By Ronda Kaysen
The Downtown arts community has rallied behind the Drawing Center in recent weeks as it struggles to hold its ground in the plans for a new cultural center at the World Trade Center site.
The 28-year-old arts organization has found itself at the center of a controversy led by a coalition of Sept. 11 victims family members about what sort of art if any should accompany a W.T.C. memorial. Critics attest that art has no place so close to the memorial and criticize the Drawing Center in Soho for art exhibits that challenged Bush administration policies.
One illustration at a Drawing Center exhibit featured a hooded figure holding a barbed-wire chain spelling out the word liberty, in a clear allusion to the Abu Ghraib prison scandal, titled A Glimpse of What Life in a Free Country Can Be Like. Another, titled Homeland Security, showed four planes swooping out of the sky aimed at a naked woman with her legs spread open.
In response, Governor George Pataki called for an absolute guarantee from the arts organizations that they will have total respect for the sanctity of the site.
Although the International Freedom Center, also slated for the cultural center, pledged to highlight Americas role as a beacon for freedom, the Drawing Center has refused to bow to censorship, a move that has many in the arts community cheering from the sidelines.
The 9/11 victims are incredibly important, but I dont think people should be dictating who gets that space, said Holly Block, executive director Art in General, a nonprofit visual art space on Walker St.
Block, a Maiden Lane resident, said she has watched her neighborhood morph into a Mecca for rubberneckers since the disaster. A cultural institution would bode well for tourists. People should have the ability to see the richness of New York City and that includes the Drawing Center, she said.
Block and several of her art world colleagues have written letters and submitted op-ed columns to the citys newspapers in support of the Drawing Center. The first thing we did was call the Drawing Center and ask them how we could help, she said.
The Drawing Center has received numerous e-mails and letters in support of their cause from around the country since the story first surfaced in late June.
Based on Wooster St., the Drawing Center has been a New York City institution since 1977. The only nonprofit organization in the country to focus on the exhibition of drawings, many people in the art community view the Soho organization as one of the vital components of the revitalization process.
The Drawing Center is like a jewel in the art world. Their shows are always thoughtful. It would be a dream to have them down here, said Cheryl Pelavin, owner of Cheryl Pelavin Fine Arts on Jay St. The prospect of losing the organization, she added, is heartbreaking.
Downtown has been struggling to draw businesses back to the neighborhood since 9/11 and as the area becomes increasingly residential, the lack of cultural institutions south of Canal St. becomes evermore apparent. Nearly 80 percent of Downtown residents cited cultural institutions as their number one priority for Downtown, according to a Wall Street Rising poll conducted 18 months ago.
It would be really sad to lose another reason to go down there, said Tracy Williams, owner of the eponymous Greenwich Village art gallery. Williams recently moved out of Tribeca.
Although the governor has given the Drawing Center an ultimatum, the organization has yet to officially respond, saying only that discussions with the Lower Manhattan Development Corporation, which oversees the W.T.C. site, are promising. All options are on the table, said Fraser Seitel, a spokesperson for the Drawing Center.
The L.M.D.C. says it is still trying to accommodate the organization. Among the topics under discussion are locations both on and off the site for some or all of their programming, Joanna Rose, L.M.D.C. spokesperson, wrote in an e-mail to Downtown Express.
The Drawing Center continues to insist that it will not restrict its content under any circumstances. The people at the L.M.D.C. understand that an art institution depends on freedom of expression, Seitel told Downtown Express.
Many in the arts community worry that if the Drawing Center ultimately bows out of the new W.T.C. master plan, there will be no one to fill the void. Me and my colleagues in the art world here in New York having seen what a hot topic this is would be leery of getting mixed in with that, which is too bad because its a great opportunity, said Mark Vevle, a spokesperson at the Lower Manhattan Cultural Center.
Some wonder if the highly politicized and scrutinized site is the best place for a serious art institution known for showcasing provocative and engaging art. Youre opening yourself up to being criticized by the city, people, the government, and it might not be worth the headache, said Rick Davidman, Director of DFN Gallery on Franklin St., adding that a more historical institution, like the New-York Historical Society, one of the 15 finalists in the bid for the site, might have been a better choice.
For some in the arts community Downtown, the growing storm surrounding the Drawing Center is deeply unsettling. Weve totally lost contact with what it is to be human. Of course theres bad art, but there are bad books and bad newspaper articles. Were all just human, said Pelavin. Art is kind of a reflection of the culture. Its just made by other people in the culture. What could be better than to have culture down here? This is a place where people live.
With additional reporting by Olga Mantilla