For Luis Martin, the curator of a small gallery project inside East Williamsburg’s Brooklyn Brush Studios called Paranthesis Art Space, this last weekend was the culmination of a yearlong effort, but also an exercise in keeping chill and carrying on. Just a few months before he was set to open Parallel Lives– a double-venue show featuring seven artists who traveled here from Chicago and five who traveled there from New York– it was announced that Bushwick Open Studios was canceling its regular June festivities, and moving its artist-focused event to a later date in October. “When Arts in Bushwick decided not to do the summer event, there was no centrality, no direction,” he said. Like many other artists in the area, Martin said he’d been “counting on the Bushwick Open Studios crowd.”
As we’ve seen, a number of efforts, including the Bushwick Arts Festival, have since stepped forward to either fill the vacuum or declare that things would sorta, kinda proceed as they always have. And so these last few days were a major test to see whether the absence of Bushwick Open Studios would be sorely missed or hardly noticeable. As we found out, it went both ways. Of course, that all depended on where you were looking.
The show was definitely still going on the first weekend in June– at least, that’s the line we were fed by both a less-than-transparent newcomer on the neighborhood art scene and a relatively long-standing crew whose very mission, conversely, is to be as visible as possible. This last weekend, Bushwick Arts Festival and the Bushwick Collective Block Party were held independently and with wildly different results, but both were hoping to maintain a similar BOS vibe throughout the weekend and did so to varying degrees of success.
On Saturday, the block party raged on. People spilled out of the triangular intersection of Troutman, Scott, and Saint Nicholas Ave, milling through the crush of live bands, street art demonstrations, and art booths. With the weather throwing unimpeded sunshine on their backs, the Bushwick Collective had done well in drawing the crowds. No surprise there– they’ve succeeded in doing so for the past five years.
However, the display was a remarkably toned-down and concentrated one compared to BOS of recent years, when hoards of party promoters, corporate hangers-on, and party bros descended on the event in increasingly large numbers. All of that contributed to Arts in Bushwick’s decision to move the fest, part of an effort to restore integrity to what, over the last decade of its existence, had been a community-oriented festival, but whose periphery had become a bloated, weekend-long block party that had little to do with art and everything to do with a changing neighborhood and corporate hijacking. (However, AiB still went forward with their annual Community Day on Sunday. Check out their Instagram to see how it went.)
According to Brandon Mickman, a local web developer behind the Bushwick Bomb (a local event listings site which describes itself as an “opinionated source on the most interesting music and happenings near or relevant to the Bushwick transplant universe”) and the organizer behind the Bushwick Arts Festival, his event would “provide a new opportunity for a large scale open studios event” while refusing to “exclude artists that do not reside or work in Bushwick.” Mickman wrote, in an effort to clarify the purpose of his festival, that the best way to move forward from “gentrification and displacement” was to “reinforce the community of artists and the work we do.” BAF, then, would be a way “to boldly assert our presence, to boldly acknowledge Bushwick as an international hub for artistic production, and boldly to advocate for the arts.” (Mickman was not immediately available for comment regarding the results of BAF.)
Not surprisingly, many in the community were highly skeptical of Mickman’s true intentions from the beginning. For one, BAF had failed to reach out to Arts in Bushwick and many prominent members of the arts and activist community, which AiB (in a statement released to B+B back in March) worried was evidence that the BAF organizers were “creating a simulation of our community as a commercial space for outsiders or newcomers in the neighborhood who do not know the decade long history of Bushwick Open Studios.” And in the absence of clear understanding about where BAF had even come from, it was plausible that the fest was an effort to keep the commercial interests, like party promoters and the like, in business.
While we expected to see at least some evidence that Bushwick Arts Festival was carrying on over the weekend, we were surprised to see little to no indication that this “festival” even existed outside of the grandiose declarations made by Mickman on Bushwick Bomb. For one, we saw zero signage around Bushwick– no flyers, no posters, nothing reading “Bushwick Arts Festival.” Instead, we found a plethora of flyers and social media promotion for independent open studio efforts, like the one happening at Brooklyn Brush Studios.
Attendees, if you could even use that term for the people we found browsing various studios and small-time galleries, were either unaware that they were actually participating in an official BAF event, or had no idea that Bushwick Open Studios had been moved to a later date. Not one person I spoke to pointed to either the Bushwick Bomb or BAF as a source for information or reason for how they’d ended up at an opening or open studio. And anyway, it would have been hard to tell who was where for what reason– the Bushwick Collective had themselves encouraged artists to open up their studios during the weekend, seeing as the block party had limited booths available for local artists. When I stopped by other participating venues like Cotton Candy Machine, nothing seemed to be out of place from the “art boutique’s” normal function at all.
On Saturday, we found a woman named Liane roaming the halls with a friend at Brooklyn Brush Studios’ 203 Harrison Place location. Taking a break from the festivities at the Bushwick Collective Block Party, the pair had decided to spend their late afternoon wandering around the area, which was how they found the sign advertising open studios. “It was a last minute thing running in here,” she explained. (Brooklyn Brush also advertised their own independent open studios event on Facebook.)
Jessica Ellis, a painter and Bushwick resident who has had her studio at Brooklyn Brush for the last two years, entertained a few guests while we spoke, but was generally sipping her bottle of red wine alone. She estimated that, from Friday through Saturday afternoon, something like 40 visitors had stopped by her tiny room occupied by two paintings and a palette covered in oils. Not one person, she maintained, had pointed to BAF. “Some people did mention the block party, though,” Ellis recalled.
Luis Martin, whose private studio is just down the way, adjacent to the dedicated Paranthesis space, pointed out that Brooklyn Brush was lucky in that, as a large cluster of artist workspaces just off the Jefferson stop, they were better able to attract visitors. “We have 150 studios here, so we have that core,” he explained from inside his studio, where the Chicago artists were sipping wine amongst Martin’s collage work. “It’s more difficult for individual studios, but we have that ecosystem of sorts.” And yet, only a few of the studios were open throughout the large building. When I stopped by the only two other spaces that appeared to be open inside Brooklyn Brush on Saturday afternoon, artist Annesta Le’s neon work space and Anthony Papini’s painter’s studio, there was no one inside– a stark contrast to my experience at BOS in years past, when artists eagerly welcomed the stream of visitors.
Martin acknowledged that attendance had been “slow” but “steady” at Brooklyn Brush throughout the weekend. “People are coming in because of the street fair, it seems,” he explained. “Most people said it was happenstance or, ‘I saw your sign outside.'” Even though the number of visitors was dramatically lower compared to years past, Martin reasoned that the crowd was of a higher caliber. “Now, it’s actually the people who are supporting the artists coming by,” he said.
I ran into another small group of visitors at the studio complex who seemed to think that Bushwick Open Studios hadn’t been moved at all. When I asked Simone Delgado, a Williamsburg resident, about Bushwick Arts Festival, she said, “I’ve known about this for years. When it started, people didn’t even know Bushwick existed, now it can get quite overwhelming.” When I explained to her that BOS, the long-running event she seemed to have in mind had, in fact, been moved to the fall, she seemed at once bewildered but at the same time unfazed. “We came out here for brunch at the Ethiopian restaurant [Bunna] and now we’re just exploring– that’s what you do, you just explore the neighborhood,” she explained. “You see all these people doing crazy stuff.”
Eduardo Monti, of Greenpoint, seemed to be of the same mindset. He was surprised to hear that BOS wasn’t in fact happening, but it didn’t seem to matter, because he’d found the open studios inside Brooklyn Brush, “just walking by.”
Inside another larger studio complex, Brooklyn Fire Proof, there was just one studio open during my Sunday afternoon walkthrough. When I finally did discover that unit #217 was open, I was a little bit unsure if I’d just walked into a private studio that only had its door open to relieve some of the mugginess. Of the space’s six occupants, only Kenton deAngeli, a Bushwick-based artist who has had his studio here for the last four or five year, had stuck around for the long haul– the rest of his roommates had called it quits for the weekend already. “As you can see, there aren’t many people in this building participating [in BAF],” he chuckled. Still, DeAngeli was happy to show me his “poetry machine,” an interactive art piece that generates couplets based on users’ body language.
“When Bushwick Open Studios was rescheduled, it was inevitable that someone would have the same event,” he explained, acknowledging that even though there were “a lot of rumors” about the event, he’d still decided to participate. “This one wasn’t as well organized,” he admitted. “There wasn’t much organization at all. We just made our own signs.” Aside from myself, the only other visitors at the studio were deAngeli’s friends.
The same seemed to be true at Brilliant Champions gallery located at 5 Central Avenue, a slick, new art complex decorated with fresh street art, including one depicting a purple Avatar-ish human covered in fractals and smelling his own hands/ really feeling the colors, man. Attendance was sparse at Saturday event to celebrate New Radicles, an ongoing show featuring concrete block sculptures by Cody Hoyt and Sto Len’s marbled prints stained with “Newtown Creek water and pollution,” which had its opening reception two weeks prior. Even though it was a beautiful day out and Brilliant Champions has a uniquely open and airy space, the place was dead aside from a couple of people sipping on the lemonade and cheap vodka “cocktails.”
I found that a few locations were deserted altogether– outside 17-17 Troutman, which supposedly had three open studios on Sunday, I found no signage and a locked door, and a similar situation at 16 Cypress Avenue, which was wrongly listed as Cypress Street on the BAF map anyway.
Back at #217 Brooklyn Fire Proof, deAngeli estimated that throughout the weekend about 30 people had stopped by. “No one mentioned where they’d heard about it.” He did make a point, however, of saying that he was looking forward to participating in BOS this fall.
Of the artists I spoke to over the weekend, none indicated that participating in the new BOS iteration in October and agreeing to open their studio for BAF were mutually exclusive. However, a number of other artists and gallerists, particularly ones who have been longstanding in the community, have indicated that their loyalty remains with Arts in Bushwick and BOS. As Christopher Stout told us back in March, “I’m very brand-loyal.” Stephanie Theodore of Thedore:Art founded her own summer event series, Bushwick Hot Summer Nights, as a way to keep things going during the original BOS season, while continuing to declare loyalty to AiB.
Luis Martin, however, praised BAF’s effort. “Brendan Mickman has been really sweet and helpful,” he said. “I think it’s a great initiative and really it’s a huge undertaking. I just don’t think he got the support he needed.” However Martin acknowledged that, aside from a listing on the Bushwick Bomb and BAF websites, there wasn’t much in the way of support for the artists involved in the fest, either. “I don’t think he intended this to be a replacement,” Martin added, saying that he was “absolutely” participating in BOS in the fall.
While it took some serious mental acrobats to imagine that Bushwick Arts Festival was happening at all, there was at least one artist who represented a positive outcome (or any outcome at all, really) from all the hoopla. I found Masha Simonova inside her studio at 513 Johnson Avenue on Sunday. I almost missed the place, save for a tiny sign haphazardly made with pen on plain white paper hung outside the building: “Open Studio,” it read.
I wandered into yet another studio complex that seemed empty save for the hum of sanders and faint music emanating from behind heavy, locked doors. I finally discovered one that was actually open. “Hello?” I called out. Simonova jumped up from her seat and greeted me enthusiastically. She was surrounded by several large paintings, while the strong smell of fresh oil paint permeated the large room. “I just finished this one yesterday,” she explained of one canvas glistening with a strange jungle scene washed over in a pink haze. “It’s still wet.”
The young artist explained that she’d graduated from art school only last year and since moved to the city, where she found an apartment on the Upper East Side. She had a long commute to her shared art studio in Bushwick. So far, about 15 people had come through– most of them had seen the sign outside but “a few” had mentioned BAF. I asked her how she got involved in the event in the first place. “I met the organizer at a show a few weeks ago,” she said. “He asked if I wanted to participate, and I say yes. It was a really easy, not a difficult process at all.” Overall, Simonova was really happy with the results of BAF. “I heard that they canceled Bushwick Open Studios this year,” she said. “And Bushwick Arts Festival seemed like it would be a good opportunity. I really haven’t gotten myself out there yet.”
When asked if she planned to participate in BOS this year, Simonova said, “I really hope to. I might change studios, but I want to stay in the neighborhood– Bushwick seems like a great area for artists.” However, she told me that on both Friday and Saturday she’d had almost no visitors. “But now that I put signs out today, people are actually coming in.”