As Head of Creative Time, Anne Pasternak Has Changed How and Where We Experience Art

interview by David Hershkovits / portrait by Petra Collins
Business is on Anne Pasternak's mind on this brisk fall day -- as well as a doctor's appointment to attend to an aching foot caused by an unfortunate stumble on the steps of the subway. The government is teetering on default and Pasternak's down one foot, but the president and artistic director of Creative Time has a non-proft to run and an interview to sit through, while her solicitous husband, artist Mike Starn, works on making her comfortable in their decidedly unpretentious, yet tasteful, East Village abode.

Since joining the non-profit organization in 1994, Pasternak's big ideas have made Creative Time a halo brand in the art world, bringing public art projects that range from cloud drawings in the sky by Vik Muniz, to a movie projected on the Museum of Modern Art by Doug Aitken, to a herd of 30 life-sized horses by Nick Cave that invaded Grand Central Terminal. Having extended art's reach into the public arena, she's now moving Creative Time more firmly into art-powered social activism. There's the Creative Time Summit as well as a global residency program that has sent artists like Swoon to Haiti to work on housing for local residents after the earthquake and Creative Time Reports, a website where artists report on pressing issues of our time. Over coffee and Pasternak's elevated ankle, we talk about her years at Creative Time, from throwing accidental raves at the Brooklyn Bridge Anchorage to organizing these new global initiatives and taking over her latest public-art sweet spot, Williamsburg's Domino Sugar factory.

HEARD•NY by Nick Cave, Manhattan, 2013.

David Hershkovits: How has your mission evolved and kept pace with the globalization of the art world that now spans from Beijing to Tehran to Portland?

Anne Pasternak:
It's interesting, the evolution of business models, right? Our Creative Time Summit has become the largest art and social justice conference in the world, and we're really proud of it. Our Summit this year is about artists in cities, and gentrification, and urban development and creative place making. When we started thinking about the Summit, it was my curator who wanted a take on the subject of gentrification, and I was totally against it. I was like, "That's so 1980s. The art world is so behind on this conversation, it's appalling." He pushed back and pushed back until I finally agreed to it.

DH: Gentrification? How so?

Well, for example, locally in Bushwick, some artists like Jules de Balincourt are trying to buy a building, because artists are being pushed out of neighborhoods that they've helped pioneer. Well, to claim victim and to ignore class and race issues, when in fact the argument is much more complex than that, is really unconscionable.

DH: The artist as gentrifier...

It's not just the artist as victim, it's the artist as perpetrator. It cuts many, many ways, and the larger question is: How do we create sustainable models for really diverse multiclass, multirace, multiethnic neighborhoods? If there were a bunch of people who wanted to help create new urban planning models around issues of gentrification, then could you get artists, urban planners, architects and policy people to come together and think about models that are working and not working, and how they might be adapted, and have them come up with solutions for cities?

Immigrant Movement International by Tania Bruguera, Queens, 2011; Living as Form, multiple artists, Manhattan, 2011.

DH: It seems like you have a lot more in mind for Creative Time than just doing public spectacles.

AP: Creative Time is known for creating these ambitious, experimental public art projects that sometimes may be more of a spectacle perhaps, but often are also driven by very important timely issues. And then we realized there are other ways that artists want to contribute to public ideas; it may be the creation of an artwork but it also might be that they're involved in working in refugee camps around the world and they see that as an important aspect of their work -- as important as the paintings that they may show somewhere else. So we established two initiatives over the past few years: One was the Summit, which is the first major convening of artists from around the world who are working on issues from prison reform to protest to health care to the environment, and the other is the first news media arm of the organization that we started 10 months ago. We recognized that artists have done a lot of research, they have a lot of experience, so we created Creative Time Reports for artists to weigh in on the important public issues of our day.

DH: What did you do before joining Creative Time?

I was a director of a gallery in SoHo where I loved working closely with the artists. I had relationships with artists like Andres Serrano and Vik Muniz, but I didn't feel like gallery work at the time was enough about ideas, and so I got my curatorial toes wet at an alternative art space in Hartford. I was living in SoHo and commuting to Hartford every week.

DH: When you stepped into this arena, it was also a very interesting time because the Internet was just bubbling up, right? Did you immediately jump into that?

We did jump into it. Well, first of all, when I came to Creative Time I had to bring my laptop because we didn't have a computer for me. I was the only full-time employee, but by the time the Internet started up, I was like, "I don't really understand this stuff but I know we need a website." And at that time we had been using the Brooklyn Bridge Anchorage for many years and I thought, well what are the [other new media] art forms?

DH: Oh yes, we did events at the Anchorage.

That's how we met! We threw raves without knowing we were throwing raves.

DH: It was this huge cavernous space under the Brooklyn Bridge with projections and all this fun stuff, right?

Yes, and what I decided to do at the time was to highlight artists who were working in what we then referred to as "new media." It wasn't even new media by the time we were working with it, but museums and galleries weren't doing that stuff so there was a lot of videos, sound and interactive work that we were focusing on, and Net-based art.

Tribute in Light by Julian Laverdiere and Paul Myoda, Manhattan, 2002

DH: Then the city closed the Anchorage.

At a certain point, museums were like, "Oh we've discovered video art 40 years later," and they're just discovering sound art now -- thank you, MoMA. By 2001, we needed to find something new to do with the Anchorage, because at that point there was so much of this stuff happening in cultural institutions. Well, we didn't get an opportunity to figure it out. The space was shut down because of 9/11.

DH: Then what happened?

I went back to our core mission, which said artists are important in the world and they should be contributing to the ideas of our time, and that public spaces being free and giving artists opportunities to experiment and grow will help push our field in the world. So I thought why be beholden to a space? Let's use this as an opportunity to really pursue our mission.

DH: So instead you decided to use the entire city as your canvas. Does fundraising take up most of your time now? Is it what keeps you up at night?

I would say more and more every year my job transitions from curating to being artistic director and chief fundraising officer. The percentage of time that I spend fundraising explodes every single year.

DH: Is that because your ideas get bigger and require more support?

It's so hard running a non-profit. It's so hard that unless you're doing something really important and unique, it's not worth it.I could do something else and make more money and, you know, life is short. It's really about that experimentation and that idea of how we're creating real value in the world beyond the marketplace. Crises like 9/11 and the economic fallout of 2008 are great opportunities to revisit a mission, and think really entrepreneurially. And that's what I did in both of those cases.

DH: You've been fortunate to have a mayor in Bloomberg who understands and has supported the arts for the last 12 years. And that's about to change. Do you have any concerns about that?

I've been talking to the media about it for eight years, at least. They're just starting to cover it now because Mayor Mike and deputy mayor Patti Harris have always been very art centered. [Bloomberg] knows it's good for cities. Previous administrations have said, "No, you can't use public spaces for art." This administration said, "Yes you can." That was the biggest positive contribution he's made to our field. Whoever we inherit as our next mayor certainly will continue to shrink the Department of Cultural Affairs, so we'll have significantly less funding as a field than we had before Mayor Mike. It's very alarming, but it's more alarming if you're dealing with a very important cultural anchor in the South Bronx, or Bed-Stuy or Harlem. Those are the organizations that are specifically going to suffer.

(l to r): Space Program: Mars by Tom Sachs, Manhattan, 2012; Sleepwalkers by Doug Aitken, Manhattan, 2007.

DH: Switching topics slightly to Art Basel Miami, which is coming up. I know you've worked with them in the past, right?

We helped them create social spaces with architects and brought in arts presenters and artists from around the country to do these one-off performative events. It was a lot of fun, but I think there's just too much going on down there, frankly. We decided we didn't want to add more, so we encouraged them to focus on their public art program and to bring in other curators too.

DH: Art fairs have become such a big part of the art world today.

I don't think that they're good for learning about an artist in any kind of depth or seriousness. They're not replacing the need for galleries or museums for example, but I do think that there are some really wonderful things about art fairs that I would not have predicted. One is that they've created more collectors in the world, and the more support for artists the better. The other thing that is really interesting is that the art fairs -- and I think Basel [in particular] has been very, very good about this -- have put a spotlight on galleries and artists from other regions of the world that we would not have known about otherwise.

DH: How do your ideas come up? Are you just meeting artists in your regular life? Or do you sit down with someone and say, "I want to do something with you"?

It's not so random. There are artists we follow who we think are brilliant, and ethical and interesting, and we'd like to see what idea they have for doing a public project that's going to take them in a whole new direction. We don't have a great business model because we're constantly reinventing the wheel. An extreme example of that was when we sent an artwork [Trevor Paglen's The Last Pictures] into outer space last November. It sounds so easy when I say it, but believe me, the things that you have to learn to get an artwork into outer space is off-the-charts nuts, but when I came to Creative Time I had a bucket list of about 10 places I wanted to work, and one was outer space.

Mickalene Thomas in MTV Art Breaks, on-air, 2012-2013; The Last Pictures by Trevor Paglen, 2012.

DH: How did you choose an artist to send into space?

Well, Chris Burden was somebody I had spoken to about it, but I knew I couldn't make his project happen; it was insane. It was a huge undertaking. But when I met Trevor, I was like, thematically, conceptually, this is my artist. He's got the intelligence, the integrity. He came up with three or four ideas before we said, "Bingo, that's the one." So it's a very deliberate conversation. I don't always have a site for an artist, but sometimes I have a site that I know the perfect artist for. I'll let you guys announce it because nobody else knows -- we're going to do a major exhibition in the Domino Sugar factory before it becomes what it's going to become.

DH: Wow! Do you know what artist you'll work with to do that?

This artist has also been on my bucket list for years -- what better artist than Kara Walker to do a major project in a sugar warehouse? When she walked in, she didn't say much. She's a very shy person, very quiet, but she spent about 45 minutes in the space. The next morning, she sent me 38 drawings that she had made. I don't think she slept a wink that night.

DH: That's beautiful. Is there anything left on your bucket list now?

Domino was the last site on my list. Now I'm thinking about how artists are contributing to social change. I love this quote that [U.K. artist] Jeremy Deller once said: "I went from being an artist who makes things to being an artist who makes things happen." That was one of those eureka moments where I thought, "Yeah I want to make things happen."

Hair and makeup: Michelle Coursey for See Management using OCC.

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