Alanna Heiss

Alanna Heiss in the Clocktower Gallery. Photo: Casey Kelbaugh, 2011. Image: via

Alanna Heiss is a NYC-based artist and self-described events “organizer,” pioneer of the “alternative space movement” of the 1970s, and founder and former Director of MoMA PS1. She is also the founder and Director of Clocktower Productions, a nonprofit arts organization and online radio station. Heiss was recently interviewed for the December 2014 issue of The Brooklyn Rail about “her life before, during, and after MoMA, the art of plumbing, collecting, curating, and having fun.” The interview is an in depth and fascinating glimpse into Heiss’s presence in the contemporary art world in New York and beyond.

Here are some of the most surprising and interesting things Heiss discussed:

On working hard and illegal plumbing…

“I always had jobs—paying jobs: there were day jobs and some night jobs. My artist husband was working all the time, but as an artist. So there was a known quantity: there simply wasn’t going to be any money. He was engaged as were most artists that I knew at that time in some sort of manual labor. In this case, he had with Philip Glass, Richard Serra, and some others, a plumbing business. They did a lot of lofts—illegal plumbing. [Laughter.] That was a very, very good operation.”

On one of her most heavily quoted statements, “One of the most essential parts of art is to have fun”…

“It makes having fun seem superficial and frivolous. That’s why the merger with MoMA, for a person who insisted on having fun her entire professional life, might have seemed to some as baffling, because for the first time it made people consider the possibility that fun must be taken quite seriously. It’s a different order of priorities in museums than it is in other places, and the museum directors who I admire and who were so important to me were not always a lot of fun, but they had other qualities—they had gone against some list of priorities that was important from the country that they were in, or they had taken a list of priorities and had been able to maximize the impact, or they simply threw away the priorities!”

Alanna Heiss MoMA PS1

Alanna Heiss is the founder and former Director of MoMA PS1 in New York. Image: via Instagram.

On how the 1970s lost its best art critics to music criticism…

“Because the world of music was actually just so much damn more interesting and, once again, fun. Working as a music critic for Rolling Stone, for instance, your readership was different. Dave Hickey is the well-known crossover here. He gave up art criticism for years, and only wrote music—rock ‘n’ roll criticism. There were many terrific writers that just went over to music, and I’m not talking about classical music, obviously. I’m talking about rock ‘n’ roll.”

On the word “curator”:

“The “curator” label is really used too often; curators at contemporary art venues should be designated “producers.” We should remove that title. “Curator” is a horrible title. What does it mean in French? It means like concierge. No! Curators are producers: That’s my feeling.”

On finding places to house art shows:

“In the early ’70s when I found out that museums didn’t really want to show contemporary art I tried to look at different kinds of venues that showed art of my time and figure out how you would get permission to use them for shows. All I do is shows. I’m not interested in collections. I’m only minimally interested in storage; my true love is real estate. I developed a kind of manual of how to use buildings for art shows. I would develop a building that was in different kinds of ownership.”

Be sure to take a look at the full interview between Alanna Heiss, David Carrier, and Joachim Pissarro.