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Bushwick Art Scene

by Rachel Corbett
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Luhring Augustine’s soon-to-open Brooklyn gallery was the “gorilla” in the room at a packed panel last night, Jan. 19, 2012, titled “Confronting Bushwick: A Discussion on the Nature and Future of the Bushwick Art Scene” at the Bogart Salon. At least that was the word used by Deborah Brown, one of the speakers and co-owner of Storefront Bushwick, to describe the Chelsea power dealer's plan to be the latest in a wave of galleries opening in the neighborhood.

“We used to say, ‘Oh yeah, Bushwick will be the next big thing,’ and then everyone would laugh,” said moderator and Hyperallergic editor Hrag Vartanian. Now the old factory building at 56 Bogart that housed the panel has become a cornerstone of the Brooklyn art scene, home to nearly a dozen galleries and nonprofits, including NURTUREart, Momenta, Interstate Projects, Theodore:Art and, soon, Studio 10 and Slag galleries.

But Luhring Augustine is by far the biggest player to arrive in the neighborhood, and many locals think it could be a game changer. “Of course it will,” said David Kesting, co-director of the SoHo gallery Kesting/Ray, which is opening a project space on the ground floor of 257 Boerum St. in February. “I wouldn’t expect a ton of galleries to suddenly focus on selling work -- the focus will still be on the projects themselves -- but my guess is you’ll see more success and you’ll see finance come and support it.”

Kesting, who ran Capla Kesting Fine Art in Williamsburg in 2007, around the corner from his wife and business partner Christina Ray’s gallery Glowlab, likens the Bushwick migration to that what happened in SoHo in the 1970s and Williamsburg in the 1990s. The draw is still the concentration of raw warehouse spaces, cheap rent and relative proximity to the city via the L train.

Those were all factors in Luhring Augustine’s decision to buy the 10,000-square-foot conjoined buildings at 25 Knickerbocker Ave., according to director Lauren Wittels. The gallery’s rented storage space in Long Island City had been getting pricy and Bushwick was home to several of its employees, who helped the owners find the space. 

Plus, the new outpost has a 2,100-square-foot gallery that can accommodate larger-scale exhibitions, like its first, “Charles Atlas: The Illusion of Democracy,” Feb. 17-May 20, 2012, in which the artist is installing a wall-based work that spans the whole 46-foot length of the room.

But will Luhring Augustine’s well-heeled collectors be willing to cross the river? “We’ll see,” Wittels said. “But Frieze New York is going to be on Randall’s Island -- that’s way less accessible than Bushwick, I think.”

Even locals think there are some major stumbling blocks preventing Bushwick from becoming the next SoHo. “Bushwick’s not really that convenient to the city, even though we want to say it is,” said NURTUREart director Marco Antonini during the discussion. For one thing, there’s the notoriously bungled L train service, particularly bad on weekends, when most galleries open (Luhring Augustine Bushwick’s hours will be Friday to Sunday, noon to 7 p.m.). Last year, the MTA infamously shut the train down for signal repair during Bushwick Open Studios, the annual event in which 350 artists open their doors to the public.

And then there’s what C-Monster blogger and panelist Carolina Miranda called “the ‘G’ word.” For some of the neighborhood’s oldest residents, largely Dominican and Puerto Rican immigrants, the influx of artists promises little more than a rent hike. Storefront’s Deborah Brown, a member of Community Board 4, which she characterized as about five percent white, said the attitude at meetings is “all anxiety and fear.”

In the 1980s, Miranda pointed out, the neighborhood had an unemployment rate of 40 percent. That’s now dropped to about 10 percent, presumably due in part to new businesses shepherded in through gentrification. But is it the artists that are helping? Probably not, she thinks. “Unfortunately the art industry doesn’t provide many jobs to unskilled workers,” she said, adding, “People who go to Luhring Augustine will go there, then the sushi place or maybe Roberta’s,” the beloved pizzeria with an organic rooftop garden, “but the benefit to the larger area is maybe nil.”

None of this has deterred what looks to be a busy year at the galleries, however. Kesting/Ray Bushwick has programming planned through the summer, starting with an installation by Ben Wolf that coincides with the artist’s exhibition at the gallery’s SoHo branch. Luhring Augustine hasn’t announced any shows after Atlas, but says it expects to do about three exhibitions a year, each of which will likely last longer than the typical six-week Chelsea cycle. And Hrag Vartanian says he hopes last night’s panel was just “part one” in what will no doubt be an ongoing topic of conversation.

Seems the only problem for Bushwick could be too much success. Once Brooklyn galleries start showing at fairs and making money, they seem to move to Manhattan.

RACHEL CORBETT is the news editor of Artnet Magazine. She can be reached at Send Email