the tension, Heiss maintains an open-bar policy. “Alcohol is a big part of working at P.S. 1,” says one former staffer. “Pretty much every meeting is expected to have some wine or some Champagne or, you know, a frozen margarita from Court Square Diner”—the greasy spoon next door. “She likes to see it as a very European, relaxed environment.”

Heiss calls herself “a genius administrator,” but since the merger she has plainly had difficulty navigating MoMA’s bureaucracy. Although the Modern has helped P.S. 1 bring in $2 million to $3 million annually to meet its roughly $4 million budget, P.S. 1 still threatened to run a deficit in 2006, raising the specter of pay cuts and requiring board members to make last-minute donations. (Lowry and Heiss say it is standard practice for arts nonprofits to risk deficits.) Moreover, a cornerstone of the partnership, the promise of art loans from MoMA, has been stymied because P.S. 1 never installed climate control—and MoMA rarely loans its works to museums without it. (The two museums are only now working with the city, which owns P.S. 1’s building, to fund the purchase of a system.) There has also been friction between the institutions that has underscored the differences between their cultures. “At P.S. 1 no one wears a tie,” observes Finkelpearl. “At MoMA they wear cuff links.” When P.S. 1 threw a 30th-anniversary party in 2006, the entertainment included burlesque dancers who performed a cabaret-style strip show. Several MoMA trustees walked out.

Heiss was once famously energetic in her search for new talent, and under her direction the museum has given important early exposure to artists from Basquiat to Dana Schutz and Do-Ho Suh. Shows at P.S. 1 can be eye-opening—like the periodic spotlights Heiss casts on forgotten mavericks from the sixties and seventies—but they just as often fall flat, which is part of its charm. “It is the only museum that is comfortable with failing,” says José Freire, owner of Soho’s Team Gallery. “They can do shows that are not a sure thing, and it seems like they are actually interested in doing that.” But Heiss has lately cut back her studio visits, and several recent shows she curated were criticized as out of touch. This winter’s “Senso Unico,” billed as a snapshot of emerging Italian artists, was panned in Art in America as being “thin, spotty, rudderless.” “Not for Sale,” a show last year of works artists purportedly refused to part with, was meant as a rebuke to the market-obsessed art world but ended up a critically disdained misfire. Robert Storr, the dean of Yale’s School of Art and a former senior curator at the Modern, believes that P.S. 1 is due for a change. “It really is exactly the time when the institution should make the transition from its founder’s vision and mode of operation to a new generation,” he says. “Alanna has built something that is very important to New York. She should be very proud of it and she should be lauded for it, but it has outgrown her, and she needs to graciously let it go.” In the years since the merger, he adds, “it’s become a semi-museum institution, where what it really needs to be is the sexiest, fastest-moving, most dynamic non-museum institution in town.”

“It is the only museum that is comfortable with failing.”

Lowry says the question of who will replace Heiss has been put aside until they work out an “intriguing and rewarding relationship” for her beyond the directorship, but whoever replaces her will be a seasoned art-world insider. One person considered a candidate for the job is Klaus Biesenbach, Heiss’s right-hand man and chief curatorial adviser, who joined MoMA in 2006 as head of its media-art department. Another name to come up is Philippe Vergne, Halbreich’s former deputy at the Walker and co-curator of the 2006 Whitney Biennial. But what direction P.S. 1 takes after Heiss’s departure is certain to be guided by Halbreich, who declined interview requests. “I think Kathy understands the unique culture of the Museum of Modern Art, the unique culture of P.S. 1, and the opportunities that we haven’t even begun to explore yet,” says Lowry, who describes her as someone “who loves to think about the kind of strategic organizational issues that museums deal with.”

Inevitably, some worry that P.S. 1 will lose much of its idiosyncratic identity when Heiss steps down and become a streamlined MoMA franchise. “It’s not perfect, and I think that’s what’s important about it,” says the photographer Ryan McGinley. “Now that MoMA has taken it over, I wouldn’t want to see it become too perfect.” But with Heiss’s impending departure a rambunctious era in the city’s alternative art world will come to a close. “I have always believed in keeping P.S. 1 as much of a utopian community as possible in terms of how you think and talk and work with art,” she says. “I know that Utopia isn’t reality, but I do what I can.”


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