Escaping from the Art Market

05/27/2009 4:00 AM |

The world’s oldest art fair, the Venice Biennale, opens its gilded doors on Sunday for the 53rd time since 1894, but here in Brooklyn another centuries-old art tradition continues with the weekend-long Bushwick Open Studios and Arts Festival (BOS). Where the former is a vaguely nationalist canonizing ceremony for participating countries’ top artists, the not-for-profit arts festival in Bushwick conforms nearly perfectly to our romantic fantasies about what an arts community ought to be. In other words, these two huge events are pretty nearly opposite extremes on the spectrum between art-for-profit and art-for-art’s sake. We all know what happened to Soho, though, so how realistic is it to idolize New York’s newest pioneering art community as the antithesis of commercial art?

“I hope that Bushwick will remain sustainable and resist transforming into a commercial market for art speculators, developers, and moguls,” Steve Weintraub, co-founder of Arts in Bushwick (AIB), the non-hierarchical, all-volunteer group that has organized the BOS since 2006, explained via-email. Weintraub – who holds degrees from Oberlin and NYU and manages a gallery in Chelsea – doesn’t exactly fit with the starving bohemian paradigm. Unlike many members of AIB, Weintraub doesn’t produce art either. “I am not an artist in the traditional sense,” he notes, “although I am a major arts supporter!” Still, part of what has set Bushwick apart from art districts in Manhattan and even its northern neighbor Williamsburg is that its appeal comes from the community it fosters rather than the commercial interest it attracts.

That’s not to say that artists in Bushwick don’t sell their work, but that they don’t absolutely need to do so in order to keep working. As Chloë Bass, who works on AIB’s performance art and community-oriented projects, put it: “our goal is for Bushwick to develop as a sustainable community.” That doesn’t mean becoming urban farmers – although, presumably, that would jive nicely with the neighborhood’s image – simply that its artists want to be able to complete their projects without depending on external cash. “We’re entirely financed by support from local businesses and donations,” Bass pointed out, “and we’ve never applied for a grant.”

Of course, the turnover time between when an arts community claims to be a creative not-for-profit group and the day it turns into a commercial gallery district is getting shorter every decade, so stubbornly claiming that that won’t happen seems, well, a little naïve. “I think we’re slowly moving away from a DIY model,” Bass conceded, “towards a more formal organization that doesn’t depend on an all-volunteer workforce.” Still, she and Weintraub see this as the Bushwick art scene’s greatest strength. “It’s something of a self-selecting group,” Bass continues, “you only get as much from it as you’re willing to put in, and ultimately only the most passionate people stick around.” Weintraub echoes the sentiment: “If we all work together, we can achieve something larger than the small projects we would have realized separately.”

Bushwick’s self-feeding goal might have become slightly more viable with the recession, too. Other arts districts where galleries have to pay steep rents are seeing new “For Rent” signs popping up every week, but, as a trip to craigslist will show you, space in Bushwick is still relatively cheap. “Bushwick has become a place where artists can afford to both live and work,” Weintraub writes, “In this respect, the recession is a positive thing, as it will help to slow the rampant growth of the neighborhood and keep rental prices affordable.” It’s not just artists dealing with rising rents, of course.

Bushwick’s dramatic turnaround from a desolate urban war zone in 1990 to a rising working-class neighborhood and long shot yuppie outpost at the beginning of the aughts has engendered a not always smooth gentrification process. “We are working with local community leaders,” Weintraub writes, “to make sure that longtime residents and the more recent artist community can aid each other as we both grow together.” If that sounds like code for “Bushwick hipsters are trying to be a little more sensitive to the locals whose rents they’re raising than their Williamsburg counterparts,” well, that’s pretty accurate. Still, Bushwick has managed to remain fairly affordable and wild – Gawker listed it as “Marginal” on their degentrification map.

So what does this all mean for the art you’ll see at the BOS this weekend? Well, lots of collaborative projects by artists living and working in shared spaces. “When the artists choose to open up their studios,” Weintraub points out, “they are opening up their lives for the public to walk into to, literally, as their studio is often their living room or bedroom.” Expect a fair share of big, ambitious, rough around the edges installations, sculptures, drawings, videos, performances and paintings with politicized and radical agendas, like Aurora Robson’s trippy, bug-like, mobile sculptures made from plastic bottles (pictured).

As Bass notes: “We try to always go as big as possible, branching out in all directions. We’re very much into spectacles.” And those don’t only take the form of visual art. There will be a mini-golf course, dance, theater, screenings, sample sales, readings and receptions. For her part, Bass will be participating in a cabaret performance she’s organized at Starr Space (108-110 Starr St) on Saturday night (7:40pm, $5 suggested donation). It may have been programmed more loosely than its corporate Venetian antithesis, but the BOS has all the breadth and variety of a major art fair.

For a full schedule and map of the BOS events and exhibitions taking place throughout Bushwick today through Sunday, click here.