Wednesday night, Bushwick Open Studios organizers convened at the local community and activist space Mayday, for a “town hall meeting,” and their first coordinated public appearance since Arts in Bushwick (AiB) announced they were moving the annual arts festival from the June date it held for eight years to a later one in October. News of the change-up was shocking for many community members and while some gallerists and artists expressed enormous disappointment, AiB was adamant that the move was intended to bring BOS back to its roots. As the fest’s organizers told us earlier this month, the festival had been “co-opted by many different commercial interests.”
When B+B asked at the meeting if there had been a breaking point, Laura Braslow, a longtime Bushwick resident who’s been involved in organizing BOS for the decade of its existence, told us: “It’s been several years of this trajectory, largely since the end of the recession. There’s stuff that’s happened structurally, but really a lot of those changes that you see in the city as a whole are playing out locally, and we’re trying to figure out how this organization can accomplish its mission in that context.” In short, BOS was suffering not only from a kind of corporate robbery, but also from their own inadequate attempts to reach out to the community as a whole. And in the highly charged atmosphere of a neighborhood in the midst of one of the harsher examples of gentrification in Brooklyn, neither of those things were going to fly for much longer.
The BOS October move has proven to be crazy dramatic. Almost immediately after the revamp was announced in mid-February, an ostensible replacement for BOS emerged seemingly out of nowhere. A shadowy organizer announced that they would continue the summer festival tradition on their own terms with an event called Bushwick Arts Festival. Arts in Bushwick has said it has no connection to this new organizer, and made it clear that BAF seems rather sketchy. In turn, the BAF organizer– who turned out to be Brandon Mickman, the creator of Bushwick Bomb, a neighborhood events-listing site– dismissed BOS as a festival that was run by the “local establishment.” AiB bristled at the term and, at the meeting, were definitely out to demonstrate that they were anything but some inaccessible overlord.
When I arrived at Mayday, six organizers were seated on the stage, legs dangling over the side, in a gesture indicating they wanted to be as close to the audience as possible. These AiB volunteers included at least one newcomer, Anthony Rosado— the Bushwick-born artist and community activist who has spoken out repeatedly against local art organizations for exclusionary practices that fail to recognize and include the neighborhood’s existing community. He seemed at home in his position, and even made a few jokes, at one point playfully snapping at a woman in the audience who made the mistake of suggesting that BOS October was still up in the air. “It’s gonna work!” Rosado corrected her to resounding laughter from the audience.
But Rosado took a serious tone when it came to the new possibilities for BOS, which he understood as undergoing a sea change when it comes to the organization’s interactions with the community. “You’re seeing a completely new team at Arts in Bushwick,” he told the audience. “You’re seeing a team that is really taking Bushwick into consideration, everybody.” While there were some veteran organizers like Laura Braslow present, there has been a considerable shift in the organization’s makeup in recent years. As Bushwick Daily pointed out, four of AiB’s “core members” since 2012 “all departed recently.”
Rosado explained that his mission for BOS was to “increase the modes of outreach” which will involve “knocking on doors, accessing people who do not have access to social media or the website or anything like that, people who can’t speak English, who speak only Spanish.” His speech grew impassioned as Rosado explained how this would benefit not only BOS, but the larger Bushwick community, including those who might have felt in the past that BOS was not for them. “[It’s] so that we can get more native members of the community at these spaces,” he said. “So that we can get people who identify as artists but have never stepped out of their comfort zone to come through and gain the resources that are already in their community.”
The notable addition of Rosado was an example of AiB’s concerted effort to include these “native members of the community” in the BOS operations. As Braslow admitted, when it came to AiB’s historical community outreach efforts, “the effort hasn’t yielded the kind of event that’s as inclusive and reflects the neighborhood as much as we would like it to.” AiB has also brought on longtime community figure Yazmin Colon, the youth organizer behind Educated Little Monsters and the Bushwick Vendor’s Market, to assist in coordinating youth-outreach efforts and programming.
More than anything else, it seems Arts in Bushwick is hoping to accomplish the complex task of keep things in-line with their mission. But first, they’ll have to reclaim ownership of their event which has exploded in not only attendance, but also in corporate presence and unofficial BOS parties. One way AiB believes they can thwart these parasitic forces is by holding the event in October and making no guarantees (until four to six months prior) about when the following BOS will be held. AiB member Nicole Brydson suggested that outside interests taking advantage of the “value created on our backs […] happens more frequently when there’s regularity to your event.” (Though Braslow added that BOS will “probably” take place once again in October of 2017.) “We’re not willing to let other organizations or other businesses use us as a tool for their purposes,” Brydson told the crowd.
Another major message AiB had for the crowd was that the media and inaccurate portrayals of Bushwick Open Studios were partially to blame for what has become a less than stellar reputation for BOS. “In my experience, no matter how much we talk about it and how much we scream about it, people want to see what they want to see, and what they want to see is on the front page of the Styles section in the Times and what they see on postcards from real estate companies,” Braslow told the crowd. “Historically, we’ve only been able to yell about that, but now we’re seeing what we can really, fundamentally do to change the activities so that we can push back and people won’t be able to make those types of assumptions.”
And yet, the organizers didn’t exactly deny that the hard-partying reputation was completely false. Braslow recalled “Pioneers of Bushwick,” an exhibition by local artist Daryl-Ann Saunders that included her series of portrait depicting elderly Bushwick residents. “I sat there for two hours and a million people came through, but none of them were the people that were going to the parties at the Morgan stop,” she laughed. “There’s nothing wrong with going to a party, but I don’t want to spend thousands of hours of my life promoting parties that then enrich party promoters. That’s not my goal, and that’s not the goal of anyone volunteering to do this work.”
To be fair, as someone who perused the BOS options of years past, and attended several iterations of the festival, it was always difficult to distinguish between the events that were officially run by Arts in Bushwick and the off-shoot programming. According to AiB, this is something they’re seeking to correct. One of the more practical measures they’re taking is to have a more guarded policy about their branding and logos. “What we found is that we had numerous people using our branding and our name to promote their own interests,” Braslow explained. “And that’s not just wrong from our perspective, but dangerous for our organization because we’re diluting one of our main assets, and we’re letting what we do get taken and reconstructed by interests that have nothing to do with us.”
It seems that Arts in Bushwick has been open to participation and community-involvement to a fault, and in the process of trying to be welcoming, they inadvertently let in some self-interested actors. Still, members of the organization remain committed to this policy of openness and seemed confident in their ability to restore focus on their original intentions. Braslow told me that she and Rosado had pulled up old news articles from the early years of BOS and were impressed– those depictions, she said, were accurate in their recognition of AiB’s aims. “They still hold up today,” she said. Apparently, the message was even getting through to the media back then.
But this calls for the continuation of their “totally open platform.” So what, exactly, besides Rosado’s outreach and Colon’s youth organizing, will BOS be doing to be open to the right people (as Rosado described them, “those who have loving investment in Bushwick and non-selfish investment in Bushwick”)? Braslow seemed to have an answer in acknowledging that, “Accessibility is not enough,” she said. “It’s always been accessible. The problem is, that ‘open’ doesn’t feel like it’s actually welcoming, and [‘open’] is not doing the work to bring people in.” In terms of practical policy, this can be achieved by “getting more people like Anthony [Rosado] involved, who are native residents, who can speak to their communities and bring credibility and do that work to bring people in, and make the organization look and feel more inclusive to the folks in the neighborhood.”
That’s one reason why the BOS Community Day Festival will be sticking around in June. After all, summertime is the perfect time for hanging outside with your neighbors. “It’s a way of turning our backs to all that partying and saying, ‘The partying that is going to happen is going to be more inclusive,'” Rosado explained.
Braslow spoke to the “complexities” of the situation in Bushwick, where gentrification has rattled the predominantly Latino community and displaced longtime residents’ family members and neighbors. “I can’t tell you how many waves of new people come in and think they’re discovering something, that they know the answers,” she said. In order to stay true to the original Arts in Bushwick mission, the organization is going to have to accomplish the complicated task of reclaiming ownership of BOS, an event that’s exploded in not only attendance, but also in corporate presence and unofficial BOS parties, all of which send mixed messages under the guise of Bushwick Open Studios.
It’s clear that BOS has transformed over the years, changing right along with the neighborhood. Braslow spoke to just how dramatic the change has been. “In the early years, we had an opening party and a closing party and a cabaret on Saturday,” she recalled. “And [those] were spaces for artists who had done work that day to come and hang out together at the end of a long weekend.” While BOS creates the map and coordinates organizational efforts for group exhibitions and in the past has invited other community groups to create their own BOS events, Braslow said that officially Arts in Bushwick only “produces a few events.” In recent years, “more than 500 registered events” took advantage of the BOS “open platform” system to register their own events, clogging up the weekend with parties, after-parties, pre-parties and, you know, a few art-related events too.
And yet openness is an essential part of AiB’s operations and is essential in light of its all-volunteer makeup. I asked if there would be a more rigorous screening process this time around. “It’s under discussion,” Sharilyn Neidhardt told me, declining to comment any further. AiB also declined to comment on whether party promoters had reached out to them for the October fest.
It became very clear just how difficult it might be to balance an open-door policy with doubling down on the AiB mission when artist Rafael Fuchs, owner of Fuchs Projects, spoke up at the meeting. Donning a fedora and a thick accent (Fuchs is Israeli), he was immediately met with attempts to cut him off. “I wanted to discuss something about the 200 most influential people,” Fuchs started, referring to the impassioned protest he faced earlier this year with his proposed list of the 200 most influential people in Bushwick. He was immediately met with a reminder of the meeting’s purpose. “I come in peace,” he implored in a sarcastic tone. “I’m wondering how does a person get to be over there, with you?”
It was Braslow who responded: “Just to be clear, this is a non-hierarchical, all-volunteer organization, so people who want to get involved, volunteer, get involved,” she said. “In terms of bringing your own ideas, we would love to hear them. We are vetting all proposals in light of our mission, so ideas that are not consistent with our mission and vision will not be taken up by the organization.”
As for parties at BOS redux? “There may very well be parties in October,” Braslow admitted. Neidhart spoke up as well. “We’re looking for an event that’s much more than a party, that meets more needs on many different levels– participating, including, being ambassadors, making connections.”
Stay tuned to the Arts in Bushwick website for more Bushwick Open Studios October meetings. Important dates: registration for AiB website updates is open through this weekend, to be included in printed BOS 2016 map register by August 15, and August 1 is the deadline for group show submissions.