A Day with The Marie Walsh Sharpe Foundation Space Programby Maxwell Heller
“This is a program created by artists, for artists,” Joyce Robinson says, “and not for artists who tell themselves that they’re all alone, but artists who are deeply interested in community.” Addressing the first official gathering of the 2007-08 season, Robinson is surrounded by seventeen sculptors, painters, and draftsmen who have recently been awarded free, non-residential studio space by The Marie Walsh Sharpe Foundation Space Program. Since 1991, the program has made annual awards to 250 American artists. This year, however, grantees face a major challenge: adjusting to a new workspace on Jay Street, Brooklyn. No longer will participants ease into the Lower Manhattan location that was home to the program for 16 years; this season, they join the rapidly growing DUMBO arts community. (The Sharpe Program’s former home will become a luxury condominium.)
Initially, the move to DUMBO troubled Joyce Robinson. As she tours the renovated Jay Street rooms (her first tour since she saw them in 2006 with program facilitator Dennis Elliott), she seems surprised that the office, kitchen, and studios have become habitable. “When I realized that we had to relocate, I began to worry,” Robinson admits, “would we lose prestige? But I talked with artists and gallery owners and they all said ‘Of course not, you’re only one subway stop from Manhattan.’” She notes that the unexpected move would not have been possible without the help of Brooklyn landlord David Walentas, who generously supported the Sharpe Foundation’s effort to save the threatened program. Dennis Elliott, who is also director of the New York Studio Program, recalls Walentas’ recent walk through the empty studios. “He looked up and saw the view of the Manhattan Bridge,” Elliott laughs, “and he said ‘Oh, they’ve got a great view! Why did I give this away?’”
As its founder, Marie Walsh Sharpe wanted to create an enduring resource that would adapt to the needs of the American artist. One year after she established the Foundation in 1984, Sharpe passed away, leaving a significant portion of her estate to fund its continuing development. Quickly, Foundation director Joyce Robinson set out to realize Sharpe’s vision. At first, only two programs were launched: the Summer Seminar for high-school-age artists and the Teacher-Artist Program for exemplary K-12 art educators. Soon, however, Robinson turned her attention to the needs of working artists. Seeking advice from established artists who were supportive of creative communities, Robinson met with Chuck Close, Philip Pearlstein, and Irving Sandler. They advised her to organize a meeting of twenty-six visual artists in November 1988—a round table in Pearlstein’s home that shaped the next twenty-one years.
The meeting was a watershed: the Foundation established a permanent panel of artist advisors (Cynthia Carlson, Chuck Close, Janet Fish, Philip Pearlstein, Irving Sandler, Harriet Shorr, Robert Storr); an information hotline for visual artists (which responded to 20,000 calls during its first five years) and, ultimately, The Space Program. In short, the Foundation came to define itself as an institution created by artists, for artists.
Robinson admits that friends and colleagues called her crazy for placing so much power in the hands of artists, (a policy some compare to “letting the insane run the asylum”) but she insists that the artists’ involvement makes the Program work. Robinson respects the creative process: artists have the ability to develop ideas quickly, to throw them aside easily, to see possibilities in difficult situations. “I remember walking into a panel meeting, thinking that [the Space Program] was over, that we were going to give up. That was how it seemed,” she said. “But by the time I left, we had decided instead to find a new space—to keep the program alive.” The spontaneity and flexibility that characterize both the program and its advisory panel help the Foundation to adapt to a rapidly changing art culture. “This year, we’ve added three new artists—Phong Bui, Tara Donovan, and Matthew Deleget,” Robinson says, laughing, “Chuck told me that the old panel needed to change. He said, "We’re too pale, too stale, too Yale…”.
Adaptability is essential to a program that takes on more than a dozen new artists each year. Although this season’s artists have just settled into their studios, discussion of the annual Spring exhibition already overwhelms program facilitator Dennis Elliott. He must design the event to fit the scheduling needs of seventeen artists from three states. “Plenty of conflicts will come up, but keep those days free,” Elliott advises when asked about the exhibition, “This will be a major event. Weddings are not as important as this show.”
The Space Program’s impact can be seen in the story of 2007-2008 Space Program artist Patricia Treib, who has been involved with the Foundation since she attended a Summer Seminar program when she was 16. “I’ve never seen another program that’s hands-on like this—they take on so much responsibility for the artists,” Treib says, enjoying her panoramic view of Manhattan from Jay Street. “I’m in the Space Program; I’ve done the Summer Seminar. All I have left to do is call the hotline,” she laughs. Treib’s work combines elements of Renaissance frescoes with exuberant Cubist and Biomorphic forms. However, she had been without a place to work for months until she was accepted into the Space Program. “The Foundation gave me a direction and supported my pursuits. I can work here without distraction—this is not a social space. It’s not my home,” Treib says, emphasizing the importance of having a studio over its location. “The barrier between Brooklyn and Manhattan is just a concept,” she says, but also notes that her current work has been affected by Manhattan’s powerful presence just across the East River.
As Joyce Robinson explores the new space, the ventilation system switches on with an alarming rumble. “We knew the other place so well,” she says, “but we’ll have to see how this works out.” She muses about the past 16 years of the Space Program, recalling the ten-year anniversary exhibition attended by nearly all 163 former participants. And she particularly recalls the Spring exhibitions, so successful that The New York Times compared the attendance to “Grand Central Terminal at rush hour.” This season, Robinson prepares for consensus decisions, discusses the effects of traffic and railway noise, and provides optimistic responses to everything from complaints about poor light to jokes about childcare. Easing the financial bite of the move is a priority. Challenges will continue to arise. But in the midst of change and upheaval, the Foundation stays focused on its goal: providing space and community for the creation of works that will become next Spring’s exhibition. (Fundraising efforts for the Marie Walsh Sharpe Foundation are ongoing.)