DIA Beacon

 

What a gift it seems at first to be traveling to DIA Beacon, to be flying along in the air conditioning under the trees, to be so free, so expansive. No longer in the shadows, seeing just the rectangle of sky, but now the entirety, the all around of light and, oh, wow, the shock, of mountains on mountains. Next, the zip over the bridge, the up and down of cute little hills with mansions nestled in dappled light. Look, a riding academy! Isn't everything just so lovely, so perfect? 

Then suddenly we are in Beacon. First thing, a woman pushing a stroller by the side of the highway, then a young boy poised to cross where there is no light, where the cars zoom around a curve toward him. Finally, a woman with three children, all lagging behind, one child pulling back on her hand, another plopped down in obvious protest, clearly wanting to be carried. It is a hot day.

 

 

 

This is Beacon, a Section 8 town, the contemporary version of economic segregation.

 

Section 8 is a Federal voucher-based rental subsidy program for low income adults, primarily single mothers and children, and the disabled. In New York City, a family can wait as long as ten years for the voucher, biding their time doubled and tripled up with relatives or in sub-standard housing with rat holes stuck full of steel wool and hope for the savior voucher. Once it arrives their troubles are not over. They have a specified amount of time to cash in the voucher, to find a landlord willing to offer a price acceptable to the program, willing to wait for payment from the government and willing to deal with the paperwork. Where could you find a landlord like that? Some particularly depressed sections of the Bronx, Bed Stuy, or upstate in Binghamton, Newburgh or Beacon. Faced with economic downturn, a depleted population, and empty apartments, Beacon is a perfect Section 8 town. A desperate landlord is happy to take the Section 8 voucher because it guarantees payment and few Section 8 people, having waited so long for the voucher are likely to leave. It solves the problem of turnover and empty apartments. For a speculator, it is an opportunity: buy foreclosed property for almost nothing, break it up into small units and sit back and collect your riches. You've seen it on late night TV: It's the Rich Man/ Poor Man story only in reality it's Rich Man/ Poor Woman, or more precisely, Poor Aspiring Person with a little capital or enough time to get property with no down payment and Poor Woman with children and one emergency after another and not a minute to do much but try to be in compliance with one government program or another.

 

 

 

The other problem is that the depressed areas where landlords are likely to take the Section 8 vouchers are not places where one is likely to get off the Section 8 voucher. They are usually places where jobs have already been lost, businesses have closed and services are almost non-existent. Beacon, for example, was, until recently, a main street of closed businesses. The movie theater for years has housed an evangelistic Pentecostal revival-style meeting house, where I imagine I would be were I the mother of the young teenager poised to cross the highway. I would be praying my son makes it home safe or makes his way far, far away from Beacon. The empty stores have lately been converting to antique stores, galleries, and a coffee shop. Thank goodness for the grocery store and the drug store. The only two businesses that seem to have any thing to offer the automobile deprived Section 8 recipients and, it seems the only two stores that appear to have hired any of them.

 

 

So, then, we turn and look down on the DIA Beacon, an old biscuit factory, actually a printing facility for the biscuit boxes. It is an exquisite location, On a hillside next to the Hudson River. The literature says that the state gave DIA incentives to build the museum here. Presumably the state tried to get a company that would have provided jobs to take over the building, since it remained vacant for many years. How many people from the area are actually working at DIA Beacon seems difficult to gauge. All of the five guards I spoke with were art students from New Paltz. That the space beautifully holds the art is indisputable. Could Walter de Maria have envisioned a more perfect location? The Serra sculptures are profoundly placed, holding the squares of light from the overhead windows, seeming even more strong, even more robust, even more full of surface nuance. The Louise Nevelson is hidden in the attic. I don't care whether or not they are spiders, it still seems like a snub. The Agnes Martin could be missed, tucked in an insignificant side room. The Chamberlain sculptures, however, march like a high school band in their own confident, masculine parade. Somewhere else this might have been a fun art experience, but in this town, it seems gaudy, ostentatious and meaningless. All I could envision in the huge air conditioned space was the woman and children I had seen earlier. I pictured the mother now standing up, fanning them with a newspaper while they napped, or else praying that the old fan in the window with the suspicious electrical cord would not cause a fire.

 

 

 

Can we assume the state, listed as a benefactor on the brochure, had the best intentions in supporting the DIA project? Who does art development help? Didn't anyone see the John Singleton movie where the father explains to the teenagers how first drugs are dumped in a neighborhood, then the speculators buy everything in sight, then artists are encouraged to move in with incentives and low rent studios, then wa-la, there is allegedly "Improvement."

 

 

 

William S. Eherlich, New York developer, art collector and architect said in a New York Times article (5/26/02) that, after he heard about DIA's plans, he bought up all of Beacon he could get his hands on, bragging that "I'm now Beacon's largest tax payer." He has started the Beacon Cultural Project, setting up David A. Ross, former director of the San Francisco Art Museum, as director. The summer of 2003, Ross featured two video artists, Ruben Ortiz Torres and Eduardo Aborao, from LA and Mexico, and previously he featured a Chicago artist Sieben Versleeg. Not to get upset, several times a year they will be "reaching out" to local artists with "10 X 10," an open mic-type evening where the first 10 artists that sign up will be able to show work for a "conversation" evening. Certainly the fourteen galleries of Beacon will be showing local artists and there are plans that the old high school will offer artist studios during the interim before it becomes the Decorative Arts and Design Institute. But will that mother with her three children be able to take advantage of such offerings or will it be the relatively poor artists of Williamsburg who will come and fill the void until the rents get up to a developer's projected level? The Beacon Cultural Foundation, supported by money from Eherlich, will hire Carrie Mae Weems as an artist-in-residence in which for a year she will collect stories and document the historical and current life in Beacon. While this may put some money in Carrie Mae Weems' pocket, will it help the woman with the baby in the stroller? I suppose the woman's story will be cataloged at the "Record Shop- A Social Studies Project," a show that will open in October, but I imagine the mother will be long gone by that time (or will by this time at least have seen the writing on the wall, and I do not mean Sol Lewitt's). She will probably see no other alternative but to move to Newburgh, the next closest Section 8 town, still in the drug dumping stage of the real estate evolution, or evil-ution, as the East Villagers used to call this phenomenon of gentrification.

 

 

 

'Tis a Gift to be Simple... I can guess that the people who donated anywhere from one dollar to millions for the DIA Beacon wanted to create a meaningful, perhaps even sacred space. Perhaps they wanted me to feel serene, optimistic and inspired while I walked among the giants of the minimalist era, a period influenced by the Bauhaus artists, those visionaries who hoped to end all war by creating simple, plain shapes with no reference to national and patriotic ferver.

 

 

 

Unfortunately, instead of awe, I felt horrified shock, instead of serenity I felt discomfort and instead of meaning I saw narcissistic ego. I can only hope that the days of building Pyramids with slave labor, the days of building huge Gothic churches on the backs of people who are the true owners of the stone and the land, the days of philanthropists throwing money around in the face of abject need will truly be a sad shame from the past. If we want to end war, we artists can do more than make stylish decorations and expensive furniture for the rich. How did the Bauhaus artist react in the face of Hitler. History says not well, not well at all.

 

 

 

We must finally put first things first: if we want to be comfortable we must work for real solutions to an equitable distribution of wealth and resources, and we artists must draw the line and stop being complicitous with real estate developers with their "offers" of inexpensive studios and housing that displaces others. Instead of spending our time, energy and money furthering our "careers" so we can get that one in a million teaching job or one in a trillion gallery show, or that cheap studio or movie deal we artists could work together to put our creativity to the service of solving the problem of economic injustice. Instead of competing against each other, let us form collectives that work for peace, for world-wide economic justice, for renewable energy sources, non-polluting transportation, co-operative living arrangements, reparations to our First People, non-polluting food production and hope for our children. Let us ask questions of our philanthropists. Let us ask questions of our institutions. Let us ask questions about the policy implications of our government programs and social reforms. Let us protest that polluting golf course on Long Island that is being planned in our backyard, against the community's needs and despite ordinances. It is a gift to end up where we want to be. Let us be concerned about the plans for our empty buildings, for our communities. Let us question what is being done in our name. Let us use our art for a purpose. It's a gift to be simple. Let us, as Pete Seeger urges us to do, put our efforts together, bringing our efforts to weigh on the side of conscious action. Let us not back down, let us not settle for less than what we want, what we know is true, and let us take a stand, finally, for what we know is right.

 

Steve CannonTribes