ALTERNATIVES: Inside Hallwalls, Unlikely Incubator of the Upstate Avant Garde

Jon Haddock, from Vintage Mouse Porn, 2008
(Courtesy the Artist and Hallwalls Contemporary Arts Center)

Beginning in the late 1960s, artist-run venues like Artists Space in New York and A Space in Toronto began springing up in and around the U.S. thanks in part to a push from the National Endowment for the Arts to sponsor artists’ own organizations. These spaces functioned not only as incubators for legends — Cindy Sherman, Sherrie Levine, and Felix Gonzalez-Torres among them — but also as a home for equally worthy artists who never reached that level of renown or commercial success.

Then, public funding began to shrink — first in the Reagan era, then in the aftermath of the culture wars of the 1990s, and most recently post-2008. Again and again, alternative spaces have had to develop alternative sources of revenue. The viability of these spaces has never seemed more important than today, a time when the art world is drowning in fairs, auctions, and fear that money is eclipsing the work that matters most. In an effort to shine a light on this bootstrapped, unglamorous, and often surprisingly uncynical part of the art world, we’re kicking off our new series. “Alternatives” will spotlight different alternative spaces around the country and explain what makes them work, with the hope that they might serve as case studies, adding to the conversation about what models of art might be sustainable or desirable in the present.

For our first installment, we’re focusing on one of America’s earliest alternative spaces: Hallwalls Contemporary Arts Center in Buffalo, New York, which was founded in 1974.


Hallwalls was born in a converted ice packing warehouse in Essex, New York. A group of young artists at Buffalo State College — Robert Longo, Cindy Sherman, Charles Clough, Diane Bertolo, Nancy Dwyer, Larry Lundy, and Michael Zwack — decided to transform the hallways between the artist studios there into a gallery — hence the name “Hallwalls.” 

The founders exhibited their own work at first, but before long, they were attracting artists from all corners of the country, including Lydia BenglisRobert Mangold, and Vito Acconci. At the time, Sherman, Longo, and Bartolo all worked at the prominent outdoor exhibition space Artpark, and lured those visiting artists to Hallwalls to perform and give lectures. Such visits proved influential for the young founders: In a 1993 interview, Sherman said that “body art sort of clicked for me” after a visit from Acconci, whose work she had previously considered “disgusting.”


Hallwalls wasn’t simply alternative because of what it was not — a commercial gallery or museum. It also came to represent an alternative to regimented genres at a time when interdisciplinary programming was still in its infancy. “It was different from a museum of contemporary art because it was mixing art forms all the time,” executive director Ed Cardoni explained recently. “There have always always filmmakers, writers, musicians, and others in addition to visual artists, and everybody — from Longo to Clough — was collaborating on happenings and performances.”

“I remember Hallwalls as being very supportive,” artist Christian Marclay told ARTINFO in an e-mail. In 1985, the organization helped him produce his first EP, the notorious “Record Without a Cover,” which was, as the name suggests, sold without any protective packaging and left to deteriorate on its own.

The community wasn't always receptive to Hallwalls' avant-garde interests. In the late 1980s, the police threatened to shut down Buffalo's first gay and lesbian film festival, organized by the space, for allegedly displaying lewd material. A performance Marclay did there earned him his “worst-ever review” — the student newspaper called it a hoax. (“The review was so bad, it was funny,” he said.)

After early years that, according to many first-hand accounts, felt quite dominated by white men, Hallwalls made a conscious effort to expand its programming. It wanted to be diverse, said Cardoni, “but not just in a pure identity-based way. The formal experimentation was always super important.” In 1988, Fred Wilson brought together 10 non-Western artists, including Emily Cheng, Eugenio Espinosa, and Tyrone Mitchell, for an exhibition called “Double Vision.” The abstract artwork in the show wrestled with identity politics and cultural heritage in subtle ways at a time when “multiculturalism” was considered ham-fisted and out of fashion. More recently, a 2006 survey of Suzy Lake — a Canadian artist whose haunting photographs of herself in costumes were a profound influence on Cindy Sherman — is credited with relaunching her career in the United States.


Hallwalls is one of only a few non-profit alternative spaces born in the 1970s that survives today. How'd it manage? The answer isn’t very sexy: lean budgets and fundraising. In 1991, when public arts funding was on the rise, Hallwalls had a budget of $630,000, nearly 60 percent of which came from the New York State Council for the Arts and the NEA. Now, its income is considerably smaller — $502,888 in 2012 — and public sources account for 21 percent. The rest, according to Cardoni, comes from a combination of membership dues, individual donors, a benefit auction, and corporate business support.

Still, Hallwalls has gotten creative to maximize its public funding. (Twenty-one percent is nothing to sneeze at, after all.) In 1997, the NEA restricted organizations from applying for multiple grants and eliminated funding for individual artists. The new rules meant Hallwalls would have to decide where to funnel its money — music, visual art, or media studies, but not all three. Cardoni had the last laugh.

“I had the idea to create a residency program,” he explained. “Instead of applying for funding for one discipline, we applied for funding for the residency. Each curator was allowed to bring one artist, which meant we were able to continue to get NEA support that would help all of our programming areas. At the same time, by inviting artists to do these residencies that involved creating new works, we were supporting artists who had lost their ability to get funding individually.”

Since 1997, the NEA has granted Hallwalls $20,000 to $30,000 a year for its residency program. It still continues today.

To see images from Hallwalls's storied history, click on the slideshow.

Do you know of an alternative space in the United States that would be a good fit for our series? E-mail us at newseditors[at] with the word ALTERNATIVES in the subject line.