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Bushwick Open Studios: An Insider’s Take

Having just rolled over it's 7th year, the annual Bushwick Open Studio event has grown somewhat since 2007. With over 500 participating studios, the speckled map of the former industrial neighborhood offered a challenge to visitors, practically a dare: to get to as many locations in a single weekend as possible. While the vast warehouses have been a pull for artist residents for some time, it is only in the past few years that the galleries have moved into the neighborhood, resulting in an electric and sometimes competitive scene that offers something new at every turn. NYC-Artparasites checked in with artist Liz Ainslie and gallerist Paul D'Agostino of Centotto Gallery to get some different perspectives on the festival.

Inside An Artist's Studio

Like many Bushwick lofts, Liz Ainslie's apartment is tremendous with it’s high ceilings, old industrial wood floors and light pouring in from every angle. For the Open Studio event, Ainslie asked colleague Desiree Leary to show along with her. They may seem an odd pairing (Ainslie’s strict abstract oil paintings with Leary’s photography based prints and installations), yet both bodies of work come together in their dealings with the misgivings of space and illusion. Leary was unable to meet with us, but left an assortment of puzzle piece buttons for me to choose from – a token from an installation of puzzles she had set up on the dining room table for the event.

Singlespace diptychs by Desiree Leary. Photo: Meredith Caraher

Liz Ainslie: Everyone was working on the puzzles and she (Leery) had a live feed going, so you could see the progress. We finished it by the end of the second night. 

NYC-APs: Visitors were working on it?

LA: Yeah, it was really interesting. People wandered in from the neighborhood and sat down. There were a few people that stayed for a long time. We wanted to create a nice environment so people would want to hang out and I think the puzzles did that very well. 

NYC-APs: So you had work out here in the main space – was your studio available as well?

LA: Yes, I had my studio open, so they could wander in and see what it looks like where I'm working. I actually left up a piece in progress, so they could see the underpainting – that’s not something I normally do.

Liz Ainslie and a work in progress in her Bushwick studio. Photo: Meredith Caraher

NYC-APs: Seems more like an open studio. A lot of the time you come in and people clear out their studio and make it like a gallery.

LA: Yeah, I've kind of learned a little bit over time that people actually want to see how you're working and it seems counterintuitive – as the artist you want everything to be a representation of how you would do a show, but I don't think that's necessarily what people want to see in this situation.

NYC-APs: Why did you want to participate?

LA: Well, for the obvious reasons, of course: it's a good way to have an opportunity to show the work you're doing to a vast variety of people – also that it's really fun. Bushwick just comes alive. I remember the first time I walked around I was like oh my god, this is amazing! All these people are out, there's music playing everywhere, all these artists have their studios open,  and I felt like I really lived in an artist community. The whole thing is sort of organic and the people who run it have the right idea: it's about the artists; giving them exposure. You know, sure there are other events associated from it, but I don't get a commercial feeling from it.

NYC-APs:  How do the crowds differ from the gallery scene, like say, on an opening night in Chelsea?

LA: You do have similar people: you have the artists coming around to see their friends and to see what other people are making, but then you also have people who are just curious – that's the big difference.  We had these women come in – one was a doctor and the other a lawyer – they just came in to take a look around and ended up sitting at the puzzle for like twenty minutes. Then there was a guy who was supposed to be meeting his cousin here but didn't know us at all. He sat and did the puzzle for hours and had a great time talking about the neighborhood: how, if he came here fifteen years ago, he wouldn't have been able to walk around, you know, because of the crime. 

Puzzle Installation set up during the Open Studios event.  

NYC-APs: Any lowlights?

LA: The problem with Bushwick Open studios is that the artists who live here can't really go out and see other work unless you have someone who can trade off. Even if someone can sit for you, you still want to be around because if there is somebody who would like to buy something and you're not there, the person probably won't go for it. Another problem is that it's just so huge. There's no possible way you could see every studio – you'd have to be flying. But that may not be the point, maybe you have to be stumbling into things and maybe choosing the things you know and then seeing whatever else is nearby. And I think: what are you gonna do, limit it? That would be difficult. I mean, what would you limit it to?

NYC-APs: And that's not really the spirit of an open studio; making it exclusive. 

LA: You know what was interesting: in other years, I think there were feelings that this is open studios, so why are the galleries having openings? And I noticed that a lot of the galleries responded by really pushing out and doing something that makes you want to go out and see the studios. One show that I was in was a little gallery where everyone put in a drawing and then put their studio information with it so people would know where to go – at Centotto on Moore Street.

NYC-APs: That's a smart way of doing it. Maybe I'll talk to them next!

And So I Did…

Centotto Gallery is a mainstay of the Morgantown pocket of Bushwick. The parlour endeavor is set in gallerist and artist Paul D'Agostino's apartment and takes a yearlong dive into the lives and practices of Bushwick artists through their group talks, lectures, and highly thoughtful shows.

NYC-APs: I recently spoke with Liz Ainslie about the show you curated for the Open Studios event. It's an interesting perspective for a gallery, and seems fitting for open studios. How long have you been doing the event?

Paul D’Agostino:  Well, the first Centotto show was for the Open Studios event in 2008; a simple group show. At that time, there were lots of things like that popping up during open studios. Group shows rather than artists being in their studios – more like group studio visits. In a way, our shows are a little bit like studio visits, when we have discussions and talk about the work on the wall.  

NYC-APs: And that certainly predates gallery presence here.

PD: Before, there was a total symbiosis between the gallery scene and the Open Studios because there weren't that many galleries. There wasn’t any problem with galleries or specific buildings sucking up all the visitors. In a way there was a lot more possibility to engage in the entire event – there were fewer options. So now, not only do we have lots of galleries and a couple buildings that really harbor those galleries and take up a lot of the visitors, but we also have restaurants, bars, more bars, and more restaurants. Five years ago, they just weren't here. There are places now where people can engage in Open Studios for a couple of hours and then just blow off the rest of the day and have fun and maybe go to a film screening or a concert. There are so many different things going on – and with so many options, the fact that open studios has gotten so much bigger just means that people get filtered out into different places. The fact that the crowds are much smaller now is just fine.

NYC-APs: So there are less people coming through than there used to be?

PD: Five years ago, I had 250 visitors a day. This past weekend: maybe 40 on Saturday and 50 on Sunday. Going from 500 to not even 100 makes a difference. I'd say that it's possible that the festival is five times as big now and the crowd here is smaller.

NYC-APs: That's surprising. Is that why you did a directory-based show this year? Or do you do something like that every year?

PD: Last year was the first year that the gallery presence was so big that it became a question of are people just going to the galleries? And they have every right to be open, it's really up to the people who choose to go to the studios instead. I think you're insane for coming out and even spending a minute in the galleries when you could go to someone's studio instead. I always do openings separate from big neighborhood events, so there's something special about it. Doing opening during special events like this is just kind of useless, especially with all of the artists that are in the show.

NYC-APs: How many artists do you have in this year’s show?

PD: There were twenty seven people, and now there are thirty because we added a few people who visited. Almost all of the artists have a studio in Bushwick and the others are part of group shows in some of the spaces. So most of them have their studios open so people could come here, get a hint of what they're doing, and then go over to the studio and see more. One of the artists lives down the hall, so that was a quick send over. Some people would come in and recognize work from a studio they had already visited, or sometimes they came across a name and said oh, I didn't know this person's studio was over here.

Paul D'agostino's turtle also has its studio over here. Photo: Meredith Caraher

NYC-APs:Do you see yourself keeping on every open studio, or is it getting to be a beat cause with all of the galleries that are happening around? 

PD: I'm losing my studio at the moment, it's in the Bogart building. It’s right in the middle of everything really turning into galleries and if it didn't happen now, it would happen soon. People with more money are coming in and management can get more money, so people who can afford it are taking the spaces away from people who have been there forever. Here's a pretty good index for the change in open studios: some of studios this time, in the studio buildings, were taken up by artists who don't have spaces in the neighborhood. They're renting up for the weekend, saying let me show my stuff in your studio during the event, gives them a bunch of money and, you know, artists who can make a month's rent out of a weekend – I would have done it in a heartbeat too. But is there really that kind of capital in a weekend like this?

NYC-APs: Well, for people with that kind of money, it could be of more interest just to be part of something that's of high visibility than whether or not they're going to get a return on it. Are you concerned that it's going the way of Williamsburg? That artistic gentrification where the prolific makers of art are being replaced by the wealthy supporters of the arts?

PD: What happened in Williamsburg is that the galleries went away. A lot of the Williamsburg galleries, in a sense because of the timing, had their eye on Manhattan. The Williamsburg thing might have been considered by some of them as a sort of temporary thing, and really there weren't that many. But here, even Luhring Augustine moved out here from Chelsea; that was an unprecedented thing to have a Chelsea gallery come out here – and I don't think they're gonna be the only ones. I'm delighted  that we have all the galleries we have here. It sucks in some ways, like during open studios, but really: it's been wonderful to be able to walk around on a Saturday and go to a bunch of galleries on my way to my studio. 

Article by Meredith Caraher