Other People’s Projects: Arne Svenson ‘Mrs Ballard’s Parrots’

October 28–December 3, 2005 320 West 13th Street

Other People’s Projects is an occasional programming strand at White Columns in which our project space is offered to idiosyncratic organizations, collectives, publishers, individuals, etc. to introduce their activities to a wider audience.

The third project in this series is “Mrs. Ballard’s Parrots” – an extraordinary archive of photographs, printed ephemera and film presented by the artist Arne Svenson. In 1992 Arne Svenson was given several dozen snapshots by a friend, Elizabeth Taylor’s daughter Liza Todd Tivey. Originally sent to Taylor in the 1970s, the photographs depict the pet parrots of a Long Island housewife – Alba Ballard – dressed in hand made costumes and acting out scenes from popular movies and television shows of the day (such as Bonnie and Clyde, Liberace, Easy Rider, Batman, and the Sonny and Cher Show). Without any formal training as an artist, Mrs. Ballard – aided by her husband Marvin and her son Claudio – created uncanny photographic tableaux and 16mm films that embodied her fantasies, her humor, and her undoubted love for her parrots. As news of her costumed-parrots spread, minor celebrity ensued: Alba and her parrots eventually made appearances on the David Letterman Show, Saturday Night Live and in a small role in Woody Allen’s film Broadway Danny Rose. Alba Ballard died in 1994. Extensive research by Svenson revealed not only the extraordinary story behind Mrs. Ballard’s photographs but he also turned up additional photographs, scrapbooks, news cuttings, and a vintage home movie of the parrots performing for the camera — selections of this material will be on display at White Columns. In a recent article in The New York Times Svenson argued that Mrs. Ballard had “created more than just a neo-vaudeville novelty act … she was an accidental Cindy Sherman, playing dress up and staging reality as an art form, even though it was her birds she was dressing up, not herself.” In a quote that appears on the dust jacket of Svenson’s book Mrs. Ballard’s Parrots (Harry N. Abrams, 2005) Cindy Sherman herself states: “When I’m really old and can’t use myself anymore, this is what I’ll be doing.”

White Columns would like to thank Scott Olson, Rudy Shepherd, and The Drawing Center for their assistance in realizing this project.

Arne Svenson is a New York-based photographer whose work has been shown extensively in the United States and Europe. He is the author of Prisoners (Blast Books, 1997); Sock Monkeys (200 out of 1,863) (Ideal World Books, 2003); and Mrs. Ballard’s Parrots (Harry N. Abrams, 2005). His work was previously shown at White Columns in 2005 as a part of the exhibition “Trade.”