Friday, January 20, 2012

Bushwick Confronts Itself in Panel on Art Scene's Future

Posted By on Fri, Jan 20, 2012 at 10:35 AM

I wasnt trying to take the worst picture imaginable of last nights panel, but somehow I did.
  • I wasn't trying to take the worst picture imaginable of last night's panel, but somehow I did.

Last night members of the Bushwick arts community—its early adapters and its relative newcomers, its gallerists, artists and artist-gallerists, its landlords and its leaders, its bloggers and its bar proprietors—filled The Bogart Salon, one of many new art spaces to move into 56 Bogart Street in the last year, a conspicuous concentration and densification of the neighborhood's burgeoning gallery scene that, in many ways, was the impetus for the evening's panel, Confronting Bushwick. Moderated by Hrag Vartanian, founder and editor-in-chief of art blogazine Hyperallergic, the panel featured Deborah Brown, artist and owner of Storefront Bushwick, Thomas Burr Dodd, artist and owner of Brooklyn Fireproof, Carolina A. Miranda, art critic and arts journalist for WNYC and Artnews, and Marco Antonini, director of Nurture Art. Nobody knew exactly what to expect from the evening's discussion, but (almost) everyone seemed very pleased with the way things went.

Bogart Salon director Peter P. Hopkins, while introducing the panelists, made sure to characterize each as both an observer/critic of the scene and a resident or active participant in it, hinting at one of the qualities that later speakers would characterize as the community's distinctive interdisciplinarity, its entrepreneurial self-sufficiency and its alternative economy. "We understand we're in this moment when Bushwick is emerging," Hopkins said, "and what does this mean?"

Miranda, who recently filed a soon-to-be-published article on the Bushwick scene, grappled with this question first, citing a conversation with longtime Williamsburg resident and recent Bushwick transplant Fred Tomaselli, who told her that he missed the more underground, word-of-mouth nature of that earlier neighborhood's heyday. "It's a very professionalized gallery scene," she said. "This isn't the art world, this is the art industry... this is where the entry-level workers of the art industry live."

Though she avoided using "the G word," much of the ensuing conversation concerned the ways in which the gentrification of Bushwick will or will not proceed differently from the way it has in other areas. "We've seen a lot things happen in Williamsburg that are going to happen here," said Antonini, whose non-profit gallery left Williamsburg last year to move into the basement of the building where last night's panel took place. This seemingly sudden shift, the sense that Bushwick has reached critical mass in the past 18 months or so, seemed to be nearly universally shared. "This stuff has been going on under the surface for so long," said Brown, "but we're only now seeing the outwards manifestations of that."

Brown, an artist, owner of a building and a gallery in the neighborhood, and a board member at Nurture Art, is also on the local Community Board (CB4), a position that made her uniquely qualified to speak on the scene's relationship to city government, but also to the rest of the neighborhood's 100,000+, predominantly Latino residents. "The Community Board never talked about this community until a few months ago," she said. "Now it's all anxiety and fear."

From her time on CB4, Brown characterized the neighborhood's residents as fundamentally split into three groups: the longtime Latino residents, the newly (sometimes illegally) immigrated from Central and South America, and the art community. "I think we need to be sensitive to what's here," offered Dodd, "and give something to the community." But ideas for how to foster exchange between these groups living side by side proved scarce. "The arts community doesn't create blue-collar jobs," said Miranda. "This is not a shipyard, this is not a brewery, this is not a factory." From the audience, artist William Powhida volunteered: "I moved out here in 2008 and I still feel like an occupier, in the bad way."

As the discussion opened up to include the audience things tended more towards anecdotes and claims of old-timer credibility, but there was a palpable sense of widely-shared concern for the ongoing vitality and sustainability of this scene that so long seemed to be building momentum, and now has shifted into overdrive. "This seemed like a watershed moment to me," said Paddy Johnson of the concentration of galleries at 56 Bogart—a subject she addressed in a well-circulated blog post.

How, then, to preserve this community in the midst of such rapid and widespread change? "If you want a cautionary tale," Powhida said, "Pierogi (in Williamsburg) is a place that has stayed true; it wasn't washed away in the tide of money." Jason Andrew, who runs the arts organization and gallery Norte Maar in his apartment, concurred with this sentiment about staying true to a scene's origins. He warned: "The one thing that kills Bushwick is organization. That's what killed Williamsburg, the weekly gallery nights. What keeps Bushwick interesting is the spontaneity."

Irritatingly, but appropriately, the night's final comment came from an artist and gentrification fatalist in the audience, who was convinced he'd awakened everyone to some harsh, heretofore uncontemplated and incontrovertible truth: "There's no stopping it." Though many rolled their eyes at this, in some way it seemed to galvanize the community gathered there last night to the stakes of this confrontation and the expectations of those watching it unfold from the outside.

Speaking to me after the panel, Ted Hovivian, the landlord at 56 Bogart who has encouraged so many galleries to relocate there, illuminated what was for me a crucial blind spot in the evening's discussion, the question of zoning—which is so significant in the narrative of Williamsburg's development. "Until the zoning laws change," he said, "the neighborhood won't change that much. And the city is very reluctant to change the zoning; they want to keep this area industrial." Though this suggests some security for the neighborhood's character, it may do little to slow the monetization of its art community, most clearly epitomized by the imminent opening of Chelsea gallery Luhring Augustine's outpost two blocks away—what Brown called "the big gorilla."

That strange development, which nobody last night seemed able to explain, inverts the movement many saw as the Williamsburg scene's death blow, when galleries began moving to Chelsea. Gallerist (and L Mag contributor) Paul D'Agostino, never without an apt quotation, offered one to all of us trying to anticipate how closely or not Bushwick's development will mimic that of previous art communities like Williamsburg or Soho: "I've heard it said that 'history doesn't repeat itself, but it rhymes,' and I think that's relevant here."

Follow Benjamin Sutton on Twitter @LMagArt

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