The leaders of boards at art institutions tend to be deep-pocked collectors and well-known philanthropists. But Performance Space New York, a beloved alternative space in the East Village, went in a different direction when it named best-selling author Roxane Gay as its board president on Thursday.
Gay is an outspoken commentator who has taken up issues of identity and privilege. Her 2014 essay collection Bad Feminist made the New York Times bestsellers list, and her 2017 book Hunger: A Memoir of (My) Body drew widespread acclaim.
Though Gay is not commonly associated with the art world, she has made recent forays as a collector. In an Artnet News interview this past April, she revealed that she had works by Mickalene Thomas, Jenny Holzer, Julie Mehretu, Kahlil Robert Irving, and more in her holdings. “I started to explore and acquire pieces,” she said. “And now it’s out of control.” For Art in America, Gay also spoke with painter Jenny Saville about fatness and feminism.
Gay has also been involved with Performance Space for a while, sitting on its board for a year and a half. She was first connected to the organization by her wife Debbie Millman, who is also a board member.
In a statement Gay said that, as board president, she intends to “continue supporting great experimental art,” ensuring that “a diversity of aesthetics is brought to Performance Space.” Gay also said she was committed to diversifying Performance Space’s supporters and “making sure we continue to ensure that it’s not only people with money who get to sit on the board and make decisions—because that’s not a reflection of our actual community.”
Jenny Schlenzka, executive artistic director of Performance Space New York, called Gay “someone who would rather make change than endlessly talk about making change.” Adding, “Her opinions are realistic and they’re sound: she wants a more equitable and accessible culture and sees how we can be part of creating this culture.”
While appointing Gay to the high-ranking post would be unconventional at most art spaces, it’s not an entirely unusual move for Performance Space, which has a history of involving artists behind the scenes with the aim of reconfiguring what an arts organization can look like. In 2020, Performance Space New York handed over the keys to a group of artists, allowing them total control of funding and programming.
There has also been a push by Performance Space New York to add more artists to its board. Nicole Eisenman, Jonathan González, and Jackson Polys were among the artists who joined the board in 2020. Schlenzka has said she eventually wants at least 50 percent of Performance Space New York’s board to be artists.
Gay replaces Suzanne Geiss, who will serve as vice president. After the transition, Geiss will continue as chair of the development committee on the board.