Franklin Furnace was founded in 1976 by artist Martha Wilson to champion ephemeral forms neglected by mainstream arts institutions. The organization has developed a place in art history for artists' books, temporary installation art, and performance art, and researched the history of the contemporary artists' book through such exhibitions as Cubist Prints/Cubist Books, The Avant-Garde Book: 1900-1945, Fluxus: A Conceptual Country, as well as thematic shows such as Artists' Books: Japan, Multiples by Latin American Artists, Contemporary Russian Samizdat, and Eastern European Artists' Books.
Franklin Furnace set upon a course of substantial change in 1993 when its collection of artists' books published internationally after 1960, the largest in the United States, was acquired by the Museum of Modern Art in New York. On September 8, 1997, Franklin Furnace sold its loft and established a Cash Reserve, matching in part a challenge grant from the National Endowment for the Arts.
During its 20th anniversary season, Franklin Furnace reinvented itself as a "virtual institution," not identified with its real estate but rather with its resources, made accessible by electronic and other means. In the wake of the "Culture Wars" of the 1980s and 1990s, the organization made this decision in order to provide the artists it was presenting with the same freedom of expression possible in the loft during the 1970s. Franklin Furnace's mission statement follows:
Franklin Furnace's mission is to present, preserve, interpret, proselytize and advocate on behalf of avant-garde art, especially forms that may be vulnerable due to institutional neglect, their ephemeral nature, or politically unpopular content. Franklin Furnace is dedicated to serving artists by providing both physical and virtual venues for the presentation of time-based visual art, including but not limited to artists' books and periodicals, installation art, performance art, and unforeseen contemporary avant-garde artforms; and to undertake other activities related to these purposes. Franklin Furnace is committed to serving emerging artists; to assuming an aggressive pedagogical stance with regard to the value of avant-garde art to life; and to fostering artists' zeal to broadcast ideas.
Like all not-for-profit cultural institutions, we are fundamentally chartered for the purpose of education. Since 1985, Franklin Furnace has hired practicing artists to work in the New York City school system under the aegis of its Sequential Art for Kids program to develop new ways for avant-garde art to serve as the basis of curriculum development.
Franklin Furnace has had an indelible impact upon art by launching the careers of artists whose work has influenced art and cultural discourse. Franklin Furnace often premieres artists in New York who later emerge as art world stars: Ida Applebroog, Tanya Barfield, Eric Bogosian, David Cale, Patty Chang, Willie Cole, Sue de Beer, Nicole Eisenman, Karen Finley, Coco Fusco, Kate Gilmore, Guillermo Gomez-Peña, Ann Hamilton, Mona Hatoum, Murray Hill, Jenny Holzer, Tehching Hsieh, Barbara Kruger, Sherrie Levine, Liza Lou, Taylor Mac, Robbie McCauley, Shirin Neshat, Rashaad Newsome, Lorraine O'Grady, Clifford Owens, William Pope.L, Liz Magic Laser, Emily Roysdon, Dread Scott, James Siena, Theodora Skipitares, Michael Smith, Annie Sprinkle, Krzysztof Wodiczko, and Paul Zaloom, among hundreds of others. Franklin Furnace's website reaches an international audience of every stripe, including artists, arts professionals, scholars and the general public; its social networking presence on Facebook, Twitter, Vimeo, Instagram and its blog reaches out to young audiences.
During its 30th anniversary season, Franklin Furnace received support from the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH) to digitize the event archives of its first decade, and signed a collaboration agreement with ARTstor to digitize and publish on the web documentation of events it presented and produced. In 2010, Franklin Furnace received its second major grant from the NEH to digitize the event archives of its second decade, 1986 to 1996; and to publish these records on Franklin Furnace's website with the goal of embedding the value of ephemeral art practice in art and cultural history. In 2013, Franklin Furnace signed a second collaboration agreement with ARTstor to enable online publication of videos of performance art works—now viewed as critical pedagogical materials.
On September 30, 2014, Franklin Furnace signed an organization-in-residence, "nesting" agreement with Pratt Institute, the purpose of which is to facilitate mutual pedagogical and physical access to these Brooklyn-based organizations' resources; and to foster the development of ambitious collaborative projects.