NEW YORK — “I thought they must have killed the other art teacher,” said photographer Meryl Meisler, explaining what went through her head when she was offered a teaching position in Bushwick in the ‘80s. “It looked like a cross between Beirut and Hiroshima.”
Her images, on view at Bushwick's Living Gallery as part of a show titled “Defying Devastation, Bushwick in the ‘80s,” capture images of Latino children jumping rope, and African-American families passing burned and dilapidated buildings where the only sign of hope is the occasional ray of sunshine.
The documentary evidence of the neighborhood's past gains special relevance when juxtaposed with last weekend’s events. Crowds of art lovers and emerging artists poured in to support Bushwick Open Studios 2012. Their presence reflected a dramatic change from the times depcited in Meisler’s images. As more Manhattan galleries become interested in the area, and as collectors cross the bridge to spend, the neighborhood is obviously evolving, and discomfort with the transformation is becoming louder.
For the past few years, Bushwick has been the land of lollipops and rainbows for artists and scrappy young galleries alike, due to the area’s large studio spaces, cheap rents, and welcoming artist community bent on redefining the “New York art scene” with their own homemade creations, philosophies, events, and DIY spirit. But not all community members are happy to be witnessing the neighborhood’s evolution. During a panel discussion in January called "Confronting Bushwick," organized by Peter Hopkins, director of the Bogart Salon and a major player in making 56 Bogart an art force to be reckoned with, many of the panelists, who included store owners, artists, and journalists working and living in the area, kept referring to the “G word,” the looming gentrification of the neighborhood, which may now be passing a critical point.
“It’s not everyone’s opinion but I do hear their voices,” said Deborah Brown, artist and owner of Storefront Bushwick on Wilson Avenue, who is well known in the community for bringing together both emerging and established artists in her shows. “I’ve been on the [Bushwick] community board for four or five years and I’ve never heard anybody talking about this ‘white artist community’ or ‘artist community’ until recently. And now people are nervous and anxious about what it means — they’re afraid it means displacement. They fear the loss of their community, and I never heard those comments until recently.”
These voices are becoming louder just as it becomes more obvious for the art community that real collectors are noticing what is happening in Bushwick, alongside the media and galleries. “We’ve been open three years and I would say in the last six months it has changed, we’ve gotten a lot more coverage,” said Brown. “The sales have changed too — we used to sell to artists’ friends, and now it’s to some of the biggest collectors in New York. But they don't just drop by unannounced, they make an appointment and they come out and take a while to think about what they want to buy. But they are buying.” (Just last month, a highly regarded painter and collector scooped up a painting from the Bogart Salon for the for $12,000 — the kind of price that used to be unheard of on this side of the bridge.)
For a Manhattan gallery, there's an obvious appeal to opening a branch in the area, especially now. David Kesting, co-director of SoHo's Kesting / Ray, which opened an additional shop on Boerum street on Saturday, speaks of the perks of showing work across the bridge versus in his Manhattan space. “In Bushwick we will focus on edgier exhibitions and not have to worry about the collectability side of it. We’ll focus more on what the artist vision is... and in SoHo what you’ll find is more of a traditional showcase consistent with the art market,” he said. “There’s so much talent in Bushwick. We can easily stack an 18-month schedule — easily — just pulling from the studios around us. I would love to be able to do stuff like that.”
Many gallerists also credit the well-organized and supportive artist community that has grown in the neighborhood, which pre-dates the more recent surge of commercial interest. “It’s much more self consciously a community in that everyone is trying to support each other. We’re all working together to try and make it work, and I haven’t seen that in a really long time,” said Stephanie Theodore, owner of THEODORE:Art, who moved from her space in SoHo to 56 Bogart in November of 2011.
“We have been keeping track and we’ve been seeing a lot of people make the trip, and it’s not just because of us,” said Natalia Sacasa, senior director of Luhring Augustine gallery, a Chelsea powerhouse that opened its doors in Bushwick in February to much fanfare. “There’s so much attention on what’s going on in Bushwick.”
While the strength of the Bushwick artist community has been growing for quite sometime, for the spaces opening up shop, things seem to be just beginning. “It’s changed so fast, so quickly,” said Brown. “I think there will be other Manhattan galleries that open branches, not just Luhring Augustine. I think they will be drawn by what the artists have laid the groundwork for.”
This story is the age-old tale of artists remaking neighborhoods. “It’s consistent with the migration that we saw in the ‘80s from SoHo to the Village, from the Village to to Williamsburg, then from Williamsburg out to Bushwick,” said Ray. “The neighborhood over there allows artists the opportunity to create and live in this very vibrant city.” Does that mean that ultimately gentrification is synonymous with artistic success? Is the only way for an arts neighborhood to make it is to begin a process that ultimately prices themselves out of the very place they worked to make what it is?
While the development of Bushwick now seems inevitable, there is no sign that its arts community is slowing down — partly because New York's art scene needs it. The community that the artists and gallery owners are developing pumps a breath of fresh air into the sometimes stale and unwelcoming art world — and they are moving ahead at an unstoppable speed. “I took pictures walking to the school and walking back.” Meisler concluded, speaking of her pictures from decades ago. “I realize now, that I sought after things that were uplifting.” Bushwick's artists have a history of squeezing beauty from the less then ideal. Now they will have to see if they can keep themselves from being overwhelmed by their own success.