Belonging to P.A.D. (Project Art Distribution)

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“Popular Jewelry” featuring Arkadiy Ryabin, Johanna Stroebel, Clarissa Hurst, and Ann Treesa Joy, on September 26, 2020, photo credit to Adam Golfer, image courtesy of P.A.D.

The artist-run Project Art Distribution (better known as P.A.D. or @project_art_distribution on Instagram) hosts day-long outdoor exhibitions on versatile packing 72”x80” pads. Set up in Soho, one of New York’s art and retail hubs, the padded surfaces become the metaphorical and physical exhibition space of the usual pristine white cube galleries. Unlike the current Soho rental clientele of luxury brands and gallery spaces, P.A.D. has no walls. Lacking barriers in more than one way, the sidewalk gallery provides the public, the artists, the curators, and the organizational collaborators a welcomed openness to art and discussion. The project creates an ongoing network that ever-expands its community.

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“P.A.D. Presents: PADEMIC BLOWOUT SALE” on December 19, 2020, image courtesy of P.A.D.

By the close of 2020, the horrid year when the world faced a global pandemic that stored us all away, P.A.D. braved the outdoors again for its third season. Increasingly collaborating with organizational collaborations in 2019 and 2020, the gallery worked with Dyke Soccer, Special Special, Wendy’s Subway, Good Naked, and Plank Road Gallery. On December 19, 2020, the biggest exhibition in P.A.D. history took place at Plank Road with over sixty participating artists and organizations in the “P.A.D. Presents: PADEMIC BLOWOUT SALE.”[1] Serving as a mini retrospective of the three years of exhibitions and collaborations, the contributors represent only about half of the artists that P.A.D. had presented over its short lifetime. The stellar list of over 120 artists includes Ilana Harris-Babou, Jessi Li, Paul Ramirez Jonas, Peter Hoffmeister, and it goes on. If the “holiday sale” is any indication of how far P.A.D. has come from its initial two-artist show in 2017, the impact that P.A.D. could have in the long run is exponential.

Primarily organized by artist Patrick Carlin Mohundro and a group of dedicated supporters, P.A.D.’s first exhibition took place on October 7, 2017 at the corner of Spring and Greene Streets. The show, titled “I 💛 NY,” consists of works by Arkadiy Ryabin and Broc Blegen. The original idea for the street sale exhibition arose from Ryabin and Mohundro’s desire to show their “carb-heavy” works together: bread for the former, and rice for the latter. When the two artists were ready to show, Ryabin wanted to present his mash-up t-shirts instead of his bread work. Using the rock band Nirvana’s dead smiley face logo, Ryabin replaced the word “Nirvana” with “New York” to create t-shirts that are not too dissimilar from the New York-labeled shirts that one finds in Soho and other tourist-filled locations around New York. Pairing the shirt with the rice was no longer thematically sound, so Blegen’s mash-up baseball caps that wove the Yankee and Mets logos together were incorporated into the show instead. And P.A.D. was born. From its inception, the gallery’s ethos centered on bringing opposing positions together and finding harmony, rather than separating our one humanity into categories or subgroups, weather permitting. 

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“I 💛 NY” on October 7, 2017, image courtesy of P.A.D.

P.A.D. spiders out rhizomatically. Exhibitions can arise from any artist or curator to host new ideas under the flagship. A lot of work goes into organizing these short day-long events. By decentering the network, P.A.D. never has to turn away a prospective artist. This strategy keeps P.A.D. open, flexible, and accessible. By not turning down any artists, P.A.D. also starkly counters how brick and mortar galleries operate. This level of inclusion suggests that there is always a way to highlight an artist’s work and that traditional galleries might simply be too timid to bring in new artists. Of course, there are much higher financial risks involved for a brick and mortar to show untested artists. However, P.A.D.’s model provides interested artists a platform. It is up to curators to find a way to include. The variety of artists is taken as an inherent limitation and a space of creative flexibility, which is a source of P.A.D.’s strength. The street gallery refocuses on the art, rather than the role of the curator.

The pad space itself is literally not large enough for one to be inside looking out—suggesting that its audiences are all inside. The shows’ audience range from the artists and organizers of the show, to their friends, to Soho shoppers and tourists. They come together, eat, shop, talk, and have some fun. A place for real connections, even just for a moment. Fun encounters have included Fluxus artist Allison Knowles checking out P.A.D.’s second show in June 2018. Wyatt Burns, the co-founder of Ridgewood studio space, Permanent Maintenance (PM), and curator of Plank Road, shared his experience of presenting PM artists on a cold October day in 2020: “It was a totally different feeling than traditional gallery sitting, way more fun even though it was a chilly day.” The exhibition, “Petri Dish,” became the one of the most profitable shows in the gallery’s three-year history. The combination of people in attendance created lighthearted exchanges, which fostered a depth of connection for the audience otherwise lacking in a normal gallery context. As Megan Yuan, co-curator of “Ceramix” from May 2019, notes, the show “is a great way to interact with people who probably don’t go to other galleries.” The street belongs to everyone. As rhizomatic plants have no central trunk and root system that anchors the plant to one place, I hope that this egalitarian gallery proliferates beyond New York City, both in form and concept. 

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“Ceramix” on May 25, 2019, image courtesy of P.A.D.

A key way in which P.A.D. lowers the barriers of entry for the general public into the art world is through cost. In the New York gallery system, it’s not uncommon for a small work to start at $1,000.00. P.A.D.’s reasonable $75.00 or under limit becomes inviting and much closer to street sale value. In a city with millionaires and working families, P.A.D. creates a space where their economic standing does not matter. Lowering the price of course comes at a cost to the artists, which P.A.D. acknowledges by not taking a commission as other galleries would. 100% of the sale goes back to the artists. By not profiting from sales, P.A.D. is operating like a non-profit institution. The gallery often provides food and drinks to visitors throughout the exhibition seasons, on top of organizing and promoting the shows. The generosity from both the artists and the gallery led to a great level of trust that is the core foundation for community building that benefits from greater public interactions. 

Another egalitarian gesture is in how the artists and curators who have been involved are discussed: as co-creators. Yuan acknowledged that she didn’t exactly curate “Ceramix,” she shared, “I wouldn’t call my involvement ‘curating’, more organizing and brainstorming. I wanted to include my friend Brandon Schnur (particularly his ceramic turtle flasks) and [Mohundro] and I paired those with some other artists that also work in ceramics.” This is a reflection of P.A.D.’s ethos around authorship: a generous sharing of credit. There’s not the inclination to hoard creative ownership some sort of intellectual property to be protected. 

Soho itself is very much a reflection of P.A.D.’s narrative. The neighborhood was a convenient location due to its proximity to Hunter College’s Hudson Street studio spaces where many of the P.A.D. artists had gone for their MFAs. Soho’s everchanging socio-economic mix suggests that a great range of people are affected there. Before Soho was the shopping center that it is today, it had gone through many iterations. In the 1950s, Soho was still full of warehouses and emptied factory floors left over from its industrial uses. Gaining use in the 1960s by artists, P.A.D. continues this discourse today, commenting and navigating the street level customs and turf negotiations. 

P.A.D. echoes many art actions and organizations formed in the latter half of the 20th century around Soho. We have examples of Gordon Matta-Clark selling art out of his van next to FOOD, an artist-run experimental space at 150 Greene Street in the late 1970s to David Hammons’s 1983 Bliz-aard Ball Sale, where the artist sold snowballs at Cooper Square. Also in the 1980s was Lucy Lippard’s PAD/D (Political Art Documentation and Distribution, 1980-1988), where Lippard and friends recorded and published on political art of their time. A more recent example of an artist-run organization that’s focused on the area is Canal Street Research Association (2013). The group sought to reclaim and record the history of Canal Street, from its illegal tenant-shops to its now vacant storefronts. P.A.D. acknowledges this confluence of history it stepped into.

P.A.D.’s in-depth exhibition documentation on Instagram is akin to the recording of the Post-Internet Art from Chicago between 2005 and 2012, and records contemporary exhibitions and events ongoingly. Similar to alternative galleries, like Custom Program with Sophie Byerley and Rachel Vera Steinberg, who curated their broken microwave between 2017 and 2019 or Jason Osborne’s Off White Columns at 432 Park Avenue offices with shows on columns, P.A.D. shares equal seriousness in documents and presentations of the shows.

Using formal gallery language and photography to record these exhibitions, P.A.D. provides curators a more relaxed setting to experiment while still maintaining standard and quality of work. As Jaqueline Cedar, the apartment gallery owner of Good Naked, said of her experience with P.A.D., “Both projects [P.A.D. and Good Naked] […] embody a kind of playfulness, casualness, and openness to experimentation not always available in more permanent brick and mortar spaces.” In a commercial art gallery or museum setting, curating comes with internal pressures to perform and a need for measurable results, like sales or higher foot traffic. There are higher stakes for the curator. Whereas artists are lauded for taking risks and to embrace failure as a part of the practice, curators are expected to produce consistent successes. For galleries, if a show doesn’t sell, it could mean not meeting rent. If a show fails in a museum, it might mean reduced relevance and confidence in the public the institution serves. This leads to a culture of adherence to what worked. Creativity breeds from constraints, spaces like P.A.D. allows emerging curators to test out ideas on a smaller scale, with lower stakes and greater freedoms. 

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Designer and creator of ‘The Deck of Character’ (right) reading for visitor at “Back to School Special Special with Special Special” on September 26, 2020, image courtesy of P.A.D.

P.A.D. created an interconnective fabric of the public, the art, the artists, the curators, and the organizations that is not mobilized or incentivized by money, but rather the human-to-human connection. Collaborators like Wen-You Cai noted that during Special Special’s takeover of P.A.D., “the designer and creator of the oracle deck ‘The Deck of Character’, was on site all day to provide oracle readings to passersby. It leads to serendipitous and interesting sidewalk engagements.” What the gallery convenes on the street corner is the experience that everyone belongs. From audiences in Soho (who might not normally engage with contemporary art) to artists and curators (who have not been selected by or work for galleries or museums yet) — they belong in this system that sometimes make people feel left out. As Alex Schmidt, co-founder of Dyke Soccer, acknowledges, “[Mohundro] invited me to do something and I suggested that Dyke Soccer exhibit, since the two projects felt mutually interested in community, accessibility, and inclusivity.” So, whether P.A.D. is in the cold or the heat (but not in the rain), in its coming seasons, we are all welcomed.

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“Our Mutt” on October 10, 2020, image courtesy of P.A.D.
  1. Note that “pandemic” is intentionally misspelled.

Sophia Ma is an emerging curator. Most recently, she participated in SPRING/BREAK Art Show New York 2020 and interned for the Arshile Gorky Foundation to work on the artist’s catalogue raisonné. For her graduate thesis at Hunter College, CUNY, she wrote about the life and work of abstract painter Bernice Lee Bing. Ma had also worked in development, programming, operations, and administration for the Museum of Chinese in America. Currently, Ma is conducting research on a manuscript on landscape architecture that’s due for publication in Fall 2021 with Rizzoli.