The secret is out: beloved Bushwick art/party space Secret Project Robot, which has featured tons of art and hosted dozens of good shows and parties, will be closing its doors at the end of the summer. Although the news was posted just a week and a half ago, co-director Rachel Nelson doesn’t seem too broken up about it.
“The thing is we just can’t afford to stay there,” Nelson said. “That’s it.”
Perhaps her relaxed approach to the whole thing comes from the fact that the space has been through this closure-reopen cycle before. The Melrose Street location is the third incarnation of Secret Project Robot, making this the third time Nelson and her husband and co-director Erik Zajaceskowski have had to relocate from a neighborhood they got priced out of. Secret Project Robot started as Mighty Robot in 1998 in Williamsburg, when it was mostly used as a party space, before moving to the DIY art space Monster Island under the name Secret Project Robot. Then, in 2011, when Monster Island was demolished, Secret Project Robot moved almost immediately into their current space in Bushwick, which they managed to hold onto for five years. In the past few years, Robot has hosted an impressively wide range of programming, including the first solo installation by Karen O’s designer, the Bushwig drag festival, the Dirty Looks film fest, interdisciplinary pop-ups, surrealist dinner parties, experimental theater, and, of course, the first NYC Porn Film Festival. All that in addition to a slate of boundary-pushing music and art.
Between putting up all this at Robot, running their super-popular Bushwick bar Happyfun Hideaway and the Dekalb Avenue bar/gallery/cafe, Flowers for All Occasions, Nelson and Zajaceskowski are busy. At all three locations, Nelson says, she serves as “the accountant, the janitor, the scheduler, the payrollee, the person who you call when you’re sad or happy, resident therapist, and mom.” She does all this because they don’t have managers—they don’t believe in them—and, even though they’re not-for-profit, they don’t get much in the way of arts funding, so things need to be done cheaply.
The point of all these spaces, especially the two bars, is to “give artists jobs, because one of the best jobs for an artist is to be a bartender,” Nelson said. “Art is a really big part of New York City culture and all of our lives and all of our endeavors have been to sustain the vibrant art cultures in the city.”
But, in a place like New York City, that’s not exactly easy to do. As of right now, Nelson said they don’t know where the next Secret Project Robot will be. They’ve already been priced out of places that, when they got there, seemed like they’d be artist havens forever.
In her announcement, Nelson said she would “not give our landlords a bad name.” The building owner did raise their rent, and yet, she told us, tried to make it work by offering Secret Project Robot a deal that was well below market rate. But even with a good landlord, sticking around is hard to do once the “office workers” move in. Even before the rent hike, Secret Project Robot’s current space was becoming untenable. Between property taxes and utilities and rent, the couple’s other venture, Happyfun Hideaway, has been “supporting Secret Project Robot for the last three years,” Nelson said.
And, just three years into their 15-year lease at Happyfun Hideaway, Nelson said they’ve also noticed that neighborhood getting pricey. It’ll be 12 years before they have to worry too much about that space, but Nelson said Flowers for All Occasions, which only has a five year lease, probably won’t last that long.
With everything in flux like this and rents rising on everything from legitimate retail spaces to lean-tos on the side of Bushwick Avenue, finding a new space is proving more and more difficult. “Unless we’re really lucky, we might have some downtime,” Nelson said. “And when we do find a new space, it’ll definitely not be a giant yard space.”
For now, the plan is to put up one final art exhibit, called “Rainbow Hugs and Kisses: A Doomsday Celebration,” which, starting on July 15, will feature art from the “greatest hits of Secret Project Robot.” Nelson said they also have plans to organize some summer shows and one final blowout before September 1.
Although they don’t know what happens after that, Nelson is confident that they’ll stay in New York. Despite a lack of commercial rent control and the occasional break-in or incidents like the recent one involving a drunk patron at Happyfun that Nelson said “was shamefully sensationalized by the press to seem anywhere close to the tragedy of 50 people being shot and killed,” New York City is still the project’s home.
“One of our things has always been creating a home for artists and making a strong vibrant art community and I think the city needs that more,” Nelson said. “We’re not giving up, but maybe we’re going to have to change the model.”