Lower Manhattan Cultural Council Celebrates 50 Years of Resiliency

Baseera Khan first experimented with “acoustic sound blankets” during a residency at the Arts Center at Governors Island in New York in the summer of 2015, inspired by the ferry ride there.

“I did find that the sound of large groups queuing up to get on a ferry and then being on the water was really loud … And so I decided that it would be a good time for me to create a kenneling system,” Khan told Hyperallergic

The residency, called “Process Space,” was sponsored by the Lower Manhattan Cultural Council (LMCC). Khan, a performance, sculpture, and installation artist, credits the program with the conception of their idea to interweave sound and objects. What began as a box resembling a recording booth evolved into gold-embroidered, insulated black blankets that have since been acquired by the Guggenheim Museum.

“It really helped me pin performance to sculpture,” Khan said of their time at LMCC. “I don’t think I would have developed the blankets had it not been for that experience.”

This year, the institution is celebrating five decades of serving the Manhattan community through art. Besides hosting residencies, LMCC also helps artists and arts organizations secure grants, offers its own funding, and produces free public programming. 

Founded in 1973 by Flory Barnett with funding from the New York State Council on the Arts and David Rockefeller Sr., the billionaire known for his art collection as well as his controversial ties with autocratic foreign leaders, LMCC aimed to revitalize Lower Manhattan and address the needs of artists living there. In the 1980s, it became the designated arts council for the entire borough. 

“It’s a priority for us that we continue to advocate for cultural programming both to support artists and to bring art to the public in a way that is as barrier-free as possible,” Craig Peterson, LMCC’s president and CEO, told Hyperallergic.

But LMCC’s story hasn’t been without challenges. By the end of the 1990s, the organization had moved its offices into the World Trade Center, which was subsequently devastated on September 11, 2001. According to its website, LMCC lost a performance venue, studio and exhibition spaces, and nearly 30 years’ worth of archives. Most painfully, the organization lost an artist-in-residence, Michael Richards.

In the aftermath of the tragedy, LMCC worked to fortify the area through arts programming. In 2002, it helped found the annual River to River Festival, a free summer arts fair presenting live art and installations in public spaces across Lower Manhattan.

LMCC’s resilience was tested again when Hurricane Sandy hit in 2012 and in 2020 with the COVID-19 pandemic. Though the organization’s history has been riddled with moments of crisis, it has remained committed to bridging the gap between available exhibition space and artists, Vice President of Artist Programs Ana Fiore told Hyperallergic

In 2019, LMCC re-opened the renovated Arts Center and began partnering with other organizations to curate programming such as Yoko Ono’s participatory project Add Color (Refugee Boat) at River to River that year and a 2021 collaboration with Pioneer Works presenting Onyedika Chuke’s The Forever Museum Archive_Circa 6000BCE. Most recently, LMCC collaborated with Allies in Arts, a nonprofit dedicated to supporting women, BIPOC, and LGBTQ+ artists, to mount an exhibition devoted to celebrating the progress of artists fighting for the advancement of marginalized groups.

“We’re looking at new types of institutional partnerships that kind of mirror how we’ve always worked with artists to provide studio space for them,” Peterson said.

The organization is in the process of finalizing the long-term lease for that space, the first permanent home for art on the island, Peterson said. Perhaps like Khan, audiences and artists alike will find inspiration among the waves for years to come.

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