Jenny Schlenzka, the executive artistic director of Performance Space New York since 2017, will step down from that position this summer, the organization announced on Thursday. She will become director of the exhibition hall Gropius Bau in Berlin, the city where she was born and raised.
“When I took the job I always felt that I shouldn’t stay for 10 years,” Schlenzka said in an interview, because places like Performance Space New York periodically “need new ideas.”
“I’ve pretty much done everything that I had in me that I wanted to do,” she added, “and there was a sense that maybe somebody else should be sitting in the chair with more energy and fresh ideas.”
The opportunity to work at Gropius Bau was a strong attraction, she said — “it’s one of the most beautiful exhibition spaces in all of Germany, if not of Europe” — as was the chance to return to Berlin, where much of her family lives.
Roxane Gay, Performance Space New York’s board president, said in a statement that Schlenzka “has enriched our organization with her impeccable taste, bold vision and willingness to evolve and respond to the needs of our vibrant community.”
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Schlenzka described her time with Performance Space New York as “a huge learning curve — about institutions and art and how they can work together and how they cannot.”
When she took over in 2017, the East Village institution — a haven for boundary-pushing dance, theater and interdisciplinary performance art since its founding as Performance Space 122 in 1980 — was about to reopen its building after seven years of renovation and itinerancy. Schlenzka, previously an associate curator of performance at MoMA PS 1, envisioned its restart, including a rebranding and a new name.
Among her innovations was thematic programming, like the East Village series, which examined the institution’s political and social intersection with its neighborhood, and the No series, which focused on the creativity of refusal.
But her most radical initiative was “02020,” a plan to hand over the programming, the keys to the building and the entire annual production budget to a collective of artists. The idea was to extend experimentalism into every part of the organization.
“I have little doubt that when I look back in 20 years, that will be one of the most important and defining things that I’ve done,” Schlenzka said. “It was also by far the hardest.”
The initiative generated criticism and confusion, and the coronavirus pandemic, which started soon after “02020” did, further complicated it.
Schlenzka was reluctant to recount all that happened. “It’s so complex and I have such a limited perspective,” she said, though she described her initial attitude as “Pollyanna.”
“I actually really thought we would be in the space together, trying out new things,” she said. “I underestimated the harm that institutions can create just by being institutions, regardless of the staff or good will. And we are in a historical moment when a lot of artists who haven’t been in the center are upset, and rightfully so. We opened the gates and it all flooded in.”
“If the goal was that we were all friends and happy in one space working together, then it was unsuccessful,” she continued. “But the failure revealed so much. Institutions and artists — real contemporary artists being creative without boundaries — almost cancel each other. Even if the institution wants to support artists, the way it’s structured always takes away from the aliveness, the unknown, the experiment.”
Schlenzka’s successor has not been announced, but she has ideas about the institution’s future.
“When I started, there were a lot of voices saying, ‘This is not what PS 122 was,’” she said. “But my goal was always to keep the PS 122 flame alive in the 21st-century version, being as radical and as supportive of artists as possible. I hope that the next people will do the same.”