“Bushwick is on its own, she doesn’t need our help anymore,” laughed Jason Andrew, co-founder of Norte Maar. “She really doesn’t need our help anymore.” Though neither he nor his partner, Julia K. Gleich, have quit the neighborhood entirely, they’ve taken what to many was a quintessentially Bushwick arts organization (see: Beat Nite, the biannual art party at galleries and studios throughout the neighborhood the organization has begotten) and moved its headquarters to East New York. “Our plight is the same as everybody else’s in New York, we just want to try and find a way to stay here,” Jason said.
Norte Maar’s programming has expanded since it was founded in 2004– the non-profit was originally located in a small town upstate closer to Montreal than Brooklyn– and while most people probably know the small arts organization as the backer of Beat Nite, they’ve had their hand in events happening all over the city and beyond. Those include a dance and choreography program at Socrates Sculpture Park and Brooklyn Combine and a performance in conjunction with the Brooklyn Museum’s borough-centric exhibition earlier this year, Crossing Brooklyn: Art from Bushwick, Bed-Stuy, and Beyond.
Their programming is so varied that sometimes it’s hard to keep up with what Jason and Julia actually do. But they say their central mission as an organization is to provide artists with opportunities for collaboration and visibility, as well as grant the public (but also private collectors and curators) access to artists’ work. “We’re really a very flexible organization,” Julia explained. “The idea of it is built around collaborations.”
Jason spoke of one exhibition, between a place and candy, where artists from the neighborhood were given the opportunity to show their work at a gallery in the city. “We were able to take artists from the neighborhood, who we’ve been showing in the apartment, and give them this major platform in Midtown, so more eyes can see [the work] other than their artist-colleagues.”
What Jason described as “the apartment” is a literal description of Norte Maar’s longtime headquarters in Bushwick. Back in 2006, Jason (who also runs the gallery Outlet Brooklyn) and his husband Norman found an apartment on Wyckoff Street. They moved in, and their home became Norte Maar’s headquarters.
I remember stopping by for my first Bushwick Open Studios years back and feeling like I’d accidentally broken into someone’s apartment. There was a very old but very sweet caramel colored lab named Fern Dog (RIP) moping about who I expected to pounce on me for trespassing. Norte Maar didn’t look like I expected an apartment-gallery to look– which is to say an apartment that looks like a gallery– instead, it looked like an apartment with an unusual amount of artwork inside.
Both founders have fond memories of the place and the neighborhood they found when they arrived. But living in the space wasn’t exactly a dream. They were part of two couples crammed into a two-bedroom apartment that had a leaky roof and problems the landlord refused to fix. “Stuff everyone has to deal with,” Jason said.
“I’m not sure I actually miss that apartment because the landlord and the situation there was so intense,” he recalled. “We were like, ‘Why did we stay here as long as we did?’ But the reason was two-fold: we really enjoyed the community of artists, but at the same time how did we live in a two-bedroom apartment? And how did we keep producing art shows the way we did for so long? There must be something really wrong with us.”
Naturally, Norte Maar started to look elsewhere in Bushwick. But along with the restofus, they found that prices had gone up more than a bit by the Jefferson stop over the last decade. “We looked everywhere and we looked for a long time in Bushwick and we were constantly overbid,” Jason said. “We’re suffering the same kind of fate that a lot of people are facing.”
The most affordable place they could find, in a neighborhood with some green space (“We’re right near Highland Park, I grew up out West, I like big open spaces,” Jason explained) was in Cypress Hills, which is technically a sub-neighborhood of East New York. Julia and Jason, along with their respective husbands, pooled their money together and bought a two-family home on Pine Street, complete with a backyard.
Interestingly, when Norte Maar initially moved to Brooklyn from upstate, choosing Bushwick (like Cypress Hills to some extent) was a matter of convenience, and not necessarily motivated by a sense the neighborhood was where the artists were flocking to. “I was looking for a place to live and, like everyone, you’re trying to find the most inexpensive place so you can live here,” Jason recalled.
When they first arrived in Bushwick, there were few of the bars, restaurants, and vintage shops clustered around the northeast corner of the nabe that exist there today. “At the very beginning, in the summer we had our dance projects and exhibitions upstate and during the year we were doing dinners and artist events and salons,” Jason explained. “Artists would come and talk about their work in our living room.”
Eventually, Jason and Julia came to realize there was a robust art community taking advantage of the neighborhood’s lower rents. “People were saying, ‘There’s a thriving artist community out here, but we don’t know how to access it,’ and I said, ‘Well, let me show you how, with a map,'” Jason recalled. “We started with seven spaces and towards the end there were 42 spaces, so we really helped cultivate access to the art scene there.”
By 2009 there was such a level of proven interest in the Bushwick art scene, Norte Maar founded Beat Nite, a bi-annual one-night-only event where gallerists kept their galleries open after hours and artists opened up their studios to the public who are welcome to ogle the work, speak with artists, and swig a few beers along the way. The event wasn’t just a party with a vaguely artistic bent, it actually connected artists with one another and brought in curious outsiders.
“Part of what Norte Maar did and [what] I did as an independent curator was bring art, and bring people who were interested in the art world— you know, the blue chip art world of galleries in New York— bring them out to give access to these artists,” Jason said. “I wish I had a penny for every person we brought out in a car to Bushwick to see some artists, see the neighborhood.”
Though the program expanded, Jason says it still maintained a commitment to artist-run and alternative spaces. “Beat Nite grew to include a lot of the outskirts more, the periphery of the neighborhood where galleries were really venturing out and continuing the experimental and the alternative,” he recalled.
And while Norte Maar has directly engaged with non-artists and non-art world types–who by the way still make up the bulk of the people living in Bushwick–through intiatives like Authors and Artists, a literacy program that connected local artists with neighborhood kids, art and the artists who create it remain the organization’s major focus.
“We’re exposing artists to whatever community we happen to be in at the time,” explained Julia, who describes Norte Maar as a “nomadic” organization. “It’s always the art that’s the thing. Sometimes things become about just showing the community, but that would be a copout too. It’s about the art, and it’s about elevating as much as exploring.”
Since Norte Maar moved to Bushwick prior to the real estate boom and drastic demographic changes that created problems not just for their neighbors (people who had lived their long before they moved in) but for the organization too, I wondered how Julia and Jason felt about the all too familiar cycle that swept through the Lower East Side and Williamsburg, et. al and is now making its way through Bushwick.
“It’s like any other growing neighborhood, I think. Neighborhoods change, constantly. People were all upset about Times Square when it changed,” Julia recalled. “When I was a little ballerina going up to the American School of Ballet, I used to ride the M104 bus through there and it was, like, really sketchy. When it changed, everybody was upset about it. But it grows and it changes.”
Jason added: “Life is fluxing and it’s changing and moving. To expect a community or a neighborhood or a country or the world to stand still and exist exactly how you walked into it and remain that way when you leave it, it’s [based on] a notion that you can’t participate.”
Julia chimed in again, “We could get very lofty and say it’s not very human to not allow for change, to embrace new ideas.”
I felt there was some avoidance of the g-word going on here, not a perfect word to be sure, but something that’s important to acknowledge.
“A neighborhood might see a group of artists moved in an feel threatened,” Jason said. “When we first moved to Bushwick we were working with Bushwick Impact, which was a social service group for young families. I was witnessing the same plight that these young immigrant families were experiencing with the artists.”
Julia started to disagree, “There are, of course, differences…” before trailing off.
Though they disagreed on a few matters, together Julia and Jason betrayed a fundamental difference between artists and the existing Bushwick community. “You see artists that say, ‘Look I’ve been in New York for so many years, it’s time for me to rotate out and have someone else rotate in,'” Jason said.
“Oh yeah, we used to talk about that: the queue, the line, that New York is a line,” Julia mused. “You wait in line and periodically someone steps out of the line.”
“And someone else gets in,” Jason said.
In July of this year, Norte Maar posted on their blog that they had found a new home in Cypress Hills. “East New York is Brooklyn in the raw,” Jason is quoted as saying.
Now that the organization has settled into their new home-office space, I wondered how they were feeling about the move. “What I immediately felt about the neighborhood was how I felt about Bushwick when I first moved here,” Jason explained. “I see a lot of potential and there’s a lot of space and possibility.” He added that East New York “has an openness,” and that “it’s still an open slate.”
But Julia and Jason are well aware they’re not exactly the first arts organization in their new neighborhood. “There are lots of great social programs in Cypress Hills, there are hundreds,” Jason explained. “There’s already a fantastic arts group out there that’s been running for years, ARTs East New York”– the non-profit behind Re[New] Lots, the artist market and incubator we checked out earlier this year.
“So many organizations out here are beacons that are saying, ‘We’re a great neighborhood, move out here,'” he pointed out. “And maybe we’ve fallen into that. That might be one of our roles. We’re going to be able to collaborate with some of the local entities and hopefully our programming will dovetail with their programming.”
But as of yet, the organization hasn’t planned any Beat Nites in their new neighborhood and doesn’t exactly know how and to what degree they’ll be engaging with the immediate community.
“We like the idea of having a house party a few times a year and having work by artists from the neighborhoods that are connected to us,” Jason said. “But Norte Maar is so busy with some of this other programming… we’d love to bring a Beat Nite to Cypress Hills, but right now in Cypress Hills, there just aren’t enough spaces to produce a neighborhood-wide gallery walk.”
A 1939 painting by Jules Halfant of Martha Graham and her dance company and a photography by Jack Mitchell of Merce Cunningham.
So far, Norte Marr is mulling over the possibility of a short-term artist residency that could function as a “landing pad” for artists. “We want artists to still be able to have access to New York, whether that is partly trying to engage in the neighborhood is sort of irrelevant– we don’t know what that means yet,” Jason said. “But I think just being in the neighborhood– I mean there’s a great Ecuadorian juice place around the corner from us that I don’t think has ever had so much business– you know? You instantly start to engage in the neighborhood that has, like, a cobbler where you can go get your shoes fixed. That stuff doesn’t exist anymore in Bushwick.”
If it sounds like Norte Maar is still struggling to get their footing in the neighborhood, consider that they’ve just arrived and have yet to even have an open house, which they confirmed is definitely happening in the near future. And as for art events, “It’s very difficult for me to go anywhere and not have an art show,” Jason smiled.
While in Bushwick, it’s getting difficult to go anywhere and not find an art show. Or a cocktail bar, or a restaurant with oyster specials, or a boutique, for that matter. “How I began to feel about Bushwick was, your options as a neighborhood change, when a neighborhood develops in the way Bushwick has gone, there become other parts of a market that start to rear their head,” Jason explained. “Spaces that used to be free and open to the artists and free and open to the community now charge an extraordinary fee, so we couldn’t have our warehouse art parties, we couldn’t have our rooftop parties.”
This fall, Norte Maar is popping up Beat Nite in Gowanus (October 16th) and potentially other neighborhoods. Bushwick’s expensive venues are certainly reason enough to look outside, but Norte Maar’s desire to reach into other areas and other art scenes played a role, too.
“The city is so vibrant with so many great opportunities to do things. Ours is a little niche that happened to be Bushwick for quite a while.”