Characterized by industrial zones, live chicken coops, and large, open spaces, Bushwick, Brooklyn can feel like a semi-agrarian environment where rising financial pressures have forced New York-based artists further east. But that’s old news.
What’s interesting is how these artists have begun to make it work, not just as a bedroom neighborhood, but as a unique—and now internationally recognized—art destination. The Bushwick art community has done this by creating a microcosm of the larger New York art world, but with artists taking on multiple roles, experimenting as dealers, curators, critics, and collectors.
Artists began moving from Manhattan and Williamsburg to the notoriously dangerous and depopulated area, ravaged by violence, poverty, and fire in the 1970s, off the L Train at Morgan Avenue and Jefferson Street as early as 1999, some even before that.1 Artist Tom Sanford (Bushwick 1999 – 2002) recalls having to purchase his groceries at the Mobile station on Flushing and Bushwick Avenue. Packs of stray dogs, burned-out cars, and prostitutes were common. More established artists were also here early, including Tara Donovan, Julie Mehretu, and Amy Sillman.
Artists were able to rent enormous spaces for very little (e.g., 8000 square feet for $2000 a month). Loft buildings like the McKibbin Street Lofts (1998) and the Varet Lofts were the site of huge parties. The 114 Forrest Street lofts had avant-garde puppet shows. Artists made communal dinners for neighbors.
Artist Austin Thomas began working with Ted Buchannan in his woodshop in 1999 to execute her new sculptures, called “Perches.” One was commissioned by the Public Art Fund in 2002; she built it in the space that is now Life Cafe, which Buchannan owns.
Two pioneering businesses sprang up, first Life Cafe and then Brooklyn Natural grocery, both 2002. Thomas, along with Buchannan and her partner Mike Shanabrook, invested in another building on Flushing Avenue, which became the location of her space Pocket Utopia, and, subsequently, The Narrows bar.
Artists, like small business entrepreneurs, generate wealth for a neighborhood’s economy. Beyond cultural capital, the influx into the neighborhood has expanded the market share for local businesses and rental properties, fueling a rapid transformation. Growth has not only persisted throughout the economic downturn, but exponentially increased. And yet, amazingly, rent prices have remained more or less constant since 2007.
Shari Linnick (Bushwick 2001), licensed broker and founder of Outerspace Realty, Inc., who also works in structured finance, says, “The incredible timing of the recent unprecedented economic expansion and recession, which both pushed artists looking for an affordable neighborhood, and kept values from skyrocketing, makes for an unbelievable confluence of positive factors for the area.” The 2010 Census has confirmed the drastic changes happening in the neighborhood.2
Bushwick rose to importance by the efforts of many artists and supporters working independently of one another (so many that they cannot all be detailed here). The following is a brief chronology of how Bushwick became a center of the emerging art world in New York:
Performance artist Jonah Bokaer founded Chez Bushwick in 2002, which launched CAPITAL B, a community-based initiative supported with a Rockefeller award.
3rd Ward opened as a community, art, and education center; not-for-profit NurtureArt, founded in 1998, relocated from Williamsburg; Bushwick Art Project, one of the first art festivals, and the first to use “Bushwick” in its name, was presented at the 3rd Ward, all in 2006.
Arts in Bushwick (AiB), a volunteer organization with no official hierarchy, launched Bushwick Open Studios (BOS) in 2007, an annual art festival that now includes over 350 artists and galleries. BETA Spaces and SITE Fest have also ballooned into weekend-long events.
One founding member, Steven Weintraub, writes: “AiB’s festivals provided the organization and structure to anchor Bushwick as a safe-haven for creative individuals who valued their freedom to inhabit work/live situations and readily share their projects with the public.” Laura Braslow, another founding member, has been working since 2005 to connect artists and organizations to the local community and political bodies of Bushwick.3
Simultaneously, albeit separately, alternative exhibition spaces began to open. English Kills was the pioneer, opening on the ground floor of 114 Forrest Street. Ad Hoc (2007 – 2009), the Bushwick Starr, and Grace Exhibition Space all opened in 2007. Pocket Utopia (2007 – 2009) and Factory Fresh then appeared on Flushing Avenue.
By providing a physical space for artists to meet and discuss ideas, Austin Thomas—founder of Pocket Utopia gallery and residency program—connected and publicized the artist community in Bushwick by hosting Sunday salons. Thomas recalls the first opening, when artists who had been living in Bushwick for years came into the gallery and couldn’t believe it was there. This model inspired Famous Accountants (2009), whose directors are artists Kevin Regan (Bushwick 2001) and Ellen Letcher, (Bushwick 2006) continue that tradition.
Apartment gallery Centotto was opened in 2008 by artist Paul D’Agostino and hosts salons, curated shows, and conversations. Jason Andrew, of the not-for-profit gallery Norte Maar (Bushwick 2008), and artist Deborah Brown opened Storefront in 2010 and have taken the lead on community organizing through multiple projects, including “Beat Nite” and Camp Pocket Utopia.
Bushwick-based artists have developed a strong community and exhibition spaces with formidable programs. Many, like Regina Rex, founded in 2009, a white-box gallery on the third floor of an industrial building run by 13 artists, include the neighborhood rather than (only) catering to the larger institutional art world.
There are now over 20 exhibition spaces in Bushwick. Those not yet listed but remain open include: Brewer’s Mansion, Brooklyn Fire Proof, DRWR, Eastern District, Fortress to Solitude, International Studio & Curatorial Program, Laundromat, Microscope Gallery, Outpost, Small Black Door, Sugar, and Temporary Storage.
To everyone’s surprise—both inside and outside the community—this model has been successful enough to garner serious critical attention (in Artforum, Art in America, The New Criterion, and the New York Times). While many will use Bushwick as a springboard into more established galleries and institutions, many insist that they will stay and grow their own programs.
This year, serious contenders are moving to Bushwick: Chelsea gallery Luhring Augustine recently purchased a 10,000-square-foot storage space, and intends to dedicate a quarter of it to exhibitions.4 Not-for-profit Momenta Art, founded in 1986, has moved out of its Williamsburg storefront into an enormous exhibition and office space on Bogart Street.5
Artist William Powhida (Bushwick 2008) says, “You can still have a BBQ outside of English Kills and host Sunday salons at Famous Accountants…Do you ever see that in Chelsea? Not so much.” Shari Linnick seconds this, saying, “There’s a true sense of community and people genuinely want to be here.”
Bushwick has been documented by writers since 2007: Jeremy Sapienza (Bushwick 2007), founder/editor of BushwickBK—an uncredited advocate of the neighborhood—has rigorously covered the art community since 2007. Hrag Vartanian (Bushwick 2000 – 2008), founder/editor of Hyperallergic, has been covering Bushwick since 2006. James Kalm has published many articles on the history of Bushwick here inthe Rail. Without them, there would be no primary source for these events.
Bushwick has been compared to the 1980s East Village6 (validated by the New Museum’s East Village USA, 2004, organized by Dan Cameron).7 Many of the exhibition spaces in Bushwick were in Exit Art’s historical survey Alternative Histories (2010).8 Art spaces appeared in the East Village in the 1970s, long before the cultural explosion of the 1980s. This may indicate that what we see happening in Bushwick today is just the beginning.
A more apt comparison would be to SoHo, where artists invested in a previously derelict and largely abandoned industrial area, and began their own artist-run galleries. On greater Bushwick, “I think it’s the next SoHo,” says SoHo art historian Richard Kostelanetz (Greater Bushwick 2010) in an interview with Vartanian.9
The key similarity is the fact that artists are investing in Bushwick by buying real estate or taking on long-term leases. Sarah Pappalardo, 26, bought a condo with her partner in Bushwick in 2009 because in the long run, “It’s actually cheaper to hold a mortgage for a boring new condo than pay rent.”
The cultural border continues to change, and neighborhood titles are viciously defended in and around Bushwick, which is neighbored by “East” Williamsburg, Ridgewood, Bed-Stuy, and East New York. Outside of Lower Manhattan, I doubt that there has ever been such hair-splitting over where neighborhoods begin and end. CAPITAL B sponsored an art project on mapping Bushwick: “Fabric Map,” 2007 – 2009.
In keeping with their DIY approach, artists in Bushwick often employ entrepreneurial economic models, like the manifold small businesses opening alongside them. By creating a new forum for exhibitions, and in taking on multiple roles beyond “artist,” they have located one recourse from the power structures of the institutional and commercial art world.
Bushwick Open Studios, the event’s fifth anniversary, organized by Arts in Bushwick, at various locations, June 3 – 5, 2011.
All quotes from interviews with the author, unless otherwise noted.
1 Malanga, Steven. “The Death and Life of Bushwick.” City Journal, Spring 2008, vol. 18, no. 2. http://www.city-journal.org/2008/18_2_bushwick.html
2 Roberts, Sam. “Region Is Reshaped as Minorities Go to Suburbs.” New York Times. December 14, 2010. http://www.nytimes.com/2010/12/15/nyregion/15nycensus.html
3 Braslow, Laura. “A Creative Lens on the 34th District Primary.” BushwickBK, September 21, 2009. http://bushwickbk.com/2009/09/21/a-creative-lens-on-the-34th-district-primary/
4 Truax, Stephen. “Chelsea Gallery Buys Into Bushwick.” BushwickBK. December 20, 2010. http://bushwickbk.com/2010/12/20/chelsea-gallery-buys-into-bushwick/
5 Truax, Stephen. “Major Art Non-Profit Moves to Bushwick.” BushwickBK. May 10, 2011. http://bushwickbk.com/2011/05/10/major-art-non-profit-moves-to-bushwick/
6 Saltz, Jerry. “Art on a Shoestring.” New York Magazine. November 30, 2008. http://nymag.com/arts/all/indie/52571/
7 East Village USA, organized by Dan Cameron. New Museum of Art. 2004. http://www.newmuseum.org/exhibitions/387
8 Alternative Histories. Exit Art, September 24 - November 24, 2010. http://www.exitart.org/exhibition_programs/past_programs/althistories.html
9 Vartanian, Hrag. “Richard Kostelanetz Talks about the L Train.” HyperallergicTV. http://blip.tv/hyperallergic-tv/richard-kostelanetz-talks-about-the-l-train-4456270