Weekend flaneurs and clusters of friends stroll through Chelsea on a Saturday in February despite low temperatures. On West 25th Street, the gallery at CUE Art Foundation hums with a steady parade of visitors to its exhibition, Even there, there are stars (January 14–February 17, 2021). The show features four artists whose work imagines future utopias in which LGBTQ+ individuals and people of color form interconnected communities that nurture and support each other.
Just inside the door, a pillar of women’s faces, some wearing VR goggles, rise in an evocation of spirits from a future realm in Totem (2018), a large statue by artist Chitra Ganesh. In The Goddess is Born in a Column of Fire (2018), a textile work of hand-dyed fabric by Emily Oliveira, a two-headed woman floats before a plume of flame in a moment of baptism and becoming. Elsewhere in the gallery, sequins and shards of mirror shimmer under pink spotlights in Amaryllis DeJesus Moleski’s Good Grief (Labyrinth) (2019), another textile that invites viewers to contemplate a circuitous pathway with no beginning or end. Hung throughout the show are small works on paper by Tuesday Smillie. A series of watercolors by the artist impeccably portray well-worn copies of Ursula K. Le Guin’s novels, and phrases from the author’s writing are starkly printed in the four vertical compositions that make up Smillie’s Where our foot will land (2016).
This devotion to Le Guin, whose writing explores social and political ideas of race, gender, and sexuality, is a thematic unifier of the exhibition, which borrows its title from a line in her 1972 novel, The Farthest Shore. Le Guin and the generation of science fiction and fantasy authors she influenced inspired curator Allie/A.L. Rickard to create a show in which contemporary art would interconnect with the inclusive futures imagined by these writers. Rickard submitted a proposal for the exhibition to CUE’s 2019/2020 Open Call for Curatorial Projects last March, and was unanimously selected by an independent jury. Reflecting the foundation’s mission to support artists and ideas not recognized by the insular world of New York art, the concept was a perfect fit for CUE. Rickard is an MA candidate at Bard College’s Center for Curatorial Studies; winning the Open Call was an auspicious beginning to a rising career—something CUE has been providing for almost 20 years.
Executive Director Corina Larkin notes that since its inception, CUE has recognized “that large numbers of worthy artists are not getting the attention they deserve, that they are unrepresented or still emerging. Sometimes they are artists of color, or non-binary, or women over 50, or artists whose work is not recognized as trendy or sellable. There are people out there who need a spotlight for whatever reason and CUE was founded to address that problem in the art world.” To accomplish this, CUE hosts eight shows each year in its street-level gallery. Like Rickard’s, four of these shows are chosen from Open Call submissions. An exhibition every May presents work from CUE’s Teen Collective program, and three additional shows are curated by well-known artists who choose someone working beyond the art world’s gaze—students, teachers, studio-mates, friends—and offer them a solo exhibition. “We try to liberate access to art from the curatorial process,” Larkin says. “Artists know who deserves attention and that has always been in our DNA, and I think we still hold those values closely. We show a lot of different perspectives and we show lots of different kinds of art.”
When I speak with CUE co-founder Gregory Amenoff, he is in Ulster County, digging his car out of a snowstorm before starting work in his studio. As we chat, he tells me he misses the quiet of New York after a blizzard and asks if I have seen any skiers out yet. Amenoff is a painter. He holds the Eve and Herman Gelman Chair of Visual Arts at Columbia University, and is Vice President of the National Academy. His work is in the permanent collections of the Whitney Museum, the Museum of Modern Art, and the Met. After more than 50 one-person exhibitions in museums and galleries throughout the United States and Europe, he can safely be called an art world insider, a status he does not take for granted. We talk about the months following 9/11, when the country sank into a recession and the heady, New York art market that had sprung up in the ’80s and ’90s suddenly fell quiet. It was in this moment of uncertainty that the idea for CUE Art Foundation germinated.
“I got a phone call from out of the blue,” Amenoff remembers. It was from Thomas K. Y. Hsu, an international shipping executive. Hsu had attended the Royal Academy Summer Exhibition that year, a 250-year-old event in London in which selected works by emerging artists are shown and sold at reasonable prices as a means of supplementing, and perhaps launching, careers. Moved by the straightforward impact the show had, Hsu began thinking about a way to lend support to artists within the structure of the New York art scene.
“He said, ‘I’m interested in setting up a non-profit that would save artists,’” Amenoff recounts, and asked him to think about how an organization might best do that. “The model I thought up,” says Amenoff, “was a mish-mash of non-profits.” He had served on the boards of other art foundations, and appreciated the ways organizations like Artists Space, White Columns, and Joan Mitchell Foundation bolstered careers. As an artist himself, Amenoff also understood how difficult it could be for certain artists to not only burrow into the art market but simply have their work seen. Age, gender, race, sexuality, the medium in which an artist worked, the scale of their work—all of these things factored into who was and who wasn’t deemed sellable by forces within the art market and therefore worthy or unworthy of attention. Amenoff knew that there were plenty of unrecognized artists whose work was known and admired by other, more established artists. As their conversations continued, he and Hsu began to develop a model for giving solo shows to underrepresented artists, curated by their better-known peers.
Hsu put together a small board of directors, composed of himself, Amenoff, investment banker and real estate developer Thomas G. Devine, and Brian D. Starer, an admiralty lawyer Hsu had worked with to set up an “ice fund” that provided ice for recovery workers whose eyes burned at the ends of days spent in the smoking pit of the fallen World Trade Center. “The original board was amazing,” says Amenoff. “It was great to have business people there because they thought very differently.” The board planned to organize a committee of established artists, who would in turn approach individual artists to plan a show. These individuals were given free rein to choose a relatively unknown artist for whom they would like to curate a show, which CUE would sponsor. Hsu thought up the foundation’s name, a riff on the word curate, and appointed Amenoff as the titular head. In 2003, CUE Art Foundation was formally established.
Amenoff recalls that with only four members, the board easily coordinated times to meet, brainstorm, and make decisions. He thought they were making great headway, but Hsu was even more determined to keep the wheels in motion. He remembers getting another unexpected call from Hsu. “Greg, we’re in town and we want to look at spaces in Chelsea—and my jaw hit the ground.”
Coming from a business perspective, Hsu and the other board members understood the importance of an appealing geographic location. They wanted their organization to matter, and they wanted its presence to be felt in what was then the hub of the New York art scene. The organization soon took over a space at 511 West 25th Street, just west of the Highline, which at the time was still closed to the public. Hsu oversaw a major renovation of the property, transforming it into a high-tech, aesthetically impeccable gallery space that could also serve as home to the foundation. Amenoff says, “we were in the belly of the beast and our timing was great.”
While the foundation worked to organize its first committees and artists, Amenoff offered the gallery to the Joan Mitchell Foundation, who was then awarding grants to MFA candidates in art programs. The first show in the space was a group exhibition of the summer 2003 grant winners, for which Amenoff wrote a catalogue essay. He and the rest of the board were pleased to foster the idea of “one non-profit helping another” and continued to host JMF shows for several years. In the evenings, CUE hosted musical performances, poetry readings, and book signings, and the space became a cultural center in its own right. Shortly before his death in 2005, American poet Robert Creeley gave his last public reading at CUE.
Meanwhile, Amenoff was working to organize CUE’s first selection committee, approaching friends and colleagues in the art world to help decide which artists should be asked to curate exhibitions. Artists are often aware of other artists who are working beyond the borders of the commercial world and Amenoff thought something as simple as a word-of-mouth initiative would be the best way to start. “I kind of hauled in people that I knew, and they hauled in people that they knew,” he says, listing artists Bruce Nauman, Rackstraw Downes, and Kiki Smith as among the first people he approached. From there, the committee approached other artists as well as musicians, poets, and writers to curate shows for artists they knew. “The core idea was to give artists an opportunity to create the possibility of a sea change, so it could make a difference in their lives,” says Amenoff. “The artists would be diverse in terms of gender, geography, mediums, and styles of art making. Diverse in all respects—people you never even heard of—and they came up with work that was amazing.”
Stepping into the newly converted space on West 25th Street, artists felt they were finally within an art scene that until then, for whatever reason, they had only glimpsed from the outside. CUE underwrote artists’ travel fees, put them up in hotels, and gave them a stipend for the days they spent in New York. They hired professional art handlers to transport work, collaborated with guest curators to mount shows, and hosted opening nights. Artworks were professionally photographed and catalogues published complete with statements by artist and curator. The gallery’s location in the heart of Chelsea and the neighborhood’s status as a cultural center helped assure openings were well attended. Amenoff points out that for many the experience was not only career-boosting, but life-affirming.
The first exhibitions officially sponsored by CUE opened in September of 2003, running concurrently in the roomy galleries. Curator and writer Debra Bricker Balken selected a narrative installation inspired by Moby Dick by Mark Milloff, a 50-year-old artist based in Rhode Island, while photographer Nikki S. Lee organized a show of ink drawings by Cheol Yu Kim, a young artist from her native Korea who had just graduated from the MFA program at Brooklyn College. Kim was also selected as the first artist-in-residence at CUE and was given space in the foundation’s on-site studio.
Later that year, writer Siri Hustvedt selected Richard Allen Morris, a 77-year-old, San Diego-based artist based whose work had not shown in New York in 40 years.Hustvedt’s husband, novelist Paul Auster, curated a show the following year of the work of fellow Brooklynite Josh Dorman, who applied paint to antique maps. Echoing the values of the foundation, Auster quoted Braque in his curator’s statement, “There is only one thing in any art of value—that which cannot be explained.” Subsequent curators included such illustrious artists as Glenn Ligon, Mike Kelley, Kiki Smith, and art critic Dave Hickey, as well as graphic novelist Art Spiegelman, composer John Zorn, actress Ann Magnuson, and Cabinet Magazine. They chose artists from across the United States, as well as Canada and Mexico.
“We tried to get our feelers out as broadly as we could,” says Amenoff. His voice cracks with emotion as he remembers a 2006 show for which Eleanor Heartney selected Gary Monroe, an artist from Knoxville, Tennessee who worked as a roofer, a dangerous occupation because of exposure to both potential physical harm and toxic chemicals. Monroe’s figurative drawings referenced the works of Titian, Michelangelo, Rubens, and other Old Masters. Monroe had been in a few group exhibitions in Texas and Tennessee, but had never shown in New York. Amenoff reports Monroe’s show at CUE “really changed his life,” leading to five solo shows and eight group shows in the years following.
Because CUE was still a small and unhampered organization, new programs were easily implemented. Says Amenoff, “The nice thing about being a young non-profit was we could say ‘that’s a good idea,’ and that was it.” At an early Advisory Council meeting, art critic Irving Sandler suggested young writers participate in CUE’s process, working with mentors to contribute catalogue essays. Writer William Corbett, also a council member, offered to mentor and brought in other writers to do the same.
The first exhibitions to include critical essays were Jim Long: Curated by Rackstraw Downes and Ken Gonzales-Day: Curated by Bruce Yonemoto in 2006, printed as separate inserts to the published catalogues. Beatrice Wolert-Weese, CUE’s Deputy Director who was then Programs Coordinator, recalls writer Lilly Wei proposing the foundation partner with the US chapter of the International Association of Art Critics to match young writers with mentors. CUE began the partnership in 2006, and it continues to the present as the CUE Art Critic Mentoring Program. Over the years, writing mentors have included Nancy Princenthal, Lucy R. Lippard, Aruna D’Souza, and William Fenstermaker.
In the decade after CUE opened its doors at 511 West 25th Street, Chelsea underwent rapid commercial expansion and rents rose steadily. Concerned about the viability of remaining in one of the city’s trendiest neighborhoods, CUE’s founders turned their attention to finding a more sustainable location for the gallery. In 2012, an anonymous donor agreed to purchase and renovate a storefront space on 137 West 25th Street, on the neighborhood’s eastern edge, providing the organization with what is now its permanent home.
Settled in its new location, CUE began to consider ways of expanding its reach. While the model of artists choosing artists to curate shows remained central to the foundation’s purpose, the board developed a plan for a simple application process similar to that of the Art Critic Mentoring Program, allowing CUE to extend its support beyond the foundation’s network of contacts. In 2016, the organization introduced the Open Call. “For the first 10 years of CUE we only had artist-curators and we would say, ‘Who do you know who deserves a show?’” says Larkin. “We introduced an Open Call, mostly to open it up.”
The Open Call helps artists who might not have relationships within the art community, or who may not be on the radar of CUE’s guest curators. Two categories, Solo Exhibitions and Curatorial Projects, make up the program. The Solo Exhibitions program is open to artists living and working in the United States who do not have consistent commercial representation and are not in a degree program. They must be able to demonstrate a consistent studio practice outside of an academic setting for three years but cannot have had a solo show in a New York City gallery in five years. Work in all disciplines is welcome, with extra attention given to ideas not well-represented in the commercial sector and that contribute to CUE’s ongoing commitment to diversity.
The Curatorial Open Call is awarded to one curator or curatorial team who submits an application and proposal for a group show of four or more artists, half of whom cannot have had solo exhibitions or gallery representation for five years. Curators at the start of their careers are given extra consideration. CUE encourages new approaches to research methods and exhibition plans, as well as ideas not commercially well-represented. Recipients are paired with a mentor to advise and support them, and given the resources to mount their exhibition, execute public programming, and publish an exhibition catalogue. In the weeks leading up to the Open Call submission, CUE hosts information sessions for potential applicants on crafting effective proposals. Finalists are selected by a panel that includes CUE alumni and advisors, and past recipients. A separate jury of four established curators and artists then selects two to three artists and one curatorial project for exhibitions in the gallery.
Larkin points out that the mentorship component of the programs often extends beyond the exhibition. “Over time what we’re realizing is that there is this relationship that’s really valuable and really special to watch.” Artist and member of CUE’s Board of Directors, Steffani Jemison, served as an Open Call panelist and mentor for the 2018–19 Solo Exhibitions program. Her advisee was Mo Kong, a Chinese-born artist now living in Brooklyn, who brought research from a previous career in journalism into an immersive installation that muddled fact with fiction. Making a Stationary Rain On the North Pacific Ocean (May 30–July 11, 2019) imagined a future cold war between China and the US, set against the crisis of climate change, rising nationalism, and mass human migration. Covering the space in a grid of blue paper-tape, the artist invited visitors to map out their coordinates in space and time while reminding them of the perpetual surveillance of GPS and the forces that may be tracking them. Danni Shen, an emerging curator and recipient of the 2018–19 Young Art Critic program contributed an essay to the catalogue, which also included Kong’s artist statement and a short essay by Jemison. The show allowed the artist the opportunity to completely take over a space with a bold concept that also included the use of night lights, diffusers emitting handmade fragrances, bowls of fish, and a lollipop—elements that might have made more commercial venues blanch.
“CUE Foundation is rooted in a choice I think is quite radical,” says Jemison, “to reject the notion of an inhouse curatorial team. CUE’s process is a much more horizontal, peer-to-peer model of thinking about how an art space can be used.” Jemison’s collaboration with Kong proved meaningful to them both. Beyond the parameters of the exhibition, she wrote letters of support on behalf of her artist mentee and gave advice on grants and next career steps. She says, “The mentorship aspect of the Open Call outcome is this young artist was able to build a connection that continued long after.”
Connections to other artists are vital for careers, not only because they foster opportunity, but because they create a sense of recognition and community. With this in mind, in the late 2000s CUE began a new initiative to expand the benefits of mentorships and to allow further access to careers in art, setting up an arts education program in city schools that would eventually become the CUE Teen Collective. In August of 2017, CUE invited artist and educator Amanda Adams-Louis to develop a curriculum for a city-wide teen outreach program. Adams-Louis, who is now a board member and the Teen Collective coordinator and lead educator, devised a two-semester model that begins by building an understanding of art-making in the context of what she calls the city’s “fine arts ecosystem” and culminates in a group show of the students’ studio work in CUE’s gallery. For eight months of every school year, 20 to 25 teens from the city’s five boroughs who attend specialized high schools, public high schools, private schools, and Catholic schools come together, each bringing with them a desire to make art. “We draw from a good mix of schools,” Adams-Louis says. “It creates great collaboration. It’s amazing and wonderful and I feel overjoyed to be facilitating that experience.”
Adams-Louis points out that many of her students are considering applying to art school, but some, who come from immigrant families, or who will be the first of their families planning to attend college, are apprehensive about following these ambitions, which are often seen as not economically viable. She wants to provide them with experiences that allow them to consider alternative narratives to that of the starving artist. “It’s important for kids with parents working 12 hours a day to be able to explain there is money here,” says Adams-Louis. “We want kids to know ‘I can make sure I have income.’”
To that end, the fall semester is an exploration of the city as a classroom. Adams-Louis takes the students on field trips to meet artists, curators, writers, historians, gallery owners, collectors, conservators, heads of museums—all in order to expose them to the roles and relationships that make up the art world. Past outings have included visits to artists’ studios, Sotheby’s, the Armory Show, MoMA Conservation Studio, the offices of the New York Times, the Center for Book Arts, Smack Mellon Artists-in-Residence Studio, and the Urban Justice Center. She tells her students, “in art, there isn’t a directed path, so how do you create your own path?” The field trips give the teenagers a chance to meet with working professionals and to ask about their career trajectories. It provides them with a more holistic view of how the art world works and introduces them to new possibilities for planning their own careers.
These meetings have a profound effect. As Larkin points out, “research shows if you haven’t met someone in a career you will not go into that career. These first-generation kids meet people whose jobs they may want.” It all comes back to CUE’s primary motivation, to provide new pathways into the art world. As Jemison says, “The narrative of success for artists does not necessarily have to go from undiscovered student to commercial success.” Adams-Louis wants her students to come away with a thorough understanding that possibilities exist for maintaining an art practice while also supporting oneself through meaningful work.
In the Winter/Spring semester, the students work together in a studio environment at CUE. When COVID-19 interrupted learning across the city last year, Adams-Louis was determined it would not delay her students, and quickly adapted the program to Zoom without her group needing to skip a single week. (The 2020–21 group of students has also been meeting remotely.) In preparation for their spring show, each student proposes three ideas for an overall theme for the semester’s work. Of those submissions, two ideas are chosen and developed into an interim project that serves as a proposal for the final show. Students then vote on the final concept they will explore in their artmaking. Last year’s theme was “destruction,” resulting in an exhibition titled Fire & Ice (September 12–13, 2020). Cassandra Junio, a high school junior, painted a series of serene portraits in an homage to the Black Lives Matter movement, work that aims “to encapsulate the importance of unity.” Her colleague, Jiahe Wang, drew a tumultuous sea in charcoal on a long paper scroll, inspired by Moby Dick, which she calls, “a tutorial for catastrophe.” This year’s concept is Folklore/Mythology. Each of the students will develop their own individual series based on the theme, for which they will submit project proposals and budgets. They plan to work in illustration, painting, photography, mixed media, digital drawing, comics and video, with costs of materials subsidized by CUE.
Students critique each other and revise their own work, write bios, captions, and artist statements. They price individual pieces to sell, and examine the intersection of artmaking and marketing, as well as questions of intellectual property and rights retention. At the end of each spring semester, the Teen Collective mounts a seven-day show in the gallery (last year’s show was abbreviated to three days and delayed until September due to COVID restrictions), with professional art handlers and installers caring for the work at every step. Just as with their other exhibitions, CUE has the teens’ artworks professionally photographed, and a catalogue is printed for the exhibition.
Graduates of the program often move on to other distinguished achievements. One alumnus won a Scholastic Achievement Award. Graduating seniors have been accepted into prestigious art programs at schools like Parsons, FIT, MICA, Syracuse University, Brooklyn College, Columbia University, and the University of Chicago Department of Art History. Students who wish to return to the program for a second year are invited back as ambassadors to mentor the new incoming group. Larkin says CUE is “creating a pipeline by mentoring these kids in high school.” Because students come from a range of neighborhoods and schools within the city, the program also nurtures long-term diversity, equity, and inclusion.
Now in its 18th year, the foundation has developed a strong online presence which builds on the sense of community the foundation has sought to build since its beginning. Browsing through CUE’s website, I am amazed at the level of professional development offered—things not taught in art school, as Larkin points out. Podcasts and videos document recent workshops on tax-filing for artists, navigating the Affordable Care Act, surviving gentrification in New York neighborhoods, and artmaking with social media. Resources like COVID-19 relief funds for artists and support systems for Black Lives Matter are easily accessible, as are a collection of essays by Black writers and links to voter registration sites and the ACLU. This year’s events include portfolio reviews and artist talks, as well as panels on remote learning in MFA programs and the impact of COVID-19 on artist visas. To combat isolation during the pandemic, writer, artist, and educator Kameelah Janan Rasheed recently hosted a Zoom “Night School,” for CUE’s community to meet and share ideas. And CUE remains open to ideas for programs. As Jemison notes, “sometimes artists need a platform that can financially support a convening. Sometimes it’s just about coming together.”
The corner of the site I find most moving is “News,” a virtual scrapbook of press pieces on CUE artists that maps the “sea change” Amenoff predicted an exhibition could bring to their lives. Recent alumni now in the news include Peter Williams, who was in his 60s in 2018 when he showed at CUE. Williams went on to win the Artists’ Legacy Foundation 2020 Artist Award. Photographer Wendy Red Star showed at CUE in 2017, as did painter Kambui Olujimi in 2016; both artists have since had major solo shows and received a great deal of positive critical acclaim. Digging further back, in 2009, artist, composer, and writer Paul D. Miller aka DJ Spooky curated a show of Naeem Mohaiemen’s photographs. Mohaiemen went on to become a 2014 Guggenheim Fellow, a finalist for the 2018 Turner Prize, and an awardee of the Andy Warhol Foundation Arts Writers Grant in 2020. Last year, he returned to CUE as a guest curator, choosing Yara El-Sherbini for a solo show. “It was really special,” says Larkin, “because 10 years after, his career has exploded and he’s paying it forward.”
That kind of sharing, not only of real estate, resources, time, experience, but also of attention and acclaim harkens back to the ideas of CUE’s founding board, but it also defines the foundation’s future undertakings. “We are responding to the younger generation,” says Larkin, “making room for their ideas, building a conversation between generations, a continuity across generations, a dialogue, a sharing between races, gender orientation, whatever it is. That’s the whole point of art, right?”