Brooklyn Art Space and Trestle Gallery is located in Gowanus. With an innovative approach to programming, they offer studio space, exhibition space, talks and panels, to name a few. Artist and Director of Brooklyn Art Space, Rhia Hurt, recently sat down with artist Michael Brennan. In this interview, Hurt and Brennan discuss the art scene in lower Brooklyn, current trends, and balancing the life/work/artist act.
MB: Tell me about what’s happening at Brooklyn Art Space and Trestle Gallery.
RH: Brooklyn Art Space & Trestle are continuing to grow and develop in finding better ways to create affordable studio space for artists with exciting programming included. It’s exciting to be involved with a small organization that can work on providing some of the things that we (as the staff/artists working here) believe are most valuable to artists. Trestle offers exhibition/curating opportunities, art talks by professionals in the art world, and other community builders like figure drawing sessions and group critiques led by me, other staff, and our visiting artists. Brooklyn Art Space & Trestle work on getting the best affordable studios as well as programming workshops for learning about techniques/materials as well as some professional development type classes. Over the last two years, we’ve introduced a reduced rate residency program that offers studio space and advising for artists. There is also a six months free studio residency.
MB: I think what you’re doing is invaluable, and I’m happy that it’s working because it seems counterintuitive and somewhat courageous–what with Patti Smith and David Byrne advising artists to seek their paths elsewhere. Many of my former students have opted for Philadelphia, and when we spoke the other day you mentioned that Baltimore was attracting artists. I was surprised too, when we were discussing prices, that much of what BAS offers costs less than some well known subsidized studio spaces. I find it amazing that you were able to expand before the recession even ended. I’m curious, I had told you that when I moved to Gowanus myself several years ago it suddenly seemed very important to me to show locally, to exhibit where I live and work–I think of BAS and Trestle as institutionally entrenched in Gowanus as well, and I was wondering what sort of things you’ve learned about this neighborhood from the community you serve? Who participates in BAS and Trestle?
RH: We decided to expand our space because we had a wait list on the semi-privates at our 7th St location for about two years. In addition to wanting to be able to offer more artist studios, because there was a clear need for affordable space, we figured it would also help with our expenses to grow and have a wider base of artists. The studios are month to month, so there is a lot of flexibility, which is also good for many artists. The price points are designed to meet the needs of artists with a modest income (I thought about what I could afford personally). The studios are not huge, but space is saved by having communal slop sinks, gallery and project space as well as kitchen/lounge areas, etc. We also have a large communal studio in case artist members need to stretch out and work on bigger projects.
We’ve seen the neighborhood change a lot over the last three and a half years. Rent is going up and it’s clear that is becoming a real problem for artists who’ve been located here for years and years. We’re trying to work on how to avoid getting priced out. We do have a lot of artists working here who live nearby. I agree that living locally is a great advantage to actually making the best use of studio space and time. I live very close by and so do many of our members, although we have some who commute from Manhattan, Queens, or Bushwick to make use of the space.
There is a diverse group of people who decide to become members here including few professors from Parson’s, Pratt, Rutgers and SVA, students, retirees, international artists here with visas, and every type between. There’s an application process where we look to see that whoever we accept has shown a dedication to the work they make. Some artists really like the community aspect of what is going on here. Group critiques, member salons and open studio events are a few of the ways members meet up and share information and opportunities. The residencies are also designed to help create a network for artists to be able to access.
We have an equally diverse mixture of artists and curators participating in exhibitions and gallery programming. It’s been a wonderful way to work with people like Saya Wolfolk, William Villalongo, Trudy Benson, Mario Naves, Jennifer Wynne Reeves, Heather Darcy Bhandari, Bill Carroll, Linda Francis, Kara Rooney, and Jason Stopa to name a few.
MB: Do you find that there’s an ongoing dialogue, a culture there, that goes on and has grown around the shows and lecture series that you’ve hosted. I’ve always thought that artists come to New York to participate in the larger discourse, as much as the marketplace, of art that goes on here. I mean, who else but an isolated soul would ever come to a panel discussion? I’m joking a bit, but it seems like the community activity has made BAS and Trestle a definite hub in Gowanus. I know I have seen a broad range of work exhibited there myself. How do you decide whom to show, whom to host, etc.?
RH: Yes, there is definitely an ongoing dialogue that has developed. It’s hard to say exactly what criteria we use for making decisions about who to invite to curate, speak, and otherwise participate in our goings on. There is a core group making decisions about whom we show and how we handle open calls and nominations for various opportunities in the gallery and for the residencies. I guess one criterion would be that we select artists and art professionals who have a unique point of view and who we believe would help expose the whole group to something exciting as well as expand the network of the space. We find people through open calls, nominations, and our artists’ connections.
I enjoy the process of learning about current topics in the “art world” or “art worlds.” Really, it seems the topics coming up in our “Art Talks” can be universally present and not always tied to a specific decade. Hearing professionals talk about their experiences (and how varied they can be) on their professional paths is a way to keep the dialogues going for our members and anyone else who attends, since they are open to the public. I find the art talks very inspiring.
We’ve talked before about how for most artists; there is constant evolution of the work, and many cycles of starting something new and learning through failures and successes within one career (or even one body of work). “Art Star” or not, I think that New York is a place for these long careers to keep going since there’s so much fuel for the fire here. For example, one of Brooklyn Art Space’s members, Judy Rifka, has continued to make fresh and interesting artwork throughout many cycles within one career in the New York art world. Brooklyn Art Space & Trestle is one place to make work if as an artist; you love community, feedback, exposure, and otherwise not working in a vacuum.
MB: Do you think what’s happening in this part of Brooklyn is different from what’s happening in other parts of Brooklyn? Northside vs. Southside?
RH: What do you mean when you say “what’s happening”?
MB: Do you think a different kind of art is being made here?
RH: Hmmm…. That’s an interesting question. I am not sure I have enough information to compare the type of artwork made in different neighborhoods in New York City… But I do think there are some interesting elements that make Gowanus unique and the artists who live and work around here may produce art that is different for that reason. One thing that I’ve noticed is in neighborhoods like Bushwick, DUMBO, or even the Lower East Side or Chelsea, I see certain trends in the type of artwork being made. One of our staff members was talking about the use of neon lights, day glow paint, and reflective surfaces in a lot of contemporary artwork. We joked that in many cases, it seems like artists are making work so that it can be visible from outer space.
Where I think Gowanus might be different is that there is such diversity in the ages, and backgrounds of artists making art and living around the neighborhood. Therefore, it’s hard to pinpoint a trend in the type of work coming from Gowanus. It seems to me a wide range of work is being made and much of it is mature work, whether artists have MFA’s, or if they are self-taught. It’s nice to be in a community where artists are creating work that is authentic to their own ideas and vision. There isn’t really a brand or a look to what’s “in” here (for instance in certain institutions, like schools, it’s possible to identify a “style” that is popular).
MB: Again, I was halfway joking with that Northside/Southside business and you gave me an excellent answer anyway! If all goes well, what might we expect from you in the future?
RH: For the organization, the goal is to stay in Gowanus and continue to build on the foundation of the programming we’ve started at Brooklyn Art Space & Trestle. Ideally, we would have our own building in the not so distant future so that we won’t be subject to getting pushed out by increasing rents in the neighborhood. Additionally, with non-profit status, we can hopefully access more funding opportunities that will allow us to expand what we offer.
Personally, I’d like to keep being able to use the studio space and continue my fine art career as well. It’s a balancing act to run an organization, maintain an art practice, and most recently, to care for a new baby. I know many artists are like me in that they are juggling to be able to continue to create their work. That keeps me mindful of how to help provide ways to make things a little less burdensome financially, if at all possible.
MB: Isn’t that the truth, life pushes on us, artists must push back.