Exhibition examines the history of modern homelessness in New York City

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Exhibition examines the history of modern homelessness in New York City
Unidentified photographer, Armory ribbon bee, ca. 1992. Reproduction. Courtesy of Visual AIDS.

NEW YORK, NY.- The New-York Historical Society presents Art for Change: The Artist & Homeless Collaborative, an exhibition that examines the history of modern homelessness in New York City through the lens of the Artist & Homeless Collaborative (A&HC), a public art project founded in 1990 by multidisciplinary artist Hope Sandrow. The program, which connected women from the Park Avenue Armory Shelter for Homeless Women with artists, curators, and activists, provided a vehicle for the women to tell their stories, work creatively, and build relationships. On view December 3, 2021 – April 3, 2022 in the Joyce B. Cowin Women’s History Gallery, the exhibition looks at the transformative potential of art in public and private life through a selection of art projects led by John Ahearn and Rigoberto Torres, Ida Applebroog, the Guerrilla Girls, Hope Sandrow, Judith Shea, Kiki Smith, among others.

“Homelessness is a more urgent crisis than ever before, as New Yorkers look to stabilize their communities and support those in need through efforts large and small,” said Dr. Louise Mirrer, president and CEO of New-York Historical. “Artists and art groups continue to bring art into shelters, using it as an empowering tool for people to tell their stories. We hope visitors will come away with a better understanding of those facing housing insecurity, how people have taken action in the past, and perhaps be inspired to help solve today’s problems using their own unique skills.”

Art and activism came together in the 1980s and 1990s to shine a light on homelessness while helping women in the shelter system creatively process their experience, gain confidence and skills, and speak directly to the public. Tucked behind a grand facade, the Park Avenue Armory Shelter for Homeless Women, the city-run shelter operated on the Armory’s upper floors, served 120 women ages 40 and older—including many women of color—who often faced issues of domestic violence, mental health, disability, HIV/AIDS, discrimination, and social isolation, among others. Through the joint work of creating art, the Artist & Homeless Collaborative’s women participants and professional artists forged relationships, engaged in self-reflection, and personalized the shelter space with installations of their artwork. Together with volunteers from the art world and activist groups including the Guerrilla Girls, Women’s Action Coalition, and Visual AIDS, the residents called attention to their experiences through exhibitions, published work, and activist poster projects.

During this period, the East Village was the battleground for heated debates around homelessness and gentrification. In addition, the AIDS crisis devastated New York City and its artistic community, and artists used art to document their experiences, memorialize those lost to AIDS, and bring attention to the needs of people living with HIV/AIDS. In the late 1980s, some artists turned toward practices—now known as socially engaged or social practice art—that emphasized collaboration with individuals and communities, and often fused art with activism. Three photographs by Sandrow in the exhibition—Self-Control, Back on the Streets (made in 1984 with Peter Hujar), Portrait of Nicolas Moufarrege, Men on the Streets (1982), and Portrait of Keith Haring, Men on the Streets (1982)—portray friends she lost to AIDS-related causes. The sense of loss compelled her to volunteer in shelters.

Art for Change includes John Ahearn and Rigoberto Torres’s Ernestine and Three Friends (1992)—a group of painted plaster life-cast busts of four shelter residents held in New-York Historical’s collections. Examples of work created by participants and artists on view include self-portraits, photography, mixed media, pin-back buttons, writings, and other artistic expressions. In 1994 the Artist & Homeless Collaborative began volunteering at the Lexington Avenue Armory shelter, which served women ages 20-45. Hope Sandrow and the writer Michael Boodro envisioned a project that could combine photography with writing to help the women grapple with their often traumatic pasts and think creatively about their futures. Examples from this project, What I Need/What I Want, are on view in the exhibition.

In addition to the work created through the Artist & Homeless Collaborative, the exhibition features the work of advocates and artists that were a direct response to the homelessness crisis as it emerged in New York City in the late 1970s and 1980s. The exhibition coincides with the 40th anniversary of the signing of the Callahan consent decree that established the legal right to shelter in New York City and includes the report Private Lives/Public Spaces (1981) by Ellen Baxter and Kim Hopper, who for nearly two years interviewed unhoused New Yorkers and then published their findings, bringing wide public attention to the crisis for the first time. Baxter and Hopper would go on to cofound the Coalition for the Homeless in 1981 with Robert Hayes, the young lawyer who two years earlier had brought the landmark Callahan v. Carey case against the city and state on behalf of homeless adult men, culminating in the signing of the Callahan consent decree in 1981. The report is displayed alongside ephemera, photographs, and video to contextualize the times.

The arts-based activism of the late 1980s and early ’90s transformed over time. Some grassroots groups disbanded, others became larger organizations, and still others remained committed to their original vision. The Artist & Homeless Collaborative ended in 1995 with the closure of the Park Avenue Armory shelter. Artists and art groups continue to bring art into shelters, using it as an opportunity to build relationships and as a way for people to tell their stories.

The number of people in the New York City municipal shelter system has more than doubled since the mid-1990s. In February 2020, 61,798 New Yorkers were sleeping in shelters each night, including 18,099 children. The COVID-19 pandemic has posed a serious health threat to people in congregate shelters, limited the ability of many nonprofits to provide in-person services, and put pressure on city residents who face housing insecurity due to loss of income. On display in the exhibition are collaborative portraits by artist Francis Palazzolo and individuals at the BronxWorks Living Room Drop-in Center and Safe Haven. BronxWorks is a group dedicated to helping Bronxites improve their economic and social wellbeing with diverse programs that feed, shelter, teach, and support over 60,000 community members. Palazzolo, the BronxWorks Artist-in-Residence and Recreation Coordinator who facilitates arts groups at four BronxWorks facilities, continued to work in person through the pandemic.

Also on display is a collaborative quilt made by young people to mark the 30th anniversary of Art Start, an arts nonprofit cofounded by Scott Rosenberg—an Artist & Homeless Collaborative volunteer from its early days. The organization works with youth from historically marginalized communities (including youth and families in transitional housing) providing creative opportunities for them to share their visions as well as reimagine and grow through present circumstances, developing life skills beyond the arts.

Multimedia artist and activist Betty Yu collaborated with Youth Leaders at the Door to create a special takeaway poster reflecting on youth homelessness today. The Door has provided comprehensive youth development services since 1972. Project participants interviewed young people receiving services through the Door’s Runaway and Homeless Youth program, which serves 1,600 young people a year, about their experiences to develop the augmented reality-enhanced design.

Art for Change is curated by Rebecca Klassen, associate curator of material culture, and Laura Mogulescu, curator of women’s history collections, with Tracey Johnson, Andrew W. Mellon Fellow in the Center for Women’s History, and curatorial intern Lisa Diaz Louis.

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