Laura Braslow, left, and Steve Weintraub of Arts in Bushwick. — Photos by Aaron Short
Last Wednesday, Steve Weintraub of Arts in Bushwick found himself sitting on a panel at the Brooklyn Museum of Art, discussing the future of collecting in Brooklyn and slightly wondering why he was there.
He sat next to Pierogi Gallery’s Joe Amhrein, Danny Simmons, founder of the Rush Philanthropic Arts Foundation and the Corridor Gallery in Brooklyn. In the audience were about three dozen museum patrons and Brooklyn gallery owners, as well as a handful of young staff members from auction houses like Sotheby’s and Christie’s. Not exactly the crowd of young collectors that the museum anticipated would come.
Weintraub sighed as the moderator spoke about arts patronage and sustainability of artists in Brooklyn. He was invited to sit on the panel to talk about Bushwick Open Studios, the still-nascent, do-it-yourself arts festival that engulfs Bushwick, East Williamsburg, and Ridgewood each year in early June (June 5-7).
Bushwick Open Studios has grown substantially from previous years, with over 225 unique events in more than 125 buildings during the three-day festival. Nearly every event is free. This year, the festival will include the first ever Bushwick Biennial with participating galleries including NurtureArt, English Kills, Pocket Utopia, and Grace Exhibition Space, a highly touted street art opening at Factory Fresh, a collection of dance performances at Chez Bushwick, theater at the Bushwick Starr, panel discussions about community murals and city housing and zoning policies, comedy at 114 Forrest Street, and parties at 3rd Ward and several other spaces.
The highlight remains the artwork and the individual open studios in lofts and apartments scattered through the neighborhood that will showcase them. The spaces, whether an individual’s work studio or the product of the vision of a curator, have the potential to delight, disgust, shock, and perturb, sometimes all at once.
"I don’t think Bushwick is about galleries or spaces," said Weintraub after the panel concluded. "It’s about collaborative projects and going to see art without having to define what art is."
Weintraub is one of about a dozen active members of Arts in Bushwick. Laura Braslow, who assists with the group’s media and volunteer relations, provides much of the policy framework for the group, and she has been building ties with local nonprofit institutions, community leaders, and urban planners to foster dialogue about the long-term effects of artists living and working in Bushwick. Graphic designer Laura Cline has more than anyone else shaped the iconography of the AIB brand, developing the logo for each festival and, along with Andrew Cornell Robinson, designing a user-friendly program in print and on the web. Artists such as Maggie Pounds, Meghan Beach, and Ali Aschman, curators such as Paul D’Agostino and performers such as Chloe Bass and Lee Mandel give the festival the credibility of being artist-driven and tap into a widespread network of like-minded neighborhood artists and performers to participate.
Weintraub, who works as an assistant in a contemporary art gallery in Chelsea, helps shape the festival’s soul. A curator at heart, he believes Bushwick art is more about the social spaces, not necessarily gallery spaces, which allow artists to experiment with their work without the pressure of having to sell pieces in a commercial setting or face reviews from a critical audience. The informal atmosphere is also more relaxed for budding collectors who can meet artists, see and discuss their work, and buy from them directly — something like a grocery shopper who visits farmers at the city’s greenmarkets.
"The gallery world may be counterproductive to what artists in Bushwick are doing," said Weintraub. "Just because you have to make art doesn’t mean you have to sell it. Bushwick artists make art because they have to."
Braslow agrees, saying that while some artists have will have their work available for purchase during the festival, many of the studio installations will not have pieces that are for sale or even contain sellable works in the first place.
"We encourage artists to do what they want to do," said Braslow. "In these times, it would be great if they sold some work but it’s not a primary focus of the event from my perspective."
Of course, as many members of Arts in Bushwick have said repeatedly, BOS is not about buying and selling works of art or about visitors discovering cheap places to eat and drink in the neighborhood. The twin goals of the festival, espoused by Weintraub and Braslow, are to create a collaborative environment for artists to show their work and to ensure the long-term sustainability of artists living and working in Bushwick.
The goals are symbiotic. When artists collaborate in exhibitions at events such as Bushwick Open Studios, they become engaged beyond the borders of their lofts and begin to think about other ways of becoming involved with their community.
"The event grew out of desire for artists in the community to show work and drive an audience," said Bralsow, "People participate in BOS for a million different reasons. It’s not for our organization to say why anybody does or should participate."
This year, Braslow hopes to draw more attention on the legislative strategies regarding housing and zoning, which can ensure the continued presence of the arts and industry in Bushwick. On Saturday, June 6 at the Bushwick Branch of the Brooklyn Public Library (340 Bushwick Avenue), she will join Councilwoman Diana Reyna, Make the Road New York’s Executive Director Oona Chatterjee, El Puente’s Executive Director Luis Garden Acosta, and NYIRN and NAG Co-Chair Michael Freedman Schnapp to discuss just that (Full Disclosure: I am moderating this panel).
Braslow knows that the festival can be a tool to organize artists and connect them to the broader issues facing the neighborhood long after the studios close and the artwork is removed from the walls.
"There’s a myth that artists are transient and aren’t interested in having a stake in their neighborhood," she said. "In many cases that’s not true. We want to be connected and responsible to other groups in the neighborhood as well and work towards a sustainable future. As members of the arts-identified community, we feel a responsibility to try a new approach."
The most common critique Arts in Bushwick has heard, touched on by Tom Robbins in the Village Voice, is that the festival promotes sustainability but events like the arts parade and gallery openings can be co-opted by savvy real estate marketers and developers looking to sell comparatively inexpensive apartments to people looking for the next hot neighborhood. The criticism singes Braslow, who believes that "to do nothing in the wake of developer-driven displacement is a mistake" and that "it is better to work towards a solidarity-based sustainability agenda."
Weintraub does not disagree. With the advent of Bushwick Open Spaces, the neighborhood has been branded as a cultural landmark that welcomes collaboration artistically and politically, and not just a place for finding affordable artwork, delicious food, and cheap apartments. Whispers at the BMA panel about the energy of artists creating new work in Bushwick pierced through an anxious discussion about the future of Brooklyn art and conversations about how artists sustain themselves were often finished by Weintraub’s insights.
"Politics is important, but the art has to come first," said Weintraub. "People are ready to be political as long as the framework is ready for them to use it. Artists shouldn’t have to worry about living in illegal housing, but I still have questions about how to go about solving that."