Cooking in Chelsea

At the Kitchen, a New-Style Chef

At a little before 10 a.m., Elise Bernhardt, executive director of the Kitchen Center for Video, Music, Dance, Performance, Film, and Literature, is trying to unlock the building. Fitting key after key into a daunting array of locks, she grins at the little crowd around her: two Russians who've come to fix the roof, a couple of guys from Three-Legged Dog here to wrestle with the setup for a multimedia theater piece, and me. She bets we might be thinking, "Eight months on the job and she doesn't have the key to the place."

The Kitchen's board and the New York art world are trusting that, in a deeper sense, Bernhardt does have the key to the Kitchen. Her appointment was a surprise. She's energetic, visionary, smart about funding, but since 1983 she's headed a very different kind of organization. Her brainchild, Dancing in the Streets, fosters innovative free performances in such diverse public spaces as Wave Hill, the Astoria pool, the Red Hook piers, the under-construction Wexner Center in Columbus, and the village of Ivye in Byelorussia. An estimated 16,000 people watched Grand Central Dances in 1987. It's hard to name a cutting-edge choreographer who hasn't been associated with DITS at least once.

Now Bernhardt heads a compact two-theater building way west on 19th Street. Unlike DITS, it depends in part on box office receipts. And the place has had an erratic history. The organization focused on cutting-edge video back when Steina and Woody Vasulka ran it out of the kitchen of the Mercer Arts Center. From 1973 to 1985, housed in a pillared loft at Broome and Wooster, it became a gathering place where artists struck sparks off one another and a performance venue that encouraged experiment. Philip Glass, Bill T. Jones, Karen Finley, Laurie Anderson, and Molissa Fenley are among those who presented early work at the Kitchen. David Salle, Robert Longo, and Cindy Sherman had their first solo shows there. Eric Bogosian was the first dance curator. The move to 19th Street cut the Kitchen off from its drop-in Soho ambience, and trouble surfaced in the '90s, as C. Carr chronicled in a Voice cover story ["Will the Kitchen Sink?", October 11, 1994]. Mismanagement, overdependence on shrinking NEA grants, unwise decisions, and reportedly uncivil behavior by some staff members made for a rocky profile. The place has been running smoothly of late, but hasn't had a permanent executive director for two years.

So how does Bernhardt reconcile her love of public art and community involvement with running what people have come to consider just another performance space? Sitting in her top-floor office, fingering one of the many raw-pasta necklaces that her six-year-old, Aaron, fashions for her, she swivels her chair to delineate the neighborhood circling the Kitchen: "Chelsea Piers, the women's prison, 38 art galleries, the seminary, the housing projects, four public schools, Chelsea Market, and the Roxy. One thing that interested me about this place was that you have this microcosm of New York: people who do the sports thing, people who do the arts thing. If you could figure out a way to embrace all those worlds--not all at once necessarily, but in strategic partnerships-- you'd create sort of a model of how a culturalcenter should function."

The Kitchen has secured a a grant from the Lila Wallace­Reader's Digest Arts Partners Progam to build such relationships. Education director Treva Offutt, formerly of Urban Bush Women, has already come up with an idea about neighborhood kids painting murals to brighten up the Kitchen's dour exterior.

With Chelsea now the exploding art scene Soho once was, Bernhardt fantasizes about spreading out into the garage next door: not only an expanded gallery, but maybe a Kitchen bookstore, a Kitchen café. Why not "Cooking in the Kitchen"? Some artists she knows are great chefs. Meanwhile, she's focusing on the possible, and on adding to what's already in place. In two events called TV Dinner @ the Kitchen, video artists Joan Logue and Gary Hill will show and talk about their work while they and spectators munch from a vegetarian buffet. ("I really believe that the barrier between artists and other people completely falls apart when you're having a meal.") Three workshops will bring kids into the Kitchen. Archival tapes need to be preserved (cross your fingers the NEA comes through) and copies added to the present rental collection.

Bernhardt's enthusiasm and openness to wild ideas mates with practicality. "We have to renovate. We have to buy back the building [Robert Wilson holds the mortgage]; we have to outright own it in three years." A few individuals were keeping the organization afloat; Robert Soros, who cochairs the board with Glass, has been a major annual supporter. Bernhardt argued for a cash reserve. A generous grant secured from the LuEsther Mertz Foundation allows for that cushion as well as for "capacity building," which covers, for instance, the roof problem; and "we're about to get a whole bunch of computers so the staff can actually work and not be over each other's shoulders." She points wryly at the ancient little Mac on her desk. Better toilets are needed. There's no proper lobby.

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