Beyond Museum Mile
Sure, if it’s your first time in New York, you’ll want to hit the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Guggenheim. Probably the Whitney, maybe the New Museum. If you’re in the know, perhaps you’ll even have a few Chelsea galleries on your list. If you’re sticking around for a while, of if you’ve already hit the big names, it’s time to explore the breadth of New York’s vibrant contemporary art scene. Far from being inaccessible to out-of-towners, most of the lesser known exhibition spaces are open to anyone who walks by, often for free. Here’s where you’ll see some of the most innovative artwork grappling with today’s biggest issues, both aesthetic and political. Below, we asked independent curator Jesse Firestone for the lowdown.
What are some of your favorite off-the-beaten-path art spaces in New York, and why?
I always see something good at CLEARING in Bushwick. When I lived in East Williamsburg, I would often stop into Panoply Performance Laboratory, which is an experimental performance venue off Meserole. Pioneer Works in Red Hook is incredible—they had this awesome stoner-doom metal band called SLEEP (everyone should love this group) play two nights, and their recent Doreen Garner and Kenya (Robinson) show, White Man on a Pedestal, was excellent. I meet interesting artists whenever I visit. Lastly, The 8th Floor, which is at 17 West 17th Street, is a powerhouse of empathic, poignant, and accessible programming. So many people don’t know about it, but it’s been a favorite of mine for years.
One of your best-received projects, The Soothing Center, merges art with ideas about self-care. The city itself can take a toll on the body and soul. Where are some of your favorite spots in (or nearby) New York where you’re able to find spiritual reprieve and a bit of peace and quiet?
The Soothing Center! I love this project so much, and the public’s response was so meaningful—the show is really filling a need.
Generally, I seek spiritual reprieve through art. I am always searching for art installs or shows that afford space for contemplation. I want to be able to slow down and meditate on both collective and individual experiences.
When I am the most blocked, I will go to the Metropolitan Museum of Art, put on my headphones, and meander aimlessly for a few hours. Hopefully, I’ll find myself alone in some of the rooms. It feels like time traveling. Viewing such a wide swath of world history in what could be less than two hours (or more than five) is really restorative for me because it reminds me of the larger system in which I work; here, I’m not bound by my own insecurities. Art is a marker and agent of time that is reflective of our past and future, our successes and our failures. I find this comforting. The Met can feel like an “art womb” for me.
Chelsea also serves a similar purpose, not because the art is always good (though I do love PPOW, DIA, and Marlborough Contemporary), but because by gallery hopping, I can access a range of emotions in response to the good, bad, or mediocre art I see.
However, sometimes I just need fried food. The Donut Pub on 14th and 6th has always been a space of respite for me. Seriously: it’s great! No matter how terrible the weather is, you crawl out of the subway and the door is right there! I like to sit at the bar and have a hot chocolate and one or two honey dipped donuts.
When its nice out, I find comfort in nature. I’ll drive to Hudson Valley or, if it’s available, the cabin at Mary Sky’s Residency in Hancock, Vermont. This cabin and residency are amazing—you live in a cabin backing a national forest for 10 days, just working on whatever you want.
What are some major exhibitions you’re looking forward to in New York this winter?
I am so excited to see a survey of Thomas Cole, the OG Hudson River School Painter, at The Met. Cuban artist and activist Tania Bruguera will have an exhibition at MoMA that I definitely will not miss. The same goes for In Practice at SculptureCenter in Long Island City. And while I know they opened in 2017, the shows at the Queens Museum (Sable Elyse Smith, Patty Chang, Never Built New York) are at the top of my list for when I get back from the holidays.
You just finished a residency at Trestle Projects in Brooklyn. Tell us what’s next.
Oh wow, that residency was great and felt like a whirlwind. My main goal was to use the space to bring as many artists into the shows as possible. Over ten months, I put together eight group shows and a number of artists’ projects. Now, I’m about to start my second semester of grad school at SVA for Curatorial Practice, and I’m looking to transition into longer haul, research based projects.
I was a finalist for NARS’ (art non-profit in DUMBO) emerging curator program and organized a show called New Monuments for a Better Tomorrow, pt 1. The show brings together seven artists and their proposals for new public sculptures and/or spaces. The winner of the NARS program this year was Tiffany Shin. I really respect her and her work, so it feels good to be shown alongside her. Both of our exhibitions open January 26th, so come hang!
As part of my graduate program, I get to organize an exhibition at SVA. The show I’m proposing is the start of a larger series of research-oriented exhibitions looking at Greta Gaard’s 1997 text, “Toward a Queer Ecofeminism.” One of the biggest failures of eco-feminism, according to Gaard, is that its still vastly white and heteronormative—we need to shift our view that nature is nothing more than “a beautiful mother.”
I’d love, through a traveling grant, to bring the Soothing Center to new spaces with different regional and international artists, the show changing depending on its locale. In general, I’m really interested in responsive and relational programming. I also want to continue my research and work on artists responses to public space and monuments.
Most of all, I dream about what I’m calling a “relational museum” that is better-equipped to serve its public through responsive programming and equal dialogue. I am not sure what this looks like structurally, but I’m always considering how museums can recalibrate their relationship with the public.