Founded in 1977 by Martha Beck (1938–2014), The Drawing Center—an exhibition space in downtown Manhattan's SoHo neighborhood—explores the medium of drawing as primary, dynamic, and relevant to contemporary culture, the future of art, and creative thought. Its activities are both multidisciplinary and broadly historical, and include exhibitions, publications, and educational and public programs.
Beck, a former curator of contemporary art in the Department of Drawings at the Museum of Modern Art, started The Drawing Center to exhibit art by living artists in their own neighborhood, as well as to advance a medium that she viewed as broadly overlooked. First housed in a ground-floor warehouse space at 137 Greene Street, The Drawing Center moved to its present location, around the corner at 35 Wooster Street in 1987. The Drawing Center was born into the petri dish of the SoHo art scene in the 1960s and 1970s. In the early 1960s, as part of the larger American trend towards urban deindustrialization, light manufacturing businesses began to leave SoHo, abandoning lofts—wide-open, light-filled, and freight-elevator serviced—which proved particularly attractive to artists. Painters, sculptors and media artists flocked to SoHo, transforming former factory floors into affordable live/work spaces where they could produce and exhibit large-scale canvases, performance art pieces, and sculptures. To show these new works, commercial galleries had to find comparable spaces, and many of them followed their artists, relocating downtown from midtown and uptown spaces. During this period of transformation, SoHo was still classified as an M1 zone, which made permanent residence illegal. Artists were frequently threatened with eviction, but with the pressure and advocacy of organizations such as the Artist Tenant Association and later the SoHo Artist Association, the city finally rezoned the district in 1971, allowing artists to legally live where they worked.
The first generation of alternative art spaces were founded between 1969–1975, and included organizations like PS1: The Institute for Art and Urban Resources in Queens, Artists Space, Creative Time, White Columns and The Kitchen. In 1976-77, The New Museum, Printed Matter, and The Drawing Center joined them. Commercial galleries and artist-run establishments followed. In 1968, Paula Cooper transformed a street-level loft at 96 Prince Street into a contemporary art gallery showing works by artists like Carl Andre and Mark di Suvero. Leo Castelli and Ileana Sonnabend turned their home in a loft at 420 West Broadway into a gallery where they showed work by a legendary roster of artists including Jasper Johns and Robert Rauschenberg. Nearby, Gordon Matta-Clark and Carol Goodden founded an artist-run restaurant/conceptual art project called FOOD, which became an affordable place for artists to eat together. These spaces were joined by nonprofit arts organizations like the off-Broadway theater, The Performing Garage.
Since its inception, The Drawing Center’s exhibitions have emphasized a wide range of artistic traditions and taken a uniquely interdisciplinary approach. In its opening years, the institution presented drawings by the Catalan architect Antonio Gaudi (1852-1926), as well as those by emerging artists, including Terry Winters and Carroll Dunham; later exhibitions of early career artists included drawings by Kara Walker, Julie Mehretu and Shahzia Sikander. Through a series of artist-centric programs led by an artist-in-residence, including Open Sessions and The Viewing Program, The Drawing Center has offered live critiques, studio visits, exhibitions, publications and a sense of community to living artists, those based in New York, and more recently, around the world. Today, The Drawing Center’s exhibitions and programs endeavor to express what our founder called “the quality and diversity of drawing” by sharing with our audience extraordinary drawing by tattoo artists, chefs, novelists, soldiers, prisoners, as well as by those who define themselves as visual artists. This experimental spirit and devotion to a broad definition of what drawing is, and what it can be, mirrors the diversity and creative energy of the early SoHo art scene from which The Drawing Center grew.