The main hall of Pioneer Works in Brooklyn’s Red Hook neighborhood (via Wikimedia Commons)

In July, Hyperallergic reported that hundreds of concerned artists and community members voiced opposition to a new luxury development in the Queens neighborhood of Astoria. Innovation QNS, a $2 billion project aiming to erect eight new buildings on the five blocks around Kaufman Astoria Studios and the Museum of the Moving Image (MoMI), received initial endorsements from both institutions as well as from the Brooklyn-based arts center Pioneer Works. 

In the months since, however, Pioneer Works has quietly backed out of the project. In an email forwarded to Hyperallergic, anti-gentrification groups Art Against Displacement (AAD) and Artist Studio Affordability Project announced that the Red Hook mainstay had broken their contract with Innovation QNS after observing widespread opposition. A founding director of Pioneer Works confirmed in a text message to AAD that leadership received “many inquiries from people who opposed the Astoria luxury tower proposal, regardless of the supposed short-term benefits,” resulting in the withdrawal.

“The ongoing community outcry against this inequitable development is what caused Pioneer Works to sever ties with the project,” AAD continued in the email to its mailing list. “We salute you all for making your voices heard, and Pioneer Works for heeding our call.”

Graphic included in AAD’s email (image courtesy AAD)

AAD included multiple graphics for spreading awareness online and highlighted feedback comments from a July 16 open letter that addressed upzoning and gentrification concerns. “The neighborhood doesn’t seem to even have the infrastructure to support this level of development,” one signee of the open letter commented. “I suppose people can park their cars in the river.”

Another wrote that the “artwashing is nothing but wishful thinking” and claimed there are “no concrete plans for implementation.”

Graphic included in AAD’s email (image courtesy AAD)

Jenny Dubnau and Vanessa Thill, who penned the open letter, believe that Pioneer Works is setting an example that MoMI and Kaufman can still follow.

“I really respect their decision and hope they saw how elite developers were using them,” Dubnau told Hyperallergic. “The benefits promised to artists were tissue-thin when actually examined, and the image of this organization was used to make it seem pro-artist. When you brush away the cobwebs, it’s clear this is luxury for rich people, that will displace more artists than it actually helps.”

Collaboration between Astoria Not For Sale and The Illuminator projected on the wall of Kaufman Astoria Studios in June (photo courtesy The Illuminator)

A Pioneer Works representative told Hyperallergic that leadership had a “mixed outlook” on Innovation QNS from the beginning despite perks of the cultural partnership, including promises of free housing and studio space for artists. Upon further research, however, they found that the plans lacked sufficient detail and borough-based partnerships besides those with MoMI and the Louis Armstrong House Museum (neither of which responded to Hyperallergic’s requests for comment).

“There was some enthusiasm initially, even though we were going outside our neighborhood, and we paid a fee to cover some overseeing costs,” the Pioneer Works spokesperson told Hyperallergic. “We mostly got involved because we do not have housing for artists in our alumni program, but the big curveball came after realizing how far behind everything was in terms of zoning approval, and that the developers didn’t really have community support. The important thing now is that we are not moving forward.”

The representative also expressed concern that the Innovation QNS team did not approach more prominent local institutions, such as the Queens Museum. This led Pioneer Works to believe the developers just wanted to use their name for artwashing purposes.

“Ultimately, we had very little at stake,” the representative said. “This is not our neighborhood, we shouldn’t have done it, we didn’t know enough, and it is not our fight.”

Rendering of 38th Street Plaza (courtesy Innovation QNS)

As previously reported, the historic film studio Kaufman Astoria is now dabbling in luxury real estate after last year’s purchase by venture capital firms Hackman Capital Partners and Square Mile Capital Management. Along with developers Silverstein Properties and BedRock Real Estate Partners, Kaufman is still establishing a proposal for the construction and rezoning following rejection votes from the Astoria Community Board and Queens Borough President Donovan Richards. Meanwhile, MoMI remains a member of the City Institutions Group that rakes in millions in public funding each year as well as private funding from Silverstein. None of the developers responded to Hyperallergic’s multiple requests for comment.

On top of that, Astoria is undergoing a divisive housing crisis that has pitted local tenants against seemingly progressive city council members, most recently after Council Member Tiffany Cabán approved the controversial Hallets North development. (Cabán has yet to comment on Innovation QNS.) Meanwhile, District 26 Council Member Julie Won has expressed opposition, citing its lack of “community engagement,” and established new guidelines for all developers seeking rezoning.

Queens remains contested territory for luxury developers as local artists, tenants, and advocacy groups continue to mobilize efforts to protect the neighborhood.

“This is a powerful example of how artists and community members can use their leverage as people with a stake in the institutions we all help build,” Thill told Hyperallergic. “But this particular development project is just the tip of the iceberg. We have to seriously look at toxic philanthropy and artwashing, and how we allow our cultural labor to be used against us.”

Billie Anania is an editor, critic, and journalist in New York City whose work focuses on political economy in the cultural industries and the history of art in global liberation movements.