Chashama at 25

Art as the lifeblood of NYC’s culture: a talk with founder Anita Durst about creating platforms for artists in empty commercial spaces

22 Jul 2020 | 02:43

As an organization, Chashama is simply a platform for artists, performers, and innovators to display their creative output through performances in rented property spaces. But as an institution, Chashama represents the “New York dream,” the artist’s passion to take their ideas and their work to the big city stage and have the opportunity to showcase, communicate, and inspire.

Through window performances, installations, workshops, street shows, operas, even its very own annual gala, Chashama gives artists the opportunity to bring their voices to the masses. From the emotional to the insane, Chashama’s done it all. It’s even delved into social work with its “Space to Connect” program. And now, as it celebrates 25 years, Founder and Artistic Director Anita Durst reflects on where art and Chashama have come and how it strives toward its goal to “feel the possibility of creativity.”

How did you come to create Chashama?

I was in a theater company called Dar a Luz, I was a founding member with Reza Abdoh. He would have me go out and find him spaces to do his theater work. Of his theater, people would either hate it or they’d see it and it’d change their lives. It was very fast and angry and poetic and beautiful and ugly, all the things in life that would affect you mushed into one hour. When Reza died, I wanted to continue his energy. I wanted other people to feel the things that he taught me about the power of creativity. So, I started Chashama in his memory.

One question that I had was around the word “chashama” itself. The word doesn’t really have a fixed definition, it means different things in different languages. For example, as a Hindi speaker, it’s the colloquial word I’d use for “eyeglasses.” What are your thoughts on it?

When we started Chashama, we were sitting in my grandfather’s library. And he had a very large dictionary. And we saw the word “chashama” in this big dictionary and it said “shame.” So we were going to be the theater of shame. But then we also found out it has many other meetings in different languages. In Farsi, it means “spring outlet,” and that’s Reza’s native language. But we have grown to have our own meaning for it, which is to have “vision.”

What is the process like for creating an art installation or performance, especially when it comes to acquiring the space for the performance?

For the past 25 years, property owners will approach us and offer us space, or we will occasionally search out space. When we work with a property owner, they donate the space to us. We start with a three-month letter of agreement and then we go month-to-month. We give a five million dollar general liability insurance and then good management. And then we’ll tackle the electric work, we’ll paint, we’ll make the space ready for the artists. And then what we do is we’ll look through the many artists that apply directly to us and find out which artist matches the space best.

What are some highlights that have stood out to you over these 25 years?

In the past 25 years, we have worked with probably over 30,000 artists. One of the very first artists we ever worked with was Sir Shadow. He does these single line drawings of musicians and he does poetry, and we’re still working with him today. That is something I’m very proud of. He is also having an exhibition with us currently at 21 Greenwich Avenue.

We used to have many buildings on 42nd Street. And we produced something called “Happy Hour” with clown troops on the street. And you could hear the laughter as you walked by on the street. That’s something that we put a lot of energy into. I truly enjoyed the ninja clowns. That was a piece where anybody from the street could come in, and we would engage them with noodle fights, and they fought the leader and played pretend football. It really allowed anybody who walked by on 42nd Street to come in and experience theater and the world of pretend. We have done hundreds and hundreds of window performances. We had a girl who would sit on the street and you’d walk by and you could call her up on the phone and then she would give you therapy right there on the street. We’ve helped launch the careers of many directors and theater writers, like Adam Rapp. People come here with a dream and we help facilitate that dream.

And how have you seen art evolve over these last 25 years?

I see the drive of the artist continue to remain the same. They’re always wanting space in New York, they’re always wanting to make art. The way I’ve seen it change is that art has become more a part of the New York vocabulary, where it is now in lobbies, and you will walk into parks and you will see art happening, and you will walk down the avenue and you’ll see art. You can see it everywhere in New York, as opposed to before when it was mostly just behind the wall.

One of Chashama’s most prominent events is the annual gala - could you talk about that?

Chashama’s Gala is not your usual gala. There are no speeches. There’s no sit-down dinner. Usually we have 200 performers. And this year’s Gala was going to be amazing. It’s very naughty and scandalous, and people become like children, I see them get these big smiles. We were going to have 50 rooms with hundreds of performers. We were going to do it for two days this year: we were going to have one day be the Gala, and then the next day be like a free present for New York, where people could pay a really low ticket price to come in. But we hopefully will do it next year instead.

How do you think that a society like ours that’s been going through this pandemic could be affected by the art that Chashama gives its platform to?

I see Chashama being a great catalyst. With all these empty storefronts, we would be able to be a bridge between the property owner, the artist, and the small businesses. We could help re-ignite the economy of New York and bring it back more through the mom and pop shops. Right now, there’s a lot of negative energy with boarded up storefronts. We could take that negative energy and create a positive energy instead.

And have you been able to work during this time?

Yes, we have reopened our workspaces for 150 artists about two weeks ago. And in our storefront windows, we have put live performance artists. We have a space with a DOT Plaza where we have put up a new installation as well.

What’s the plan with Chashama going forward? Where do you see yourself 25 years in the future?

As we grow, while I do love the arts and working with the arts, I would like for us to work more with small businesses. I think that this could be a really good platform for helping small businesses grow. I see us being nationwide. We’ve already launched something like this in Santa Fe, New Mexico, and we’re talking to people in Detroit. I always get questions from someone in Seattle or California about how to start something like this. So I see it happening on a much larger scale throughout the world and the country.

And what do you do in your downtime, when you’re not working on Chashama?

Well, I just was in a horror film called “Party Doll,” which was a lot of fun. I haven’t acted in many years, and I played the ghost in the film. I have a 15-year-old boy who I give a lot of my energy to. And I love to dance, but I mostly just dance by myself. An hour or two in the morning, just moving around.

You can check out some of Chashama’s newest exhibitions at chashama.org/events/.