Vivien Trommer (VT) was the 2015 Curatorial Resident. She spoke with editor Sarah Demeuse (SD) in January 2020 from Frankfurt.
SD: Hi, Vivien, glad we’re connecting. Where are you now?
VT: Hi, Sarah. I am happy to talk to you. I’m in Frankfurt.
SD: Thanks for making time! Let’s jump right in, shall we? When your year at Ludlow 38 ended, were there certain projects, things that you still wanted to do at the space?
VT: I think there were hundreds. I enjoyed it so much! But I also believe that by changing its program every year, Ludlow 38 added value to New York’s vibrant art scene. For me, it felt natural that, after a year of intense curating and programming, another curator would take over and activate the space differently. It’s a very unique institutional model; I don’t know any other institution that operates in this way.
SD: It’s a very dynamic approach.
VT: When looking at it in retrospect, it becomes obvious how each of us gave Ludlow 38 a unique run, approached a different audience, tackled specific issues, and worked with a diversity of artists.
SD: I wonder, was there one exhibition, event, collaboration that you enjoyed very much, that you feel stood out for some reason?
VT: It’s a tough question that I can’t really answer. I felt there was an urgency for Ludlow 38’s program as a whole to stand out in its own changing context. When I arrived in 2015, bigger Chelsea galleries like Gavin Brown Enterprise and James Cohan moved downtown and changed the dynamic of Chinatown and the Lower East Side. The area was also bursting with new, smaller venues that contrasted with the more high-profile Chelsea scene. So, for me, Ludlow 38 had to show that art can be produced under circumstances other than those of the market-driven branches.
With each exhibition, I tried to engage with artists such as Zuzanna Czebatul, Lena Henke, and James Gregory Atkinson in questions about the role of a nonprofit space in a context of capital growth and market expansion. I wanted Ludlow 38 to encourage younger artists to produce new works, by taking on some of their costs, paying artists fees, and being a place of pure empowerment. It wasn’t meant as a critique, but as an alternative model for producing works in a surrounding in which the art market became extremely strong and powerful.
SD: So your approach was modeled on commissioning—was there also a mandate that this art wasn’t meant to be for sale?
VT: Some works from the Ludlow 38 shows did sell eventually. But because sales weren’t our primary goal, there was an opportunity for artworks and formats to evolve not for but beside the market. Keren Cytter’s performance festival The Last Summer Fest is an example: I had initially invited her to coproduce a new video work. Instead, she came up with a concept for a series of performances and discussions that could be documented but not repackaged: they only existed during the time they actually happened at Ludlow 38.
SD: And who constituted the closer circle around Ludlow 38? Do you feel you had a specific community?
VT: I remember the openings were usually extremely crowded and energetic, and most of the time the police showed up because people would take drinks outside. I feel that the program attracted many artists, writers, gallerists, and curators—a community that was eager to connect. Beyond that, the community shifted slightly depending on the subject matter of each exhibition.
SD: Were there certain alliances or connections you made with either local workers or collaborators, or institutions and organizations?
VT: We always collaborated with workshops and fabricators from around the neighborhood. Because many things run differently in Germany, we depended on local knowledge, people’s advice, and their valuable feedback. Kay Rosen, for example, made a new site-specific work, an awning on the facade titled This Means War…, which was perfectly built, painted, and installed by a local workshop around the corner. For Kate Newby’s beautiful piece Don’t be all scared like before, we collaborated with a public school. Kate had realized this work previously at the Arnolfini in Bristol, so she knew she needed an existing architecture to integrate the work––a thick red rope. When she saw the tall gate of the elementary school on the other side of Ludlow Street, she immediately imagined her work to live up there. So I approached the principal of the school, coincidentally an art enthusiast, and she agreed to the collaboration right away. Once the piece had been up for a few weeks, we set up a meeting with all the fourth-grade students. They had the most brilliant ideas about what art could be and what it means to them.
SD: Your process sounds very organic and based on the needs of the artist. Is that part of your philosophy?
VT: Absolutely. An independent art space like Ludlow 38 supports artists, fosters ideas, and caters to the specific needs of a project. But more than that, each collaborative process defines and builds its own framework and a new set of work ethics. There are no fixed rules or systematic approaches. Each exhibition is a place of world-making.
SD: The framework of this institution is unusual, however. As a joint venture of the Goethe-Institut with BMW/MINI, Ludlow 38 depended in part on German taxpayer money for its exhibitions in New York City. I assume that comes with certain expectations. How did you navigate that reality?
VT: More so than those structures and what they may stand for, in the end, Ludlow 38 became a successful program because of the people behind it. Wenzel Bilger and Sara Stevenson of the Goethe-Institut’s New York branch and Thomas Girst, Head of BMW Group International Cultural Engagement, fully supported the space. Once selected by the jury, I was given total curatorial freedom, which in turn also allowed the arts to evolve freely.
SD: The other side to this question is, what do you do with people who walk in and want to see German art or culture?
VT: Right, I wouldn’t say Ludlow 38 understood contemporary art and culture in national terms. Who does these days? I don’t think our audience did or expected us to. Ludlow 38 was born out of the idea that we are many, that we embody different cultures. And as culture became increasingly digitally connected, Ludlow 38 also spoke to the fact that we are all connected through global chains of communication.
SD: In terms of the whole year that you spent in New York, were you able to track your learning? Was there a moment when you felt that you had learned a different way of approaching exhibitions or thinking about art?
VT: I learned so many things every day. I didn’t plan each of the exhibitions in advance: many ideas, projects, and collaborations came about as I was living and working in New York. From the start, I was open to change. Making was part of the process, and with it came failing and trying again; this influenced the aesthetics and the impact of the exhibitions.
SD: Are there certain things you learned that you preserve still today?
VT: Yes, definitely, my Ludlow 38 experience continues to remind me that we need those places that actually make a difference.
SD: So after this residency, was there a moment you thought you wanted to stay in New York?
VT: I would have loved to stay; at the same time, though, I was eager to move on. I had a new fellowship opportunity waiting for me at Kadist, an interdisciplinary arts organization based in Paris and San Francisco.
SD: Do you feel like you have a sense of the ways in which Ludlow morphs every time?
VT: I keep thinking about the diversity of the whole venture. Each curator developed a program that was subjective by nature, elaborated on different methods of curating, and invented ways of staging works of art beyond the regular exhibition scheme. In that sense, Ludlow 38 questioned the conventional model of the German Kunstverein Glossary Kunstverein: A Kunstverein, which roughly translates as “art association,” promotes the visual arts through civic engagement and generally doesn’t collect artworks. While the Kunstverein has a permanent staff, it is supported by a collective of members, many of whom are local artists or collectors. Germany has around 300 regional Kunstvereine, the oldest of which was founded in Nürnberg in 1792. , a 200-year-old democratic yet bourgeois association for the arts that has its roots in various citizen initiatives spread over Germany. Especially in the context of New York, Ludlow 38 highlighted the freedom that a Kunstverein enjoys but also reflected on the conditions under which a nonprofit art space operates these days.
SD: How do you think Ludlow 38 catalyzed this process of reflecting? Because of the continuous flux at Ludlow? Because of the scale?
VT: Flux is one aspect. Another core aspect is that the Goethe-Institut and the Ludlow 38 jury made a point of selecting curators with different backgrounds and experiences. Such diversity is a very recent phenomenon that other, larger institutions are gradually starting to embrace.
SD: Do you have any final thoughts about Ludlow 38 closing?
VT: I don’t want to see this as an end, but as a beginning for many more initiatives to test out new frameworks. After all, Ludlow 38 has shown that change is possible.