Established, But Still Feisty in Williamsburg

An artist/critic’s Baedeker to the gallery scene

built by a decade’s frugality

THREE COLORS Constanze Schweiger’s “Drie Farben,” courtesy of Prishka Juschka Fine Arts.

Williamsburg is a must destination for any lover of contemporary art.

Since the early 90s, art venues have been brewing there as a natural consequence of artists living there. Think of old Soho, before it became a mall. The popular wisdom is that artists went to Brooklyn, an affordable place to live and work, when they were priced out of Manhattan. Frustrated by the escalating commercialization of the gallery industry in Manhattan––and before its solidification in Chelsea, artists just made their own scene in Brooklyn.

Perhaps the art world’s first official recognition of the Williamsburg scene was the 1995 exhibition “Other Rooms” held at Ronald Feldman Fine Arts in Soho and reviewed by Roberta Smith in The New York Times. Feldman’s embrace of young art programs from four artist-run spaces—Pierogi 2000, Sauce, Momenta Art, and Four Walls—served as an affirmation of their vitality. With the exception of Four Walls, all three galleries still exist in Williamsburg, Sauce in its most recent incarnation as Schroeder Romero Gallery.

Since then, Williamsburg has grown. Quickly known among a network of young artists, writers, and curators, the neighborhood became the place to go and was soon dubbed a hip neighborhood, attracting those who will pay to live like artists. Enter gentrification, the mixed blessing of any artist migration.

We all know too well the downside. No longer a viable destination for young artists, and unless you own, or live in protected housing, you are likely to get priced out. However, much of the old neighborhood and its flowering art scene that predated the boom still exists. Now with better resources (the L train has never been better) and more traffic, they are likely to remain. Complex social assessment can be made by your choice of coffee––at the corner bodega versus the groovy coffee bar, but the point is that this growth sustains diversity, making it more than just a testing ground for young local talent. For example, Priska Juschka, a native of Berlin and former private dealer, shows international artists not represented elsewhere in the U.S. Some galleries represent artists who broke into Manhattan but have crossed back over the river for representation in Williamsburg. Others, both dealers and artists alike, rarely leave Brooklyn, and enjoy great success.

The significance of the artist-run space can’t be overstated. Think back to the Photo-Secession Gallery and Alfred Stieglizt’s support of the Moderns at the beginning of the last century. It’s this kind of conviction that started the flat files at Pierogi 2000. A single flat file with 20 artists’ portfolios was first shown in 1994. Joe Amrheins’s vision of a community assembled through their drawings in open flat files speaks eloquently to the economy of young artists as juxtaposed against the excesses of a hyper-driven art market at the end of the millennium. There are now nearly 1,200 artists in the file, 700 in Brooklyn, the rest touring internationally.

Artists are still running their own shows. Eric Heist of Momenta, Joe Amrhein of Pierogi, and Joshua Stern of Plus Ultra continue to make art and show it. Others, like Joel Beck, co-director of Roebling Hall, and Becky Smith of Bellwether, started as painters and sustained a practice well into their careers as gallerists. Lisa Schroeder of Schroeder Romero spent some time as a filmmaker. While these are common evolutions seen elsewhere, the prominence of artist-run enterprises infuses the Williamsburg scene with the thrill attached to putting forth an aesthetic agenda with out asking permission. Knowing what it means to make art guides the direction and relationships among artists, collectors, and the general public alike.

It must be said, though, that curators and dealers are an equally important part of the mix. Jessica Murray, who once teamed up with Joel Beck at Salon 75, now with her own space on North 6th, came with museum and contemporary programming experience. Sara Jo Romero spent her early years in Manhattan with Charles Cowles and Holly Solomon. Monya Rowe, with her 2-month-old gallery on South 1st, worked in a Chelsea gallery while curating independently. Ed Winkleman, co-director of Plus Ultra, and a Manhattanite, was agent for Burton Marinkovich in D.C. before setting down professional roots in Brooklyn. And Christian Veveros-Faune´ curated and wrote for NYArts before becoming the co-director at Roebling Hall. Collectively, they help shape the professional and interpretative lay of the land.

Be clear about one thing, however: Williamsburg is not easy. There’s lots of walking to do between must-see venues. Gallery signage bleeds easily into the background of the street, making places hard to find. And I don’t know of one elevator, though most places are near or at ground level—it’s Brooklyn. Faced with these challenges, you might just wait for the entire scene to be consumed by Manhattan, or try to replace it with a quick trip to Chelsea. Don’t make that mistake. See for yourself what the last ten years have brought to bear.

So, how do you get started? Lucky for us The Williamsburg Gallery Association has a great website (williamsburggalleryassociation.com) with links to most galleries and an easily readable map, which you can download and print. Add to this the listing wagmag, also available online (wagmag.info) which brings to the mix a number of younger spaces and galleries in Greenpoint. Both guides are available in all of the participating galleries and cafes along the way. Sunday is the ideal day to go. Organized to accommodate day jobs and studio time, all galleries are open on the weekends and some are open from Friday to Monday.

Most visitors to Williamsburg take the L train to the Bedford stop, but I find the cafe and shopping activity distracting, leaving that for the end of my day. I get off at the Lorimer St. stop, walk down Metropolitan Ave., under the BQE, and wend through the Southside, working toward the river. After grabbing a coffee to go on the corner of Havemeyer and Grand, I start with Bellwether and then pop down to South 1st. Whatever route you take you’ll be weaving around. It’s a two-day affair until you’ve got a sense of the place.

If you’re timid about exploring uncharted blocks in Brooklyn, get off at Bedford and do the Northside first. The hum on Bedford tends to make Manhattanites more at home. I’d start up at Priska Juschka, then go to Momenta, Pieogi, and Jessica Murray. That will lure you down to Schroeder Romero and further south. Whatever you do, don’t miss Roebling Hall, 31 Grand, or *sixtyseven, although they seem far. And definitely stop into galleries I have not mentioned. The best part of this scene is the range of work available to the public.

If you can’t stand walking, get a car. Go over the Williamsburg Bridge, and start with Roebling Hall.

Over the past ten years many of these galleries have matured, but overall the spirit is pretty feisty. Momenta is still a not-for-profit art space dedicated to an excellent program of video and installation work with social and political concerns. Its annual fundraiser, hosted by White Columns in Manhattan, is a reliable source for amazing affordable art.

In collaboration with the Outpost, directed by artist Laura Parnes, Momenta sponsors the Cuts & Burns Residency Program which provides media artists access to professional video editing and/or sound design studios.

Pierogi’s flat files continue to grow while retaining its artist-centered financial structure, taking 35, rather than the standard 50 percent. Pierogi Press, a limited edition literary and arts journal edited by Susan Swenson and Amrhien is collected by institutions like MoMA and the Whitney.

Schroeder Romero continues the legacy of Sauce and FEED with a strong mix of young and mid-career artists without losing a riff of the neighborhood beat.

Roebling Hall, which began as a broad curatorial venture now represents a strong stable of local, national, and international artists. It has recently expanded to an additional venue, ironically, on Prince Street in Soho. It’s called Satellite, indicating Brooklyn as the confirmed center.

Bellwether, on the other hand, is up for a move. It’s founder and director Becky Smith, having left her studio, is talking to backers that would move her program to Chelsea. Her goal is to bring her artists into the mainframe of the market place.

Perhaps the best indication of things to come is the formation of NADA, the New Art Dealers Alliance, Inc. This new organization of young dealers and curators started in Manhattan, then reached across the East River to link the directors of Manhattan galleries like 303 and LFL in Chelsea and Participant on the Lower East Side, with like-minded Brooklyn galleries. The first NADA art fair, organized under the direction of independent curator Janet Phelps, will bring NADA members together with other national and international galleries and not-for-profit spaces under one roof to provide the cutting edge alternative to Art Basel/Miami this December.

Brooklyn galleries have participated in international art fairs before. It’s the coalition that makes this different. NADA’s aim to build an art community that’s “alternative to the staus quo” might just mean that we are living in a post-borough New York.

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