The Principal of P.S. 1

Alanna Heiss in 1976, the year she founded P.S. 1.Photo: Richard Avedon/© 2008 The Richard Avedon Foundation

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.”

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

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.”

P.S. 1 Time Line

Photo: Courtesy of P.S. 1 Contemporary Art Center

1976
P.S. 1 opens with “Rooms,” which fills its dilapidated schoolhouse with installation art. The exhibition astonishes viewers—can a hole in a wall be art?—and ends up defining a genre.

Photo: Thomas Struth/Courtesy of P.S. 1 Contemporary Art Center

1977
The museum launches its national and international studio program, bringing artists to Queens for a year—and making many into permanent New Yorkers.

Photo: Helaine Messer/Courtesy of P.S. 1 Contemporary Art Center

1981
“New York/New Wave” includes several paintings by an unknown Jean-Michel Basquiat. Roving curator Henry Geldzahler takes note, he’s praised in Artforum, and soon the 21-year-old is a star.

Photo: Patrick McMullan

1985
Germano Celant, the Italian critic who coined the term Arte Povera, introduces the minimalist genre to New York audiences with his show, “The Knot.”

Photo: Michael Moran/Courtesy of P.S. 1 Contemporary Art Center

1986
Meeting, a permanent “skyspace” installation by James Turrell, becomes one of P.S. 1’s landmark attractions. Heiss describes the meditative, open-ceilinged room as “church.”

Photo: Courtesy of P.S. 1 Contemporary Art Center

1997
The museum reopens after a top-to-bottom renovation that reorients the building, adds a sculpture garden, and drains its finances.

Photo: Zhang Huan/Courtesy of The Artist and Asia Society

1998
“Inside Out: New Chinese Art,” a joint exhibition with the Asia Society, introduces New Yorkers to Chinese contemporary artists like Cai Guo-Qiang and Zhang Huan.

Photo: Superstock

1999
A city audit finds rampant bookkeeping irregularities, including credit-card abuse and unreported payments. No fraud is alleged.

Photo: Rebecca Cooney/Polaris

2000
MoMA and P.S. 1 merge and launch the Young Architects Program, an annual competition to design a courtyard installation for Warm Up, the summer dance party.

Photo: Courtesy of P.S. 1 Contemporary Art Center

2004
A Lee Lozano retrospective rekindles interest in the sixties New York artist, who abandoned her work in 1971 and died in 1999.

Photo: Tom Powell/Courtesy of P.S. 1 Contemporary Art Center

2005
Critics call “Greater New York 2005,” a citywide survey of new artists, overcrowded and unfocused; artists find the selection process chaotic. “We made a lot of enemies with that show,” says a former P.S. 1 staffer.

Photo: Matthew Septimus/Courtesy of P.S. 1 Contemporary Art Center

2006
“Into Me/ Out of Me,” a polarizing survey of gross-out art, is devoted to bodily functions. Most impressive: Much of the sophisticated P.S. 1 audience had seen it all before.

Photo: Courtesy of MoMA

2007
The Times, reporting Kathy Halbreich’s appointment at MoMA, reveals Heiss’s impending retirement.

Photo: Matthew Septimus/Courtesy of P.S. 1 Contemporary Art Center

2008
MoMA and P.S. 1 split a sprawling Olafur Eliasson exhibition. The successful show is the kind of collaborative programming MoMA envisions for its partnership with P.S. 1.

The Principal of P.S. 1