The downtown arts community experienced its own code-orange alert the week before Christmas with the announcement that Mark Russell was resigning as the executive director of P.S.122 after 21 years. “I just cried,” says the performance artist Holly Hughes. “Mark is a great curator and also a great advocate for artists. I don’t know how you can replace that.”
In addition to the widespread kudos for the man who helped launch Whoopi Goldberg, Eric Bogosian, Blue Man Group, John Leguizamo, and the Hip Hop Theater Festival—and brought heating, lighting, and a managerial infrastructure into the once abandoned public-school building—artists and producers of experimental work also sounded the alarm over the possibility that a corporate mentality might replace the aesthetic vision and commitment that have characterized Russell’s tenure.
The president of P.S.122’s board of directors, Don Guarnieri, promises, “We are not changing P.S.122’s mission”—a vow echoed by several board members who spoke to the Voice—but adds that he is looking to expand the “P.S.122 brand” into foreign markets and that the space needs a new director with a “philosophy for the digital age.” Guarnieri, a consultant to Internet and media companies, admits that his aggressive style as board president “may have contributed” to Russell’s exit, though the official word is that the resignation was voluntary. (The board’s severance deal with Russell includes a requirement that he not discuss the terms of his departure.) “Mark accomplished everything he was going to accomplish at P.S.122,” Guarnieri told the Voice. “It is time to move on.”
“Digital age? Yawn!” says a distraught Caden Manson, director of Big Art Group, a young company, “discovered by Mark,” that combines high-tech, computerized video with live performance. “I wonder what the hell [Guarnieri] means.”
Tim Miller, one of several artists who founded P.S.122 in the late 1970s and among those who hired Russell in 1983, provides an alternative gloss: “P.S.122 offers work that is digital in the richest sense of fingers: the hand-to-hand connecting of live performing in a culture that is increasingly atomized.”
Such work develops, of course, out of an ecosystem that moneyed board members don’t always understand. Still seeing an average of four performances a week, Russell says he looks for “an original voice, even if I don’t understand it,” and then allows such artists to hone their work, even find their form, in front of an audience.
Guarnieri insists he has not forgotten that P.S.122 was founded by artists and needs to remain accountable to them: “I invite them to call me as we begin our search for a new director.”