Anaïs Duplan is a trans* poet, curator, and artist. He is the author of a forthcoming book of essays, Blackspace: On the Poetics of an Afrofuture (Black Ocean, 2020); a full-length poetry collection, Take This Stallion (Brooklyn Arts Press, 2016); and a chapbook, Mount Carmel and the Blood of Parnassus (Monster House Press, 2017). Photo: Walid Mohanna
Allison Freedman Weisberg is the founder and executive director of Recess, a nonprofit arts organization that partners with artists to build a more just and inclusive creative community. She approaches all of her work through a racial justice lens, collaborating with radical thinkers who reimagine an equitable future.
Sarah Hoover is a director at Gagosian, where she has worked since 2007. She is a founding member of the Accelerator board of American Ballet Theatre and has sat on the development committee at Recess since 2019. She has a son named Guy Sachs and a French bulldog named Napoleon. Photo: BFA
Over the last decade, since its founding in 2009, the nonprofit arts organization Recess has reimagined the relationship between art and the public. What began as a storefront artists’ residency in SoHo, New York, has morphed and expanded with the artists and community members who have passed through its doors.
Today, headquartered in Clinton Hill, Brooklyn, Recess runs a variety of programs offering artists and communities time and space to create outside of institutional models. Among them are Session, a program supporting artists’ projects from development to exhibition in close relation with audiences; Analog, a digital platform in which artists document and share an aspect of their labor over a year; and most recently Assembly, a partnership with Brooklyn Justice Initiatives and the Brooklyn District Attorney’s Office, to steer young people caught up in the criminal-justice system into alternatives to incarceration. Assembly also provides participants with long-term support through paid training, internships, and job placements in the arts. These programs—whether for professional artists or novice students—often inform one another. Assembly lead teaching artist Shaun Leonardo, for example, has exhibited his own work probing the justice system in a format much like a Session residency, making it a jumping-off point for the program’s collaborative pedagogy. As Sara Roffino writes in Cultured magazine, “From this starting point of arrest and prison, the group has collectively built one of the most powerful social practices within contemporary art.”
Sarah HooverAllison, when you launched Recess, what were its initial goals?
Allison Freedman WeisbergI started with the hope of partnering with artists to build a more just and equitable creative community. The fun part about that mission is that artists are constantly elevating and expanding it. Everybody who comes here—our program participants, our writers, our young people—are reinventing what a creative community can look and feel like.
Anaïs DuplanWithin that general mission there are various program models that we work from. Each one has a different way of doing what Allison so eloquently described. There’s the Session program, which gives artists access to our wonderful space to develop projects in tandem with different communities, which they identify through impromptu, one-on-one engagements with people who walk through the door, through public programs that we design collaboratively, and through interactions people have with the projects themselves, which develop in the public eye over the course of six weeks. Rather than inviting people to engage with the finished set of works, we’re thinking about how to invite people into artists’ processes as they are unfolding.
Related to that, there’s the Critical Writing program, which pairs a Session artist with a writer. The writer is asked to produce a piece written on the occasion of the artist’s work, rather than about the artist’s work. So the writing ends up being as much about the writer’s practice as about the ideas explored in Session.
Then we have Assembly, a newer program that has really expanded our community. Assembly welcomes young people, between the ages of eighteen and twenty-five, to participate in a workshop designed by artist Shaun Leonardo for a court-mandated period of four or ten weeks. The workshop deals with what we call “visual storytelling”: our young people have been told narratives about who they are that are toxic and false, so they’re working through how to retell their own stories. And then they’re welcome to stay on with us as what’s called a “Peer Leader” for ten more months. That’s a paid position where they learn things like art handling, screen printing, videography, photography, and other skills useful in establishing a career in the arts.
SHTo backtrack a bit, can you tell me a little bit what was in your head when you decided to start Recess?
AFWI’d been working in museums in New York for about five years. I started at the Museum of Modern Art, then ran youth and community programs for the Whitney [Museum of American Art] in their education department uptown. I also ran a partnership program with a homeless shelter on the Upper West Side. Their young people, between the ages of six and fourteen, would come after school and look at art and make a project. I loved what would happen to artists who got a chance to share their work with the young people in that program, and, likewise, what would transpire for the kids and teens.
This was all on my mind in my first thinking about Recess, which actually started as a completely theory-based graduate thesis. Then, about halfway through writing, I realized this could actually be a thing in the real world. The line of thought radiated out from the basic question of what happens when you have closeness among artists and audiences, not only a physical proximity but also a social and intellectual closeness. What happens when you give an artist the time and space to really work through tough questions and prioritize the questioning rather than the answer? That’s true in the context of Assembly, too: sure, it starts as an alternative to incarceration and it has this very clear path, but really that’s just a starting point for what can be a lifelong exploration of creativity and problem solving and relationship building.
what are the ways in which asking these questions and demanding answers . . . can have real manifestations on the ground for the communities that are living the fallout of our broken systems?Allison Freedman Weisberg
SH Do you have favorite projects that you’ve been involved with here?
AFWIt’s really easy for me to give a different answer every time I’m asked this, so I can share the love. The questions that each artist brings to the table are constantly perplexing and redouble my interest in this work as a creative pursuit. A lot of artists make work about social, political, and economic issues, but Recess really tries to take that one step further and ask: What are the ways in which asking these questions and demanding answers—or at least demanding a process of searching for answers—can have real manifestations on the ground for the communities that are living the fallout of our broken systems?
Chris Udemezue just finished a project at Recess that I think Anaïs and I both fell in love with.
ADThat Session was called Duppy, a word that in Jamaican patois means “ghost.” Udemezue was thinking about his mother’s relationship to Jamaica throughout her life, the stories she told him about Jamaica growing up and how they informed his own relationship to Jamaica, which was initially one of fear and trepidation. Then he went there and had a marvelous, paradisal kind of time. Since then, Udemezue has been trying to reconcile the differences between those two conceptions of an ancestral home by talking with his mother, trying to learn more about her traumatic experiences of Jamaica growing up and why she might have been afraid for him in that environment.
I have to say, as a caveat, that I was born in Haiti, so I have a fondness for projects on Afro-Caribbean diasporas. But we had a class visit with some high school students from McKinney Secondary School for the Arts, in Brooklyn, and I realized just how many people in New York are Afro-Caribbean or of Afro-Caribbean descent. We talked for a long time about how Chris’s pieces were made, and we got to this really amazing point where, as a group, we realized that what was powerful about Chris’s work wasn’t that he was depicting his subject matter in a straightforward way. Only in looking at how he made the works, the colors, the compositions, could you come into the emotional and thematic subject matter. It’s not like I arrived at that understanding by myself and then tried to convey it to these high school students. Rather, being in conversation with them, I learned more about the work. That’s what I appreciate about Sessions: by bringing people in and talking with them about the work, I learn so much from each person.
AFWHe activated the space with programming about healing and trauma. There were a couple of times when participants in our Assembly program were in these healing workshops and were thinking about their own past traumas, and the ways that they’ve inherited the traumas of their families. I witnessed them speak so beautifully about their experiences and come away with tools for feeling empowered and strengthened moving forward.
A lot of the young people in the Assembly program are also of Afro-Caribbean descent. They often sit at our front desk and welcome visitors, or lead school groups through the space, and there was one young man who was able to explain so much about the project by virtue of his own experience with the diaspora and his mom. Here, an artist can support a young person, a young person can support an artist, and in so doing they can welcome more folks from other communities into the space and grow that ecosystem in a really beautiful and organic way.
SHIt sounds like you’ve kept up the rigor of the art-making naturally somehow, but have you made specific efforts to do so—to make sure things don’t get watered down in any way?
AFWYes, I think our artists are our best spokespeople. The projects they put forward are constantly of such high caliber. But I also think credit goes to Anaïs and other program staff at Recess, who constantly insist that watered-down art is boring for everybody. I think there’s a mistaken assumption that community engagement implies some kind of “less than,” like it makes for an easier pill to swallow for folks who’ve been historically excluded from a critical dialogue. But that’s exactly why community-based art doesn’t work a lot of the time: it’s condescending, it’s boring, and it does a disservice both to participants and to the artist. When given the time and space to unpack difficult subject matter in a creative context, people can arrive at responses to these entrenched, systemic questions that in another context just might not be possible.
What draws me here every day is this question of who the artwork is important to. It’s not a secondary question; curatorial work doesn’t happen first and then something called “education” or “programming” happens later.Anaïs Duplan
SHIs there anything that either of you would want someone unfamiliar with the nonprofit sector to know?
AFWI would say we work really hard to present a rigorous, strong, compelling program, both for our artists and for our young people. But you know, ten-plus years in, it is never not a struggle to meet that bottom line. I think we run a pretty tight ship, but a nonprofit model is tough; it’s a labor of love to keep going. If the artists and the program participants and the audiences weren’t constantly upping the ante for us, it would be an easy proposition to just walk, but every time another artist comes in and reinvents the possibilities of what contemporary art can be and do, and every time a young person helps me understand better the way that art can be a tool toward social change, I understand we have to do more.
ADWhat draws me here every day is this question of who the artwork is important to. It’s not a secondary question; curatorial work doesn’t happen first and then something called “education” or “programming” happens later. There has to be a reason the artist’s work is publicly available, and that has to be established from the beginning.
SHWhat would you do if you found out tomorrow that your budget had doubled for the year?
AFWI’m going to give the most boring answer. Our budget is $1 million; if you gave me another million tomorrow, I would put it away, invest it, and let it grow. If I look back over the last thirty years and think of the art spaces and nonprofits that have survived, it’s the ones that own real estate or have an endowment. And we have neither of those things. I’m really thinking about stability, which is the most unsexy thing, right? But I’ve never thought of Recess as growing exponentially in terms of our square footage or our programs. I believe the ethos of Recess has the ability to spread with each artist and each young person who comes through the program. With stability, we can provide more support for individuals to imbue their own communities with the Recess ethos.
Photos: courtesy Recess, New York