“How the Andy Warhol Foundation Turned the Tables on a Repressive City Government”
Date published: 02/04/2013
Publication: Louise Blouin Artinfo
How the Andy Warhol Foundation Turned the Tables on a Repressive City Government
“We’ve been on quite a surreal trajectory,” Steve Pierce, director of the Sanctuary for Independent Media in Troy, New York, told ARTINFO. That’s putting it lightly. The small media arts organization made headlines in 2008 after the city government shut it down for exhibiting politically incendiary work by Iraqi artist Wafaa Bilal. Five years later, the nonprofit is breaking ground on an expansive public art program funded in large part — here’s where it gets surreal — by that very same city government.
The trials and ultimate triumph of the Sanctuary for Independent Media — a bootstrapped nonprofit located on the poorest block in one of the poorest cities in New York State — is a rare story of David beating Goliath. The organization credits its unlikely rise in part to behind-the-scenes — and, until now, largely unpublicized — support from the Andy Warhol Foundation.
The controversy stretches back to February 2008, when Bilal, then a resident artist at the Rensselear Polytechnic Institute (RPI) in Troy, unveiled a video game entitled “Virtual Jihadi” at the university. The artwork was based on an American video game that tasked players with shooting Iraqi soldiers and killing Osama Bin Laden. Revamping it as a recruitment tool, Al-Qaeda replaced Iraqis with Americans and bin Laden with George Bush. Bilal decided to show a hacked version at RPI, casting himself as a suicide bomber in the game.
Before long, conservative student groups began complaining about the exhibition, and the university decided to shut it down. (At a town hall meeting, the university’s president likened the video to child pornography.)
The nearby Sanctuary for Independent Media — which counts a number of RPI arts professors as volunteers — offered to host “Virtual Jihad” instead. “We’re in the poorest part of the capital region, in a particularly tough neighborhood — it wasn’t much of a premiere for him, but we figured he could at least make a statement,” recalled Pierce. The night of the opening, local residents and politicians picketed outside. A county legislator called the work a form of terrorism.
The next day, officials from the city planning department told the Sanctuary it would have to shut down because it was in violation of multiple building codes. The major infraction? Its doors were two inches too narrow. Pierce was blindsided. “We’re an all-volunteer operation and we were faced with thousands and thousands of dollars in building repairs,” he said.
THE ARTS CAVALRY
That’s when the Warhol Foundation stepped in. The foundation’s program director, Rachel Bers, had visited the organization a few weeks before to follow up on its application for funding. “It looked like our funding wasn’t going to go anywhere at the time — she said we were too new — but I called and said, ‘We need help,’” recounted Pierce.
What happened next exposes a little-known fact about the Warhol Foundation, which is famous for its support of major museum exhibitions and nonprofit visual arts organizations. As it turns out, the foundation is also something of a free-speech activist. “It seemed like such an obvious, double censorship of this one piece,” said Bers. “The best way to respond seemed to be to address the city’s complaints, so that’s what our grant was for.”
In the space of two weeks, the Warhol Foundation gave the Sanctuary $10,000 to purchase new doors. “They literally just invited us to ask for a formal donation,” Pierce recalled. “‘But we don’t want to burden you by making you spend a lot of time writing a letter,’ they told me. Can you imagine? Warhol was like the arts cavalry. This is a very conservative part of the country, and Troy was overwhelmingly dominated by reactionary political elements at the time.”
The new doors were installed in six weeks, and the Sanctuary reopened. But the saga was far from over. With the help of the New York Civil Liberties Union, the Sanctuary filed a civil rights lawsuit against the city. The settlement, finalized last year, required the local government to reimburse the nonprofit for all building repairs. It also mandated that the city partner with the Sanctuary to apply for an “Our Town” NEA grant, which gives local arts organizations money to support “creative placemaking” in their own neighborhoods. If the Sanctuary staff won the $50,000 grant, the government would have to match it dollar for dollar. They did.
That was in July. Now, the Sanctuary is better funded — at least on a project basis — than it has ever been before (though Pierce notes it still subsists almost entirely on volunteers). The new public art program, called “Found Art in North Troy,” takes a hyperlocal approach. The nonprofit is building a new public park on an abandoned lot around the corner and collaborating with a metalworker and artist to enliven the fences in the area. This spring, Isaiah Zagar — founder of the Pennsylvania nonprofit Magic Gardens, which transformed entire city blocks in Philadelphia using found objects and mosaics — will help the neighborhood construct a public stage to host performances.
“The theme ‘found art’ is really a metaphor for a whole area, where not just objects are abandoned, but people and houses too,” said the Sanctuary’s Branda Miller, who is organizing the program.
Is there any lingering resentment from the locals following the “Virtual Jihadi” affair? “The community immediately around us was never hostile to us at all,” said Pierce. “In fact, the hostility we did get has only solidified our relationship with the neighborhood, bec
ause they are used to being bullied by elected officials and police.”
As for Bilal, the artist who set off the controversy, he says he “couldn’t be happier” with the way things turned out. Since 2008, “Virtual Jihadi” has shown publicly in France, Germany, England, Canada, and Lebanon. Bilal is now an associate professor at the Tisch School for the Arts at New York University.
“In the end,” Pierce observed, “this very dark moment in our organizational history had a really great ending.”