Lost Horizons

An Artist Dead, a Downtown Arts Organization in Ruins

They had breakfast at Windows on the World. Then, down in the lobby of tower one, Liz Thompson, executive director of the Lower Manhattan Cultural Council, and Geoffrey Wharton, part of the new team running the World Trade Center, talked about commissioning an artist to do some work along the balcony, something text-based for the upcoming holidays. About two minutes into this discussion, they heard the first explosion, saw the first debris falling.

Out on the plaza, LMCC's crew—there to mop down the stage and do the tech work for that night's David Parsons performance—ran to their trailer. By the time they ran further north, bodies were falling.

Meanwhile, Thompson had made her way across the covered crossbridge to the World Financial Center, where she stood in the atrium thinking, "There's a fire. They'll put it out." Then she saw the other plane making a sharp turn, heading right for tower two, and she said with the rest of New York and the world: "Oh my God!"

Artist Michael Richards with his work.
photo: Courtesy of the Studio Museum in Harlem
Artist Michael Richards with his work.

Only two of the 25 artists with studios in tower one were there that morning. Vanessa Lawrence had come in at six to paint the cityscape in the early light. She would have seen the first plane coming if she hadn't made a trip to the lobby to phone a friend. She'd just stepped off the elevator back on the 91st floor when the whole building rocked. Hard. She headed for the stairs, making her way through smoke, debris, and water. The stairs cleared up, though, a few floors down, and everyone was calm. What was happening? As she took her first step out of the building, tower two collapsed next door. The plaza—horrific. "Don't look!" said emergency workers, who directed her down to the mall, then upstairs, away from the plaza. Where to hide? She made it across the street and bent down. Someone covered her with his jacket. Visibility was so bad she couldn't even see at first that he was a firefighter.

Sculptor Michael Richards was in his studio on the 92nd floor, on the side facing the Statue of Liberty. When he called his girlfriend at midnight the night before, he said he'd be working for a few more hours, then sleeping there in the space. He had to be at the Bronx Museum, where he worked as an art handler, by 10 a.m. His friends report that Richards is punctual. He would have been getting ready to leave the building by 8:45. They made many, many calls to his cell phone the morning of September 11. His remains were identified on September 17.


LMCC is one more part of what used to be good in lower Manhattan. Currently, it's an arts organization in ruins. The offices were in WTC Building Five, now designated "partly collapsed," and staffers expect that little, if anything, will remain of their database or their 30-year history.

LMCC served the business community, since that's who the neighbors were. And it served artists by making room for them in that community. Port Authority, in particular, supported LMCC by donating unused space, not just for offices, but for artists' studios. "We were included in the family of the Trade Center," says Thompson. "We were very much part of it."

For all the talk in the art world of "new audiences," here, in the heart of corporate America, is where it actually happened. Thompson talks about "the democracy of the space." LMCC brought in dance and music from the city's far-flung ethnic neighborhoods, along with names more familiar to artgoers. Free shows on the Plaza this summer, for example, included Glenn Branca, Urban Bush Women, and Les Ballets Trockadero de Monte Carlo. These artists attracted their core audiences, along with many who'd never heard of them or set foot in a so-called alternative space. "It was glorious to see the crowds we drew," Thompson says. "Two thousand people for Twyla Tharp. CEOs next to janitors."

In 1997, LMCC set up Thundergulch, to connect the new businesses in Silicon Alley with artists working in digital and new media. That, too, was in WTC Building Five, and they've lost whatever didn't make it to the safety of cyberspace.

In 1997, LMCC also began to make studio space available in the towers, specifically for cityscape painters. Then the program expanded to include every art practice, and much of what happened there was site-specific. As the program description still on LMCC's Web site puts it, the artists in residence often created work "inspired by the building and its unique atmosphere, the urban wonder that is New York City, the iconic significance of the Twin Towers and what they represent in our global culture."

Its major venue now obliterated, LMCC will have to heal and rebuild like every company in the towers. "I hope we can help reinvigorate lower Manhattan," says Thompson of the organization's future. But first, they had an artist "missing." The opening page of their Web site read "We are all praying for the life of Michael Richards."


Moukhtar Kocache, who directed LMCC's visual arts programs, described the work Richards was doing in his tower one studio as "sculptures of pilots falling from the sky. Falling onto debris. Riding a meteor and falling with it." Added Kocache: "Life is too symbolic sometimes."

Just as there's a too-muchness to this whole disaster, so that it's hard to wrap your mind around it or find words, the poignant ironies abounding in Richards's art are inherently overdramatic. He'd been creating images of pilots, planes, and luggage for years, however. His particular interest was the Tuskegee airmen, a famed World War II unit of African American fighter pilots. Still, what does one say now about a sculpture (circa 1997) called Air Fall 1 (His Eye Is on the Sparrow, and I Know He's Watching Me)?

Richards had a piece in the "Passages" exhibition at the Studio Museum in Harlem in 1999 called Tar Baby vs. St. Sebastian, the sculpture of a Tuskegee airman whose body has been pierced, not with Sebastian's arrows, but with small, dartlike airplanes.

In Kocache's assessment, "He's talking about men who were alienated and unacknowledged, using that for his own existential feelings as a black man, an artist, an immigrant [from Jamaica]. But these pieces also represent a generosity that is unacknowledged, tossed away. He's talking about someone's dislocation from culture."

That description casts light on certain new post-disaster dangers. Kocache, who happens to be Lebanese American, spent September 12 looking for Richards, making the now ritual trek that begins at Bellevue Hospital. In the middle of this search, he was verbally attacked on the street, spat on, called "a fucking Arab." A cop watched with his arms folded. "No one would come to my rescue," says Kocache. "I have never felt so alone."

Richards had composed an artistic statement, found in his computer and passed along by a friend. He notes that the Tuskegee airmen fought for democracy in the sky, but faced discrimination on the ground. They "serve as symbols of failed transcendence and loss of faith," wrote Richards, "escaping the pull of gravity, but always forced back to the ground, lost navigators always seeking home.

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