Sunday, March 4, 2012

The Founder's Tale: How Arts Entrepreneurs Will Save The Economy

"When I look back at the history of Hauser & Wirth over the past 17 years, I notice a pattern—we have almost always opened our galleries in difficult economic moments...”

-- NYC gallerist Iwan Wirth, quoted in Miriam Kreinin Souccar, "Chelsea Galleries Hold Up During Downturn; Though 25 Galleries Have Shuttered In The Past Year, At Least 10 Have Opened" (Crain's New York Business, May 22, 2009).

Unsung heroes? By nature entrepreneurial, artists-- and the curators, gallery owners, small-press publishers and editors who travel in their van-- have (disproportionately?) propelled the American economy through the Great Recession and its grouchy, spasmodic recovery. As banking, manufacturing and other traditional mainstays have blown up, the arts have adapted quickly and become a hotbed of start-ups and innovative change. In the accelerating shift within American business to individualized design and making, where work crosses disciplinary boundaries and creates wholly new product and service categories at the click of a mouse, the arts are (to paraphrase Marie Ponsot's description of Philip Lopate's poetry) the new economy's "ungovernable alchemic hope."

Here in New York City, the arts drive commerce as much they are driven by it, and they shape the very lay-out of our shared, urban space-- and they are doing so at a greater scale and speed, despite the recession that began in 2008. "Between 2003 and 2005, 94 cultural building projects were completed in the city, according to an Alliance for the Arts study on the economic impact of construction at New York's cultural nonprofits. Now there are more than 400 design, construction and equipment projects in the works at 197 nonprofit cultural organizations..." (Miriam Kreinin Souccar, "Arts Institutions In Midst Of Major Restoration Period," Crain's New York Business, February 13-19, 2012).

Examples abound: the re-openings of the Islamic (November, 2011) and American (January, 2012) arts wings at the Metropolitan, the coming move of the Whitney to the Meatpacking District (broke ground in 2011 for a new 200,000 square foot building), the Park Avenue Armory restoring its 19th-century facades (to be completed this fall) and expanding its programming, the ongoing renovations to El Museo del Barrio, the High Line promenade/outdoor artspace opened on Chelsea's far west side in 2009, the Museum for African Art opening its new 90,000 square-foot building this fall at 110th and Fifth, the Poets House moving in 2009 to its airy new 11,000 square-foot space in Battery Park City...Big Culture never sleeps in the Big Apple.

An even more impressive story is the continuing expansion of Little Culture, thousands of islets in an archipelago spreading throughout all five boroughs (and next door in Hoboken, Jersey City, Yonkers), creating a lushly fervent ecology that is the real secret to the arts' increasingly central position in a modern economy. Thousands of hard-nosed dreamers are starting new festivals, galleries and journals, competitively scrambling to create the new Bauhaus, to emulate and then transcend the workshop of Aldus Manutius or the kharkana of Ustad Mansur, to blend the atelier with the caravanserai.

A handful of examples chosen from among many:

*The Observatory: Founded by Pam Grossman and six colleagues in February 2009 (just a few months after the collapse of Lehman Brothers triggered the downturn!) in Gowanus, Brooklyn-- a deliciously eccentric hybrid exhibition and lecture space, a vision of what future work will look like, presenting (in its own words) "programming inspired by the 18th century notion of 'rational amusement' and is especially interested in topics residing at the interstices of art and science, history and curiosity, magic and nature."

*The Greenlight Bookstore: Rebecca Fittig and Jessica Stockton Bagnulo opened this impressively curated space in Fort Greene, Brooklyn in 2009, into the riptide of the recession--it has become one of the literary hotspots in an intensely literary city, with a readings calendar second to none (disclosure: I am a "community lender" to the Greenlight).

*The Festival of the New Black Imagination: In 2011 Rob Fields founded this groundbreaking event (reminiscent of TED, PopTech and SXSW--Fields has twice been a panelist at the latter)-- a celebration of cross-genre innovation, with a focus on alt music, digital performance and narrative. The 2012 edition is in downtown Brooklyn this September.

*571 Projects: Named after its square footage, 571 (founded in Chelsea in 2009 by Sophie Brechu-West) packs a great aesthetic punch in its small space-- a space where the art interacts with the glories of light coming over the Hudson.

*A Public Space: Brigid Hughes founded APS in Brooklyn in 2006, as "an independent magazine of art and argument, fact and fiction—was founded in 2006 to give voice to the twenty-first century." In just six years APS has become an indispensable part of the cultural landscape--it feels like APS has been with us for decades at least.

*BUREAU: A tiny storefront gallery on Henry Street in the Lower East Side, founded in 2010 by Gabrielle Giattino, BUREAU is a jewelbox of surprises: suitcase poetry, painted bones, sculptures of concrete atop medical walkers.

*Slice Magazine: Maria Gagliano and Celia Johnson founded this Brooklyn-based literary journal in 2007-- its warm-hearted, exuberant approach to the literary life is very welcome--it does "serious" without being pretentious or heavy-handed. The interviews are especially good, on par with those in the Paris Review.

*DODGE Gallery: Kristen Dodge opened on the Lower East Side in 2010, and has garnered strong reviews from the beginning. The space is gorgeous (long ago a sausage factory--such is the power of arts entrepreneurs to recycle the defunct, creating afresh). We are partial to last year's Sheila Gallagher and Lorna Williams shows.

*La Casa Azul: Aurora Anaya-Cerda started her bookstore online three years ago, and opens its physical presence in East Harlem this year.

*BronxArtSpace: In 2009 Linda Cunningham and Mitsuharu Hadeishi opened this in the South Bronx, providing a home for a thoughtful and eclectic mix of visual artists, performers, and educators.

*3rd Ward: The epicenter of the DIY arts & crafts movement, 3rd Ward was founded by Jason Goodman and Jeremy Lovitt on the border of Williamsburg and Bushwick in May, 2006-- and has grown rapidly since (it will soon open a satellite in Philadelphia). A 20,000 square-foot space, 3rd Ward is a teaching site for wood and metal arts, photography and jewelry making (disclosure: my wife teaches a class there).

*The Brooklyn Book Festival: Begun in 2006, the BBF has grown to a four-day extravaganza in downtown Brooklyn, featuring a record 260+ panelists in 2011-- it is already a fixture on the literary circuit.

*Brian Girley, Faith project, album recorded at Mercy Studio in the East Village, and released in summer 2011, with Linda Oh, Gilad Hekselman, Julian Shore, and Ross Pederson: Saxophonist Brian Girley epitomizes the courage of the entrepreneur-- as he notes in the video below, he and his wife left Florida in 2010 for NYC, with three bags and a pair of one-way tickets, no jobs, no apartment, just faith that they would make it. How Girley creates music (as he explains and demonstrates in the video here) is how much work outside of the arts will be conducted in the future--as fluid project-based collaborations, with a leader setting the frame and the goal, and self-directed teammates contributing and creating with and for.

Girley and the other founders/projectors/makers listed above are cousins of the digital technology entrepreneurs who have revived "Silicon Alley" in NYC, which has boomed in the past several years to become one of the country's leading centers for tech start-ups (think Tumblr and Foursquare, for instance):

"New York City had a break out year in 2011, riding a wave of tech enthusiasm to heights it's never seen before. Right now, New York home to one company with a billion dollar valuation — Gilt Groupe — and 28 others with valuations of $100 million or over. Despite a weakening stock market, and deep fundamental problems with the economy, this time next year we expect more billion dollar companies in New York." (Business Insider, October 13, 2011).

(New York Tech Meetup started in late 2004 and today boasts over 22,000 members; its monthly meetings are thronged. Google opened a large site in 2008 in lower Chelsea, just north of the Meatpacking District; Facebook will open a major engineering center in NYC this spring.)

Not two worlds but two (or three or some other number of) continents--flanked and extended by islands, shoals and atolls-- all interconnected by accessible seas. The commercial new media are all about creativity and the arts long since embraced and then took into new directions the possibilities of digital technologies. The arts entrepreneurs (soon we will have to drop the adjective and just acknowledge that "artist" and "entrepreneur" are identical, or at least symbiotic) lead the way into the new economy.

Further reading:

Karen Rosenberg, "Rising and Regrouping on the Lower East Side" (New York Times, April 21, 2011).

Alliance for the Arts

Americans for the Arts

CPANDA--Cultural Policy & The Arts (Princeton University in partnership with the NEA)

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