Brett Littman sees the drama in doodling.
“I'm interested in doodles, in sketches, in the kind of the detritus of the world, the things that are on the back of napkins,” says Littman, executive director of the Drawing Center in Soho. “All of that stuff is very interesting in relationship to understanding this medium that we call drawing.”
The center, founded in 1977, moved once, but has always been a proponent of showing art that redefines the boundaries of what's seen as art and drawing.
Littman, 48, says, drawing has always been considered something on the way to something else.
“Today there are many artists who draw and only draw, That is the only thing that they do. They're not drawing to make a sculpture, they're not drawing to make a painting, they're not sketching to do something else. They're sketching to explore their own thinking,” he explains.
Littman says that he's gone on upwards of 600 studio visits during his nine years as director. Less than 20 percent of the time, he estimates, do artists pull out works on paper and call them drawings. “They dance for me, they sing, they play music, they show me an archive,” he says. “They show me computer algorithms. So I think the way artists are defining drawing is changing quite rapidly.”
The museum attracts people from all over the world, especially Europeans and South Americans. Among the many multi-disciplinary programs the Drawing Centers runs, they are in partnership with the city's public schools. Fifteen hundred schoolkids each year are brought to the museum. And five selected schools participate in a program where the museum sends artists to the classrooms to work with students, culminating in an exhibition of student work at the museum. Littman, 48, grew up in Brooklyn Heights, went to Stuyvesant High School and came up in an era he calls a golden age. Soho was a cultural center of contemporary art, when it was populated with artists, galleries, music clubs and music stores, when performance and art flourished. Littman remembers how he and his friends would roam the streets, go to concerts and openings, and absorb the culture.
His path would lead him from the sciences to the arts, via philosophy, poetry and film. And then there was some grant-writing he did for a non-profit. He has served as the assistant director at UrbanGlass and co-executive director at Dieu Donné, and deputy director of MoMA PS1, before becoming executive director at The Drawing Center in 2007.
Gentrification and over-development have meant the loss of what once seemed the center of the art world. But Littman's experience in Soho helps him stay connected to what the neighborhood was – and still sometimes is.
When younger interns come to work at the center, he sends them, first thing, to see permanent local art installations. That's meant, he says, “to ground them in the neighborhood.” Among those works are two of Walter de Maria's works, “The Broken Kilometer” (1979) on West Broadway, and “The New York Earth Room” (1977) on Wooster Street.
While the cultural corridor in NYC is the Lower East Side to Hudson Square, he says, “Soho is still the place that you have to walk through, that you have to go to. I really do believe in Soho as a neighborhood. I believe it's an important place; there's a lot of overlay of history.”
He's always thinking of ways to keep the neighborhood culturally alive.
“I believe it needs support and care,” he says, “and we can't forget about it.”