In the last days of 1979, a group of artists broke into a city-owned building at 123 Delancey St. to install an exhibition they called “The Real Estate Show.” It was a protest against New York’s developer-centric land-use policies and a statement of solidarity with working people. A couple of days into the new year, city officials padlocked the building and confiscated the art. The episode was a key moment for activist artists on the Lower East Side that eventually led to the founding of the counterculture arts organization ABC No Rio.
Now, 35 years later, many of those same artists are delving into their personal archives to recreate the show at the James Fuentes Gallery, located just five blocks from the spot where the dramatic events unfolded.
The neighborhood is, of course, a very different place than it was then. Economic decay has been replaced by a real estate boom. Artists in 2014 are far more likely to be displaying their works in white box gallery spaces rather than in rat-infested tenements. But Fuentes, a Lower East Side native who grew up in the Vladeck Houses and now lives in the Grand Street co-ops,, said “The Real Estate Show” remains relevant today.
“It’s important for every gallery in the neighborhood to be aware that there’s a significant history here of exhibition and, you know, we’re not all inventing this as we go along,” he said.
The new exhibition is not only relevant, it’s timely. Three decades ago, artists were told they could not stage their show at 123 Delancey St. because the parcel was part of the Seward Park Urban Renewal Area, which was about to be redeveloped. No building happened back then, but today, the city is finally moving ahead with a new version of the project. A year from now, private developers are scheduled to break ground on Essex Crossing, a nearly two-million-square-foot residential and commercial development.
The show’s reprisal is multi-faceted. At Fuentes’ gallery, 55 Delancey St., many of the original works will be displayed. Some are being recreated. Community engagement events are planned at the Cuchifritos Gallery in the Essex Street Market, a building that will be demolished to make way for condominiums and new stores at Essex Crossing. There will also be programming at ABC No Rio’s headquarters at 156 Rivington St.
Among the 35 artists taking part in 1979 was Becky Howland. She created some of the posters for the show and became a driving force in the establishment of ABC No Rio.
“We had no idea what would happen,” Howland explained in a recent interview. “There was a thrill and excitement of breaking in.” Facing bad publicity, the city presented the artists, loosely affiliated with an organization called Collective Projects, with a list of abandoned buildings. They were asked to choose one for the group; they ultimately settled on 156 Rivington.
“It was incredibly ad hoc,” she said. “We made everything up as we went along.”
Preparing to recreate “The Real Estate Show” has been exhilarating for Howland. “It was so chaotic in that Delancey Street building and no one was formally documenting anything, so now the artists are piecing the show together like a jigsaw puzzle, and recalling old memories,” she said.
The idea for the new exhibition grew out of a conversation between Fuentes and one of the artists, Jane Dickson.
“I’m excited to be doing this show, because it is a reminder that there is a way to be an artist that is not part of the intense commercial artery that is running through the field right now,” Fuentes said. “Some younger artists aren’t even aware there’s another way.”
Scanning photos of some of the works during an interview at his gallery, Fuentes observed that a lot of the art presented was unremarkable. But that may be beside the point. The event, and several others like it at around the same time, led to a watershed moment for 1980s radical art, “The Times Square Show.”
“There’s a beautiful narrative around these shows,” Fuentes added. “In 1980, there was an economic crisis. Today, there is a cultural crisis. Hopefully, by revisiting this show, we can speak to relevant issues now.”
Howland said a big goal 34 years ago was to create a place where people could talk over issues and express their concerns about gentrification. In one respect it was a major success, since ABC No Rio, she noted “has existed as a toehold of anarchy in the midst of Disneyland.” Reflecting on the tumult in 1979, she added, “Sometimes a little bit of drama is a good thing.”
“The Real Estate Show Was Then: 1980” is at the James Fuentes Gallery, 55 Delancey St. April 4-27. Additional events will be held at ABC No Rio and Cuchifritos Gallery, 120 Essex St. through May 11.