And then, in 1976, after she staged a collaborative performance with the help of more than 300 cleaners, maintenance workers and security guards at a downtown Manhattan building, an art critic’s tongue-in-cheek response — that maybe the financially beleaguered Sanitation Department could call its work art and qualify for a National Endowment for the Arts grant — set off a bell in her head.

She wrote to the department and proposed essentially that very thing. Vito A. Turso, a deputy commissioner at the department, recalled reading the letter and manifesto back then, when he was a young public information officer. “I’d been a newspaper reporter and I’d seen some crazy, single-spaced letters in my time, and I thought: ‘Oh, God, what’s this?’ But then I read it, and she had me at hello. And what she started to do was really magic.” (Patricia C. Phillips, an art historian who organized the retrospective with Larissa Harris, a Queens Museum curator, has called the pairing of artist and agency “an almost unimaginable cultural and municipal affiliation.”)

To earn the respect of the department’s workers and to learn its byzantine system for vanquishing millions of tons of garbage per year, she conducted what became one of the most ambitious performance pieces in the city’s history — “Touch Sanitation Performance” — in which she spent a year visiting each of the department’s districts and shaking the hand of every one of the 8,500 workers who would accept the gesture.

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