With Bushwick Open Studios just a couple of weeks away, the landlord of 17-17 Troutman Street — one of the annual festival’s anchors — has demanded that four galleries vacate the building, telling a fifth that it can no longer use its space to display art to the public.
Regina Rex, the first gallery to open in the commercial property that takes up a full block on the border of Bushwick and Ridgewood, was also the first of the group to leave. Its operators — recently listed among the 100 Most Influential People in Brooklyn Culture — locked up for good on Saturday. Others targeted for closure are Parallel Art Space, Harbor, Underdonk, and Ortega y Gasset Projects.
Angelina Gualdoni, one of Regina Rex’s 13 curators, said that six weeks ago its landlord David Steinberg sent an email saying it had to leave by the end of May. Both Ortega y Gasset Projects co-founding member Leeza Meksin and one of the 10 artists in the Underdonk collective said that their galleries had been given until the end of June to make their respective exits.
Underdonk’s operators moved into the building — which also houses 90 art studios — in January of 2013. Six months later they turned their workspace into a studio/gallery. “We didn’t think it would be a problem because there are already so many galleries here,” said a member of the collective who spoke anonymously. “But I guess that started to be a problem for the landlord.”
About two months ago, Steinberg told Underdonk it would need to leave, our source said. “I don’t think he sees the benefit of what the artist-run spaces bring to the neighborhood. We’re a destination as a group of spaces.”
Alta Buden, co-director of Harbor, said that about three weeks ago the gallery got a phone call giving it a firm eviction date of June 15. Harbor’s lease, which is in Buden’s name, ended in December. Buden said that Steinberg put a freeze in place, preventing any of the building’s tenants from renewing their leases. In the months since, Harbor has continued paying its old rent of $1,290, which Buden splits with her two co-directors.
Parallel Art Space curators Enrico Gomez and Rob de Oude — also listed in Brooklyn Magazine’s 100 Most Influential People in Brooklyn Culture — said they received an email from Steinberg on Tuesday, May 6 stating that they needed to terminate the gallery half of their gallery/studio. Several days later, with the help of a lawyer, they drafted a response telling Steinberg that he can’t renege on the terms of the original three-year lease, which ends in early 2015.
“We have been operating as a gallery/art studio the whole time,” Gomez said, adding that Steinberg was well aware of it. “What’s next? ‘I do not like blue, so you cannot paint in blue. I don’t like landscapes, so you can’t paint in landscapes.’ It’s just opinions.”
According to Gomez and Buden, Steinberg was initially supportive of galleries in the building, helping to build Parallel’s walls and hang Harbor’s lights. “At last year’s Open Studios, he seemed like a very happy man because of all the people in the building,” said de Oude, who cleaned up alongside Steinberg that evening.
The landlord’s relationship with his tenants hadn’t always been rosy. In October 2007, The New York Times reported that firefighters with sledgehammers ejected nearly 200 residents from the building due to numerous fire-code violations. At the time, the building had racked up more than $20,000 in fines, in part because two floors had been illegally converted into live-work space.
Department of Buildings records show that in December of that year, Steinberg applied to convert part of the building into artist studios and commercial lofts. The plan for new plumbing, partitions, and means of egress would’ve cost $30,000, according to an estimate on the construction application, but a permit was denied.
This past January, the DOB again received a complaint that the commercial building was being illegally used for residential purposes. In March, the city leveled a $500 fine for the infraction and demanded that Steinberg get a proper certificate of occupancy.
According to those who spoke to us, Steinberg began voicing concerns about the galleries this past winter. A major issue was security. When the galleries have openings, a huge number of people came to the three-story building. Gallery employees are able to buzz visitors through the front entrance, but not through the stairwell entrances. Instead of leaving their galleries unattended while they walked down a long corridor to let in guests, the artists shared the security code liberally.
Representatives from the five galleries met, came up with ways to appease Steinberg, and then presented him with a list of new policies they’d instill. From now on, the galleries would schedule their shows for the same night, so that representatives from each could take turns guarding the door. Also, because Steinberg did not like people in the building late at night, they volunteered to have future shows from 6 p.m. to 9 p.m., starting and ending an hour earlier. In addition, the group put up a sign to prevent people from congregating on the roof.
“When we spoke later, he seemed really pleased with the changes,” Buden said. “I thought everything was fine.”
Meksin of Ortega y Gasset said she thinks Steinberg — who didn’t return our calls and wasn’t in his office when we visited the property over the weekend — views the galleries not as a neighborhood asset, but as liabilities that draw unwanted attention to the building. When the galleries had their last group show in late February, an estimated 1,000 people attended, said Harbor’s Buden.
Worrying that their visitors would get trapped in the locked stairwell wasn’t the only criticism the gallerists had regarding the upkeep of the building. Certain building entrances were non-functioning, and additional stairwells were not accessible. There was no garbage collection the week before 2013’s Bushwick Open Studio, said de Oude. Others complained about a lack of regular cleaning schedule and the occasional lack of running water in the bathrooms, which every tenant said were filthy. “The bathrooms are almost public bathrooms for people in the neighborhood, it’s disgusting,” said de Oude.
The forced closure of the galleries is complicated by the fact that several of the gallerists also have studios in the building and are trying to hold on to the affordable spaces. Regina Rex itself did not have a lease, according to Gualdoni. Instead, some individual artists (a combination of Regina Rex members and non-members) who were listed on the lease made the space available for the gallery’s use.
Ortega y Gasset had been subletting its space from two artists who are the official tenants (one of whom, Max Warsh, is a Regina Rex curator). Meksin said that she and Ortega y Gasset have a two-year sublease set to expire in early 2015 (when the lease itself expires). If the gallery stayed where it currently is, she said, that could potentially jeopardize Warsh’s studio space in the building. Meksin said she has spent the past two months looking for spaces, but so far she has been outbid four times.
After Underdonk closes its gallery, its members will still have their studio space, said one of them who spoke anonymously.
Among the artists who keep studios in the building but not galleries, one said he was on good terms with Steinberg and another said she hadn’t been asked to leave. But others haven’t been so lucky. Lisa Corinne Davis, a professor of Art Painting & Combined Media at Hunter College, initially had no complaints about her landlord. “For years if I needed him, I’d text him. I never had anyone—forget a landlord—respond to me as quickly as David used to respond to me. It’s like, ‘Oh I have a mouse in my studio,’ ‘I’ll be right there,’ that kind of thing. I mean, couldn’t have been nicer.”
Then last spring, Davis said she and all of her co-tenants received an email notifying them that everyone’s rent would now carry a $150 surcharge for trash removal. The tenants formed a Facebook group as a discussion forum, and there Davis told her neighbors to ignore the new surcharge. “He used that comment against me,” she said. A few months later, she said, she was informed that her five-year lease — which doesn’t expire until this November — would not be renewed.
In January, she stopped paying her rent so that she and Steinberg would meet in court. Last week, she said, she was credited $6,000 for past paid heating and utility bills, because neither heating nor utilities are in her lease. She plans to move out in June.
“It’s not a new story, what’s going on with David. He’s not the first landlord to do this. I went through the Soho thing, the Chelsea thing, the Williamsburg thing, and now it’s the Bushwick thing. This is what happens. Artists go into neighborhoods that aren’t likeable, and they make them appealing and then they’re out. This is a cycle and you get used to it. But unfortunately, the sad part is that I really thought David was different.”
Like Davis, most of the galleries are resigned to leaving — but not closing. “At this point it’s like who wants to be in a place where you’re not wanted?” Buden said. “I’m hoping we can all move somewhere near each other–the best thing about it was the community.” Buden would like to keep her studio in the building, but she doesn’t think Steinberg will renew her lease.
This summer, Regina Rex will host shows at Bunker 259 in Greenpoint and Knockdown Center in Flushing. “While we did not expect to transition out of this space at this moment,” Gualdoni said, “it has been clear to us for a while that we were in need of a more suitable location.”
During the first two days of Bushwick Open Studios (which goes from May 30 to June 1), Underdonk will host a benefit to raise money for a new location. Between 40 and 50 artists will give small artworks, with each receiving a commission of their choice. The gallery’s artists plan to host a series of pop-up studios as they search for their next home.