Pioneer Square is an interesting juxtaposition of wealth. Some people experiencing homelessness are often gathered around Union Gospel Mission or Occidental Park, while multiple art galleries are adorned with valuable works for sale down the block.
Nestled within these extreme opposites is The New Foundation, a contemporary art haven created in 2012 that aids artists through curatorial support, grants for individuals and institutions and semi-annual artist visits.
This year, The New Foundation will bridge the gaps in Pioneer Square between art and issues of livability with an exhibition focusing on Martha Rosler’s work that examines housing, homelessness and a host of accompanying issues.
The Foundation, founded by philanthropist Shari Behnke, recently created a $100,000 prize — a biennial cash award for U.S.-based artists who identify as women. Rosler is the first to be presented this award and will be bringing a year worth of programming and exhibitions to Seattle with The New Foundation under the umbrella name taken from her piece, “Housing Is A Human Right.”
“It’s a way for us to think about The Foundation’s role in the city — not exclusively as just the supporter of visual artists in our niche community of contemporary visual art — but it’s really a way to think about the conditions for a city of artists and the public we are interested in presenting content to,” said Yoko Ott, founding director of The New Foundation.
Rosler is an artist based in New York City who works with film, text and still images. Her work has been shown in the Museum of Modern Art and other museums around the globe and features complex themes such as women’s rights and anti-war, while challenging existing structures. Three bodies of Rosler’s work will be shown in Seattle during this yearlong exhibition: “If You Lived Here Still,” “Video as Device” and “The Bowery in two inadequate descriptive systems.” Each of these takes a look at social issues around homelessness through video, photographs and installations.
The work also extends beyond homelessness.
“It’s thinking about who is making decisions when it comes to urban planning and development and how are those affecting us, or tenant rights, housing rights, and issues of affordability ... through the lens of an artist,” Ott said.
Rosler never thought she would do anything about housing, explaining she used to think it was “so boring!” compared to her previous exhibits about food and feminism.
“Those were famous last words,” she said. “The whole question of gentrification became really visible in the ’70s at the same time that all of a sudden people were not doing so well economically and people were being displaced because they couldn’t afford rent.”
She was, and continues to be, fiercely against creating art that allows middle-class art audiences to play the savior and help marginalized communities. While exploring themes of white flight and displacement of communities of color in the 1980s, Rosler witnessed a dwindling of social services, which sparked the idea for “If You Lived Here Still,” a three-part exhibit that examines activists within housing justice, those who are visibly homeless and the development of alternative urban planning strategies. These are intentionally divided into three components so people can understand the systemic roots of homelessness, Rosler explained.
Decades years later, the problems are worse, she said.
“What I’m interested in is more community efforts and group mobilization,” she explained. The show has been traveling around the world since the 1980s, and has incorporated materials from each location.
“Martha takes the time to engage with advocates, activists and agencies in the city to actually localize the exhibition and topics to that place,” Ott said. “By including data and research from that place, it accumulates and grows as it goes on. As she meets people in Seattle, it will be generative and evolve to include new materials.”
Rosler isn’t bringing this project to just any city. Rosler brings “If You Lived Here Still” only to cities currently struggling with housing and equity and those that have displayed activism. She calls this contemporary, rather than historical, material.
The New Foundation and Rosler are reaching out to organizations such as Seattle/King County Coalition on Homelessness (SKCCH) to gather anecdotal and physical material for the exhibit’s residency in Seattle.
“We are really excited about the nature of Martha’s historical body of work and the fact that The New Foundation and Martha Rosler are very clear that these are [a part of a] living exhibit,” SKCCH Executive Director Alison Eisinger said. “It’s clear they understand that art is political and policy can be enlivened and informed — and maybe improved — when we include art.”
As a part of the public programming, Eisinger and Rosler will be in conversation at the Seattle Public Library Jan. 30. Eisinger will reveal numbers from the One Night Count and they will discuss Rosler’s exhibit. The New Foundation will host more events as the year goes on.
The New Foundation will also be partnering with organizations such as Path with Art, Northwest Film Forum and Creative Justice to create public and private programming around Rosler’s installations.
“It’s really important for me that people understand I am there as a catalyst,” Rosler said. “My aim is always to ask people to think, consider and locate themselves within the issues and then to mobilize in some way. Become active in your world directly, not by just writing a check. I want to make it easy for [people] to do that if they wish.”