April 02 2013

The Artful Life of Anne Pasternak

New York-The Standard Interview

Anne Pasternak participating in the 2008 project "From Spectacle to Political"

In the rarefied field of contemporary public art production, few figures loom as large as Anne Pasternak, the peripatetic president and artistic director of Creative Time. A deeply passionate, unabashedly soulful advocate for artists of all persuasions, she spends her days dreaming up new and ever-more-ambitious ways to entertain, delight, shock, and awe her fellow citizens of New York City, stretching the boundaries of our communal spaces in the process.

In the past year alone, she sent the first major artwork into outer space with Trevor Paglen and launched a website where artists report and comment on current events. But today we’re here to talk about Heard•NY, Nick Cave’s wild new performance piece that just concluded its one-week run at Grand Central Terminal. Featuring 30 raffia horses, two harpists, a pair of percussionists, 60 dance students from The Ailey School, and lines around the block, it was straight from the Pasternak playbook.

The crowd went wild.

STANDARD CULTURE: You’ve been running Creative time for almost 20 years now. How has the organization changed since you came on board?

ANNE PASTERNAK: For starters, I was the only full-time staff member back then, and had a budget of about $375,000. The culture wars were still raging, and foundations and the government were cutting back on their support of contemporary artists. Nobody was really talking about “public art,” and if they did, they cringed — it was mostly heroes on horseback, and bad abstract sculptures plopped in public plazas. So the future was uncertain, to say the least. Today, we’re still really small, but we’ve got a $3.5 million budget and a staff of twenty. But the thing that’s remained consistent is our values: that artists matter in society, that they should be weighing in on the times in which we live, and that it’s important to experiment creatively in the public realm.

Why is it important?

Because it’s fundamental to citizenry that we come together and share in experiences, as beautiful or as painful as they may be. We don’t just learn from math and reading and writing. There are many other ways that the human mind and spirit needs to be engaged, and art serves those purposes. Our public spaces have historically been places where people gather, engage with one another, connect, discuss, share moving experiences, and debate things—and that’s not an insignificant thing.

Do you find you still have to explain that to people — to argue for the importance of what you do?

I think a lot of people get it more and more, especially as our culture becomes more visual, though there will always be politicians who are completely out of touch with their constituents and think that they’re not interested in art. Of course, as you could see from the crowds at Grand Central, that’s anything but the case! Vanderbilt Hall is the length of an entire city block and it was packed with people of all ages and all backgrounds, cheering for encores. So I think it’s obvious the public gets it. I don’t know so much that people in power always get it, but thankfully they do in this city. Mayor Mike certainly gets it!

Nick Cave, "Heard•NY" (2013), Grand Central Terminal

There’s been a series of ambitious public art events in New York over the past decade, many of which you’ve had a hand in. Do you remember a specific moment when things got easier?

I think the Tribute in Light after 9/11 was a major turning point. Creative Time commissioned that project, which took place six months after the attacks, and it was a very hard one to pull off for a lot of weird reasons. I remember that night going home after we switched the lights on for the first time and turning on the TV and seeing every major news outlet in the world covering it.

Peter Jennings was interviewing victims’ families who had rented boats to watch the ceremony from the water, and he asked a man whose brother had died in the Trade Center what he thought about the lights. He said, “It’s the most painful thing I’ve ever seen, and I’m so glad that it exists.” To me, that was a major milestone. That art could bring people together, not in a moment of celebration, but in a deeply conceptual, difficult, and painful moment, and that it could be appreciated, was a real affirmation.

Julian Laverdiere and Paul Myoda, "Tribute in Light" (2002), New York City

Your job brings together a bunch of different disciplines — you’re a producer, a fundraiser, an advocate, and a curator — and then you also get to put on these elaborate happenings. How did you end up running Creative Time?

I started off working in a gallery in SoHo back in the day. I was very good at selling art and I liked meeting and talking to people, but the thing I really loved was working closely with artists. I worked with several who became extremely well known, like Vik Muniz and Andres Serrano, and also the guy who ended up becoming my husband, Mike Starn, and watched them go from having absolutely nothing to guys who could realize these big ambitious projects, and it felt really good to help them realize those dreams.

I didn’t want to work in a gallery for the rest of my life, but I wanted to still work with artists, so I started curating in an alternative arts space in Hartford, CT. I was actually commuting from SoHo to Hartford three days a week! They had a public art program there, and I got to work with now legendary artists like Mark Dion. I knew I no longer wanted to curate for gallery spaces, which I wasn’t so great at, and instead wanted to work on public art projects. When this job became available I jumped on it. I wanted it so badly.

It sounds like a great gig.

It’s funny. They say you’re not supposed to be in your job for more than ten years or you’re a "loser," and I remember when I was approaching my ninth year at Creative Time a lot of my friends who run major cultural institutions said, “You gotta leave, you gotta go do the next thing.” And here I am 8 years later! But let me tell you something: Last year I worked with artists like Tom Sachs and Trevor Paglen, I sent the first major artwork into outer space, I worked with the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, I worked with DISH Network, I worked with a bunch of engineers and scientists, I had partners like the Park Avenue Armory and major educational institutions. I mean, it just goes on and on! And I think to myself: I’m the luckiest girl in the world. I really mean it. Who else in the art world gets to work with all these incredible people? It makes for such a creative life. I really feel blessed.

You also work with The Standard curating video art for our in-room channel, StandART. Talk us through that project.

When The Standard came to us about doing something together, I said I’d always wanted to have a video art channel inside a hotel room, and they were like, OK, sounds fun! Let’s be the first hotel ever to have a video art channel. How great is that? After we launched it, everybody else started calling us and saying, Do it for our hotel instead. But who’s better to work with than The Standard, for God’s sake? The way it works is we come up with a concept and put together some videos and then curate it together. We work on the barter system, and not only are the artists thrilled to have some hot nights at various Standard hotels across the country, but Creative Time has been able to take on some new ambitious projects with international artists because they now have a place to stay. It’s a pretty sweet deal for all parties.

Terrence Koh, "Rabbit Holy Days," from the StandART video series (2011)

You were an early advocate of video art, which had a pretty bad rap until quite recently. Do you feel vindicated?

Like I always say to my board, if what we’re doing doesn’t matter in the world — if what we're doing isn't unique and relevant — let’s not do it anymore. So we’re always looking at the gaps; what’s important that’s happening that people aren’t really supporting in a big way. So when I first came to Creative Time, it was video art, which had been around for 30 years or so, but most cultural institutions weren’t paying attention to it. It’s the same reason we put a spotlight on artistic integrity within fashion design. People weren’t thinking about it. In the art world, fashion wasn’t taken seriously. We like to look and provide meaningful opportunities that aren’t being provided by others.

Where is your focus today?

Today, that means looking at art and social justice, which wasn’t a popular topic when we started talking about it five years ago. Not sure if you saw the article recently in the Times that mentioned our new site, Creative Time Reports, where artists report and comment on current events, but people are starting to pay attention.

Creative Time Reports' homepage

Why do we need to read commentary from visual artists? Isn’t that what the art is for?

[laughs] You don’t need to, but there are several reasons why I think it’s a good idea. First of all, our media, much like our government, has become extremely polarized. You’re either hearing from the left point-of-view or the right point-of-view, the pro-union or the anti-union, and so we don’t really trust it. At the same time, the outlets we do trust have been closing down foreign offices around the world, and if you don’t have reporters on the ground, stories don’t get covered. Artists are free thinkers, and the idea is to give them an outlet to directly share what they’re passionate about, what they’ve learned, their point-of-view, opinions and knowledge, in an unfiltered way. So you don’t need to care about what artists have to say, but it’s really interesting to have a media resource where an artist is looking at the gaps and sharing something that you may not get anywhere else.

What’s your fantasy project?

Oh my God, I hate that question, mostly because I just realized my dream, which was to send a project into outer space. But here’s the other thing that I’m thinking about, and I don’t have the words to give it shape, but I’m really interested in expanding the ways in which artists can contribute to society in meaningful ways. I’m really interested in how we can help bolster artists who want to tell stories and make positive social change in this world. At the end of the day, when I’m looking back on my life, I’d like to think that we really made a difference in peoples’ lives and righted some wrongs.

Trevor Paglen, "The Last Pictures" (2012)

In the current political climate is that a dangerous mission to have?

We’re not the safest arts organization in the world. If you want bland sculpture, you don’t come to Creative Time. But non-profit organizations — whether they’re cultural or educational — need to be places not only where we come together for inspirational and beautiful experiences, but also to have difficult conversations. And if Creative Time no longer does that, no longer pushes boundaries‚ there’s no reason for us to exist and we might as well just let the marketplace take over. But I don’t want to live in that world.

How does the process work?

We had been wanting to work with Nick Cave, so when the MTA came to us we asked him if he had any ideas and it turned out he’d just completed a residency at the University of Texas where he’d made a number of horse costumes out of raffia. I knew it would be a winner for many, many reasons. His work is handmade and so luscious-looking; people can really relate to it.

So we knew not only that they’d be great here, and that the whole performative element of it would just delight people beyond words. Grand Central agreed and so then we went out, raised funds, produced it, promoted it, documented it — did the whole thing.

What would New York be like without public art?

Oh my God, it would be sooo boring! I can hardly even answer that question it sounds so catastrophic. It would be Wall Street without any fun. Ugh, I can’t even imagine. I would never want to live in that place. It’s not just about what we do, and it’s not just about the work that major arts organizations do, it’s every community, every school producing their own forms of cultural expression. Public art is a big part of the story of New York City. A lot of people might not think about it day-to-day, but it’s a huge part of why people love living here. I think the city would really be missing something that people maybe take for granted.

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