LEGACY RUSSELL GREW up in New York City with the sense that art was everywhere, stitched into the very fabric of everyday life. She was deliberately introduced to it by the community that raised her, especially by her parents, who made a point of taking her to independent art spaces. “I grew up in the East Village,” she says, “in the cultural setting of P.S. 122 [now Performance Space New York], and The Public Theater, and Joe’s Pub, and what became Dixon Place — places that were really asking questions about what experimental art should look like.” Places also like The Studio Museum in Harlem, where, until recently, she served as associate curator of exhibitions. “For a long time, The Studio Museum in Harlem has had such a special place in my heart because my dad’s family is from Harlem and we would go visit them and stop off there, so there was this interesting through line across these different points in the city.”
This summer, Russell was named executive director and chief curator of The Kitchen in Manhattan, another legendary, experimental arts nonprofit. Founded in 1971, The Kitchen is part gallery, part performance space, and part community hub, and has always embraced emerging art disciplines. It’s been the site of groundbreaking contributions to performance, video art, dance, literature, and music, with its most notable shows being the stuff of New York City mythos. The New York Dolls played there. So did the Beastie Boys and Philip Glass. Celebrated artists like Vito Acconci, Robert Mapplethorpe, Cindy Sherman, Kiki Smith, and Karen Finley have all shown their work there. In fact, when Los Angeles–based Getty Research Institute acquired The Kitchen’s archives in 2014, their curator Glenn Phillips remarked, “This is one of the best performance collections in the world.”
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The building on West 19th Street that houses The Kitchen is nondescript. “People will walk past it for years and not know what it is,” says Russell. But she adds, “That’s also part of the magic of this site, it exists for those who need it.” It has been, in Russell’s words, “a space that has engaged radical collective imagination from its very inception.” And the issues that were on people’s minds in the 1970s are still urgent today. “The things that were occurring at that point are back in this current moment,” Russell says. “All the ongoing questions of feminism and civil rights; questions about who belongs and how those different visions can be represented with equity and care. For me, it’s really important to recognize that The Kitchen has played an essential role by allowing for a site of uncontained wildness in the midst of an increasingly professionalized art world. That’s something I think is important to talk about, celebrate, and center, because it is so unusual.”
It’s really important to recognize that The Kitchen has played an essential role by allowing for a site of uncontained wildness in the midst of an increasingly professionalized art world.
Russell laughs at her own bad wordplay when I ask what The Kitchen offers individual artists: “Artists will show things here or test things out, using this as a test kitchen — terrible pun.” She summarizes that it’s a place to workshop new ideas and new work without all-or-nothing stakes. She believes these opportunities are all the more valuable in a cultural climate that prioritizes data, results, and profit over unbounded space to experiment and create.
By making more conservative choices, art institutions try to exert control over creative practices. But The Kitchen seeks to give artists “the opportunity to be uncharted,” in Russell’s words, and to do so throughout their careers. Russell challenges the idea of an “emerging” artist as a young individual just starting their career. “I think artists emerge in multitudes over the course of their careers,” she says, and The Kitchen wants to support those many phases of becoming.
In addition to working as a curator, Russell authored the revered 2020 book “Glitch Feminism: A Manifesto,” which explores the internet’s many possibilities. She specifically delves into “the glitch” — the place where the temporary malfunction or suspension of a system allows for new forms of expression. Online, she says, there is the possibility of inhabiting spaces we might not typically be able to access. She believes the internet has similarly liberatory possibilities for art viewing: “More and more we are seeing that people’s first experiences of art spaces is actually occurring in digital space,” she says. “Young people are on Instagram and they are experiencing the Louvre before they may have been able to travel to see it.”
Russell believes that there is no reason we should set the two ways to view art — digitally and physically — apart. Nor should we expect there to be a one-to-one relationship between engaging with art in a gallery and online. Russell is the first to admit that it’s “an entirely different experience” to see art online. But taking digital programming seriously could mean making art available to a whole new population. “It allows people to come from all corners of the world on their terms,” she says. “Programs that would have had 25 people in the room now might have 500.” To Russell, the future of The Kitchen is all about expanding horizons this way: for artists, the institutions that support them, and members of the public, who deserve the same access to art that she herself grew up with.
Check out The Kitchen’s Events calendar for upcoming shows and performances.
Visit The Kitchen’s Archive page for information about past events.
Nina Renata Aron Writer
Nina Renata Aron is a senior editor of Departures based in Oakland, California. She is the author of “Good Morning, Destroyer of Men's Souls.” Her work has appeared in the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, the Guardian, the New Republic, Elle, Eater, and Jezebel.
Lelanie Foster Photographer
Lelanie Foster is a photographer from the Bronx, NY, whose work is centered in honoring the strength and beauty of Black and brown people while encompassing themes of identity, sisterhood, beauty, and community. Foster was handpicked to interpret the film "Queen & Slim" through her photography. The resulting visuals serve as a celebratory tribute to Black life and culture.