“I wanted to hold you close/and whisper ‘everything is/going to be alright’/but did’nt./Because…/We both knew; in our hearts,/it wouldn’t.” So go the closing lines of “Shelter Ladies” by Audrey Jackson, a homeless woman. The poem is included in the show “Art for Change: The Artist & Homeless Collaborative” at the New-York Historical Society, which explores the legacy and impact of artist Hope Sandrow’s public art initiative the Artist & Homeless Collaborative (A&HC).
This show comes as the city is currently undergoing another housing crisis. Emergency measures taken during the height of the pandemic, like housing the homeless in hotel rooms and the institution of an eviction moratorium, are now coming to an end. As 200,000 eviction cases are about to move through the system, a controversial zero-tolerance policy for sheltering in the subway has now been put in place by Mayor Eric Adams. These new factors come as added pressures in a city with a chronic lack of affordable housing.
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Against this backdrop, understanding how artists and activists have responded to these issues in the past takes on a sense of urgency. “We wanted to look at the context and the conditions that brought about programs like the Artist and Homeless Collaborative,” said Laura Mogulescu, one of the curators of “Art for Change.” “How have everyday people used the skills that they have to address the issues of their day and then their communities?”
The A&HC was born from the highly politicized housing issues of the 1980s and 1990s, when New York City officials employed new, aggressive actions to fight homelessness. Prior to this time, homelessness was commonly associated in the U.S. with single, white men, mostly drunks, who sometimes lived in cheap, small single rooms called SROs. But a tidal wave of gentrification in the ’80s brought with it less public housing and higher rent. As historian and activist Sarah Schulman writes in her 2012 book Gentrification of the Mind, AIDS-related deaths emptied out valuable rent-controlled apartments across the city, allowing landlords to jack up rent prices many times over, leaving poor and middle-class people with few choices.
“Art for Change” begins with a section exploring how these factors impacted the arts community. By way of example, there are works by artists involved with ACT UP as well as collectives like Bullet Space and Collaborative Projects Inc., who took over abandoned buildings and made art about the housing crises. Many of the works were political posters with eye-catching graphics and phrases. One work by Bullet Space simply reads, in bold, capital letters, “YOUR HOUSE IS MINE.” Artists not directly affiliated with these more radical groups also took on the political art of poster-making. In 1990, Peter Cohen, an advertising professional who used his mass-marketing skills for the just-housing cause, made a poster with a sketch of a downtrodden Jesus, accompanied by text reading, “How can you worship a homeless man on Sunday and ignore one on Monday?”
Hope Sandrow, like many other artists, saw these events unfold before her eyes and suffered personally during this difficult period. Her experiences would later catalyze her volunteer work.
“Having suffered much loss, including dear friends and colleagues Keith Haring, Peter Hujar, Nicolas Moufarrege to the AIDS virus, I entered the Catherine Street Family shelter to learn the relevancy of art to … those who had lost their homes,” Sandrow wrote in an email. Portraits she took of Haring, Hujar, and Moufarrege from her “Men on the Streets” series hang in the show.
Appalled by the living conditions, in particular the common occurrence of sexual violence, Sandrow began A&CH in 1990 and ran it out of the Park Avenue Armory shelter until it closed in 1995. The shelter was rare in that it only served women, 120 at a time and all over the age of 40. There, Sandrow organized to have fellow artists volunteer their time and create collective art projects for the women in the shelter to work on. The Guerrilla Girls, Kiki Smith, and Rigoberto Torres were among those who got involved.
The program evolved organically, with Sandrow acting as the lynchpin, connecting the homeless women and artists while dealing with the attendant bureaucracies. The all-consuming work was invigorating.
“I loved being a part of all the projects,” Sandrow said. She encouraged the program to become whatever the women there needed. From weekly discussions about the societal conditions that brought them to the shelter was born another initiative, Shelter News, which collected news items and poems from the ladies with help from Sandrow.
These opportunities to discuss their needs and desires were important, but limited in impact. “For the women in the shelter, art was not something that was going to solve all of their problems. It was not going to get them housing,” said Mogulescu. “At the same time, there’s this intrinsic value of art for people personally and in the relationships that they formed while participating in the project.”
This sentiment is shared by some of the artists who participated in A&CH. In an interview with the show’s curators excerpted in the exhibition, artist Pepón Osorio said, “I cannot say that I changed people’s lives. But what I remember was that I contributed to changing the atmosphere, to make people aware, maybe on an unconscious level, that their lives mattered.”
The works that resulted from these collaborations can be funny and innocent, and sometimes seemingly devoid of trauma altogether. Some works don’t even appear to be explicitly political, as is the case with paintings of flowers included in the large quilt Something Lost, Something Gained (1993), made by various women in the shelter along with artist Robin Tewes. That work appears in the show alongside a poster titled I Can Survive on the Street (1992), which was crafted by residents and a Guerrilla Girl who worked under the name Alice Neel in homage to the famed portraitist of the same name. The work includes a statement from an interview one of the women gave to Neel: “I know what church will give me a hot meal. I know where to keep warm and dry. I know where to get clothes. I know a place to get cleaned up at. But, I know I can’t live on the street because MEN RAPE ME.” Other posters the Guerrilla Girl named Neel developed also focused on the domestic violence that contributed to these women’s housing status.
Some works that the women produced made space for less assertive statements. Paintings made by an anonymous artist under the direction of Ida Appelbroog, Untitled (1992), depicts domestic interiors framed by window panes and curtains. This unusual perspective is a reminder that the paintings’ creator was an outsider looking in at homes not so different from the one she used to inhabit.
In a depressing historical echo, homelessness is now again on the rise. “There is this idea of homelessness being a crisis in the late ’80s and early ’90s,” Mogulescu said. “It was, but the numbers now are just so much more astronomical. In December 2021, there were about 50,000 people, including 15,000 children, sleeping each night in New York City’s municipal shelter system.”
Art can’t stop homelessness, just as it can’t prevent wars from starting or disease from striking or the planet from melting. But as this exhibition goes to show, it can be a few hours of relief, and it can provide, at the very least, documentation that some people tried to make life a little less miserable. As Sandrow said in 1993, “Being an artist is a luxury and making political art and taking on hot topics isn’t enough. There’s a moral obligation to work with your community.”