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Bye-bye Brands, Hello Art? Bushwick Open Studios Is Moving from June to October

The entrance to studio building 1717 Troutman during Bushwick Open Studios 2015 (photo by the author for Hyperallergic)
The entrance to studio building 1717 Troutman during Bushwick Open Studios 2015 (photo by the author for Hyperallergic)

Arts in Bushwick (AiB) surprised artists last week with an understated email announcing “a few changes to our programming dates.” The most significant of these was the news that Bushwick Open Studios (BOS), which Arts in Bushwick has produced since 2006, would be held this year on October 1–2.

October?

For years, hundreds of people marked the informal beginning of summer by promising free PBR and snacks to friends and strangers willing to enter their muggy, often small and windowless studios in neglected factories, all in the name of art and community. Some years the L train was shut down, others not, but damn it, the first weekend in June was for studio visits!

This email welcomed artists to a town hall, noted that AiB would still be hosting a Community Day event on June 5, and expressed excitement for the organization’s 10-year anniversary, but it dodged the biggest question: why?

Bushwick Open Studios logo (via artsinbushwick.com)
Bushwick Open Studios logo (via artsinbushwick.com)

Bushwick Open Studios has become New York City’s largest open-studios event, last year counting around 600 studios and 1,100 artists spanning several neighborhoods. Volunteers have always produced the free event, which charges participating artists a nominal fee. Additional programming like opening and closing parties have varied in size and number, according to volunteers and resources, but BOS has always remained focused on showcasing artists, studios, and gallery neighbors.

In the last few years, however, the first weekend of June has morphed into something else — something that includes an art fair; private, ticketed openings; and lots of murals and food trucks. Many visitors consider Bushwick Open Studios to be all of it. Bushwick cartoonist Jeremy Nguyen tweeted his disappointment with the move, then told Hyperallergic he “liked the vastness [of BOS] that brings so much business to our local bars and restaurants.” Is that vastness really BOS, though? Or is the vastness more of the problem that the organizers might now be hoping to escape, a problem Bushwick artist/gallerist Deborah Brown calls a “perceived hijacking of the festival by outsiders who used Bushwick primarily as a backdrop for partying and scene-making without regard for the local community.” Brown told Hyperallergic that with the move to fall, Arts in Bushwick has “pushed the ‘reset’ button, to rethink the format and content of the event.” Which leads to the question: What’s moving? Or, what is (and is not) BOS? Like most things in Bushwick, it’s complicated.

In an email to Hyperallergic, the organizers of AiB wrote:

Our Town Hall on March 30, 7pm, at Mayday Space is a chance to get involved in creating Community Day and Bushwick Open Studios as distinct, exciting events that serve to strengthen the Bushwick community. Arts in Bushwick is excited to welcome artists out of their studios on Sunday, June 5, for a bigger and broader Community Day, a summer celebration often missed by artists in previous years because they are in their studios for most of the weekend.

A key criticism that’s been trailing BOS for a few years now is that its success in attracting visitors to Bushwick has also created distractions that don’t do much for the majority of artists the event was created to serve. In the words of former Arts in Bushwick lead organizer Julia Sinelnikova, “The community has become overrun by brands, many original residents have been pushed out of the festival map zone, and for-profit parties became way too much of a factor in the last few BOS events.” Parties and bodies may help generate sales or foot traffic for artists in well-located buildings, Sinelnikova pointed out, but artists also pay more for those spaces, and will likely be looking differently at the possible risks and benefits of a (potentially) smaller BOS on their bottom lines. “With a new structure and dates and October,” she notes, “it makes me wonder if paying Bushwick prices is worth it for my studio in the short term, too.”

Crowds on Bogart Street during Bushwick Open Studios 2015 (photo by Jillian Steinhauer/Hyperallergic)
Crowds on Bogart Street during Bushwick Open Studios 2015 (photo by Jillian Steinhauer/Hyperallergic) (click to enlarge)

Resolving the commercial/community contradiction and refocusing the event will take time and effort. So far, the tourist-friendly projects are not following, which is likely what organizers hoped. Brands won’t completely miss their chance to vie for consumers through art in June: the Bushwick Collective, which hosts its sponsored block party on the same weekend but has never in collaboration with Arts in Bushwick, announced plans this week to go forward with its annual event.

Hyperallergic reached out to several artists who have shown at BOS over the years for their thoughts on the move. Photographer Meryl Meisler pointed out that the Jewish new year, Rosh Hoshanah, begins at sundown on October 2, which might mean a number of artists and visitors have travel plans and/or could be unable to participate. Presumably this is the type of concern the town hall is meant to address. Aside from the proximity to a holiday, however, artists have expressed mixed feelings about the dates, but not about Arts in Bushwick. Responses ranged from “maybe it will be less of a summer block party and more of a serious open studio event” to “of course I’d love for it to be in June,” but (nearly) everyone seems willing to follow where AiB leads. Artist Julie Torres wrote, “AiB’s work on BOS is a HEROIC effort every year. I’d love to know why the change was made, but I do have faith that they know what they’re doing.”

It was, perhaps, time for a change; some volunteers had been hoping to reset their mission ever since last year’s BOS, which featured a Tumblr-sponsored opening party and participating artists saying things like, “I really wish this event would die” and “BOS is a hydra.” Last week’s email was Arts in Bushwick’s first communication since going on hiatus last year, a break that seemed to at least obliquely acknowledge the reorganization.

Just one person contacted by Hyperallergic expressed frustration with what he considered “very late notice … especially to those who organized spaces around the original dates.” This person, who asked not to be identified, is a team member for an unrelated event, which planners had assumed would coincide with BOS. It’s a telling sign of the very strange times in Bushwick-the-branded-community that an artist who’s focused on commercial projects would be complaining about a group of unpaid volunteers giving “only” three-plus months’ notice when changing its plans.

Detail of a sculpture by Kevin Andrew Curran in Roxanne Jackson's studio (#322) at 1717 Troutman
Detail of a sculpture by Kevin Andrew Curran in Roxanne Jackson’s studio at 1717 Troutman (photo by Benjamin Sutton/Hyperallergic)

Ever since crowds began to overtake Bushwick — but not necessarily its art studios — during BOS, artists and gallerists have seemed less concerned with a possible date change than with getting away from the frat-party vibe. “I generally think it’s a great idea to change things up when possible,” gallerist/artist/rebel Paul D’Agostino told us. “It seems circumstances suggested that change could be good, and shifting the event to the fall could possibly have many advantages. It’s easy to imagine what those might be, and it’s rather difficult to imagine any disadvantages at all. It will also confuse the hell out of outsider vendors and ‘organizers’ who’ve piggybacked onto the event more and more from one year to the next. Botching their plans is a bonus.”

Bushwick Print Lab founder Ray Cross described Bushwick Open Studios as “the single most important event for art and culture in our neighborhood, and probably largely responsible for the vitality of the arts in these areas today. Many of the important meetings, collaborations, and events of my creative life took place under the auspices of the BOS festival.”

But Bushwick is so famous these days, it has its own Snapchat filter and a movie coming out. Is it too late for Arts in Bushwick to return to community roots, if that’s what it wants?

Skewville's Bushwick sign on a rooftop on Flushing Avenue. (all photos by the author for Hyperallergic)
Skewville’s Bushwick sign on a rooftop on Flushing Avenue (photo by Hrag Vartanian/Hyperallergic)

Like other New Yorkers, Bushwick artists are neighbors with strong relationships and strong opinions who are hoping to learn how to preserve the community they’ve spent 10-plus years building — while also finding ways to adapt to an environment that has rapidly changed around them (and been changed because of them). The March 30 meeting will likely be a reality check and assessment of which neighbors are willing to join AiB’s efforts to find a way forward for the arts in their community.

I guess we’ll see you in October.

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