There is a photocopied sign on the wall of art administrator Suzanne Kreps’ cluttered office: “Change will not come if we wait for another person or some other time…We are the ones we’ve been waiting for…We are the change that we seek.”
The quote, attributed to former President Barack Obama, reinforces Kreps’ commitment to using art to promote social justice. She’s done this for 16 years, as the executive director of fresh art, a small, New York City-based non-profit that organizes fine art and craft workshops for underserved and disadvantaged adults— seniors, women and men in recovery from chemical dependencies, the homeless, the mentally ill, and people with HIV, AIDS, mental illnesses and physical and emotional disabilities. It also organizes exhibitions of their work.
As Kreps prepares to retire at the end of 2019, she sat down with Eleanor J. Bader to look back on her work with the organization.
Eleanor J. Bader: Let’s start with history. How and when did fresh art begin?
Suzanne Kreps: Wendy Grossman founded fresh art in 1997 and started its programming in 1999. Wendy had been working as a recreational therapist at the now-defunct John Heuss House, a drop-in center for homeless men and women living with mental illness, that was located in Lower Manhattan. This was in the late 1990s. Wendy’s job included organizing group activities as well as art classes, other recreational programming, and activities emphasizing daily living skills. In 1997, she mounted “Inside Out”, a show of works created by the participants. My partner, Clarke, who also worked at John Heuss House, suggested that Wendy contact me since I was working at OK Harris Gallery. I knew a fair amount about arranging exhibitions, so he thought I could help. I assisted in the installation of that show and later became a member of an Advisory Board that helped Wendy form fresh art.
The idea of starting a non-profit arts organization had been with Wendy for some time. She envisioned an organization that would provide programming to a wide-range of underserved and at-risk populations—including disadvantaged youth, homeless and formerly homeless individuals, people with disabilities, and low-income and isolated seniors.
Wendy eventually left Heuss House and with the help of the New York Foundation for the Arts– the fiscal sponsor of the organization while it waited for its 501(c 3) status — she was able to get the fledgling organization off the ground. She began running the organization out of her family’s fifth floor walk-up apartment in the East Village.
From the beginning, fresh art arranged exhibitions to showcase the creativity of artists from the populations I just mentioned. One of the first was called “Wild Kingdom” and every piece had something to do with animal life. The art came from programs at the Bowery Residents Committee, St. Francis Residence III in Manhattan, Harlem Hospital, The Point in the Bronx, and five additional NYC organizations.
In April of 1999 the exhibition was installed at CB’s 313 gallery space on the Bowery, located next door to CBGBs. During the next two years, exhibitions were planned at other venues.
Then, in the summer of 2001, Wendy found a rental space in the basement of Washington Square United Methodist Church, another site that no longer exists. It opened in August 2001, a month before September 11th. The space was part office, part gallery, and part gift shop where artworks and crafts by artists affiliated with other non-profit agencies were for sale; fresh art stayed open in this spot until 2003.