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Howl! New York
Stephen Sprouse, UNTITLED (autographed photo of Debbie Harry painted by Sprouse), 1988Courtesy of the artist

How to find artists that can change the world

Jane Friedman has long been a behind-the-scenes fixture in downtown NYC, representing Jimi Hendrix and managing Patti Smith – here she shares the secrets of her success

Located in the heart of New York’s East Village, Howl! Happening was established in memory of artist Arturo Vega, who designed the iconic Ramones logo. Vega, a Mexican national, fled his native land in 1968 when the government rounded up 148 of the country’s most notable artists and intellectuals, putting their lives at risk. Vega fled to New York where he had prominent connections, like Jane Friedman – the woman made rock’n’roll journalism a legitimate business. 

New York native Jane Friedman grew up on Broadway, as her father handled public relations for legendary shows along the Great White Way. Friedman followed in her father’s footsteps, and along the way, she realised her talents would be best served by supporting the greatest artists of the time. She went on to craft a new lane in the media, representing artists like Jimi Hendrix and Frank Zappa, as well as doing PR for the famed musical Hair. She was also Patti Smith’s manager throughout her career.

Friedman has been a behind-the-scenes fixture in downtown New York, working with artists and musicians to ensure their success and legacy. When Vega, one of her dearest friends died in 2013, Friedman set up Howl! Arts, a non-profit organisation that preserves the culture of the East Village and the Lower East Side in a rapidly gentrifying city that has effectively erased so much of the New York’s fabled past.

“I always loved the artists I worked with. If I didn’t love them as people, I wouldn’t take them as clients” – Jane Friedman

Taking its name from Allen Ginsberg’s famed 1955 poem, Howl! Happening: An Arturo Vega Project is the cornerstone of the organisation. A gallery, performance space, and archive located around the corner from where CBGBs once stood, Howl! Happening has been home to a series of phenomenal shows including exhibitions by Patricia Field, Lydia Lunch, Taboo!, PUNK Magazine’s 40th Anniversary, and The East Village Eye – as well as on-going events and performances that showcase the very best of the community, which continues to thrive despite the exponential explosion in the cost of living.

This month, Howl! presents Love Among the Ruins: 56 Bleecker Gallery Street and the late 80s New York, a group exhibition that looks back at the famed East Village gallery and performance space that served as a vital intersection of music, fashion, art, and nightlife during one of the most vital and devastating period of New York history. Featuring works by nearly 100 artists including David LaChapelle, Nan Goldin, Jean-Michel Basquiat, Dondi White, Stephen Sprouse, and George Condo, to name just a few, the exhibition is on view through October 7, 2017.

Friedman speaks with us about what it takes to cultivate a community of artists that can change the world, while staying true to your roots, and shares images from the ongoing show.

CHOOSE YOUR PEOPLE WISELY

“I always loved the artists I worked with. If I didn’t love them as people, I wouldn’t take them as clients. My decision would be made in the first conversation. It’s not always about the talent. I always felt I could sense something lingering inside if I cared about the person. It’s about trust and your ability to share the same page. It’s about agreeing on the route; determination and patience takes time to get there. Artists don’t need your help until they see themselves going nowhere. Sometimes it's because they are looking for overnight fame, which comes only (and sometimes never) with years of hard work.”

HONE YOUR SKILLS, KNOW YOUR WORTH & CUT YOUR LOSES

“As a publicist, you are required to popularise the work and personality of your client. Identify the talent. Learn to exaggerate. I loved my clients and loved to promote them. I always wanted to introduce people to other people. I wanted to translate their work into something very special. If you can’t translate the ephemeral into words you can’t be a publicist. Publicity is all about language and I had a big mouth.

I'd have these big ideas, which I knew would work for my client, that some manager, agent, or label would shoot down. Outside I'd be politely smiling but inside I'd be crazy with unbridled frustration. Somehow I finally got the message that I'd need to move on if I was going to survive. So I did. I was just a little ‘full of myself.’”

NOURISH YOUR BEST RELATIONSHIPS

“Arturo Vega and I met on his first day in New York City. It was 1967 or 68. Those were the happy, hippie days when moving into someone's house was a nothing event. Within hours, Artie moved into mine. We lived in one room, slept in one bed, and developed a very close friendship. 

Artie is known as the art director and personal manager of the Ramones. He dressed them, rehearsed with them, decorated their stages, ran their stage lights, gave them a home, fed them, and loved them. Arturo was also a mentor to many struggling young East Village artists. He respected the work. He respected the artists. He was everywhere and he'd bring hope and joy to everyone.

Arturo died very suddenly. He was sick for three weeks, and then he was dead, He left his estate in my care, which was a huge shock. He had very descriptive wishes for what he wanted to be done and how he wanted it done, and it culminated that he wanted everything of his to be donated to a museum. He didn’t want money exchanged, and I was to find the right place.

Very few people knew that he was a fine artist. Everything he had was hidden in storage. I knew that whoever we gave the collection to would take the Ramones stuff and put his work in storage. That was my inspiration for Howl! Happening.

This is so weird: He lived at 6 East 2nd Street. We’re 6 East 1st Street – so if you walk right through the walls, you’d be in his house. The other thing is that this alley behind the gallery ends up at the backdoor of what was CBGBs, where you used to go and smoke pot and whatever. It was also where you were supposed to outload music equipment after a show. There are all of these incredible connections to Arturo with this gallery. We always feel like he’s here with us.”

PUT ROOTS DOWN IN THE COMMUNITY

“There was no East Village scene in the 60s until the ‘Summer of Love’. Up until that time, it was all about the West Village, MacDougal and Bleecker Streets, folk music and folk tales, Beatniks and boys in black, pot and peyote.

In the late 60s, Marks Place was a really dirty, well-traveled but also a rough street where you didn’t want to be too late at night. Then one day, all of a sudden, these people had suddenly arrived on St. Marks Place. They brought with them a kind different gestalt than we had here in New York City. They fed each other and helped each other live on the streets. It was an exciting time.

St. Marks Place in the East Village became the Haight-Ashbury of Manhattan and the culture went wild. It was fantastic and heady, mystic and mysterious, available only to the under-30 set who were marching, sitting, and racing toward the politics of rock and roll. There was one couple that lived in a window of somebody’s store on St. Mark’s and they did a 24-hour real life performance of whatever they were doing and that was very avant-garde, new, and stimulating.

“There was one couple that lived in a window of somebody’s store on St. Mark’s and they did a 24-hour real life performance of whatever they were doing and that was very avant-garde, new, and stimulating” – Jane Friedman

St. Marks became the nexus of the East Village. It became the place to be. If you were going anywhere, you started there and you ended up there. It was happening. It was where information disseminated. It was an important part for people who were in the revolution to gather. Little by little, it stretched out to everything. The Fillmore East opened. The Dom, where the Velvet Underground played, was operating around the same time. You just knew that it was going to become historically important time and place. 

The East Village really grew because people were pushed out of the West Village little-by-little with gentrification. Artists moved into the East Village in the 70s because there were so many tenements. When it was a very young East Village, it was still all the Ukranians, Lithuanians, Hungarians, and then the Latinos moved in. When they left in droves, those apartments were available and it just became a very affordable neighbourhood that was attractive to people who needed spaces to work.”

STAND BY YOUR COMMUNITY THROUGH THICK AND THIN

“During the mid-80s the Aids plague came down spreading fear, confusion, and death all around. It was awful. We sat helplessly watching our friends die. We lost so many: artists, musicians, poets, writers, actors, dancers, playwrights. It happened so fast that it was hard to clock. In many ways, the East Village sobered.

Our new beginning, an awakening, comes out of the new art show titled Love Among the Ruins. It is inspired by the famed 56 Bleecker Gallery, which hit its prime in the mid-to-late 80s – about a block away from Howl! Happening is now.

Love Among the Ruins presents nearly 100 artists to bring us back to a moment in time where we still struggled to be heard and barely made the rent.”

GO THE DISTANCE AND STAY TRUE

“During my career, I watched really talented artists give up because they didn’t have the patience or determination to plug away. Those who stayed and hung on for as long as it took would eventually bring home the awards. Watching the great ones fold was a heartbreaking experience.  

I am old now but before I die, I plan to reopen the heart of my community, refill the rusty tanks, and refuel the dreams of all the East Village denizens that think their time has passed. The East Village was and continues to be community, in spite of gentrification. We've never needed community more.

I am both an insider and an outsider. The East Village is my private place. You can’t explain your Brigadoon or Xanadu or Neverland to anyone, but you can say that once you have dropped in, you will never want to drop out.”

Howl! Happening’s Love Among the Ruins: 56 Bleecker Gallery Street and the late 80s New York runs until 7 October 2017