Thursday, February 17, 2005

Dog in the manger

What is it with these East Coast parents, don't they teach their children Aesop's fables? I thought that was mandatory. But when I told Neneng-girl that her ex-lover was a real dog in the manger for getting pissed off and sulky when she dates other guys, she said, "what? That's funny. I've never heard of that before. Dog in the manger. Tee-hee."

A friend of mine drove by my ex-gallery the other day, and she says it looks exactly the same. Libby's installation in the window, plants, empty walls, track lights going on every night on a timer. I think the answering machine is still plugged in, with my voice on it saying that I'll be on call till the end of September. It has been four months exactly since I moved out completely, and my ex-gallery is still glowing like the frickin' World Trade Center Memorial.

I must say that I am damn proud of myself. Not only did I scrape myself up off the pavement and get along with life after apocalypse, some fool part of me is now rushing in where angels...well, into Lower Manhattan.

Okay, so the long story is that I answered a flaky craigslist posting and met an investment banker. Cool guy. The girl who posted the initial advert turned out to be a complete idiot. After me and the investment banker had brainstormed a pretty darn brilliant business plan, judiciously combining the best of non- and for-profit worlds, complete with mission statement, aesthetic and cultural agenda and possible liason opportunities in Greece and Indonesia, flaky idiot responded with an open letter which read, "that's not what I want, at all. I want to form a non-profit with deep pockets, buy a huge building in Manhattan for a dollar and hold a bake sale to renovate it, making all decisions in a collective, socialistic manner. With a large, committed membership, fundraising should be easy!"

So we are not working together anymore. However, I still went to the conference I'd registered for on behalf of the group--"M0ney, M4nagement and Mark3ting," sponsored by the L0wer Manhatt4n Cultur4l Council. I felt like a total impostor, since you had to be with a cultural or arts organization to register, and I just made one up. And, foolishly, I used the name that Grace and I came up with, last August, for the visionary real estate corporation we were going to build, "L1ghtHouse."

So everybody at the conference congratulated me for working at Lighthouse for the Blind, and I had to keep explaining. Note to self and investment banker--his idea for a name, "S1te Osm0sis," is the winner.

But people who attend business conferences are not like artists. Two days before this, I attended another LMCC-sponsored event, an info session for their artist's residency program. All the artists arrived alone, sat alone and stared around with stony expressions on their faces. I went up to a cute girl with pigtails, smiled, asked "Is this seat taken?" and she looked away and mumbled. During the "question and answer period," half the artists scuttled out with their heads down, and the other half went up to the microphones and asked wild-eyed questions which could all be paraphrased, essentially, as "what about ME ME ME??????" Artists are not community-minded folk. They are Hard To Talk To. Thus I was scared shitless about attending the conference.

At the business conference, everyone I happened to find myself standing nearby introduced themselves and asked probing questions about my life and purpose. I collected more potentially useful professional contacts in one day than in the previous six months. I had a BLAST. Business people understand that nobody does anything worthwhile all alone, and if you bathe, smile, take notes and speak clearly, you're a professional. Thank God.

(In fairness to the artists, I have to point out that our culture is not artist-friendly. After getting rejected for every grant, residency, juried exhibition and fellowship that I applied for last fall, I noticed one thing they all had in common--the percentage of applicants to awardees was lottery-level impossible. As in, 2000 applications for 10 S3gal Foundation grants, 71 applications for one Abb3y Scholarship, 430 applicants for six Sm4ck Mellon residencies, and so forth. With odds like this, for programs which, each of themselves, are still only a drop in the bucket to a sustainable career, it is no wonder that artists get surly, competitive and desperate. Our society really is trying to kill us.)

Anyway, by the end of the day my head was swimming with so many business models, paradigms, principles and useful contact details that I nearly passed out during the closing remarks by various Manhattan cultural luminaries. But then the president of LMCC started talking. I had to listen because I got an instantaneous crush on him the second he walked up to the podium and smiled directly at me. Shaved head, blue suit, lopsided grin, and suddenly I feel like a teenager at a rock concert. How we do change.

One of the things that was made clear to us during all these proceedings is that there is not, in fact, an unlimited amount of grant subsidy money available for Lower Manhattan business projects. Yes, the city wants to revitalize the area. No, this does not mean that they're giving away free real estate and millions of dollars of development money away to anyone who asks. In fact, the money is mostly gone. They do want to encourage us with free business advice, though; they're here to help. Whatever.

What caused me to prick up my ears and snap out of somnolesence as though struck by lightning were the words, "Sw1ng Sp4ce Initiative." Apparently the LMCC is going to be getting access to temporarily empty spaces, being sold or leased or demolished or renovated, for short periods of time, to do worthwhile cultural projects. Zoing! That's it! That's it! I didn't listen to the rest of the wise remarks by the president of New York Foundation for the Arts, though I'm sure they were worthwhile. I was too busy writing a business plan in my head.

During the next hour, I was not like my normal self at all. I was a Superwoman. I was a fast talker, brilliant improviser, deep, serious listener, graceful networker. I went to the reception and recepted. I chatted seriously with a nearly unintelligible Asian woman about the Foundation for Historical Preservation. I collected cards, I met people, I forcefully propounded notions. And all the while I circled gracefully and casually closer and closer to the president of LMCC. When I was in striking range, I smiled.

"Hi!" said the president of LMCC.

"Hi, I'm Serena LaBella, and first I want to thank you for this wonderful event. And I want to talk to you about Sw1ng Sp4ce. I used to have this project, H3aling 4rts in Williamsburg..."

"Oh, I know H3aling 4rts," said the P. of C.


(I'm sorry, but I have to take a break here and burst into tears. Nobody knew about my gallery. I worked and worked and worked, I renovated, I curated, I web-designed, I networked, I designed cards, I printed info flyers, I wrote and re-wrote press releases and sent and re-sent them to every frickin' art publication in the WORLD, and nobody published my listings even when they were soliciting advertising at astronomical rates. Reviewers never came and never wrote reviews. Other galleries snubbed me, artists snubbed me, clients were erratic and fell away when I raised my prices to market rate. Collectors passed up stunning work at bargain prices. Then my boyfriend broke my heart and closed me down in the same day, and didn't even use the space for anything afterward. I felt like the whole enterprise was a sophisticated exercise in spitting into the wind. But the president of LMCC has heard of me. And he has the nicest smile.)

"I'm H3aling 4rts," I said. "That was me. All me. I did everything. And I have an idea for Sw1ng Sp4ce. I want to go in, clean it up, make it GORGEOUS, curate an exhibition, hold performance and musical events, then LEAVE. This will benefit the landlords, the brokers, the artists, the neighborhood, and me. And I have experience doing this."

"That's a wonderful idea," said the P. of C. "Here's my card. Call me next week and we'll talk. Remind my secretary that you're the H3aling 4rts person."

After that I went home. No reason to push it, have another glass of wine, babble and look foolish. I should have been exhausted but I called about four people and chattered till midnight.

So for the last two weeks I have been working on a proposal. I called everybody I met at the conference and set up appointments. I called friends for practical and moral support. I collected input. A very clear point of input was that this project has to make money or it cannot be done. I have ideas about this, other people have ideas about this, if it works it could be a business. But I don't know if it will work at all. I simply have nothing to lose.

In the process of working on this proposal I have had to go through all the photos taken of my gallery in various phases, and I am amazed. Somehow during the process I didn't have time to be amazed, to step back and see the infinite, intricate beauty of what I was doing. I had a jerkwad of an uncommitted boyfriend standing over my shoulder and demanding to see the books, and looking at the clock, and whining and ranting and scaring people off. And now this same uncommitted jerkwad is paying the electric bill for track lights which illuminate empty walls all night, and the phone bill on an answering machine with the ghost of my former self giving outdated information, and not making a cent in rent because he is too paranoid and angry to trust anyone in the entire world. Arf, arf.

1 comment:

badgerbag said...

wow - it would be so neat because you would actually be "healing" the spaces -- fixing them up and using them in a way good for Use. "To Be of Use," etc.

It's a great idea! You would be perfect for it! you should be the boss of it, and have minions.