By Alex Distefano
By Scott Snowden
By Anna Merlan
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The travails and uncertainty, the Iliad and Odyssey, are over at last for the Lower Manhattan Cultural Council. They lost everything on September 11and not just their offices in 5 WTC, the databases, the archives, the stage on the plaza. An artist in their residency program died in his studio on the 92nd floor of Tower One. Others had harrowing close calls. A tech crew was mopping the plaza stage for that night's dance performance as debris started falling. Another artist made it safely down the steps from the 91st floor. And executive director Liz Thompson was on the last elevator out of Windows on the World.
Last Monday, LMCC moved into new permanent offices at 1 Wall Street Court. They didn't just survivethey bounced back, stronger and more necessary than ever. Founded 30 years ago to help revitalize a moribund downtown, they face that challenge anew, but this time with a long track record of arts advocacy behind them. Up to September 11, 2001, LMCC was finding work space for artists, presenting free outdoor programs of world-class dance and music, running a new media initiative called Thundergulch, and funneling grants to both individuals and small arts groups.
During the post-9-11 refugee phase, they actually kept it all going. "We didn't skip a beat. We didn't miss a deadline," says Thompson. "I was almost like a chicken with my head cut off. I just kept going and going, and that's what my staff did too. I mean, we were manic. It was some sort of survival mode."
But hard work alone could not put them back together. LMCC benefited from an outpouring of largesse that Thompson calls "stunning," from the art world, the funding community, the downtown businesses that had supported the organization all along, and from people all over the country who held auctions, sold donated artwork, or just called to say, "Keep going."
For many on the LMCC staff, the immediate aftermath of 9-11 is a blur. City Center gave them space on Friday the 14th to meet with the artists who'd been in the residency program. "My god, we were in such a state of mind," says Moukhtar Kocache, director of visual and media arts. "People were just very emotional. I don't even remember what we discussed. LMCC wasn't in a position to offer these artists anything. We were working from cafés and home." LMCC had a new role to play nowhelping artists in extremis. But they couldn't figure out how till they had a where.
Meetings downtown often took Thompson past WTC 5that is, its charred skeleton, which was one of the last things at the site to succumb. "Passing it, smelling it, was very painful," Thompson recalls. "There was no place for survivors to stand and mourn. I had to look at my building from across police barriers with tourists who were just ogling. I could still see my office."
Thompson only realized how much shock she'd been in after she came out of it six or seven months later. "I'm told things I don't remember," she says. Like a meeting with core staff at her Brooklyn home two days after the disaster.
No one I spoke to at LMCC could remember whether the first donated office space was at the New York State Council on the Arts or at the Howard Gilman Foundation. In fact, they went first to NYSCA, on September 17 and 18, where Thompson had arranged for a counselor to meet with her traumatized staff. While there, they got a Hotmail message: "We hope you're OK. We'd love to give you space." It was signed, "FTNA." They all looked at one another: "FTNA"?
France Telecom, as it turned out. That's where they landed after a few days at the Gilman Foundation. France Telecom was able to hand over computers, phones, and work space, including a conference room, for three months. That got LMCC up and running again.
The artists who had been in the towers wanted to finish their residencies. A dotcom firm, Netomat, offered space just north of Chelsea. Then, because the WTC residency had always concluded with a two-day Open Studio, Kocache needed a new exhibition space. He asked Dan Cameron at the New Museum if they could possibly have a weekend. Cameron offered five weeks. The New Museum also gave Kocache a desk, and he began traveling back and forth to France Telecom with a mobile filing cabinet.
In mid December 2001, LMCC moved to Hudson Street just below Canal, into a building in transition to multimillion-dollar lofts. Now they needed everything from furniture to software. It came courtesy of IKEA, the J.P. Morgan Chase warehouse, and NPower, an organization that takes care of tech needs for nonprofits. Meanwhile, an expected source of help through this disasterFEMAdid not come through.
Deputy director Tricia Mire says LMCC found the FEMA guidelines difficult to understand, but they may have gotten FEMA money indirectly, through the Empire State Development Corporation. Less fortunate were the artists from the 91st and 92nd floors, who had brought in much of their work for the upcoming Open Studio exhibit. "We were constantly surprised and frustrated by the difficulty the artists had in receiving FEMA money," says Mire. "I think only a few were successful in demonstrating that their careers had been damaged by losing not only their space but all of their works past and present and all of their art-making tools." LMCC raised money themselves to compensate these artists.
Now more than ever, it is corporate and foundation money that keeps the arts going. A list of those who supported LMCC would take much of this page, but the biggest donors were American Express, J.P. Morgan Chase, and the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation. Mellon gave them a sizable, one-time-only emergency grant. Says Thompson, "That grant saved our lives."
Kocache, still searching for space to put artists-in-residence, found some in DUMBO last year. He says they debated about whether a Lower Manhattan group should accept space in Brooklynuntil they realized that they would have a view of Lower Manhattan. They moved even further off-site when the city of Paris offered three residencies. Then they placed some other artists in the World Financial Center, which turned over its gallery while the building was being repaired. Next they're going to the Woolworth Building, which is about to turn residential.
Artists always seem to end up in liminal spacesmarginal, transitional. "Everybody talks about how culture and artists benefit downtown," says Thompson. "But how do artists benefit?" That's one reason she's joined virtually every group (from New York New Visions to the Regional Planning Association) trying to have impact at ground zero, while serving on two committees for the Lower Manhattan Development Corporation.
It's all about space. Now plaza-less, LMCC has to find creative ways to keep dance and music on the downtown map. And Thompson says they're in hot pursuit of affordable space for other arts groups. She asks that people check the organization's Web site (www.lmcc.net) for information.
"We are pursuing this, and we'll have more details to share in a month or two," says Thompson. "I just want to make sure that the community that pioneered this area is recognized."