Interviews

How Arts in Bushwick Has Stayed on Mission in a Rapidly Changing Neighborhood

The hallway at 1717 Troutman Street, a major studio building in Ridgewood, during Bushwick Open Studios 2010 (photo by the author for Hyperallergic)
The hallway at 1717 Troutman Street, a major studio building in Ridgewood, during Bushwick Open Studios 2010 (photo by the author for Hyperallergic)

The tenth edition of Bushwick Open Studios (BOS) is just a month away, and it’s hard to believe how much has changed in the Brooklyn neighborhood since 2006. The organization behind the massive art festival, Arts in Bushwick (AiB), is currently holding a benefit exhibition appropriately titled Making History at Storefront Ten Eyck, one of the dozens of galleries that have cropped up in the area over the last few years. Indeed, the enormous expansion of BOS — from 85 open studios featured in the inaugural edition to more than 600 spaces in 2014 — is a measure of the neighborhood’s transformation.

The benefit show not only supports BOS, but the numerous other events and activities that AiB organizes. I asked the group’s co-lead organizers Samantha Katz, Lucia Rollow, and Lauren Smith how they have adapted their programming to cater to the needs of a rapidly changing neighborhood, how they have worked with galleries and community organizations to accommodate BOS’s rapid expansion while maintaining its focus on artists, and how they have handled the encroachment of commercial and real estate interests into what was once seen as a quasi-utopian artistic community.

Installation view of 'Making History' at Storefront Ten Eyck (photo courtesy Arts in Bushwick)
Installation view of ‘Making History’ at Storefront Ten Eyck (photo courtesy Arts in Bushwick)

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Benjamin Sutton: Arts in Bushwick’s marquee event is Bushwick Open Studios, but the organization has been doing much, much more since its inception, from community projects and pop-up exhibitions to the BETA Spaces festival (RIP). How has your understanding of what the organization needs to be doing in the community changed over the years?

Arts in Bushwick: What we think is unique about Arts in Bushwick has been its adaptability over the last nine years. As a grassroots organization, we have had to grow up as the neighborhood has experienced great change. We serve as a creative platform in the neighborhood (an intentionally broad concept), so that we can facilitate a variety of creative projects, events, workshops, etc. in ways that best serve all members of the community. Although Bushwick Open Studios (BOS) is our most visible event, our Community Projects team is particularly strong, focusing primarily on year-round youth-outreach and arts education.

Arts in Bushwick Fellows High School Program exhibition opening at Express Yourself Barista Bar (photo by Willow Goldstein, courtesy Arts in Bushwick)
Arts in Bushwick Fellows High School Program exhibition opening at Express Yourself Barista Bar (photo by Willow Goldstein, courtesy Arts in Bushwick)

For instance, we have a dedicated team of English- and Spanish-speaking artist mentors that volunteer for our High School Fellows Program, established in 2013. The Fellows program offers students an opportunity to develop art-based skills (how to write an artist statement, how to install a show, portfolio review, social action through art, community leadership, learning new media not traditionally offered in schools, etc.) while engaging with peers in a safe space.

Our larger community events such as Community Day, which takes place during BOS, are really a forum for community organizations to promote their programming and support meaningful neighborhood dialogues against a backdrop of interactive art making.

At its core AiB needs to be creating free, accessible, and sustainable opportunities through the arts for all Bushwick residents and interested visitors — something we have accomplished over the last nine years in many ways, and that we continue to strive toward as we develop new programming.

Looking east down Wyckoff Avenue
Looking east down Wyckoff Avenue (photo by Hrag Vartanian for Hyperallergic)

BS: Bushwick has changed so much and in so many ways since 2006; what have been some of the positive and negative effects of those changes — this could be anything from a growing pool of volunteers to increasingly unaffordable office space — on Arts in Bushwick?

AiB: Many people don’t realize that AiB is a volunteer-run organization. BOS, our community programming, and all of our year-round efforts have been a labor of love for those involved. And, because of this structure, which has been in place from our very beginning, anyone can be involved with AiB at the level at which they are able/willing to contribute personal time, talents, and energy. Probably the most identifiable result of this type of structure is that as our roster of volunteer organizers changes over the years, each BOS has its own unique vibe and flavor. Of course there are some of us that have been around for a while, but we preserve this volunteer structure because it has the potential to best serve the shifting needs of the entire community.

To more concretely answer your question: Yes, we have more volunteers now and BOS is more visible in the world at large, and that is a positive thing. Because of its success, we have been able to draw more attention to our year-round community work, which makes an impact for Bushwick youth and families. We have also been able to dedicate more resources to improving our technologies (website, mobile apps, etc.), which has made BOS more accessible to all.

Paper sheep in the studio of artist Kyu Seok Oh at 56 Bogart Street during Bushwick Open Studios 2011 (photo by the author for Hyperallergic)
Paper sheep in the studio of artist Kyu Seok Oh at 56 Bogart Street during Bushwick Open Studios 2011 (photo by the author for Hyperallergic)

We have never been able to afford office space, but we find creative solutions and have comfy couches. As we have grown organizationally, and our programs have become more sophisticated, we are certainly looking towards our long-term future in Bushwick and what impact we want to have. We are moving toward obtaining our independent non-profit status as a 501(c)(3) in order to be eligible for more dedicated funding for our community programs and (hopefully) a dedicated physical space, where we can operate and serve as a resource for local residents.

The most important thing we keep in mind, especially in light of the immense change since 2006, is that we need to be intentional in our actions. BOS can feel like it has a life of its own, sweeping in every June with such high energy. We’re aware of this. But what most don’t know is that if we hadn’t been as mindful as we have over the years, the festival would have a very different flavor.

BS: There are very palpable commercial and competitive elements in the Bushwick art scene today that were virtually non-existent when Arts in Bushwick started out; how has the organization had to adapt to the influx of for-profit galleries and other commercial interests (real estate, retail, etc.)?

AiB: Arts in Bushwick has remained conscious of the evolution of Bushwick’s gallery scene by sending representatives to attend the quarterly meetings of the Bushwick/Ridgewood Gallery Association. This has allowed us the opportunity to voice our concerns when necessary, and to engage in a broader dialogue on the neighborhood’s development. Attending has also been a great way for us to build bridges and strengthen our relationships in the arts community. Conversely, we avoid engaging with real estate groups, especially when it comes to accepting donations or sponsorship backing.

BS: BOS has become one of the biggest annual art events in New York City; what have been some of the challenges of dealing with its incredible growth?

AiB: When considering the incredible growth we’ve seen over the last several years, one of our biggest challenges has been the ability to effectively communicate our message and goal as an organization. BOS is different from other art fairs in that it is all-inclusive; anybody can participate. Even within the satellite events we produce during the festival, there is no curation.

As a small arts organization, our priority is to stay true to our mission and provide opportunities for programming, education, and community building through the arts. We continue to develop our programming, to the best of our abilities, in conjunction with the needs of our constituents, and work hard to incorporate the entire Bushwick community into our programming — not just the recent transplants or incoming visitors.

Bushwick Open Studios 2014 Community Day in Maria Hernandez Park (photo by Peter Hamernick, courtesy Arts in Bushwick)
Bushwick Open Studios 2014 Community Day in Maria Hernandez Park (photo by Peter Hamernick, courtesy Arts in Bushwick)

BS: One effect of its expansion has been that BOS has become very vast and, for some, intimidating to navigate; what are some of the ways Arts in Bushwick is trying to make the event seem more manageable?

AiB: As BOS becomes more well-known, there are going to be more and more people eager to participate in a greater variety of ways. As a volunteer-run organization, we only have a certain capacity of control.

We have also limited registration opportunities to artists with studios in the neighborhood and Bushwick residents. Plus, in order to be listed in the printed program, we implemented guidelines stating that local galleries and group shows are required to exhibit at least 50% artists who live or work in Bushwick.

Following the 2012 New York Times article, “The Latest Vibe Moved to Brooklyn,” which focused more on the galleries than the studios, the Gallery Association came together and decided to limit their presence and publicity during BOS in order to shift the focus back to the artists. This has been debatably successful. Now, in 2015, we are redrawing the zones within our map of Bushwick with an eye toward making each zone more equally representative of the neighborhood. We would also love to partner with a shuttle bus, transporting guests from the hubs off the Morgan and Jefferson L-train stations to the outskirts of the neighborhood.

A look inside the Newd Art Show
A look inside the Newd Art Show (photo by Hrag Vartanian for Hyperallergic)

BS: I know the launch of the NEWD Art Show fair last year during BOS caused some tension in the community and was perceived as an incursion of commercialism amid an event that’s supposed to be about visiting artists’ studios; is there a place for that kind of event during BOS?

AiB: As BOS grew, it was an inevitability that an art fair in conjunction with the festival would form. NEWD is different from the typical art fair model. The organizers were very open to dialogue and receptive to our concerns regarding alienation of the community. We spoke with them extensively leading up to BOS 2014 and solidified a supportive relationship with them. As a result, the organizers made sure to include 50% Bushwick galleries, kept the event free, and coordinated public panel discussions for the community. There is a place for fairs if they are organized in a respectful and sensitive fashion.

BS: When I interviewed two Arts in Bushwick members back in 2009, there was a genuine feeling (possibly fueled in part by the recession) that Bushwick might escape the cycle of gentrification and development that was transforming Williamsburg at the time; how do you think the neighborhood has fared, with respect to gentrification and development, in the past five years, and do you think Arts in Bushwick has played a role in stemming or speeding up those processes?

AiB: We don’t feel that Arts in Bushwick has had any impact on gentrification or the speed at which Bushwick has developed over the last several years, whatsoever — those wheels were set in motion long before our inception in 2006. The recession offered a brief pause in the big picture, but the wheels were still turning. Our original mission was actually to combat development-driven displacement, and however hopeful our intentions, that ship was sailing without us. We re-conceptualized our purpose over the last few years so that we could devise creative solutions to meet the challenges that came along with the tidal wave of development.

What we are now tasked with is how to use this platform as a conduit for positive growth. Bushwick’s history precedes us and continues to evolve today. Arts in Bushwick is only a tiny piece of that narrative. We do believe that art can serve as an incredible bridge and universal language — and we apply that philosophy to creating accessible and sustainable programming for all community members.

Installation view of 'Making History' at Storefront Ten Eyck (photo courtesy Arts in Bushwick)
Installation view of ‘Making History’ at Storefront Ten Eyck (photo courtesy Arts in Bushwick)

Making History, Arts in Bushwick‘s 2015 benefit exhibition, is on view at Storefront Ten Eyck (324 Ten Eyck Street, Bushwick, Brooklyn) through May 10, when a benefit raffle will be held. Bushwick Open Studios 2015 will take place June 5–7.

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