Franklin Furnace was founded in 1976 to serve artists who chose publishing as a primary,"democratic" artistic medium, and were not being supported by existing artistic organizations. From its inception, Franklin Furnace's energies have been focused on three aspects of "time-based" programming: A collection of artists' books; a performance art program for emerging artists; and exhibitions of time-based arts, both site-specific works by contemporary artists, and historical and contemporary exhibitions of artists' books and other time-based, ephemeral arts.
During the last 20 years, Franklin Furnace has gained a national and international reputation for identifying artists who have changed the terms by which contemporary art is discussed; mounting scholarly exhibitions that have embodied the history of 20th Century avant-garde activity; and standing up for the right of the artists to freedom of expression as guaranteed under the First Amendment.
Among those artists who were given the opportunity to mount their first New York shows at Franklin Furnace are Ida Applebroog, Guillaume Bijl, Dara Birnbaum, Willie Cole, James Coleman, Jenny Holzer, Tehching Hsieh, Barbara Kruger, Matt Mullican, Shirin Neshat, and Krysztof Wodiczko; while among the performers who got their start here are Eric Bogosian, David Cale, Guillermo Gomez-Pena, Karen Finley, Robbie McCauley, Theodora Skipitares, Michael Smith, and Paul Zaloom. Additionally, Franklin Furnace's performance art program has enabled more established artists like Vito Acconci, Laurie Anderson, Jennifer Bartlett, Lee Breuer, Richard Foreman, Joan Jonas, William Pope.L, and William Wegman to experiment in ways that would be inappropriate for mainstream venues that attract larger audiences. Franklin Furnace's exhibition program has included many historically notable exhibitions of time-based art of an ephemeral nature -- exhibitions on Cubist books and prints, for example, on Fluxus, or Russian Samizdat art -- critically celebrated exhibitions that have contributed to art historical scholarship.
In November, 1993, Franklin Furnace and the Museum of Modern Art signed an agreement to merge Franklin Furnace's collection of artists' books published internationally after 1960, the largest repository of this nature in the United States, with that of MOMA, forming a resource of unparalleled value: the Museum of Modern Art/Franklin Furnace/Artist Book Collection.
Franklin Furnace's basement performance space was closed by the New York City Fire Department in 1990 in response to an anonymous caller, and since that time Franklin Furnace has been presenting performance art to new audiences throughout the City by developing strategic partnerships with institutions great and small, from The New School for Social Research to Dixon Place. From 1998-1999, Franklin Furnace presented new temporal art to worldwide audiences through a collaboration with Pseudo Programs, Inc.
In 1996-1997, 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. No longer providing a venue for performance art projects, the organization concentrated on awarding grants to artists via the Franklin Furnace Fund for Performance Art and the Future of the Present programs. In the spring of 2008, Franklin Furnace combined the Franklin Furnace Fund for Performance Art and the Future of the Present programs into one, entitled the Franklin Furnace Fund.
In December, 2014, Franklin Furnace relocated to Pratt Institute’s Brooklyn campus under an organization-in-residence agreement. The decision to "nest" within Pratt Institute coincided with their announcement of a new Master of Fine Arts program in performance and performance studies.