Places that Matter

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A Gathering of the Tribes

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A Gathering of the Tribes gallery space, photo by Molly Garfinkel
A Gathering of the Tribes gallery space, photo by Molly Garfinkel
Steve Cannon, Founder and Executive Director of A Gathering of the Tribes, photo by Molly Garfinkel
285 East Third Street, home of A Gathering of the Tribes, photo by Molly Garfinkel
Backyard stage at A Gathering of the Tribes, photo by Molly Garfinkel
Iconic East Village gallery and performance space
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Place Matters Profile

Steve Cannon, Founder and Executive Director of A Gathering of the Tribes, has been called many things. Mentor, pioneer, icon and prophet are a few of the more common appellations. He is known as a poet, a novelist and a playwright, and also as a long-time fixture at the Nuyorican Poets Cafe, where he was variously esteemed “the Professor,” and demonized as “the Heckler.” At the very least, Cannon is a local legend, and A Gathering of the Tribes (aka Tribes), his Lower East Side gallery and performance space, is an institution. For twenty-one years, Cannon and the Tribes gallery have been located on the second floor of 285 East Third Street. The modestly- sized apartment is Cannon’s residence, his office, and an incubator for visual and performing artists from every corner of the world. As of 2012, these functions are indistinguishable; the man is the space is the art is the man.

"Tribes," a handle that includes an arts organization, a gallery and a literary magazine, has inspired generations of artists, activists and intellectuals of every stripe. Cannon’s inclusive, open door policy is often referenced in Tribes-related press, and indeed, the organization’s expansive circle includes family, friends and fanatics who come to push the limits of international arts dialogue in new and different directions, often simultaneously. Of course, it hasn’t always been easy; in addition to standard disappointments like debt and betrayal, 285 East Third Street nearly burned down in 1990, and Cannon has been blinded by glaucoma.

But good ideas, grant writing and fundraising went a long way, and genuinely great vibes, art and conversation have taken Tribes the necessary extra mile. Indeed, in 2007 the New York Times wrote, “[A Gathering of the Tribes] survives on a combination of personal energy, karmatic chance and the economic kindness of strangers.” As of 2012, the gallery and magazine are as popular as ever, and Cannon, at age 76, has more verve than people half his age.

Steve Cannon has had a long, complicated and intentional love affair with the Lower East Side, and with the building that houses him and his gallery. Born in segregated New Orleans and raised on Southern writers like Edgar Allen Poe and William Faulkner, Cannon moved to Great Britain in the early 1960s so that he could be part of a more integrated, intellectually-rigorous community. While studying World History and Henry Miller among the London literati, Cannon rubbed elbows with established writers from the BBC, the London Times and “the Oxford fiction set.” But it was their trailing blazing tribesmen - the poets - who really knocked his socks off. So off he went, in 1962, to the Lower East Side, to be part of “anything that had anything to do with the arts.” He was soon reading the most contemporary French theorists, listening to the Beats, and participating in local literary scenes, including Umbra, a collective of African American writers based in the Lower East Side. In 1970, by then a well-connected and well-respected author, he purchased 285 East Third Street with the royalties from his best-selling novel, Groove, Jive and Bang Around. The three-story, Federal style house cost him a considerable $35,000, but he was tired of the nomadic life of the house-sitter. Plus, he says, "I got a good feel about the place." That instinct seems to have served him well.

After landing in the Lower East Side, Cannon taught Humanities at New York City colleges for twenty-five years. He says that the broad rubric of “Humanities” suited him perfectly, as he was able to offer classes in “anything that had anything to do with the arts,” a phrase that has become something of a mantra for Cannon. His academic offerings included literature, expository writing, art history, and courses in art, music and performance theory. Cannon claims that his mantra and his collective college curricula ultimately coalesced into A Gathering of the Tribes.

A college professor by day, at night Cannon was a professional heckler of any reader at the Nuyorican Poets Cafe whom he deemed unworthy. Apparently there were many. To rectify the problem, Cannon and fellow Lower East Side poet Bob Holman established the Stoop Poetry Workshop in 1990. It was conceived on Cannon’s front steps, and soon operated out of his building. Cannon recalls a tremendous collection of poets who participated in the Workshop, including Edwin Torres, Tracie Morris, Dana Bryant, Mia Hansford, Reg E. Gaines, and Keith Roach. By then Cannon had also decided that it was time to start a literary magazine to highlight poets coming out of the Nuyorican Poets Cafe and the Workshop. But in 1990, glaucoma claimed much of his sight, and arson destroyed much of his house. Cannon lost years’ worth of work in the fire, and soon after the disaster a co-owner fled with the insurance money.

But Cannon persisted with support from the surrounding community. He slowly rebuilt with one loan from the Faculty Credit Union, one against his retirement, and elbow grease from five friends with specialized construction skills. In 1991, he incorporated A Gathering of the Tribes, a multicultural arts organization named for the poet Caroline Fourche, who, Cannon says, “went down to El Salvador during the Guerrilla War and wrote a series of poems called 'Gathering of the Tribes.' I wanted a name that would cover the diversity of this neighborhood, that's why I settled on that title.” Later that year he and local poet Gail Shilke published the first issue of A Gathering of the Tribes magazine out of the remains of Cannon's home. Shilke, many years his junior, supplied the emerging talent, while Cannon promoted them by headlining well-known writers like Amiri Baraka, Ed Sanders and Allen Ginsberg. Highly successful and visually stunning, Tribes is an annual publication with a global readership. Its fourteenth issue will be released in 2012.

Shortly after he established the magazine, Cannon’s friends and neighbors convinced him to open an art gallery on the second floor of his building. Cannon initially scoffed at the idea, claiming that the three-room apartment could hardly accommodate photography exhibits, no less three-dimensional installations. After a cautious but successful start, colleague Dora Espinoza convinced him to show sculpture, painting and film, in addition to photography. Cannon also hosted poetry readings that filled to overflowing on the rear balcony. Ultimately, Tribes promoted cultural and media crosspollination such that it was hard to tell what was performance, what was art, and what, if anything, was left over. Tribes became a magnet drawing a cross-section of artists from around the neighborhood and beyond. The gathered talked about poetry and politics, both local and global. Commentators frequently lauded Tribes’ contribution to a broadened cultural discourse, but a 1995 Village Voice article by Sara Ferguson immortalized Cannon and his involvement in the burgeoning spoke word poetry scene, and turned Tribes' space into a local landmark.

However, the building isn’t a protected City landmarked, and more critically, neither is the activity inside. Cannon sold the building six years ago with the understanding that he and the Tribes gallery could remain in place. The landlord has challenged this assumption, and although she and Cannon are locked in a legal battle over Tribes’ tenancy, the gallery’s programming is going strong and Cannon says that he has shows lined up through the end of the year.

As of January 2012, the space is activated by deliberately distributed art and lighting. The three railroaded rooms serve as salon, library, and lounge and reception area. The office, an auxiliary space claimed from the main salon, is relatively tidy for a small art center as generative as Tribes. The back balcony overlooks a neat courtyard that serves as a seasonal stage. Despite the eviction turmoil, Cannon remains optimistic about using the yard again next summer. 285 East Third Street was for sale as of March 2011, but Cannon says that it was recently removed from the market, and legal proceedings have delayed Tribes’ displacement. Volunteers and friends come by on a regular basis to have a sit and a smoke, and to chat. From their relaxed conversation it seems that many, including Cannon, believe that he may have the last word. But, in keeping with internal tradition, the relative merits of that word being printed or spoken are still up for discussion.

-- Place Matters, January 2012