"Playing the Building" (2008). Photograph by Justin Ouellette.

Creative Time: On Making Art Happen and Pushing Culture Forward

Creative Time specializes in starting conversations. Since 1974, the New York-based nonprofit has been working with artists to create bold projects that thrust art into the public sphere, impacting millions, rather than just a handful of gallery attendees. They were responsible for the “Tribute in Light,” a stunning project of remembrance after 9/11, and have worked with artist ranging from Jenny Holzer to David Byrne to Shirin Neshat to Takashi Murakami to Sonic Youth.

Anne Pasternak is the President of Creative Time, where she’s worked for 18 years, and describes herself as an “executive producer” of the art world. She’s in the business of making art happen – guiding (and funding) each artist from initial concept sketches to the public unveiling, and taking care of all the red tape along the way.

I met up with Anne at Creative Time’s East Village offices to talk about cutting through bureaucacy, raising money, and making art that matters.

Do you have a favorite project you’ve worked on? Or a favorite moment?

The Tribute in Light after 9/11 was a project I was really proud of. I remember it was a really hard project to work on. Six months after the attacks we lit the lights, and the next morning, as my husband was dropping me off at work, I was getting out of the car by a newsstand and the front page of every single newspaper was the Tribute in Light.I later learned that the victims’ families had rented boats to watch the lights from the Hudson River. And on the New Jersey Turnpike, all the cars stopped and people got out of their cars to see it. I thought, “Wow, this really meant a lot to people.”

Projects like this remind us that art really has a meaningful role to play, not just in terms of aesthetics, but in collective moments of reflection, wonder, and change for a community.

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Tribute in Light (2002). Photograph by Bob Jagendorf.

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Tribute in Light (2002), detail from the ground.

What makes a good public art project?

Every project has its own criteria. There could be a great pop sculpture that would work as fabulously at a museum as it works at Rockefeller Center. Just an exciting, beautiful thing of wonder to look at. But you could also say that ethical engagement with the community is what really matters.  I don’t think that there is a static checklist of criteria that one has to meet. You have to define what success looks like with every single project that you do.

What’s the connecting thread between all the projects Creative Time does?

We’re guided by three core values:

  1. It’s important to get artists to really boldly experiment, to push their practice and to also push culture forward.
  2. Public spaces should be used for free expression and creativity.
  3. Artists are important to society. They should be weighing in on the times in which we live.

If a project does not give an artist an exceptional opportunity to really push their practice or if we’ve done it before, we’re not doing it again.  It has to be fresh for the artist. It has to be fresh for us. It has to be taking us both together in a new trajectory. We’re not interested in creating more of what’s already out there, we’re interested in really doing something that is unique.

You have to define what success looks like with every project that you do.

How does Creative Time collaborate with the artist throughout each project?

Our work is much like an executive producer of a film. We nurture and incubate the idea with the artist, figure out what are going to be the obstacles to creativity, and do our best to remove those obstacles. We raise all the money, we do all the PR and marketing, we do the documentation, we do the community engagement. We’re involved in every aspect of the process, from idea evolution, to its final realization and historic documentation of it.

What sort of experience do you look for in an artist?

That the artist is really clear about what it’s going to take and understands it and can be focused on it. It’s not necessarily about a career level, it’s maybe more about a practical maturity. That can come at any age.

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For the City by Jenny Holzer (2005). Photograph by Charlie Samuels.

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Billboards by Marilyn Minter (2006). Photograph by Charlie Samuels.

How do you fund the projects Creative Time does?

We have a devoted group of loyal followers and donors who believe in what we’re doing. No matter what their political leanings, they believe that artists matter in society, they believe in the importance of giving artists opportunities to experiment and to do so publicly. And those are a very special group of people and I hold them close and dear. And that’s how we get it done.

How do you find such loyal donors?

Innovation is your friend. You need to stand out from the pack and get people excited about your vision. Know what makes you unique and really build on that. Building relationships is also key, and it can take years to do that.  If you write a letter to a foundation and you don’t have any relationship with them, chances are 99% of the time you’re not going to get any funding. And once you’re funded, you have to deliver on what you promise. Communication throughout the entire process is really important.

Innovation is your friend. You need to stand out from the pack and get people excited about your vision.

How do you start building these kind of relationships?

Let’s say you meet somebody at a dinner party or an opening and you follow up with them. You know they’re interested in X and so you send them an article that you think might interest them. Then you start to see them at more events, and then maybe you’re inviting them to things you’re doing, maybe they come to something, maybe you have a lunch date, maybe… there are all these different things.

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Waiting for Godot by Paul Chan (2007). Photograph by Paul Chan.

More and more projects these days are being crowd-funded through either Kickstarter or IndieGoGo. Is that the direction arts funding is heading?

I think the Kickstarter model is fantastic, it’s playing a role that was desperately needed and hopefully that role will only grow, but I don’t see it as a replacement for the National Endowment for the Arts. For example, Kickstarter’s great if you have a project that can be done for ten or fifteen thousand dollars. Creative individuals need that kind of funding very often, but it’s just not competitive for the foundation or the government world.

However, if you have a good idea and a convincing argument, you can raise that money through Kickstarter, and it introduces you to a bunch of new potential donors and supporters of your work as you move forward.But, for example, if the Metropolitan Museum of Arts needs to restore a 17th-century vase, and it’s going to cost a hundred thousand dollars to do that, then Kickstarter isn’t going to be the answer. Can you imagine Paul Chan saying to you, “I want to present Samuel Beckett’s very difficult, obscure play, Waiting for Godot in the lower ninth ward of [post-Katrina] New Orleans”? That’s a very, very hard sell. But a panel at the NEA will understand something like that.

Do you have any advice for artists or other creative types that want to engage with the public?

Know what it is that you ultimately want to get done, and think realistically about the resources you have. Think about whether it’s a guerrilla project, of if it’s going to require city approvals and collaboration. The most important thing is, if you can do it yourself without anyone’s permission, do it that way. Take the path of least resistance.

More insights on: Interviews, Money, Risk-Taking

Todd Anderson

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Todd Anderson is an editorial assistant for 99U. He is also an NYC-based performance poet and the producer of the Poetry Observed video series.
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