Exit Art is an independent vision of contemporary culture prepared to react immediately to important issues that affect our lives. We do experimental, historical and unique presentations of aesthetic, social, political and environmental issues. We absorb cultural differences that become prototype exhibitions. We are a center for multiple disciplines. Exit Art is a 28-year-old cultural center in New York City founded by Directors Jeanette Ingberman and Papo Colo. It has grown from a pioneering alternative art space into a model artistic center for the 21st century committed to supporting artists whose quality of work reflects the transformations of our culture. Exit Art is internationally recognized for its unmatched spirit of inventiveness and consistent ability to anticipate the newest trends in the culture. With a substantial reputation for curatorial innovation and depth of programming in diverse media, Exit Art is always changing.
Exit Art is a nonprofit cultural center with the mission to explore the rich diversity of voices and cultures that continually shape contemporary art and ideas in America. Throughout its 28-year history, Exit Art has been committed to programming that directly reflects and reacts to the needs of the two interrelated communities we serve: the artists whose work we support and present, and the audience that looks to us to interpret that work within the broader cultural context. As culture shifts, our communities grow, and their needs change, Exit Art has changed in response.
When Exit Art was founded by artist Papo Colo and curator Jeanette Ingberman in the context of the alternative space movement in 1982, one of the critical concerns uniting artists and audience was the lack of exposure in the art world for artists whose work challenged social, political, sexual, or aesthetic norms and raised difficult questions of race, ethnicity, gender and equality. Our great accomplishment from that first decade was mounting a series of mid-career retrospectives with accompanying catalogues which not only directly addressed this lack, but also helped bring wide public attention and critical acclaim for the first time to artists who are now firmly established, including Jimmie Durham, Ursula von Rydingsvard, Hachivi Edgar Heap of Birds, Jane Hammond, Juan Sanchez, Jerry Kearns, Cecilia Vicuña, Willie Birch, Krzysztof Wodiczko, Tehching Hsieh, Martin Wong, Adrian Piper, David Wojnarowicz, and David Hammons.
After moving to a new, expanded SoHo space in 1992, Exit Art identified a new trend in the art world which urgently needed to be addressed: the emergence of a generation of young artists with diverse backgrounds, perspectives and aesthetics, who needed to be presented in a way that united artists with common concerns across disciplines and contextualized work within the broader discourse of contemporary art, rather than isolating artists based on their identity. Exit Art expanded its curatorial model to become an incubator for the careers of these young and emerging artists, a laboratory for the convergence and cross-pollination of different media, disciplines and audiences, and a key site for excavating the unwritten histories of contemporary art and culture. One important project was 1992’s Fever, named one of the 10 most important shows of the decade by Peter Plagens in Newsweek in 2000. It was the first in the series of emerging artist exhibitions that would launch many careers over the next ten years, including those of Shirin Neshat, Fred Tomaselli, Nicole Eisenman, Roxy Paine, Patty Chang, Inka Essenhigh, Julie Mehretu, Sue DeBeer, Rirkrit Tiravanija, Chakaia Booker. Other accomplishments included documentation projects like 1995’s Endurance, a landmark survey of body art actions in the twentieth century; shows connecting visual art, graphic design and popular culture, including The LP Show (2001), a history of album cover design; shows examining the relationship between performance art, theater and visual art, including Show People: Downtown Directors and the Play of Time (2002); and shows examining the creative process of the artist and the decision-making process of curators, critics and collectors, including the Bessie award-winning Let the Artist Live! (1994), where artists lived cooperatively in environments they had constructed in the gallery for the duration of the show, and it’s how you play the game… (1995), a five-person curatorial round robin that resulted in a constantly evolving exhibition.
In 2000, Exit Art won the Association of International Art Critics Award for Best Show in an Alternative Space for its 18-year retrospective, The End. At that same time, however, Exit Art felt that the needs of its community and the necessity of culture at large now required subject matter that connected to and affected the world beyond the art world. Exit Art rose to the challenge by inaugurating a new series of thematic exhibitions that explored critical issues in contemporary society through the work of contemporary artists and cultural producers. The first exhibition in this series was Paradise Now: Picturing the Genetic Revolution (2000), which provoked widespread discussion about genetic research and bioengineering in the cultural community, and brought a new scientific audience into Exit Art. The series continued with Reactions: A Global Response to 9/11 (2002), which presented over 2,500 8.5 x 11 sheets of paper submitted in response to an open call for works representing how 9/11 changed public and private behavior, and which has since been acquired in its entirety by the Library of Congress for its American Memory project.
The new way of creating and presenting programs has now evolved into conceptplus, Exit Art’s primary curatorial model since moving to its new two-level facility in Hell’s Kitchen in 2002. For each ConceptPlus idea, the curators first chose a group of artists that form the base of the exhibition. Conceptplus is then publicized through an international call to artists using the internet and Exit Art’s 24,000 person email list. In response, Exit Art receives many hundreds of proposals from throughout the world, from which each exhibition is curated. The shift to conceptplus as a curatorial model has been important because it broadens the group of artists who apply to Exit Art’s programming into a global community and allows for a more democratic curatorial process. This process also privileges the creation of new work over the presentation of existing work, challenging artists to respond to ideas circulating in the culture at large by providing commissioning fees and an exhibition venue, making it a highly flexible system ideally adapted to the speed with which political and social changes now sweep through the world. Conceptplus projects presented to date include the Reconstruction Biennial (2003), the first in a series of five thematic biennials planned over the next 10 years. Reconstruction inaugurated Exit Art’s new space, inviting artists to take advantage of its raw state by creating site-specific projects that evolved continually over the duration of the show; Roberta Smith of the New York Times called it one of the 10 best shows of 2003. L Factor (2003) and Homomuseum: Heroes and Moments (2005) reflected Exit Art’s understanding that artists for whom identity might have been the defining factor in the production and reception of their work a decade earlier now viewed identity as just one among the many factors informing complex approaches to a multitude of subjects. L Factor and Homomuseum parsed this generational difference by commissioning emerging artists to create works inspired by Latino and LGBT icons or defining moments, revealing the multiple interpretations of identity contained within or connected to the labels attached to particular experiences.
At this moment in our history, Exit Art is able to claim a community simultaneously very local and very global: our continued commitment to supporting and remaining accessible to our artists, the more than 2,000 Exit Art alumni, has created a network here in New York; and our openness to collaboration, to intervention from artists and the public, and to the participation of cultural producers from across national and disciplinary borders has enabled us to present our audiences with the question of how to understand the Americas in relation to the rest of the world.