In 1977 Mark di Suvero gave his first “official” grant to Philip Glass through the Athena Foundation. Mark was forty-four.
I have heard stories from friends from the ’60s and ’70s that Mark would give you money if he had it and you needed it. Not that he had a lot of money. But if you had it, you shared it. He was one of the founders of Park Place Gallery which was a cooperative gallery. He gave Paula Cooper a piece to sell which helped to fund her first gallery. Perhaps this was the refugee spirit having emigrated to the US with no money when he was seven. Perhaps this was part of the spirit of the ‘60s. Perhaps it was just his nature.
In 1980, Mark di Suvero purchased his Spacetime studio in Long Island City—two old metal sheds on a pier built in the earlier part of the 20th Century that were falling down and heading toward foreclosure. Manna to an artist. He fixed the fence and got to work making the place functional with guys whom he had known since they were kids in the South Street Seaport where he had a studio in the early 1960’s. As soon as he got the Spacetime studio going, he invited other artists to come work there and use his tools. Ursula von Rydingsvard and Heidi Fasnacht worked there among others.
Every day, Mark would pass an abandoned lot down the street from his studio—a site made from landfill and being used as an illegal dump. He knew what it could be: a place for artists to show their sculptures—sculptors are always looking for someplace to show their work—and a place where kids could come and play and people could watch sculpture being made. It could be a place where people came together. It could be a place that belonged to everyone—artists and the community. So he applied to New York City for a lease for the land and amazingly they gave it to him. He hired people from the neighborhood and they started cleaning up the site. Artists put up sculpture, and Socrates Sculpture Park began.
When Mark started Socrates, he wasn’t thinking about legacy. Socrates was about now. It was about potentiality and actuality. And Socrates is an actuality that has exhibited over 1200 artists, that has provided free arts education programming for tens of thousands of kids in its thirty-two year history and where the community comes to walk their dogs and lie in the sun and watch outdoor movies on hot summer nights.
What makes the park so special is not any one singular activity, program, or physical attribute, but rather the totality of the creative ecology and spirit that is cultivated here. Socrates Sculpture Park is the kind of place that engenders deep attachment, and it has inspired others to move the ideals forward.
Starting Socrates was obvious to Mark even though for many others it would have seemed impossible. He saw a place where art could be made and making art could make a place better. He understood that to make a change you just have to start.
Lessons learned from Mark:
Money is to be used. Space and tools to be shared. Both to be put to use.
Figure things out as you go along.
Just put up art.
Believe in community.
Why wait until later? Make a difference now.
Mark di Suvero is eighty-five and is thinking about what he can make happen now.