If the arts serve as reactions, expressions, and markers of time and place, elements that are never static but always changing, then it is senseless to expect arts spaces to cling to a particular dated order. Instead, arts spaces must evolve with the changes in art, politics, science, and humanity. Of course, defining and contextualizing any institution—placing it within a comprehensible economic and social category—is satisfying for visitors, donors, and even the government. But it also refutes the existence of art as a serially evolving, revolving, and infinite experiment made possible by larger forces that impact artists, writers, curators, and the art world at large (e.g. individuality, social climate, politics, science, language arts, and the infinite list of sources of inspiration).
Despite the rise of alternative arts spaces in New York and around the world, especially within the last decade, we are still unable to shed pressures to define nontraditional arts spaces. Founders are still expected to package alt-arts spaces with cookie-cutter visions and mission statements (however ironically), as if an arts space is only legitimized if it has defined what it offers and plans to offer in the future. This seems quite limiting and leaves little room to freely deviate from the definition it bears from inception. But what is most important about alt-arts spaces is that they both compensate for the overlooked and rework conventions.
While we are quick to beg for change, diversity, justice, innovation, more opportunity, accessibility, etc. in the arts, generally speaking, we are quick to snub the alt-arts spaces that have made this their mission. The same applies to mid-tier galleries and other spaces that support emerging artists. If not for emerging and artist-run galleries, along with other alt-arts spaces, would other institutions make it their mission to support young artists? Would established institutions take steps toward making the art world more heterogeneous and accessible?
It is important that we grapple with the identity politics of alt-arts institutions to consider their benevolent role as both initiators and reactors to change, whether through exhibitions, residencies, representation and sales, and acquisitions, along with economical best practices like those established by W.A.G.E. As Curatorial Director of Mana Contemporary, the topic of identity is perpetually traversed with caution. Still in its infancy, Mana—like many other new institutions that aim to serve today’s society—continues to revisit the same urgent questions as time passes: How can we better serve artists, the art world, and our communities at large? What happens when you don’t (or can’t) define your institution? Is it impeding, or is it liberating to refuse an overarching narrative?