Outside the Brooklyn Artists Gym, or B.A.G., in Cobble Hill, a thunderstorm pounded the Gowanus Canal, and the sky over the industrial landscape turned from dark gray to an eerie yellow.
Inside, cello music played, and artwork created on the premises adorned the walls of this onetime textile-cutting factory turned communal art studio and gallery. Much of the art had been produced in the preceding 24 hours as part of a marathon baptism of the space—the 24-Hour Art Show. It was an evocative beginning for a project that many hope will have a thunderous impact on the local arts community.
“Say you’re an 18-year-old artist and you’re getting really good, but you have to do it in your bedroom,” says Peter Wallace, the Gym’s founder. “It would be such a gift of confidence to bring someone here and say, ‘Here you go. This is yours. Make stuff.’”
About four years ago, Wallace—chairman of the theater program at Eugene Lang College—started sculpting, “just to do sculpture,” he says. Unable to afford studio space and with his creative spirit bound by the square footage of his living room, he developed the idea for the Gym, where for $220 a month (or $195 a month with a six-month commitment), artists can rent a locker and work in a 6,000-square-foot communal studio. There are no partitions dividing the space, but each artist has his or her own easel and plenty of legroom.
“That’s the biggest part of it,” says Wallace, “to have company and have a space where you can do your own work. And you can actually work with the size that you want. So many artists are coming in and saying, ‘Oh, I can actually do this here and not interfere with my spouse.’”
Gym membership is paid month to month. It requires no security deposit, no binding lease, and can be frozen if the artist goes on vacation or takes a sabbatical. Artists furnish their own supplies, but the monthly fee includes access to easels, tables, and canvases as well as figure-drawing classes. A private exhibition room and a smaller gallery are also available.
The space, painted white, has huge, newly installed windows that flood it with natural light. A rough gray floor and exposed beams betray its industrial origins. Bricks are still being hammered out one by one to create a window in Wallace’s personal studio, which abuts the Gym.
A collaborative 24-hour creative streak broke in the space. The epic 24-Hour Art Show was the brainchild of Tina Fallon, a former student of Wallace’s who founded the 24-Hour Company, a theater group known for producing plays, from script to casting to curtain call, in 24 hours. Art supplies were donated by area stores, figure models hired, and artists, many attracted by word of mouth—“the best publicity in the world,” says Wallace—came, saw, and created.
“Study of a Model Who Does Not Slump,” a painting by local artist Audrey Anastasi, focused on one of the two nude models who posed for a late-night session. Artist Katherine Koch painted “Total Hip Replacement,” reflecting on her upcoming surgery. The scene almost looked like parents’ night at nearby P.S. 58—though oils, pastels, and ink were favored over finger paints and macaroni.
Stephanie Lee Jackson—a self-described “last-minute volunteer” at the Gym—offered her services as auctioneer for the grand opening. Within an hour about 30 pieces were sold. Jackson, who lives in Park Slope, called the Gym “a phenomenally good idea” for the local art community. “I paint in my own place and I feel incredibly isolated, and to work with other artists—we feed off each other’s energy and each other’s work,” she says.
Caroline Coolidge-Brown, a Memphis artist who moved to New York nine months ago, participated in the 24-Hour Art Show, and her piece from that endeavor, a floral collage, sold at auction. Coolidge-Brown used to maintain a studio in Chelsea, but when that space was torn down for renovations she had to look elsewhere. A friend introduced her to Wallace and the Brooklyn Artists Gym.
“It’ll be a trick for me because I’m used to being really spread out. But the thing that really appeals to me about the space is getting out of the isolation,” she says, “being able to interact with other artists. It’s so nice to talk to other artists, to work on the same thing at the same time and be able to see how different someone else’s technique is because you learn so much from that.”
Unlike art collectives such as Flux Factory in Queens, B.A.G. is a for-profit organization. Wallace said he was urged by friends to create the space as a small business, but he hopes to turn the bulk of his profits into a scholarship fund—the B.A.G. Fund—for single-parent artists.
A Cobble Hill resident himself, Wallace says that since acquiring the property for the Gym, he has become aware of the burgeoning art scene along the Gowanus Canal.
“There are so many artists in this area,” he said. “They’re everywhere. And I think this is going to be part of that network, whether we’re at the vanguard of that network or not. Because we’re new, we’re the babies on the block.”
The Brooklyn Artists Gym is located at 98 4th Street in Cobble Hill. For more information, go to brooklynartistsgym.com or call (718) 858-9069.
Lela Moore is a writer based in Brooklyn.