Essays

As Bushwick Open Studios Shifts Gears, Who Gets Left Behind?

The performance series 'Testourmonials of a GentrifiNation' at the new Starr Bar (photo by Erika Sequeira)
The performance series ‘Testourmonials of a GentrifiNation’ at the new Starr Bar (photo by Erika Sequeira)

Arts in Bushwick kicked off a more studio-centric program last weekend with a 300-artist exhibition and the release of Making History Bushwick, a nearly 500-page book telling the organization’s story and showcasing work by hundreds of local artists.

Earlier this year, Arts in Bushwick (AiB) surprised many when it decided to ditch the first weekend of June and move what has been considered New York’s largest open-studios event, Bushwick Open Studios (BOS), to October. Unaffiliated events and parties had been biting AiB’s ankles for years and the dilution of AiB’s programming reached critical mass in 2015. In years past, artists in large buildings like 1717 Troutman Street, 56 Bogart Avenue, and Brooklyn Fire Proof had reported strong sales and heavy traffic all weekend, as crowds who knew they couldn’t even begin to see it all hit just one or two buildings — while many artists in other locations stared at the ceiling waiting for anyone to show up.

The construction site at 100 Bogart Street has its own <a href="https://www.instagram.com/100bogart/">Instagram account</a>.
The construction site at 100 Bogart Street has its own Instagram account. (all photos by the author for Hyperallergic unless indicated otherwise)

Artists I had spoken to were cautiously optimistic for the most part, but also ambivalent about whether the scaled-down strategy would work as well as organizers hoped. Over the weekend, the overcast skies helped create a quieter mood on the streets; turning down the hype and noise was supposed to foster more sales and more conversations. What worked and what didn’t in AiB’s sponsor-free experiment? And did the new approach do anything to foster a more inclusive atmosphere in the rapidly gentrifying neighborhood?

Does Size Matter?

AiB reported that 400 spaces had registered this year, a substantial drop from the more than 600 registered in 2015. What accounts for the decline? There were competing priorities this weekend, including Rosh Hashanah. Some artists didn’t register but opened their doors. For others, prepping a studio for an intentionally smaller event didn’t seem worth the effort. But my hunch is that many of those 200 “missing” studios and artist-run spaces just no longer exist.

A sign inside 117 Grattan Street
A sign inside 117 Grattan Street

Companies and freelancers moving into the film, media, and tech district that’s taking shape from Greenpoint to Bushwick often rent studio-size spaces, too, for offices. These businesses will pay a premium for proximity to artists, but they also disrupt the real estate market and threaten so-called “artist buildings” — as appears to be happening in Gowanus, too. At 117 Grattan Street, for instance, a tenant told me that management removed slop sinks from the hallways and replaced one of the freight elevators with a less artist-friendly passenger elevator. And at 195 Morgan Avenue, artists used to occupy several units that have quietly become offices after leases expired. As this trend continues, artists’ spaces in “artist buildings” will be lost.

Give Us Back Our Map!

The number one complaint about the logistics of BOS 2016 was the lack of a printed map. AiB set a zero-waste goal and put all its eggs in the website basket, but people want their map back. Attendees often create a plan of attack days before BOS and liked using the printed directory to browse events by proximity. The AiB website was down intermittently all weekend and, when it functioned, it loaded slowly. On Sunday afternoon, I passed a very well dressed man — a collector type — walking alone on the Johnson Avenue superblock between Morgan and Porter avenues. He asked me for directions but couldn’t remember the name of the space he was looking for. All he could remember was, “Stewart, something.” I pointed him toward the Active Space; he may still be there.

One Party, Many Hats

A stack of 'Making History Bushwick' books on sale at David & Schweitzer Contemporary
A stack of ‘Making History Bushwick’ books on sale at David & Schweitzer Contemporary

Making the Future is the AiB group show formerly known as “Seeking Space” (the name used to be literal, a show open to artists who didn’t have studios but were part of the community in some way). The show received about 300 submissions, mostly from local artists, and opened Friday at David & Schweitzer Contemporary, a gallery at 56 Bogart Street that was also making its debut. The opening party served as the official BOS kickoff event and the book release party for Making History Bushwick — which is unrelated to Making the Future, except that both are AiB projects. (Editor’s note: Making History Bushwick also includes two essays by the author.) A number of artists had work in both the open call and the book, but not the same works. The book is a huge accomplishment and certainly could have been celebrated with an event of its own. A panel discussion connected to the book’s section on gentrification, “Gentrificonversation Acknowledging Complicity,” is scheduled for October 9 at David & Schweitzer Contemporary — but it’s a shame this event didn’t take place during BOS.

What Online Auction?

In previous years, if you wanted to show your work during BOS, you had to attend an AiB mixer — shake someone’s hand, mingle, track down a volunteer. Only then could you register. Registration is now web-based and self-serve. Also for the first time this year, AiB worked with a gallery on an online auction, offering about a third of the Making the Future works for pre-sale. I heard that some AiB volunteers weren’t fond of the auction; the group didn’t mention it anywhere on its website. Selling is great, but AiB events always prioritized connecting people to each other in person. I would hope AiB brings back its endearing style of light-touch forced socializing next year and foregoes any online pre-sales.

What’s “Bushwick Art”?

Artists who share a neighborhood are not required to share a vision or style or anything in common at all. But for years an extended community of friends working in old factories in industrial business zones were physically separate from residential areas of Bushwick, so the work that evolved was a conversation relevant within itself and might only consider the neighborhood peripherally, if at all. Today, however, artists are just one cultural interest group among musicians, filmmakers, soundstages, and startups in one of the world’s hype capitals — while the area remains one of the city’s poorest. There are extremes of art-washing amid scarcity on every block; an unfinished building is hyping art openings on Instagram, while elsewhere in the neighborhood a church offers free bread on the street. Visiting so many studios during BOS, it felt strange to view artwork that does not seem to acknowledge the tensions and negotiations for space, agency, and dominance playing out across the neighborhood.

Anthony Rosado installation for the series 'Testourmonials of a GentrifiNation' at the new Starr Bar (photo by Erika Sequeira)
Anthony Rosado installation for the series ‘Testourmonials of a GentrifiNation’ at the new Starr Bar (photo by Erika Sequeira)

On Saturday afternoon, I caught the end of Johari Mayfield’s performance in Testourmonials of a GentrifiNation at the new Starr Bar. When I arrived, Anthony Rosado, who curated the series, was narrating text sourced from a New York Times series by Andrea Elliott about the displacement of a young homeless girl. Mayfield performed movements that translated the vocabulary of gentrification into physical space.

The piece offered access to knowledge that many who have experienced displacement already know: how the insecurity that accompanies gentrification imposes stresses that are carried by the body. If there was a common thread to the work that held my attention this weekend, it’s that none of it ignored this stress of physical vulnerability that is a component to many current conversations, and not just those about gentrification. At 405 Johnson Avenue, Sol Erez and I talked about the large, Rorschach-esque drawings he’s making with mace and recycled ink. At 592 Johnson, the figure in Loren Erdrich’s painting “Middle Aged and Naked” bared legs marked by bruises — I wanted to take it home. Even the deadpan title of Ralf Graebner’s photography project at Fuchs Projects in 56 Bogart, Change, acknowledges the process underway, though with a rascal’s wink.

Installation view of 'Change' at Fuchs Projects
Installation view of Ralf Graebner’s ‘Change’ at Fuchs Projects (photo courtesy Fuchs Projects)

One artist whose work I happened upon framed precisely the disconnect between privilege and poverty in 2016 Bushwick — albeit unintentionally. Walking down Jefferson Street, I saw a person asleep under blankets in front of a $46-million construction site. A couple blocks later, I came upon a faux-homeless woman surrounded by a flock of pigeon sculptures and a prop suitcase. I didn’t stop for a closer look or to find out more about the artist’s intentions; turning poverty into a tableau in Bushwick is so unnecessary that it struck me as either mocking or clueless.

But We’re Not Equal

Deborah Brown, an artist and the owner of Storefront Ten Eyck, reminded me that BOS, in its earliest incarnations, was produced by community activists and artists who saw utopian possibilities for artists to reject the art cliques of Manhattan’s elites and create a less hierarchical alternative. From these ideals, an event grew horizontally that was open to all. That horizontality was a result of the organizers themselves feeling left behind, and perhaps that’s why any whiff of corporate money feels so out of place at BOS. Fulfilling the ideal of inclusivity and staying true to the mission to offer an escape from elitism now requires opening the door to a new group of elites who aggressively translate social capital into real dollars and then keep the profits. The harder AiB volunteers work to be inclusive today in fast-gentrifying Bushwick, the more that inclusivity grows to include those who were never left behind in the first place — like the startups whose presence within BOS gives them dirt-cheap street cred or the curators who run pay-to-play popups that piggyback on BOS’s reputation.

Related programming for Bushwick Open Studios
Related programming for Bushwick Open Studios

There is a difference between an art scene — a hype beast like Bushwick that hedge funds, venture capitalists, and real estate developers are spending lavishly to incubate — and a community of neighbors who like to nerd out and talk about art and life. Can a single organization support the interests of both at the same time? Artists have the potential to accomplish quite a lot by creating alliances and strengthening networks of support around the issues of space and affordability (see, for instance, the Artist Studio Affordability Project). Many artists also sign exorbitantly expensive leases to be in the neighborhood specifically because they know BOS will provide a sales boost and subsidize their rent.

AiB took bold steps this year to gather its neighborhood through shared interests in art and community, but with 200 fewer studios and galleries opening their doors, it’s hard to tell if it paid off. It will be up to hundreds of artists to reach back and tell AiB what they need so that BOS can continue to serve them — especially as Bushwick faces its L-train-less future.

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