After 15 Years on Governors Island, Artist-Run Fair Portal Was Rejected From the Site This Year, as Demand for Exhibition Space Grows

Organizers 4heads hope that they can find a new home for Portal, which has helped emerging artists to create stunning installations since 2008.

Miggy Buck, Rapunzel at Portal Governors Island. Photo by Sarah Cascone.

Portal: Governors Island, formerly known as the Governors Island Art Fair, has been booted from its namesake location off the southern tip of Manhattan after 15 years at the site. The Trust for Governors Island (TGI) rejected two proposals from fair organizers 4heads, an art collective run by artists Jack Robinson and Nicole Laemmle, to be one of the organizations in residence for the 2023 season.

“We’re super sad not to be out there,” Robinson told Artnet News. “It’s a great place, and I feel very proud of the work 4heads did there with TGI building a cultural island.”

In a city known for its white cube art spaces, the unique and charming backdrop of the island’s abandoned homes made for a refreshing way to encounter art—and to directly interact with the artists who made it. “Our thing was that we could always do big stuff with very few people—that’s what we were good at,” Robinson said.

For the 2023 season, 4heads had drafted two proposals, one for a series of artist residencies with open studios, where participants would show their work in progress over the course of the summer, and a more traditional fair in five of the homes on Colonels Row, held on the weekends during the month of October.

Anne Muntges, Titched In at Portal Governors Island. Photo by Sarah Cascone.

Anne Muntges, Titched In, at Portal Governors Island. Photo: Sarah Cascone.

In the end, both proposals appear to have required too much space on an island now in high demand among New York City’s cultural institutions.

This year, TGI had 22 homes available for residents, and received a record 40 applications. It accepted proposals from 28 of them, including the Museum of Contemporary African Diasporan Arts, the New Art Dealers Alliance (NADA), and the West Harlem Art Fund.

When 4heads got the news it was not among them, it asked for a meeting with TGI, suggesting alternative locations, such as the old hospital or Liggett Hall, where it staged some exhibitions in 2017. TGI said both would need to be renovated before they could be activated by residents, and instead suggested some kind of outdoor exhibition. 4heads said no.

Liggett Hall, designed by architects McKim Mead and White, on Governors Island, hosted part of the Governors Island Art Fair in 2017, but is now in need of renovations before it can be activated for public use. Photo courtesy of the Trust for Governors Island.

Liggett Hall, designed by architects McKim Mead and White, on Governors Island, hosted part of the Governors Island Art Fair in 2017, but is now in need of renovations before it can be activated for public use. Courtesy of the Trust for Governors Island.

“We value 4heads history with the Island, and despite their choice to not present programs with us in 2023, we’ve expressed that the door is open to respond to future open calls and opportunities,” Sarah Krautheim, the TGI spokesperson, told Artnet News in an email.

4heads, which is known for its work with emerging artists, is hopeful it can find a new host for future events. Over the years, it has has bounced around different locations on the island, including stints at Fort Jay and Castle Williams, which are overseen by the National Parks Service, not TGI—and could offer a potential route back to the island.

“There’s a couple of other organizations we’ve been in conversations with to get some good space. We’re just seeing what fit is going to be good for us,” Robinson said. “I don’t know if it’s going to be the fall.”

Prior to the pandemic, Portal drew some 40,000 visitors to the fair’s 2019 edition—the largest attendance, according Robinson, of any of the island’s art and culture exhibitions. In total, Portal has shown work by close to 1,200 artists—starting with just 52 at its first edition, which came together in about eight weeks.

“Most of the artists who we’ve shown were not represented by galleries. A lot of them took off, and I hope we played a little part in that,” Robinson said, noting that he’d often notice post-fair group shows with artist lists suggesting dealers had been scouting emerging talent on the island.

Alumni include Sui Park, who now shows with Sapar Contemporary in New York; Shiri Mordechay, featured at New York’s Spring/Break Art Show in 2022; and Stickymonger, who had a sold out booth at Untitled Art Miami Beach in December.

Sui Park, <em>Thought Bubbles</em> at the 2014 Governors Island Art Fair. Photo by Sarah Cascone.

Sui Park, Thought Bubbles at the 2014 Governors Island Art Fair. Photo: Sarah Cascone.

For many, the fair still holds a special place in their hearts.

“I am deeply saddened to learn that the 4heads will not be granted arts programming at Governors Island this year,” Gretchen Scherer, who participated in 2010, 2011, and 2013, wrote in an email to Artnet News. “They have consistently fostered the most innovative works—not influenced by the art market, but by their interest in art that is unique and heartfelt. Their support allowed me to become the professional artist I am today.”

Today, Governors Island is essentially New York’s biggest playground, 172 acres of rolling hills and historic buildings drawing nearly one million visits throughout the year.

But back in 2008, when 4heads first came to the island, almost no one knew about it. Governors Island was a military facility until 1996, when the U.S. Coast Guard finally closed its operations there. The federal government declared 22 acres of the island a National Monument overseen by National Parks, but sold the rest to the city. It opened to the public in 2006.

Installation view at Governors Island Art Fair 2016. Courtesy of Rain Embuscado for artnet News.

Installation view in Castle Williams at Governors Island Art Fair 2016. Courtesy of Rain Embuscado for Artnet News.

But despite being one of the island’s first resident art organizations—the others were Sculptors Guild and Figment—Portal has received a physical smaller footprint in recent years, as TGI has worked to host a larger and more diverse group of organizations. In some ways, the fair appears to have become a victim of its own success.

“4heads helped promote that island,” Robinson said. “We put a lot of work into the fair and bringing the arts to the island. We helped make it a safer space for more cultural organizations to come out.”

 

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