Jake Yuzna loves a good party.
In fact, the 28-year-old manager of public programs at the Museum of Arts and Design considers some nightlife a work of art. So when the museum kicks off its FUN Fellowship Thursday night, awarding a year of financial and logistical support to four New York party prodigies, night crawlers citywide will be raising a glass to him.
"Nightlife is so important," he says as he hunches his lanky, 6-foot-3-inch frame in a projection booth above the museum’s basement theater. "What happens in clubs is so important. You can look at things like Limelight or The Palladium or, though it seems a little more old-timey now, Studio 54, and see what New York was so well-known for. [Nightlife] is a social practice, and it’s not being recognized, so I started thinking about what’s going on and how we can help."
The inaugural fellowship—which comes with a stipend that varies with each project and is "more than a few thousand, less than $10,000"—will be awarded to the organizers of four distinct events: Judy, a floating "happening" that describes itself as "a queer dance party that wants to create space for our community to cohere in sweat and music"; Cameron Cooper and Zach Cole, who throw the GAG! party; Lauren Devine and Patrik Sandberg, who throw digitally themed parties at apartments and bars; and Downtown nightlife impresario and performance fixture Earl Dax. New York is still the center of the cultural world, according to Yuzna, "but it’s not going to emerge out of nowhere. So let’s support them, not people looking to make money off of $18 drinks."
The groups will receive money, workspace and mentorship to put together their events. Dax’s project will be a touring version of his Pussy Faggot party, featuring music and performance artists. Cooper and Cole will open a shop during Spring Fashion Week in MAD, trading items from fashion houses—everything from clothing to designers’ mix tapes—for items left behind by visitors. Devine and Sandberg will host a pop-up café based on the hideout in the 1995 movie Hackers as commentary on digital culture. And the Judy foursome will use its stipend to continue throwing its sweaty, political extravaganzas.
In his 11 months at the museum, Yuzna, who lives in Williamsburg, has made it his mission to apply the museum’s focus on craft and design, however intriguing, to work beyond its normal scope, which currently includes exhibitions on clay jewelry and tapestries inspired by the work of Judy Chicago. "I was raised in a generation where craft is the technique, not a movement or ideology," he explains. "The museum has a collection—it’s part of its history and foundation—but it has expanded upon that. We’re finding a way to support underrepresented and marginalized artists and cultural producers."
Yuzna, a Minnesota native who studied filmmaking at the Minneapolis College of Art and Design, originally came to the museum—after stints in reality television, gay porn and audio-visual work at The New Museum and Creative Time—with the idea of building its cinema programming. "What was appealing was how there was a museum in New York City that was looking to start a cinema program that would have institutional support," he says. "I’ve had these concerns and issues with the way the cinema community is, where there aren’t people talking about what’s going on with theory now… There are all of these old ways of looking at things that don’t make sense anymore, and we need to start looking at what’s coming next. It’s just a big feedback loop if you don’t find ways of breaking it and discussing new things. I wanted more dialogue and to get a community together."
So, on the heels of his own first feature film, Open, winning the Teddy Jury Award at the 2010 Berlin Film Festival (the first American film to do so), Yuzna took the job. From the beginning, he took a novel approach to public programming. "Public programs have a history of giving greater context to the exhibitions, which we still do, but we can do so much more," he says. "It helps to not have artists just come to you, but to make an effort to go out into the community. I make an effort, with what we do here, to do that. I don’t just party to party, it’s about being a face of the museum and being a friend. Curators do that in the artistic community, but I want to be sure to do it within other ones as well."
So, in addition to planning and executing the traditional events and series for the museum’s patrons, Yuzna works on more daring programming as well. Take the Vibrant Spaces series, which the museum bills as "an exploration into how physical, digital and physiological environments have both formed and informed the concepts and production of cultural identity throughout the globe," of which Thursday night’s "Nightlife: An Oral History of NYC Club Culture" lecture, featuring words of wisdom from Michael Alig, Ladyfag and more, will be a part. Or look at the museum’s film programming, including last September’s Alejandro Jodorowsky retrospective, an April survey of the work of Isaach De Bankolé—"a pioneering leading man of color in French Cinema"—and an upcoming showcase of the films of David Bowie. "It’s a new take on the idea of a retrospective, across multimedia platforms, looking at his work as performance," says Yuzna.
This fresh take on what could be at other institutions a staid position has given Yuzna the opportunity to make his mark on both the museum and city. "I trust what Jake is doing," Benjamin Haber, one of the Judy party’s organizers, says. "I know he’s doing this because he wants to support these things he sees happening and thinks are cool. I have a natural hesitancy to put myself under the control of people I don’t trust and institutions that want to have control over what we’re doing. I don’t necessarily distrust any institution that wants to give us money, but it’s nice that somebody I think is great is running this fellowship."
For the next year, Haber and his cohorts will have the opportunity to prove their appreciation. Beyond that, Yuzna hopes he’ll continue to have the opportunity to foster creativity after dark, perhaps even expanding the program beyond the five boroughs. "We want to make sure that it always focuses on New York artists, but it would be great to expand it more," he says. "This is just the beginning."