Around 1975, the art curator Alanna Heiss came across a hulking dilapidated schoolhouse in Long Island City during one of her scoping expeditions for exhibit spaces. Built in 1893 when Long Island City was its own municipality, the terra cotta Romanesque school had cost a fortune to build and was replete with ornate details such as gargoyles, towers and turrets.

"It was extraordinarily beautiful," Heiss recalled earlier this year in an interview with Gothamist.

She added: "I knew immediately that it was going to be the best possible place."

Heiss, who came to New York City in the late 1960s, had a reputation for transforming old and funky spaces into dramatic staging grounds for contemporary and experimental art.

Having grown up in a farming community in the Midwest, she approached the city's art scene with an unusually earnest can-do attitude and an utter lack of intimidation. "I just felt, well, this is my new town," she said. "I'm just gonna get to know people and I would just pretend it was a small town."

As it was, the New York City of the 1970s was bleak and financially depressed, pockmarked with shuttered stores and abandoned warehouses. Nonetheless, according to Heiss, it was also an unusually idealistic and fertile period for artists. Government, she said, believed that it had the responsibility to offer citizens of all different origins and income levels the opportunity to pursue the arts.

It was under that aegis that Heiss established the PS1 Contemporary Art Center in 1976. Her team spent the early days without plumbing and heat, running their office out of a booth at a nearby diner. Nevertheless, the opening show, "Rooms," which fully took advantage of the building's 65,000-square-foot space by filling it up with installation art, was a success. Gordon Matta-Clark removed portions of the floors from several levels of the building. Alan Saret carved a hole into a wall so as to focus a beam of light into the building.

“It is the only museum that is comfortable with failing,” José Freire, owner of Soho’s Team Gallery, told New York magazine in 2008. “They can do shows that are not a sure thing, and it seems like they are actually interested in doing that.”

PS1 also proved it could launch the careers of young artists, as it did with its "New York/New Wave" exhibition in 1981 featured the paintings of a then-unknown Jean-Michel Basquiat.

Its 2000 merger with the Museum of Modern Art was viewed as practical and mutually beneficial—MoMA offered financial stability, while PS1 could bring street cred among younger artists.

Now, nearly two decades later, the institution has published MoMA PS1, A History, the first-ever book that charts the rise of its avant-garde sister museum and its groundbreaking shows. The 300-plus page book, which was made available at MoMA stores and online last week, tells the story through Heiss, who is now 76 and ran the museum until 2008.

In addition to interviews with Heiss, it includes previously unpublished archival documents on exhibitions, performances, and events, as well as statements from the artists Vito Acconci, Carl Andre, Rudy Burckhardt, Douglas Davis, Simone Forti, Tina Girouard, Philip Glass, Marcia Hafif, Jene Highstein, Nancy Holt, Patrick Ireland, Les Levine, Sol LeWitt, Richard Nonas, Lucio Pozzi, Charlemagne Palestine and Carol Parker, and Hannah Wilke.

The book comes amid a period of change at PS1. In June, the museum tapped British-born curator Kate Fowle as director, only the third in its history. Though Fowle, an artist herself, has said she wants "stay very much true to PS1’s artist-centric roots.”

As the book makes clear, a certain amount of whimsy also fueled the enterprise.

In an essay, Linda Blumberg, who worked with Heiss to found the museum, recalled that when the two of them, both in their early thirties, went to the city's buildings department to secure the lease for the building and a clerk asked them how long they wanted it for, she answered 20 years without hesitation.

"After we left, Alanna asked me why I had said that, and I replied, 'In twenty years we'll be so old we won't care what happens anymore,'" she wrote.