Gowanus is very much a working artists’ neighborhood. Located beside the industrial-era canal, the South Brooklyn area has long provided workspaces for painters, sculptors, carpenters, photographers, and musicians. Despite recent shutdowns of neighborhood institutions like Spaceworks, hundreds of New Yorkers are still more than willing to catch the G train for spacious studios in former factory buildings around 2nd, 3rd, and 4th Avenues.
This year’s Gowanus Open Studios, the 26th and perhaps largest yet, finds the neighborhood at a crossroads. While new attention to the area brings welcome exposure, imminent rezoning along the waterfront is leading residents and local organizations to fear their little corner of the city may soon go the way of Dumbo, Williamsburg, and Hudson Yards. Amid a citywide housing crisis, Brooklyn artists are also realizing the connections between art-world buzz and luxury real estate. Accordingly, event organizer Arts Gowanus set up dedicated exhibitions for recently displaced artists and a donation drive for asylum seekers with South Brooklyn Mutual Aid.
During this weekend’s event, Hyperallergic spoke with several exhibiting artists about their experience as tenants, small business owners, and community members. Despite the usual displacement concerns, many Gowanus artists said they cherish the ability to work off the beaten path in an area conducive to creative labor — and, above all, they hope it remains as such.
For emerging artists like Chao Wang, who began renting from the Gowanus Studio Space last year, commuting from Long Island City is a small price for having everything in one place. A recent Pratt graduate, Wang claims that GSS’s comprehensive wood and print shops allow her to create her multi-panel abstract paintings without leaving the building. On top of that, she claims, the large population of tenants provides a rare internal community akin to college dorms.
“The first time I came here, it felt like a combined art space and neighborhood,” Wang told Hyperallergic. “I rely on others for inspiration, and you can really feel the life here — it’s not like being in the usual redone factory setting.”
For that reason, competition has risen within larger studio buildings, along with more stringent rental requirements. Ceramicist Jessica Ayala and textile artist Terra Keck, two of four tenants in a single unit at Gowanus Creative Studios, claim the application process felt similar to that of an apartment.
“We were at Treasure Island in Red Hook, which had been bought by CubeSmart, and were nervous they would hike up rent, so we came here,” Keck said. “We never had to do so much paperwork for past rentals, though, and the insurance basically just covers the landlord.”
“We were told that if we wanted our own insurance here, then we would have to install our own alarm system,” Ayala added. “It also felt like a lot of unnecessary background checks just to get this space, but we’re still happy to have something that works for all of us.”
Curiously, a corkboard in the GCS lobby advertises studio rentals alongside a small piece of paper from management that simply states, “No politics on this board.”
At an Ossam Gallery pop-up, multidisciplinary artist Ronnie Mae Painter — a member of ArtsPSWT, a collective of Park Slope and Windsor Terrace creatives founded in 2013 — presented her photographs of city landmarks beside resplendent portraits of queer men and drag queens. A long-time Park Slope resident, Painter mostly works in her bedroom in lieu of a studio.
“When you are old and Black and lesbian, you have to make do,” she told Hyperallergic. “I’ll sell pictures of the city to make money, but what I really care about is gorgeous Black men and women. We are always so misrepresented.”
Across the room, Tom Keough placed his large-scale cityscape paintings above smaller boxes of magazines featuring his leftist comics. A lifelong illustrator who works part-time at a homeless shelter, Keough recalls the influence of real estate during his studies at Pratt in the 1980s.
“Developers would come into our class, do these presentations, bring food, and encourage us to go live in the Lower East Side, Williamsburg, Long Island City, and Park Slope,” he told Hyperallergic. “But when I got done school, I started making art for the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) and city programs to protect squatters. New York was a different place 40 years ago.”
Keough points to one of his illustrations in World War 3 Illustrated magazine featuring his own grandmother, who was a coal miner. This piece of labor history, he claims, continues to inspire his practice. “I always try to connect big political issues with regular people,” he said.
Larger environmental issues with the Department of City Planning’s recent Gowanus Industrial Business Zone (IBZ) Vision Plan, which maps out guidelines for future development, are leading community members to make similar connections. At the 8th Street Art Garage, a table with flyers and a petition asks visitors to oppose rezoning. Beth Morrow, who owns the Garage, claims that luxury developers have exacerbated flooding and sewage in the area, all while buying up nearby studio buildings and leaving them empty. She and her neighbors are now working with local organizations Gowanus Alliance and Voice of Gowanus and Council Member Shahana Hanif to see what can be done.
“We are trying as a neighborhood to establish a public review of the development plans, with the hopes of protecting the area from 4th Avenue to the canal,” Morrow said.
For ceramic artist Orla Dunstan, her studio has been a stabilizing presence in the ever-changing city. An eight-year tenant at Third Avenue Clay, located in a former ironworks building, she believes the ongoing struggle between artists and developers is about preserving the soul of the neighborhood.
“Gowanus still has an industrial feel that the rest of Brooklyn does not,” Dunstan said. “I attribute this to the proximity of the canal, which has this gritty aspect. It’s a wonderful place with lots of businesses that have been here forever, and we want to keep it this way.”