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10 Years On, Arts in Bushwick Invites the Community to Discuss Plans for the Future

photo by Hrag Vartanian for Hyperallergic
Skewville’s Bushwick sign on a rooftop on Flushing Avenue (photo by Hrag Vartanian for Hyperallergic)

Arts in Bushwick (AiB), the producer of New York City’s largest summer kickoff/open-studios event, broke hearts six weeks ago when it announced that this year’s Bushwick Open Studios would be held in October, not June. This was the first announcement the group made since last summer, when volunteers began a ground-up rebuild of the organization. Speculation, gossip, and even a bit of controversy swirled when a local artist announced he would produce a new first-weekend-of-June event. Still, AiB resisted spilling any details. They made us wait. And wait. “Just come talk to us,” they said, collectively, through unsigned statements. “Come to our meeting,” they said. So of course we did.

Last Wednesday in a community room at Bushwick’s Mayday Space, a few people hung up a banner, gathered for a team huddle, then sat down on a riser, facing about 90 friends and neighbors. Laura Braslow gave a short history of the organization she co-founded in 2006, and described some of its growing pains. Other volunteers introduced themselves and shared their connection to the group and their interests. The introductions were followed by a Q&A, and then everyone broke up to join or not join small groups of AiB volunteers scattered around the space. The barriers between “us” and “them” collapsed, so the second half of the event was just a room full of neighbors, meeting and catching up and sharing ideas.

Arts in Bushwick volunteers addressing the meeting (photo by Raphael Fuchs)
Arts in Bushwick volunteers addressing the town hall crowd (photo by Rafael Fuchs)

Some specifics we gleaned about this year’s events: R.I.P. BOS print guide (the organization is aiming for zero waste). All events will be open calls; all future AiB meetings will be public (expect another one in about a month); event registration for BOS will drop from $35 for the weekend to $25, and will include a year of access to AiB’s online member community. A few people asked some housekeeping questions: Will there be an app? (No, but there will be a fast-loading mobile site.) Where is the book of collected works that artists who participated in last year’s Making History benefit were promised? (It’s coming.) Will BOS now be held at the same time every year? (No, but AiB will announce it every year, with 4 to 6 months’ notice.)

One moment during the Q&A that felt a little tense was when photographer/gallerist Rafael Fuchs stood up to speak. Fuchs wanted to talk about his controversial Bushwick 200 project, the launch of which he eventually cancelled as a result of the bitter arguments it had generated. The project’s toxic discussion threads, as well as the project itself, were forcefully criticized by many, including AiB volunteers who were part of the meeting. Braslow had told Fuchs before the meeting that the forum would be strictly for AiB and BOS topics. Fuchs was clearly frustrated, but he backed off and ultimately simply asked how he could begin working with AiB. Braslow replied that everyone is welcome to volunteer and to become part of the group. But she added the caveat that all activities have to conform to AiB’s mission and values.

It was no mistake that Braslow’s comment emphasized the intention to get and stay on track. All AiB volunteers have been working diligently on the organization’s reset-in-progress. Inside and outside AiB, the group has been criticized for drifting away from its core values, prompting the hiatus that followed BOS 2015. In conversations with locals since last year, I’ve heard a number of artists list grievances like: the group had gotten too hierarchical, it had become focused on large sponsors at the expense of local businesses, and it was expanding without a rationale for why bigger is better. But when asked if the revamped AiB would become more activist than artist, a volunteer responded that the two go hand in hand, and that activism has played a part since the beginning. AiB’s efforts to prioritize sustainability and inclusiveness were part of even this meeting’s design, from the choice of venue (a public community space, not a private home or bar) to the structure of the event (space for lots of one-on-one conversation, no podium, no one-way pronouncements).

Bushwick, looking east down Wyckoff Avenue (photo by Hrag Vartanian)
Bushwick, looking east down Wyckoff Avenue (photo by Hrag Vartanian)

It’s been 10 months since BOS2015. Remember how insane it was? VIP parties, brands and billboards everywhere, Chris Rock selfies, even Fat Joe singing at a block party. “Baby Basel–esque,” you might have called it. But … you know most of that had little to do with Bushwick Open Studios, right? The agglomeration of mostly unaffiliated events the weekend became known for was because BOS — and Bushwick itself — have become twin magnets, drawing events that drew still more events. A lot of these do fit under the expansive Arts in Bushwick umbrella and were created by friends and allies, but many others were just hangers-on.

And it’s not just other art events and parties that have begun capitalizing on BOS’s popularity. During the meeting, AiB volunteer Nicole Brydson shared a rather ominous reason some AiB members voted for the October dates: the sentiment they’d heard expressed that “real estate is sold in the summer, art is collected in the fall.” In other words: summer open-studio events are ideal browsing conditions — if you’re shopping for real estate. Whereas fall events can be more studio-focused and conversational, so, ostensibly, real-estate types would have a harder time blending in.

In even more direct ways, though, the real estate industry reshaping Bushwick (to the dismay of many residents and studio tenants) is already intimately involved in Bushwick’s cultural events: both the Bushwick Film Festival and the Bushwick Collective work closely with developer-sponsors. Unsurprisingly, Bushwick Daily reported recently that the Collective signed up its real-estate neighbors at Nooklyn to give artists the opportunity to list their spaces with its app. (Given the scarcity of affordable studios in the neighborhood, I hope artists think twice — or three or four times — before doing that.) Maybe a newly inspired AiB and a scaled-down BOS will yet manage to resist the temptations of the gentrification-industrial complex?

photo by Raphael Fuchs
The assembled town hall attendees (photo by Rafael Fuchs)

Considering the churn Bushwick has seen in the last 10 years, and how many artists and volunteers have come and gone, it’s impressive to see an independent, all-volunteer organization manage to grow, thrive, pivot, fall down, get up, keep changing — and then celebrate 10 years by starting a major overhaul. Before last week’s meeting, looking for some secret to AiB’s longevity, I emailed artist, writer, and professor Chloë Bass for her thoughts.

I asked Bass, who worked with AiB from 2007–11, and who recently stepped back in to help new volunteers, about the essence of the organization. Is there a core set of ideals or principles she would expect to see the new team maintain, as it evolves and as volunteers come and go? She said, “The organization is designed to change, grow, shrink, and develop alongside its members, and there is never any promise that the direction will be consistent. I think the only consistently required aspect of AiB should be the ‘good neighbor’ policy.”

Who can argue with that?

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