A.R.T was founded by William Bartman (1946-2005) in Los Angeles in 1987 as a publishing venture dedicated to documenting and disseminating artists' work. The organization has maintained a core commitment to egalitarian access to the arts and support for social spaces of reading since its inception.
Under the imprint A.R.T. Press, Bartman published monographs on a number of contemporary artists, including Mike Kelley, Vija Celmins, Allan McCollum, Merrill Wagner, David Reed and Chuck Close. Publications emphasize oral histories and the artist’s voice: artists played a central role in their books' production and most publications foreground the intimacy of the conversation format.
Intending to expand distribution of A.R.T. Press publications to public libraries in Los Angeles, the organization offered its books for free to local libraries. It found out that libraries could not accept the offer of free books because they could not afford the shipping costs. In 1990, a grant from the George Gund Foundation enabled A.R.T. to establish the Distribution to Underserved Communities Library Program (D.U.C.) as a pilot program to distribute free books to nine libraries. Now known as the A.R.T. Library Program, this innovative initiative was designed to combat steadily diminishing public cultural funding in rural and inner-city communities. Currently the Library Program makes high quality resources on the arts donated by a diverse range of arts publishers (including 30% of all A.R.T. Press publications) available to public schools, libraries, prisons, and alternative education centers nationwide. The Library Program covers all shipping costs, creating new distribution networks for artists and publishers and granting resources to public institutions that could not otherwise afford to acquire them. More than 25 years and thousands of libraries later, the Library Program continues to enable libraries to build comprehensive collections of contemporary art materials in areas where access to museums and other cultural institutions is limited.
In 1996, A.R.T. transferred to New York and operated as a bookstore and exhibition space in Chelsea. Until 2004, A.R.T. presented solo and group exhibitions granting exposure to a wide range of artists, with notable commitment to featuring the work of mid-career women artists. Following its mission to support artists and equitable public access to their work, the gallery did not take commission and granted all sales proceeds directly to the artists. Located at 11th Avenue and 24th Street, A.R.T. was presided over by the ebullient Bill Bartman (often dispensing chocolate and cookies) and provided an informal and convivial meeting place. Above all, it offered a stimulating program of multi-generational (re)discoveries, adding welcome variation to the Chelsea scene.