ABC No Rio by Shelley Leavitt

ABC No Rio speaks to Shelley Leavitt on their renegade approach to curating and what it was like to start a gallery/social center in the ’80s Lower East Side.

BOMB 2 Winter 1982
002 Fall 1982

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Abc No Rio

ABC No Rio posters.

Shelley Leavitt Tell me about the history of No Rio.

No Rio It came about as the result of the Real Estate Show. The city closed the Real Estate Show down but knew they had to negotiate with us. They offered us another space which ended up to be Rivington Street. So that was the deal. We got No Rio for closing the Real Estate Show down, for not reopening the Real Estate Show.

SL So it was a swap.

NR Yeah. They let us have this space and then forgot about us.

SL How is No Rio structured as a collective, how is authority dispensed. Is there a hierarchy of authority? Do you consider yourselves the people who run No Rio?

NR We’re the saps.

It comes down to: the people who do the work make the decisions. It’s pretty open. No one’s ever been excluded as far as I know. But hardly anyone ever goes down to maintain the place.

SL How do the ideas for the shows evolve? Do people approach you with ideas?

NR That’s pretty much it, yeah … Different artists have ideas for shows—we have ideas for shows—

SL Your shows are open to anyone who wants to exhibit, is that true?

NR Yeah, I’d say that most of the shows are open. Some shows are done by one or two people.

SL Does that create a problem for you in terms of your personal aesthetics or politics? Do you ever find that the work that people want to exhibit conflicts with your aesthetics?

NR Yeah, but I just go with it anyway. Because somebody believes in it. There was a show last fall called the Murder, Suicide and Junk Show that I didn’t really support. I thought it was bad PR for No Rio in the community because we were just establishing ourselves then. But it happened anyway and it was pretty successful, it brought a lot of people down to No Rio and it involved a lot of young artists who hadn’t been working there before. So in answer to your question, yes.

SL But have you ever prohibited something from being shown because of personal taste?

NR Not that I can think of. Some people are encouraged more than others. It’s also limited by the number of people who hear about a show. It’s all word of mouth.

SL What if someone offered something that was reprehensible to your politics? Say if someone offered a show that was racist or in any other way went against the ideology of the group?

NR We basically don’t have to deal with those people. They don’t come along.

SL But if the situation does come up, would you exercise discrimination?

NR I don’t think it’s really in the cards. But if somebody did that you know, it’s a public place and in a third world neighborhood, and they would have to deal with that; the black and hispanic people who would be revolted by it. Assuming that it’s Anglo people exercising racism against black and hispanic people.

SL What’s the response in general been from the community? How much has the community become involved with No Rio?

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Photo by Anne Messner.

NR As an audience it’s fine. I wish they were more involved in organizing it.

I don’t think that in large numbers the community really turns out for things at No Rio, but the people that do come have a direct contact relationship. I was working on a video project out of No Rio with a couple of kids and we were spending every day together making videotapes. It was only two kids, but they brought in another kid so it was three kids. It’s not a large number of people, but it’s a direct working relationship, unfortunately short-lived because of lack of funds, basically.

SL What’s your general audience if it’s not comprised of community people?

NR I would say it’s primarily other artists and people who are moving into the neighborhood, white people. People who do the alternative performance circuit. The house doesn’t hold that many people to begin with. The singular thing about performance at No Rio is the quality of cabaret intimacy that’s generated. That is what is most characteristic of it.

SL Are the artists who exhibit community people?

NR Sometimes, but for the most part, no. It’s really hard to locate hispanic artists. There aren’t too many down there, and they wouldn’t be particularly oriented towards No Rio anyway, because No Rio is basically an outgrowth of white, middle class artists who have certain responses to the situation in which they find themselves, and it’s directly related to alternative spaces, an attempt by artists to have their own situation, but it’s still within the art world structure.

In actual practice our relationship to the art world doesn’t matter that much, but the kind of people who see this stuff are not a lot of people who would never have any relationship to the art world. No Rio is not specifically a place to exhibit. It’s more like an art-making center. We have bonds with galleries and alternative spaces, but I think of No Rio as being a place where you could do things that wouldn’t even cross your mind to do in a gallery.

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ABC No Rio poster by William Scott & Bobby G

The gallery scene allows, asks the artist to do a very limited thing. It asks for a certain range of things within a very circumscribed situation. And artists can do lots of things and artists are interested in doing lots of things, and No Rio certainly provides more scope although it provides no support in terms of money. [Since this interview, No Rio has received a New York State Council on the Arts grant.]

SL In the posters you used to publicize events at No Rio, you refer to exhibits as art exhibits … Again, since you have open shows, what meaning do you assign to “art?”

NR I can’t exactly say what art is. I’m not going to make a judgement. That’s why I don’t mind seeing artwork up there that I don’t necessarily agree with politically or otherwise. It makes me question what art is about. It’s not a dictatorial situation at No Rio. It’s not, “You can only make your works if …” Nobody’s saying that at No Rio. We’re saying what are your ideasreally. Let’s reveal them, let’s expose them and then we’ll be able to see if they stand up, if they hold water. No Rio is a laboratory for art ideas. People bring their chemicals and mix them up and that’s it. And we’re not going to say, well we can’t show that stuff because it stinks. We don’t say that, but some of the work may say that.

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ABC No Rio poster by David King.

SL As artists yourselves, I can’t believe that it’s possible for you to walk into No Rio and avoid making judgments on the quality of the work being shown as you would at any other gallery. Is the quality of the work shown at No Rio an issue for you?

NR I think it’s important to maintain a certain climate, a certain climate of activity. Everything that goes on there has a certain feel, a common motivation.

We’re talking about extending a place where artists work, an artist’s situation, not a gallery, not a workshop. And a lot of what’s involved in extending that situation is dealing with people’s responses to it and those come in the form of well, here’s my drawing, here’s my piece of art, here’s my chip in the pile. So you deal with that, you’re not simply looking for quality sculpture and painting.

If somebody wants to make the commitment of bringing their work there for a specific show I think they should be encouraged. It’s off the beaten path. I don’t know what’s in it for anyone to show at No Rio. No Rio’s had a certain amount of publicity so it has a certain amount of respect within or without the art community, but nevertheless you really have to extend yourself to show down there. It’s not like on the road to getting a show in SoHo. It’s more of a detour. So people are making a committment just by bringing their work in, and I’m not going to say, well, this person is not very bright so I’m not going to allow them to participate in No Rio, I’d rather encourage that person to express his ideas, and maybe he’ll develop or I’ll develop. Besides, I’m not about to go to the Lower East Side and play cop in any form.

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ABC No Rio exhibition poste by Bobby G.

I think one thing you can say about almost all the work that emerges out of No Rio is that it exists within a social context. It’s not totally based on the history of art, but it’s based on artists’ perceptions in this culture.

We still have the potential to form a political alliance with other groups in the area and that’s a potential that the Kitchen and PS1 don’t have. They don’t think about it, and they wouldn’t be particularly open to it.

One of the things the Real Estate Show was designed to do was to provide information to the community. But you have to understand that people in these kinds of situations aren’t exactly looking for information. A lot of them have been through the mill several times and have been burned. To them we’re hippies, we’re beatniks, we’re just white kids whose game is incomprehensible to them.

It requires more effort on our part to get over the cultural barrier than we are willing to put in and more effort on their part to get over the cultural barrier than they’re willing to put in-in most instances. However, I suspect that that will break down. Because there are mutations, and that’s what we’re waiting for.

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ABC No Rio poster by Tom Warren.

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Originally published in

BOMB 2, Winter 1982

Tim Burns & Jim Jarmusch, ABC No Rio, Charles Ludlam & Christopher Scott, Jacki Ochs, Michael Smith, Mirielle Cervenka, Gary Indiana, Sonia Delauney, and Phillipe Demontaut.

Read the issue
002 Fall 1982