Nicole von Arx was one of many Williamsburg artists and merchants whose lives were completely disrupted when the pandemic hit in March. In the span of a few days, all of the choreographer’s shows and residencies were canceled and she had to close NVA & Guests, her contemporary dance studio. George Flanagan, general manager of Williamsburg’s notoriously cool Rough Trade record store, was forced to shut the shop and furlough the entire staff. Javier Hernandez-Miyares, founder of 17 Frost Gallery, a celebrated Williamsburg recording studio and exhibition space, canceled all exhibitions for the foreseeable future.
They were left scared, uneasy, and– let’s be honest– a little panicked. In the past decade, gentrification has caused numerous Williamsburg studios and venues to shut their doors, including Death by Audio, Glasslands, and Secret Project Robot. The COVID-related closures have only exacerbated the problem and left artists more vulnerable than ever. Meanwhile, Williamsburg’s surviving music venues, National Sawdust, Music Hall of Williamsburg, Rough Trade, and Baby’s Alright, are still dark. According to a study conducted by SMU Arts, performing arts organizations in New York City reported an 18 percent loss of revenue, and over 25 percent of responding organizations reduced their levels of employment. This means that around 15,200 people were laid off or furloughed at these organizations.
But as any good entrepreneur does, they got creative. Von Arx quickly found herself organizing pop-up performances on rooftops and in hotel window displays. She has collaborated with neighboring dance companies and independent opera singers for socially-distanced, outdoor productions. NVA & Guest’s new solo work, “NINE,” is scheduled to debut on November 5 at Arts on Site, and additional rooftop pop-ups at the Ace Hotel are scheduled for Oct. 15, 22, and 29, in collaboration with CreateART.
Von Arx, a Brooklyn resident since 2008, just completed a dance and choreography residency at the prestigious Jacob’s Pillow Dance Festival in Massachusetts. Unable to spend the summer on site in Massachusetts, she got rid of a couch in her living room and staked out some park real estate to resume her dance research and rehearsals remotely.
“I think a lot of artists that I know here, and collaborators or fellow choreographers are feeling a little stuck,” said von Arx. “The other thing that we’re running into right now is that even if we wanted to rehearse or research ideas with our dancers, there’s no way we can do that because most of the dance studios have not reopened in New York.” Pre-COVID, her company would regularly rehearse in studios like Triskelion Arts in Greenpoint, Center for Performance Research in Williamsburg, and Leimay Foundation in Williamsburg, which all remain closed. As other studios begin to reopen, von Arx has noticed that some have substantially raised their prices as they try to make up for lost revenue.
Marie van Eersel, The Ace Hotel’s cultural programmer reached out to von Arx and Georgia Usborne following the shutdown to see if they were interested in reimagining performance during this difficult period for the arts. Usborne’s dancers, along with opera singer Cassandra Douglas, performed together in the hotel’s window displays in an installation called “Quis Est,” choreographed by Annie Rigney. Von Arx and Usborne also recently partnered with local arts company NOoSPHERE to put on a volunteer-based show produced by CreateART, an organization where both Usborne and von Arx co-curate and co-produce dance works. The show was on the roof of Last Frontier in Greenpoint and brought the dancing community together for a chance to collaborate and find joy. The show sold out almost immediately after tickets went on sale, confirming people’s desire to engage with art and the desperation to get out of their apartments.
Ever since the shutdown began, von Arx has been teaching donation-based online classes from her living room. Initially the turnout was promising: 20 to 50 people, hailing everywhere from Europe to New York to South America, signed up for each virtual dance class. But after the Black Lives Matter movement picked up momentum, she and her entire artist community decided to take a pause.
“We could have done more events this summer, but we waited,” von Arx said. “Because emotionally, no one was ready to do anything but be a part of that movement and research and learn.” In the past few weeks, classes and pop-up events have started to resume.
“We don’t have a lot of hope, unfortunately,” she said, speaking for her fellow artists. “No one has really helped the dance community. The arts community has kind of helped each other, but from the government, there hasn’t been a big clear decision of when theaters can reopen, when dance studios can reopen. Nothing has been clear, and we knew from the beginning that we were the last ones [that would reopen].” Gyms are now open at a limited capacity according to phase 4 guidelines, but concert venues, dance studios, and movie theaters remain in the dark about an opening timeline.
George Flanagan, store manager at Rough Trade and a 20-year resident of New York City, has also been experimenting with new ways to engage with the community in isolating times. Via IGTV, he and his staff have been collaborating with musicians from all over the country to connect with their 73K Instagram followers. Rough Trade has been “reaching out to artists, having them do remote sets from their spaces and apartments, what have you,” Flanagan said.
Rough Trade, which is a retail space in addition to a music venue, has been able to reopen faster than other concert halls. A normal week in a normal year at Rough Trade would mean four to five concerts a week, an open photo booth, a cafe, and music-lovers loitering around records and books. Since a large majority of the store’s profit is typically amassed from purchases by tourists and concert-goers, their revenue and foot traffic has been significantly reduced.
Every April, independent record stores typically participate in Record Store Day, a celebration of music and independent record stores. The day usually brings exclusive record drops, lines wrapping around the store, and bands playing live sets. To make up for April’s loss, Rough Trade has dedicated three weekends to draw in customers (in August, September, and an upcoming October 24 event).
“We strongly considered getting a street permit to get some live music happening, but we figured as much as it would be fun and exciting to do something like that, we’re already anticipating crowds,” said Flanagan. “We kind of just wanted to be mainly focused on making sure the existing crowd is managed in the safest way.”
At the September Record Store Day, socially-distanced lines of masked individuals wrapped around the block, and the October 24 date promises similar crowds. To keep them at bay, there’ll be limited door capacity and no outdoor music.
When the shutdown began, Rough Trade immediately furloughed almost all of its 20-person staff. By the time the store opened in the third week of June, a couple of employees had left the city and others weren’t comfortable going back to work just yet. Though the store is now operating at a little over 50 percent of its usual payroll, nobody has been let go.
“I would love to show my thanks and appreciation for the people who are still supporting us and going out of their way to order from us as opposed to an Amazon or another nameless online retailer,” said Flanagan. “It’s a beautiful thing to see the loyalty that customers have to come back and shop here, and I just hope that things get better and we can all be here.”
Following CDC guidelines, Rough Trade is legally allowed to have a capacity of 75 people, but Flanagan is capping the store at 35 people at a time. “It feels a little less festive,” he said. A typical Saturday afternoon would be packed and lively. “But that said, I usually tell people it’s about 75 percent normal, and I’d much rather have normal than be closed and not be able to be here at all.”
Javier Hernandez-Miyares founded 17 Frost Gallery in 2008 to curate local art and inspire the community. He too finds himself juggling the stress of staying afloat in a wave of unknown. The gallery includes a recording studio, a small black box theater, and an exhibition space. The recording studio, Super Giraffe Sound, has continued to operate during the shutdown, and although four art exhibitions had to be canceled or postponed, Hernandez-Miyares has allowed local artists to use the gallery as their workplace.
“Since late August we have begun to carefully reopen the space for exhibitions and presentations,” he said. “We currently have to abide by city regulations which severely limit the capacity of our space.” 17 Frost is now limiting the amount of people to 25, down 75 percent from their regular capacity.
He says the neighborhood has rallied to help keep the gallery in business, adding that “to help the space cover some of its bills we have received support through fundraisers and sales of donated art.”
Maya Hayuk, a world famous muralist with an Instagram following of 100,000, painted a mural outside of 17 Frost during the shutdown. The mural is a vibrant, abstract pop of color, typical of Hayuk’s style, and offers a literal and hypothetical brightness during uneasy times. 17 Frost raised money to pay for her paint while Hayuk donated her time to complete the project and attract new attention to the space.
Around 10 of Hayuk’s upcoming shows and murals were canceled due to COVID, but her hope is palpable. “It will be amazing to see what this period of time will produce creatively, since we are all going though incredibly hard times,” she said. “This isolation and disconnection is paradoxically bringing us together with more empathy and awareness.”
Correction, Nov. 5: The original version of this post was revised to correct a photo credit, the title of “Quis Est,” the affiliation of Georgia Usborne’s dancers, and details about CreateART’s partnerships.