By Jordan Heller
MANHATTAN — Two exhibitions remembering the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire of 1911 kick off Tuesday night, ahead of the 100-year anniversary of what was, until 9/11, New York City's largest workplace disaster.
On March 25, 1911, a fire broke out on the eighth floor of the Asch Building (now NYU's Brown Building) at the corner of Washington Place and Greene Street in Greenwich Village. It quickly spread to the ninth and tenth floors and resulted in the death of more than 140 immigrant sweatshop workers — mostly teenage women.
The event sparked the American Labor Movement, lead to countless workplace protections and, many argue, ultimately lead to President Franklin Roosevelt's New Deal.
At the time, though, city officials chose not to adequately memorialize the disaster, for fear that it would spark political and social unrest. With the centennial of the disaster approaching, a collection of artists, historians and community activists are looking to rectify the lack of a tribute.
The first of two exhibitions that opens Tuesday night is "Harriet Bart: Drawn In Smoke" at Babcock Galleries (724 Fifth Ave.), which includes an installation that pays tribute to the women who died in the Triangle Fire. Each and every name of someone who perished in the disaster is written with an old fountain pen from the era under an abstract image made from smoke and fire.
The artist, Harriet Bart, 69, said her work is about paying homage to the anonymous working women who played a key role in the American social justice movement.
"It mattered to me that each of the people in the fire be remembered," said Bart. "It's an acknowledgment of their mostly brief lives that ended in this tragic accident that galvanized the American labor movement."
The second exhibition, also opening Tuesday night, takes more of a documentary approach to the Triangle Fire.
Located at the Grey Art Gallery (100 Washington Square East) just around the corner from the site of the disaster, "Art, Memory, Place: Commemorating the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire" is co-curated by grad students from NYU's Museum Studies and Public History programs.
Through archival images, historical text, interviews with survivors and art work, the exhibition begins with the ladies garment workers' strike of 1909, chronicles the fire itself and its immediate aftermath, and then shows how public outcry following the disaster lead to legislative action and, ultimately, FDR's New Deal and the rise of the International Ladies' Garment Workers' Union.
In addition to the two exhibitions opening Tuesday night, the Remember the Triangle Fire Coalition has commissioned an artist to create a memorial that will be placed at a location yet to be determined in Greenwich Village.
NYU Professor Lucy Oakley, who, with her fellow professor, Marci Reavan, collaborated with the students on "Art, Memory, Place," said she'd like visitors to the exhibition to learn more about the fire, to understand its impact on later generations, and to realize that the activism inspired by the disaster is still needed today.
"These aren't dead letter issues, there are still workers in New York City and all over the world that need protections," said Oakley. "There are sweatshops right here in NYC that don't have the protections that we all take for granted."