It’s an increasingly familiar story, with a slight twist. A small gallery is being forced to move after the building where it was located has been sold from under them. In New York, this has become so common that it might not even seem like news. But HOUSING, which was formerly located in Bed-Stuy in Brooklyn, is different both for being a black-owned gallery and for developing a program devoted explicitly to resisting gentrification. The gallery, which took over the space from American Medium when that gallery relocated to Chelsea, is now in the midst of securing a new space where it will resume programming in the fall.
In my conversation with KJ Freeman, one of HOUSING’s co-founders, she and I discussed how a gallery like HOUSING can still spotlight pockets of public welfare in a city almost entirely overrun by the private sector, working to preserve them in opposition to economic forces that would otherwise erase them.
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Jeffrey Grunthaner: Can you explain to me what HOUSING is? What kind of programming are you trying to realize, and what makes your space unique?
KJ Freeman: HOUSING started as institutional critique in reaction to the art market, and the current value of black art. I had already worked with several black and brown emerging artists, and the relationships I built seemed to be ideal for a gallery. Maybe in the vein of performance — I wanted to craft a black capitalist hub of art. The name originally was Freeman Gallery, using my surname Freeman (a common last name of freed slaves). Creative Director Eileen Skyers and I both enjoyed the ring of HOUSING, and it stuck. We decided to focus more on the neighborhood we were opening this gallery in, and address the current housing crisis in New York City.
I grew up in public housing, so in a way it reflects many different states of blackness. From gentrification to recipients of Supplemental Security Income. The name “housing” is often synonymous with government assistance in NYC. I think as a name it is successful.
HOUSING may be considered unique because we are a black-owned gallery. In NYC that is a phenomenon in its own right. There are a lot of black artists, but very few black gallerists working autonomously among galleries and art institutions that are predominantly white. There are also a lot of emerging galleries in gentrified areas. In the classic, black-owned business model, I thought the art world needed a commercial space that was genuinely black-owned. Our mission as a space is simply to support artists of color.
JG: HOUSING has been located in a space formerly occupied by American Medium. Can you tell me about your relationship with American Medium? Will you maintain a relationship with them even after being forced to relocate?
KJF: I was brought in by American Medium to consult on two exhibitions that sought to bring black artists into their programming. In May 2017, I curated a show called D.O.E. featuring the work of Cheyenne Julien and Kevin Evans. I also consulted them on Andrew Ross’s solo show for the following fall. I had already curated Andrew in an exhibition at Bruce High Quality Foundation University, where I was a curatorial fellow two years prior. So, basically, for the last five years I had been working with and through NYC as a facilitator with an emphasis on black art and emerging black artists.
I had attended a few shows at American Medium when they were located at 424 Gates Avenue. Being one of the only people of color in attendance at their openings, I guess they took a liking to me. Before American Medium relocated I was to sublease their old space on Gates and Nostrand. It sounded perfect until the building sold, unbeknownst to me. I was never contacted regarding the building being sold by anyone who works at American Medium. I’m currently seeking legal counsel, so there is only so much I can say regarding the matter. But unfortunately I will no longer be maintaining a relationship with American Medium.
JG: Moving forward, what kind of programming will you be realizing over the summer months? And what are your plans for fall?
KJF: There has been a wave of support since the building sold. Many opportunities have opened up, and we have decided to have pop-up spaces throughout Manhattan until the fall when we relocate. The majority of our events will be geared towards women of color — specifically, women of color who work in the arts.
Curatorially, I am now interested in bridging gaps by showcasing emerging, mid-career, and outsider artists of color. As a curator, there is a lot of fear regarding who to show, and who not to show. I started out as an artist, so I guess it’s a common dilemma. Should the gallery be used as an experiment to blur the lines of art dealer, artist, and curator? I’m very excited for the fall: our debut exhibition in our new space will feature the work of Sofia Moreno. She is a Mexican performance artist, who is currently based in Mexico City. Through multiple media she integrates gender, femicide, and colonialism.
JG: Do you think you will still be able to create a space that resists gentrification? How might your opposition to gentrification influence where you decide to relocate?
KJF: I often think when we speak to people of color, we create a monolith of resistance. The housing crisis in New York does not just derive from businesses moving in and making it a “nicer” area. A lot has to do with international interest in luxury properties. There are a lot of nice buildings in the ‘hood that no one lives in. There are quite a lot similarities between art and real estate in that way. Not only that big paintings go in big houses, but art is a liquid investment — just like real estate.
I’ve worked in sales, the stark reality of which has informed my rationale on this issue. Again, I grew up in public housing, so my personal feeling on the matter is that capitalism is intrinsically linked to racism. The interests of businesses and “coffee shops” usually pop-up when a white face or a white cube emerges. The infrastructure of the neighborhood changes, the quality of life is heightened, and the people who have been living there either resist or are pushed out. There is more resistance going on than you believe. Take a walk down Nostrand Avenue and you will come across more black businesses than you might expect — and this is in a gentrified area.
I believe transforming the face of what people perceive as gentrification and believing in black and brown people to uplift their communities may be a small piece to the puzzle. I don’t believe my little gallery will offset the effects of gentrification, but it will reinforce black interest in historically black and brown neighborhoods. I think a black art gallery that shows only artists of color is a symbol of our feelings toward gentrification. The model truly is that of the black-owned businesses that surrounded our gallery. Black people like green juice and black people like art.
I read an article the other day that said black art is now in a state of gold rush. It was a bittersweet proclamation; there are a lot of black artists but where are the black gallery owners? Chris Rock has a great joke where he speaks about living in a rich neighborhood as a back entertainer and living next to a white dentist. Everyone in the neighborhood that is black is a basketball player, or a celebrity; but the white people who lived in the area were ordinary professionals. Let’s take this to another level: how many black NBA and NFL team owners are there?
In terms of our relocation, I’m thinking of taking the gallery to another heavily gentrified area. The Lower East Side comes to mind. There is this concept of the Lower East Side as a hip artist neighborhood, which it has certainly transformed into. But public housing still exists just steps away on Essex Street, surrounded by a ton of art galleries. I think focusing on programming that reinforces the notion that the LES is historically a Puerto Rican neighborhood would be the first step. Curatorially, if we were to move there, it would be our priority to address the history of the neighborhood.