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Artists Talk On Art first went online in October of 1995, courtesy of A. D. Coleman, in a section devoted to ATOA at Coleman's website, The B.Y.O. Café, subsequently renamed The Nearby Café ( www.nearbycafe.com). This ATOA web presence, donated by Coleman as a support service for ATOA, remained operative until the fall of 2001. Some of the transcriptions and digital-image files at our current site come from that project. ATOA wishes to thank A. D. Coleman and The Nearby Café for this contribution.

A Personal History of ArtistsTalkOnArt

by Lori Antonacci

As an artist coming to New York City from Chicago in the spring of 1974, I thought I knew all about modern American art. Then, browsing in Doubleday's on Fifth Avenue one night, I came upon a copy of Fred McDarrah's The Artists' World -- a photographic history of the New York art world of the '40s and '50s [E. P. Dutton & Co., Inc., NY, 1961]. It was a revelation.

In the art history classroom, contemporary American art had been a story about individual "stars" and competing art movements. No mention of the Cedar Bar, Tenth Street or The Club.

The more I read, the more I realized there were whole chunks of "history" missing from the textbooks, and I felt cheated. Artists had, just a few short years before, created their own community. One I had never heard about. One I wanted very much to experience.

I knew two other artists in New York. Bob Wiegand was a painter, then exploring video, who had been a member of The Club during its last days. Doug Sheer was a video artist just young enough to have missed it.

"Why isn't there a place like The Club today?" I asked.

"Because that was a different era."

"Why can't we create something similar?"

"No one wants to talk any more."

"I do."

"Artists are too busy just trying to survive."

"There's no affordable space."

"What about that place on Greene Street?"

"What if we're the only three artists in New York who want to talk?"

"Maybe now's the time."

Bob was teaching and house-sitting in the country that summer. Doug and I were unemployed, and frequent visitors. Talk was cheap, and we kept at it.

In the fall, Bob tried the idea out on three other friends. They became the rest of our steering committee and first board of directors: Bruce Barton, a painter; Irving Sandler, art historian and critic; and Corinne Robins, art writer and critic. Bruce had been an unofficial member of The Club, Irving had programmed panels for The Club during its last five years, and Corinne was writing about the next generation of artists.

After two meetings of the committee, the idea had a name:
ArtistsTalkOnArt. (The words were deliberately run together in the German style of naming something to literally reflect what it was.) Bob persuaded Robert Perlmutter of Pearl Paint to give us $200 in start-up funds. An artist named John Hart had a space on Greene Street called the Open Mind he'd let us use. Artists Charles Leslie, Silvi Pruitt arid Larry Tierney of the Soho Artists Association lent us their mailing list -- all 300 names.

And it turned out that artists did want to talk. In just a month, we organized seven panels -- featuring Louise Bourgeois, Peter Frank, Valerie Jaudon, Larry Rivers, Joan Semmel, Athena Tacha, Tony Robbin, and James Wines, among others.

The first night, January 10, 1975, 92 people packed the space for a panel titled "Whatever Happened to Public Art?" The second panel, "Fantasy and the Figure: Rhino Horn," drew 90. The third, "Eroticism in Art," attracted a crowd of 155 which stretched out the door and into the street.

The idea of artists having a place to get together and talk in an atmosphere of support and conviviality can be traced back to the soirees of the Impressionists in the mid-1800s and the informal evenings of the Cubists after that. In New York, during the 1930s and '40s, artists talked wherever they could gather undisturbed -- at the Waldorf Caféteria, Huberts, Rikers and the Chuck Wagon. They also talked at The Subjects of the Artists School, organized by Robert Motherwell and Barnett Newman in 1948, and its successor, Studio 35, which was absorbed by The Club. They talked about what artists have probably always talked about -- art and aesthetics, past and present, styles, sensibilities, life, culture and politics.

We consciously intended to continue this tradition. But although our immediate inspiration was The Club (even to panels being held on Friday night), we were also determined that ArtistsTalkOnArt would be different in one important respect. The Club had been a private, membership organization, run by only a few people, open only to members and guests. ArtistsTalkOnArt would be a democratic organization and an open forum, where anyone from the art community might organize programs, and anyone -- artist or not -- could come, listen and join the discussion.

These goals were reflected in everything we did. A panel format was chosen to discourage the creation of stars. Tea and coffee were served throughout the evening to encourage socializing. We solicited program ideas from everyone we knew. A program committee of peers (at first the original steering committee) was formed to review and approve suggestions. Once approved, the organizer was given carte blanche on content and participants.

We preferred to err on the side of inclusion. In the first 10 years, about 80% of the programs suggested were approved. Even when a psychiatrist wanted to organize a panel on psychiatry as an art form, we didn’t say "No." We said that if he could get at least three artists to discuss the subject, we’d approve it. He never called back.

Once a program was approved, our volunteer staff (again, initially the steering committee) provided the promotion, the space, and as much guidance -- suggesting panelists, clarifying titles, and such -- as needed. Anyone who signed the mailing list got a flyer. And everyone was treated as equally as possible.

Panelists, no matter how famous, spoke for free (in later years, there have been small stipends for all). All artist-panelists started the evening showing slides of their work, because that was the introduction that mattered. This requirement was waived only when artists appeared on panels with critics. No one wanted to tempt a critic to review the slides.

Although there were no hard and fast rules for running a panel, we did make a number of strong suggestions: be sure to include women (remember, this was the ‘70s), go through slides quickly, don't read boring statements. But we didn't insist. We let organizers and panelists do what they wanted, and we encouraged the audience to recognize its power -- to respond and shape the process. Everyone paid the same admission, even the press. The low fee (at first $1, now $4) not only kept the programs accessible, it made the audience less likely to look on speakers with awe -- and freer to vote with its feet.

If slides dragged on too long, panelists might find the room half emptied by the time the lights went on. Individuals or groups who felt left out, for whatever reason, were not shy about taking the moderator to task. When a 1984 panel on "International Mail Art" decided to depose its moderator for the sin of "curating" a show, we didn't intervene. The audience stayed and cheered.

In the early years, there were heated debates on the steering committee about dealers and critics. ArtistsTalkOnArt was supposed to be a place where artists were free to talk. Dealers, it was felt, already had too much power, and little propensity to share it. Artists often felt intimidated in their presence.

We never banned dealers, but it was a year before anyone suggested we invite one -- Ivan Karp. He appeared alone because, although he was one of the very few dealers with a good reputation among artists, we decided to reverse roles and put him on display. Ivan, being Ivan, enjoyed every minute of it. It was two years more before a dealer appeared on the same panel with artists. None was ever invited to sit on the program committee or the board of directors.

Critics were another matter. Some were considered allies --two of them on the steering committee -- and some not. They appeared on panels from the very beginning and were often on the program committee, but outnumbered by artists at least 20 to one.

The first year we moved three times: from the Open Mind (closed) to Global Village’s second-floor screening room on Broome Street (too small) to jazz musician Ornette Coleman's studio, called Artists' House, on Prince Street (sold). We started our second year at the Soho Center for Visual Arts, and since then have been at Landmark Gallery, Soho 20 Gallery, 22 Wooster Gallery, and Soho Photo Gallery -- all donated spaces. Despite several invitations to become part of galleries or other arts organizations, we have retained our independence and our allegiance to the community at large.

Our notion of who makes up that community has evolved over the years. The first year, we took "art community" to mean primarily visual artists, since the majority of participants and suggested topics dealt with painting and sculpture. As time went on, different topics were suggested and new people joined the program committee. Our concept of comniunity widened to include performance, film and video, printmaking, graffiti and crafts, among other disciplines.

New formats were introduced to meet new needs. Open slide screenings and performance evenings now present artists of many kinds. One-on-one artist interviews provide a closer look at people who have shaped the community. The diversity of aesthetic, political and cultural views discussed over the years is apparent in the panels of this book [Mutiny in the Mainstream]. Indeed, one could say that a new community of intellectual inquiry is created each evening, with each new topic.

Today, ArtistsTalkOnArt remains the only ongoing panel series in the New York art community run by and for artists, open to all artists, art disciplines and topics. It is also the only panel series programmed just a few months in advance, to reflect what's truly on people’s minds. In 17 seasons (1975 through 1990-91), it has presented 368 programs: 345 panels, 14 open screenings, and 9 special programs. Over 2,600 artists, critics, curators, administrators -- and dealers -- have participated, speaking to a cumulative audience of some 38,000.

The cast has changed over the years, but most of the founding figures remain. Bob Wiegand, Irving Sandler, Corinne Robins and I are now members of the board of advisors. Doug Sheer and Bruce Barton are still on the board of directors, along with a whole new generation of artists. While our sense of community continues to evolve, the democracy, independence, artist-centeredness, diversity, accessibility and spontaneity of ArtistsTalkOnArt have not changed. As topics come and go and return again, we artists keep on talking -- defining ourselves, our art, and the world we live in.

Lori Antonacci, multi-media artist and co-founder of Artists TalkOnArt, was executive director of the organization for ten years and president for 13 years. This essay was written for and appeared in the book Mutiny and the Mainstream: Talk That Changed Art, 1975-1990, edited by Judy Seigel [New York: Midmarch Arts Press,1992].

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