PARTICIPANT INC was incorporated in December 2001 with the assistance of New York Lawyers for the Public Interest. The IRS approved our 501(c) (3) status in October 2002. Founding funders such as the MAT Charitable Foundation, as well as a benefit event including performances by Le Tigre, Antony and the Johnsons, Thalia Zedek, and emcee Eileen Myles, enabled PARTICIPANT INC to proceed with plans for the space. An extensive real estate search in the spring of 2001 concluded at 95 Rivington Street on the Lower East Side with a five-year lease, signed in May 2002. Renovation of the gallery space and preparation for our inaugural programming season commenced in the summer, and we opened our first exhibition, Virgil Marti’s “Grow Room” in November 2002.
During our five years on Rivington Street, PARTICIPANT INC worked with numerous artists to develop programs in a uniquely formatted two-level space, presenting individual and group exhibitions, performances, screenings, and educational programs that reflected the cultural moment and supported the activities of visual and time-based artists. During our formative years, artists were motivated to conceive site-specific projects for PARTICIPANT INC that enabled us to gain an understanding of the sound, light, and spatial qualities of our gallery, and to experiment with ways in which the exhibition space could spill downward into the lower level and outward onto the street outside. Woven into our exhibition schedule were a variety of time-based projects, often presented in tandem with other nonprofit organizations. These included film and video screenings, literary readings, book launches, and live performances. Our literary performance series, SCOUT, curated by writer Eileen Myles, continues to coincide with visual art exhibitions. The artists who initiated this venture by participating early in our program continue to garner discussion and critical attention, and our future programming builds upon their enterprising approaches to exhibition making in this developing context.
Through its adjacency to the urban life that advanced and embraced it, PARTICIPANT INC remained committed to forging in-depth alliances with artists that resulted in exhibitions, screenings, performances, educational programs, and publications that made a meaningful contribution to the arts community, and endeavored to expand it. The social and cultural history of the downtown art scene, so resonant for generations of artists, informed our choice of a Lower East Side location, long before its current resurgence as a gallery sector. Our neighborhood is enhanced by its long-standing commitment to not-for-profit art activities, however, maintaining a nonprofit here has become increasingly difficult. In 2007, our previous lease was not renewed due to sharply escalating rent, which prompted our relocation to a storefront on 253 East Houston Street. This ambitious move, only five years into the life of our organization, is just one example of the consistent, unwavering effort necessary to keep PARTICIPANT moving forward.
In the midst of relocation, our 2008-2009 season saw a number of anticipated, as well as unforeseen obstacles, which were overcome due to a committed network of foundations, individuals, and artists. Our recent experiences have demonstrated while more challenges certainly await, that with modest resources, so do invaluable opportunities for shaping the cultural landscape, so in need of productive points of view.