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Whither Dumbo Arts Center?

Dumbo Arts Center in 2009, at its former TK space
Dumbo Arts Center in 2009, at its former Washington Street space (all photographs by the author for Hyperallergic)

Since the Dumbo Arts Center was founded in 1997 as the neighborhood’s first nonprofit arts organization, the once overlooked industrial segment of Brooklyn in the shadow of the monolithic Manhattan and Brooklyn bridges has seen rising real estate prices and shifting demographics, so that while some arts organizations remain, many of the artists do not. For these reasons, the Dumbo Arts Center (DAC) is now in a state of flux, without a staff and its gallery exhibitions on hiatus while it reevaluates its future.

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“When DAC started, it was artists living here,” said Julie Martin, the chair of the DAC Board of Directors, over the phone. “The idea [of DAC] was to give them a place to show and to be active and let the rest of the world know what was going on in the neighborhood, but then that base disappeared.”

The last exhibition organized by DAC was A Wake: Still Lives and Moving Images in November 2012 and programming and events have dropped off since then, although DAC is currently focusing on planning Video Dumbo with organizers Caspar Stracke and Gabriela Monroe for the month of May. Video Dumbo, while absent last year, is an engaging annual event of video art. Yet following the organization of Video Dumbo this year, DAC’s next step is less clear.

“Throughout my two years there, Julie and I, along with the rest of the board, were continually investigating new strategies for DAC’s programming and future,” explained Karl Erickson, the former executive director of DAC. “It was apparent very early on that change had to happen, as DAC was moving out of its old space on Washington and into the smaller venue at 111 Front, as well as the realities of the economic climate and DAC-life after being the Art Under The Bridge Festival producers. What I had left in place was the possibility for DAC to become a volunteer-run co-op, directly serving the creative community in Dumbo.”

Installation on the waterfront during the 2010 Dumbo Arts Festival
Installation on the waterfront during the 2010 Dumbo Arts Festival

While Erickson continues to advise Martin and others involved with DAC, he has moved on from DAC and is currently focusing on his own art practice. DAC was the integral producer of the D.U.M.B.O. Art Under the Bridge Festival from 1998 to 2009, after which it has been expanded and organized by Two Trees Management real estate firm. Martin said that the festival just became impossible for the staff to organize along with the arts organization’s year-round programming. DAC also relocated out of their large, warehouse-like space on Washington Street to a white walls gallery at 111 Front Street in January 2011. (The fate of the former Washington Street building is a reconstruction into rentals.) The Front Street location is not currently hosting DAC exhibitions, giving the space over to student shows like an exhibition from Pratt Institute instead.

“The space by the water was amazing, so when we moved we had to readjust, and Karl, who became the director two years ago, really used the space really well and tried to schedule programming around the exhibitions to broaden the audience for the shows,” Martin said. “So that was what we were doing up until the beginning of this year, really trying to use the space and broaden the audience. It was just really difficult to have an audience in the neighborhood.”

Martin said they are considering some sort of cooperative organization for DAC, and they are working closely with Two Trees, which Martin cited as supportive of DAC’s future while the board reevaluates what DAC can be in the transforming urban landscape of Dumbo.

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