Helen Brough's "Emulated Flora" (2006) in the lobby of 70 Washington Street in Brooklyn, New York (photo Billy Anania/Hyperallergic)

The Dumbo neighborhood of Brooklyn has undergone significant changes since the 1990s. Waves of gentrification have raised rents and transformed lofts into luxury apartments. One of these buildings, 70 Washington Street, once housed more than 500 local artists before converting to condominiums in 2005. Now, its condo board is weighing the replacement of a site-specific sculptural installation with generic photographs of Brooklyn landmarks.

Helen Brough’s “Emulated Flora” (2006) spans the entire lobby of the 12-story factory building. Colorful, translucent pieces of Plexiglass hang from a mirrored ceiling, giving dimension to the narrow space. Brough created the 30-by-40-foot piece in 2004 during her residency with Triangle Arts Association, then housed at 70 Washington, and installed it during the building’s conversion into condos. She believes the work commemorates the legacy of developers David and Jane Walentas, known for their support of experimental art and the Sharpe-Walentas Studio Program.

“The work is integral to the history not only of the neighborhood but 70 Washington Street itself,” Brough said in an interview with Hyperallergic. “The building was a hive of creative activity at the forefront of a big studio complex. That was David’s original vision, to grow an artistic environment. He wanted this piece in there, to say that this building has a creative spirit.”

Brough installing “Emulated Flora” in 2006 (photo by Etienne Frossard)

David and his son Jed led the development of the Dumbo arts district during its initial rezoning, and Jane commissioned “Emulated Flora” from Brough after the building’s completion; however, the family relinquished building management to an elected board of condo owners after all units were sold. Brough now lives in London but caught wind of the news from her former Triangle colleagues now living in the building. Many of them believe “Emulated Flora” to be a companion piece with Jane’s Carousel, a restored 48-horse amusement park ride originally built in 1922 that is a beloved feature of the Dumbo waterfront.

Jennifer Riley, a resident and Triangle board member, claims a self-appointed committee of condo owners sent a survey to residents regarding a lobby and hallway renovation. In the results, she noticed Brough’s artwork was supplanted by drab photographs of the Brooklyn Bridge and Manhattan skyline. 

“This committee claims that everyone she talked to really wants this taken down, but I think we have much bigger problems,” Riley told Hyperallergic. “There is no proper mail room here, no bike room, no refrigerator room. Those are what everyone really wants — good, environmentally conscious features, and you can easily reincorporate the artwork. Instead, they said ‘Sorry it’s not what you like’ and that this is a group effort.”

Mailboxes in the main lobby of 70 Washington Street (photo Billy Anania/Hyperallergic)

Riley also alleges that the committee members are downgrading the building’s artistic appeal to foster a hotel environment for those wishing to rent out their units. No condo board representatives responded to Hyperallergic’s requests for comment.

Experts claim that lobby installations usually last around 30 years, but “Emulated Flora” was indeed built into the structure of 70 Washington Street. Upon installation, however, the artwork reportedly stirred up controversy. A 2007 Financial Times article mentions complaints from new residents over its flashy style, which Jane described as “playful, contemporary, and a little wild.” The conversion of studios into luxury condos also led to criticism from local artists and other tenants, who argued that approving these projects would further accelerate Dumbo’s gentrification.

“Emulated Flora” in the main lobby of 70 Washington Street (photo Billy Anania/Hyperallergic)

Some of those who know and love Brough’s sculpture are saddened by the possibility of its removal and have spoken out in its defense. In an open letter to the board, curator and critic Karen Wilkin described Brough’s work as “poetic” in a way that “transforms [its setting] from a banal lobby to significant aesthetic experience.” Wilkin also notes that the sculptural installation is embedded into the ceiling of the lobby and thus “cannot be separated from the space for which it was conceived and executed.”

For Brough, this represents the end of an era not just for her installation but the memory of her former patron, who passed away in 2020.

“This was specifically chosen by Jane, who had such an acute eye and lifelong support of the arts,” she said. “In that way, it almost feels like a memorial.”

Editor’s note 10/4/22 1pm EDT: A previous version of this article misstated Jed Walentas’s relationship to David Walentas. Jed is David’s son, not brother.

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Billie Anania

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.