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The Conceptual Artist Who Saved a Struggling Town

When Raivo Puusemp arrived in Rosendale, New York, in the mid-1970s, he turned politics into art.

Raivo Puusemp, the conceptual artist who was also the mayor of Rosendale, New York from 1975 to 1976. (Courtesy of the Swiss Institute)

In 1973, the village of Rosendale, New York, was in the throes of a civic identity crisis.

Situated in (but separate from) the larger Rosendale township, the tiny community was practically broke. The long decline of its cement mining industry had pushed most families away. Overtaxed businesses fled. Hippie newcomers from New York City clashed with more conservative old-timers, while village and town leaders sparred over noise complaints and snow-plowing rights. Water and sewer bills skyrocketed. Rosendale’s center could not hold.

Raivo Puusemp saw an opportunity to intervene. A conceptual artist working at nearby SUNY Ulster, Puusemp was far from a politician. But what might happen, he thought, if he ran for mayor? Perhaps he could use his avant-garde artistic practice—which relied on a process of suggestive communication—to guide Rosendale to financial and bureaucratic viability. Though he would never characterize his political actions as art to Rosendale’s citizens, he would treat them as such, assuming the village as his materials, the municipal boundaries as a canvas, and a mayoral term as the deadline for his commission.

“He was interested in ways of placing his work in the world without ever really making it,” says Laura McLean-Ferris, an adjunct curator at the Swiss Institute, a contemporary art space in New York City, where an exhibit on view through October 23 features Puusemp’s work.

It sounds nuts, but Puusemp was fascinated by the social dynamics of suggestion. In an earlier work, he’d told a fellow artist about how he wished he had time to cordon off a section of sidewalk to see how people would move around it—but said he hadn’t found time to do it. The friend proceeded to rope off the path himself, and pedestrians reacted in all kinds of ways. Puusemp had pulled off a domino-ing act of persuasion.

Puusemp’s mayoral victory is documented in a headline from Beyond Art - Dissolution of Rosendale, N.Y. (Courtesy of the Swiss Institute)
Rosendale villagers came around to the idea of consolidating with the township. Headline from Beyond Art - Dissolution of Rosendale, N.Y. (Courtesy of the Swiss Institute)

Puusemp confided his plan for Rosendale to a few artist friends. Some were alarmed by the prospect of manipulating unwitting citizens. Puusemp insisted that he had no intention but to do good. In 1974, he campaigned for office, promising to reorganize the village police force and restore its sewer and water systems. His optimistic platform lent him credibility among voters, and he swept the election. “It was the first opportunity people had in a long time to see change as possible,” Puusemp, who now lives in Utah, tells CityLab. “Things had just seemed intractable.”

Once in office, he says it became clear that the only path forward was to dissolve the village of Rosendale into the township. That way, the communities could pool resources to fund essential services; village residents wouldn’t have to pay double.

Residents had strong emotional attachments to their village identity. So Puusemp did everything he could to convince them that, as he puts it now, “cities are voluntary organizations that don’t have to exist”—or at least, that they don’t necessarily make their citizens any better off. He commissioned economic reports, held public meetings, and formally argued before citizens and politicians that disincorporation would benefit township and village alike.

The suggestive power of transparency worked, and incredibly quickly. Less than six months after his election, a public referendum on dissolution was passed in a landslide—the village would be abolished, and municipal services would be shared. “It was not a question of deluding or lying or falsifying anything,” he says. “It was simple mathematics.”

His artwork was complete. A few months later, Puusemp resigned as mayor, vowing never to run for office again. That abdication is evidence of the difference between his work as an artist and that of any regular politician, he says. “I think it’s about the intent,” he says. “People looking for power or influence would have just capitalized on that success and gone on to do bigger things. But for me, this was an opportunity to do a self-contained political piece.”

Puusemp’s work guided citizens through an existential question. From Beyond Art - Dissolution of Rosendale, N.Y. (Courtesy of the Swiss Institute)

At the urging of his close friend, the artist Paul McCarthy, Puusemp gathered newspaper clippings, letters, and public notices that chronicled the Rosendale project, publishing them as a single volume titled Beyond Art - Dissolution of Rosendale, N.Y. Now, in an exhibit titled “Against the Romance of Community,” the Swiss Institute explores those documents alongside other artworks focused on how communities behave, interact, and identity themselves.

Puusemp’s Rosendale project, and another work from the 1970s—a conceptual video by Lawrence and Anna Halprin documenting a community leadership training in San Francisco—bookend more contemporary works that draw on urban planning, architecture, and mass media to explore notions of group identity. It’s important think about these concepts, says McLean-Ferris, in a historic moment saturated by nationalistic fervor.

Rosendale’s Fourth of July march following Puusemp’s election in 1975. (Courtesy of the Swiss Institute)

In Rosendale, people were able to break from their nostalgic ideas of how the town had been previously, in order to evolve it. It just so happened that an artist helped them do it.

Decades later, Puusemp says he doubts many citizens ever realized that his time as a popular mayor was actually a work of art. He suspects he’s not too well remembered in present-day Rosendale, which is enjoying a second renaissance as a destination for priced-out Brooklyn creatives. But he’s glad to see a surge of interest in his Rosendale project, which was recently featured at the Utah Museum of Contemporary Art and Dublin’s Projects Art Centre. Being a mayor for art’s sake “was a weird thing to be doing,” he says. “But it worked out best for everyone.”

Against the Romance of Community” is on view at the Swiss Institute through October 23.

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