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Jeanette Ingberman

by Melissa Rachleff Burtt
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Jeanette Ingberman died at age 59 on August 24, 2011, after suffering from leukemia. She had worked at the International Center of Photography and the Bronx Museum before founding her own nonprofit in 1982, the estimable Exit Art, now in a spacious home on Tenth Avenue at West 37th Street. At the time of her death, she was in the midst of planning a residency complex for artists, writers and scientists located within the El Yunque Rainforest in Puerto Rico.

When I worked for Jeanette from the late 1980s through 1995, her small staff shared the sentiment that she would ultimately move Exit Art to Puerto Rico, with her husband and Exit Art co-founder, Papo Colo. On the one hand, I saw this direction as reasonable. In the 1990s, Jeanette was helping Colo establish his performance group, the Trickster Theater, and she was becoming increasingly critical about the static nature of art exhibitions. Jeanette also loved the beach. Indeed, in the early 1990s we instituted an annual “beach day,” where we’d close up the gallery for a day in July, and Colo would drive us all to Jones Beach. Then, a week or so later, she and Colo left for their August vacation in the Caribbean, returning after Labor Day bronzed and filled with new ideas that had the maddening impact of completely upending the plans we had made before they left. So there was logic in thinking that the future of Exit Art would involve the Caribbean.

However, I also harbored doubts. Jeanette was born in New York, and she grew up in an observant Jewish family within a Jewish enclave in Flatbush, Brooklyn. Her parents miraculously survived the Holocaust. She was fluent in Yiddish. It was hard for me to imagine her away from New York in any permanent way.

So I should not have been at all surprised when she told me about the El Yunque Rainforest project earlier this summer. She was very ill, recovering at home from an arduous procedure. With considerable effort, she stood and walked to her computer, which sat on the kitchen counter. There, she treated me to her photographs of the Rainforest: the land, the Rio Espiritu Santo (spirit river), the ocean, and the impressive tree-house structures Papo Colo had designed, something like indoor/outdoor tiered apartments, situated high up and offering views of the sea in the distance. The idea, Jeanette told me, was to invite artists, writers, scientists -- thinkers, in other words -- to spend time there and to share ideas, to recognize how creative thinking was ultimately related in some way, transcending disciplines.

I was so astonished by what she had accomplished that I did not engage the artistic vision. “Jeanette!” I nearly yelled, “This must have cost a fortune!” It did, I learned. She took her own resources, retirement money as I saw it, and used it to build this dream. Shocked, I invoked the authority of our beloved accountant -- for a time at Exit Art, most of the staff worked with the same wonderful woman -- and asked Jeanette whether she knew about the idea. Jeanette confirmed that she did, and that she had been initially upset, as I was. “But then,” Jeanette went on, “our accountant had thought about something deeper than the money. She told me, ‘this is what is keeping you alive’.”

And I realized in an instant that the vision of a creative community, grown-ups living like kids in the fantastical, playful structures Colo had designed, was where her mind, heart and dreams were fixed. She would make this happen, just as she made Exit Art endure.

This was the soul of Jeanette -- always moving forward with an idea that might have appeared, to others, inexplicable and impossible. But she found the resources and found the people who would share her vision. Working collaboratively, everyone would dedicate themselves to Jeanette’s way of thinking, and this is what made being with her magical. She made us recognize the creativity in ourselves, and helped us understand that living for our dream was life’s most important undertaking.

Thus, it made poetic sense to learn that Jeanette moved to Puerto Rico after all. She is buried by her beloved El Yunque Rainforest project, near the water she claimed to posses curative powers and Colo’s sculptural buildings she so adored for their whimsy and for their seriousness of purpose.

MELISSA RACHLEFF BURTT is a clinical associate professor in the visual art administration program at NYU. She was assistant curator at Exit Art during 1989-1995.