With blue-chip gallery Luhring Augustine coming soon, the scrappy Bushwick art scene contemplates its future

Bushwick's Morgan Avenue L-stop. (secretpizza via flickr)
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“I’ve lived through it before,” the artist Peter Hopkins said.

“In Soho in ’88, the East Village in ’85, and Chelsea in ’94. It goes boom, boom, and then boom. And you look up and there’s 50 galleries and 20 restaurants. Literally, it’s overnight. This is the first time that I understand it enough to know what to do.” 

Hopkins was talking about Bushwick, where he works; he is on the Board of Directors for the gallery complex 56 Bogart, which, with its large factory windows, high ceilings, white walls and painted gray floors, and seemingly endless warren of gallery spaces feels much like a Chelsea building. Until recently, the artist Jenny Holzer had a studio there.

Hopkins owns a gallery space at 56 Bogart (“The Bogart Salon”), and also serves as the curator for the building helping to find artists, galleries, and museums to rent space in the building.

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Back in December of 2010, the Chelsea gallery Luhring Augustine bought a 10,200-square-foot warehouse a couple of blocks away from 56 Bogart, and ever since, the city’s artists, gallerists, and curators have been eagerly awaiting the gallery’s first move in Brooklyn. They don’t have to wait any longer. Luhring Augustine’s Brooklyn outpost is set to have its first exhibition in February, featuring filmmaker Charles Atlas

The question now is what becomes of Bushwick, presently home to an indie, D.I.Y.-driven art scene not too different from what at the turn of the 21st century had begun to spring up in neighboring  Williamsburg.

Today, the typical Bushwick gallery is as spiritually and aesthetically distinct from galleries in Manhattan as any burgeoning art scene is. Shows, and the art itself, governed by a D.I.Y. ethic. Bushwick galleries opt for sprawling group shows that often do not attempt much of an overarching curatorial vision, and are often stubbornly unconcerned with the commercial viability of art and galleries. 

They have odd schedules. Many are open only on weekends and by appointment, (since their owners have day jobs). Some of Bushwick’s best are run out of apartments—Norte Maar (Jason Andrew) and Centotto (Paul D’Agostino) for example—which gives these galleries a different personality from the standard white-box gallery. 

Some don’t even consider themselves galleries, aiming to defy convention and stretch the concept. Pocket Utopia, a social art project space, bills itself on its blog as “an art project run by Austin Thomas that initiates community by connecting artists.” 

While most Bushwick galleries function as exhibition spaces and often do not actually represent the artists they show in any traditional commercial sense, English Kills, a large brick-walled space run by Chris Harding, has a roster of artists it represents “through a program of solo shows.”

And there is some cross-over between the galleries of Bushwick and those in Manhattan and Chelsea. 

Storefront Bushwick sometimes presents shows by guest curators, many of whom show their work in galleries in Manhattan like William Powhida (Marlborough), and Jules de Balincourt (Deitch). Chris Harding of English Kills did a stint at Mary Boone Gallery in Chelsea, and Pocket Utopia had a group show last summer that included work by Cindy Sherman, Laurie Simmons, and Maira Kalman.

And the art press has been covering Bushwick for years now. It was way back in 2008 when art bloggers affected some shock to hear that Roberta Smith and Jerry Saltz, critics for The New York Times and New York magazine, respectively, had made trips to several galleries, including Pocket Utopia and Norte Maar.

According to Norte Maar co-founder and director Jason Andrew, Saltz was heard calling artist Norman Jabaut’s wood constructions “sexy” in the gallery.

For most Bushwick artists and gallerists, it’s really the February opening of Luhring Augustine at 25 Knickerbocker Avenue, near the Morgan Street L-stop, that might be a watershed, though opinions vary.

“The area will be visited by collectors and curators who would probably never venture out here without a specific reason,” said Deborah Brown in a phone interview. Brown, an artist who exhibits with Leslie Heller Workspace on Orchard Street in the Lower East Side, lives and works in Bushwick, and runs Storefront Bushwick, a tiny storefront gallery a few blocks south and across Flushing Avenue from where Luhring Augustine will open.

Since its opening three years ago, Storefront Bushwick has become one of the premier exhibition spaces in the area and is currently showing the brightly colored geometric paintings of Halsey Hathaway, Gary Petersen, and Rob de Oude. 

“It’s not just people getting dropped off in a limousine for an appointment,” Brown said. “It’s possible they’ll walk around and see 56 Bogart.”

But why wouldn’t that have happened after the art press started covering Bushwick galleries so extensively?

“You say that,” said Brown, “but we do not get collectors from Manhattan in Bushwick. Those people just haven’t made it out here. It’s going to be a game-changer. While the press has been covering the art boom in Brooklyn, there’s a difference between a critical write-up and the opening of a gallery of this scale in the neighborhood.”

Luhring Augustine is indeed a name that means a great deal to artists and curators. With names like Janine Antoni, Larry Clark, Rachel Whiteread, and Glenn Ligon on its roster, the gallery is capable of bringing serious collectors and serious money to Bushwick. It’s the neighborhood’s Mort Guffman, but in this case there’s a solid arrival date.

Hopkins is similarly assured of the “game change” Luhring Augustine will bring. An artist for 30 years who has had a studio in Bushwick for the past five, a studio in Williamsburg since 1983, and who showed with Colin de Land's cutting edge gallery American Fine Arts, Hopkins calls himself a “cultural geneticist” and thinks he’s something of an expert on the great migrations of the New York art scene. Since the building opened, he’s been getting calls from artists as far away as Montreal and Berlin interested in renting space at 56 Bogart. 

And, in anticipation of this big Bushwick moment, the New York Times’ Styles section is currently working on an article about the building. 

“I didn’t think we’d do something until September of next year,” Hopkins said. “But now, we have a narrow window before the Times article comes out.” And so Hopkins organized “Confronting Bushwick: A Discussion on the Nature and Future of the Bushwick Art Scene,” a conference at The Bogart Salon held last Thursday.

Hopkins wants the discussion to take place immediately so that the artists and gallerists here can have a hand in whatever development occurs, rather than letting the new curators, collectors, and galleries set the agenda. 

“Something’s going to happen. We have to discuss what it is. Help direct it or just let it happen,” he said prior to the event. 

Asked whether he expected anyone from Luhring Augustine or any other Chelsea gallery to attend, Hopkins said, “It’s really not yet their time. You talk to local vendors before you talk to Whole Foods.”

“At $2 a square foot, it’s affordable,” Hopkins continued. “We have 6 months before the big real estate guys come in. I told all the museums, the time is now. Later, you’ll be taking what the market offers you.” Part of this, Hopkins likes to say, is isolating that genetic code for what makes Bushwick so special. “What is its terroir?” he asked. 

Bushwick really became an “art neighborhood” in the mid-2000s when artists began fleeing Williamsburg’s rising rents. Around 2007 a number of openings and the Bushwick Open Studio Festival established the neighborhood as a community of artist-run exhibition spaces free from the commercial pressures of the Manhattan art world. It’s just that small-name, small-money, no-rules environment that many local artists fear might not be long for Bushwick.

“I like the low-key artist-run feeling,” said Brown, admitting to having mixed feelings about her powerful new neighbor. “But this will bring people to the neighborhood, which will help the artists. And I like to help the artists. That’s the point. And you can’t stop it from happening. It’s the 300-pound gorilla in the room.”

Lauren Wittels, Luhring Augustine’s gallery Director, was more demure about the gravity of the move. 

“Lawrence and Roland wanted to have a space where the work could have a longer life, and more people could see them,” she said, referring to Luhring Augustine founders Luhring Augustine founders Lawrence Luhring and Roland Augustine.

Shows will be on view for three to five months, as opposed to the four weeks conventionally given to shows in Chelsea galleries.  

“We’ve been in this gallery [in Chelsea] for 12 years,” said Wittels. “Artists are continually facing the same space. Offering a new challenge is a wonderful thing you can do for your stable of artists.” 

She described the new gallery space as “a typical Bushwick warehouse.” 

What is not typical is for a single gallery to have such a mammoth footprint as this. Many Bushwick galleries are run out of storefronts or apartments; when they are whole buildings, even a building like 56 Bogart filled with small galleries, feels less like a brand and more like a community.

Starting the program in Bushwick with Charles Atlas is, then, very intentional for the neighborhood.

“Charlie is the perfect artist to tackle that space,” said Wittels about Atlas, an artist who is not formally represented by the gallery.  This is, indeed, Atlas’s first major New York show, though he had a small show at the New Museum. For it, Atlas has created a new piece for a 45-foot long wall in the gallery—an unthinkable proposition for most of the compact galleries of Bushwick. 

“He saw the raw space and was so daunted by it,” said Wittels. “Not only will he rise to the challenge, but he has been interested in the building for years. It’s time for him to have more of a presence in the New York gallery world.”

Asked how the neighborhood might impact the gallery’s programming, Wittels only said she was aware of a more collaborative “vibe” to Bushwick, that she hoped the gallery could utilize. “[Atlas] has the spirit of collaboration and that spirit carries over in Bushwick, in terms of the spirit of the place.”

“I’VE HEARD A RUMOR,” ARTIST NILS KARSTEN said as he sat in a velvet chair at the Bogart Salon, where he presently has a solo exhibition on display. His black T-shirt and black jacket actually seemed more suited for Chelsea than for Bushwick. “And it’s nothing but a rumor—and I’m not even going to mention names to you—that another big gallery like Luhring Augustine is looking for a bigger space, to do the same thing.”

Several days later, on January 19, a group of panelists gathered in the same gallery for “Confronting Bushwick” about what, really, the arrival of Luhring Augustine will mean for Bushwick’s art scene.

The gallery bustled with artists, writers and curators; Hrag Vartanian, an art critic and editor of the popular art blog Hyperallergic, was moderating the panel that had seated itself on a green velvet divan and some cushy chairs, and included Thomas Burr Dodd, the owner of the multi-purpose art space and film studio Brooklyn Fire Proof; Deborah Brown; Carolina A. Miranda, a writer for Artnews; and Marco Antonini, the director of NURTUREart, a non-profit art space located in the building.

Dodd, one of the older members of the panel, rents 185,000 square feet of property in Bushwick, he said. “Top Chef” has been filmed at his studio.

“I care a little bit less about the whole art thing,” he told the crowd. 

He noted the resistance many artists felt to the possible gentrification of the neighborhood. But he seemed to suggest that his own businesses in the neighborhood were the target of malicious health-code violation tip-offs,(“$300 for a fruit fly!” he moaned).

But he is now fearful that his success will price him out of his own neighborhood. (Though before the panel he mentioned that he had secured a 16-year lease on his property.)

The panel was most interesting when they were attempting to decipher what they wanted to preserve about the Bushwick art scene, if in fact the deep pockets are coming.

“Bushwick is a little in love with itself,” Carolina Miranda told the assembly in a self-mocking tone. “We’re doing all these apartment galleries, and a new model. We’re changing things.”

“When things are starting out people do shows in their apartment,” she said. “When Stieglitz did Gallery 291, in the early 20th century, he did it in an empty room across the hall from his apartment because that was a space he could get and a space he could afford.” 

“So artists creating and displaying work in the place that they live is not new at all. Sorry guys.” 

And for better or worse, not everyone at the panel believed that Luhring Augustine was really a watershed for Bushwick.

Carolina Miranda noted what some residents of Bushwick and South Williamsburg and Greenpoint have noticed before, a “parachute effect.”

“People who come here to look at art at Luhring Augustine are going to go look at art at Luhring Augustine, and then maybe they’ll eat at the sushi place or Roberta’s and then they’re over and out,” she said. “The benefit to the larger area is nil.”

Hrag Vartanian offered a comment from Ed Winkleman that he thought the art scene in Bushwick was “more self-conscious.”

Whereas for Marco Antonini, who was wearing a pair of sunglasses hooked into the collar of his black V-neck sweater, the magic moment for Bushwick is already in the past.

“It used to be great around here,” he said; he now lives in Clinton Hill, and used to come to Bushwick “to party.” 

“I wouldn’t say it’s original,” he said of the Bushwick scene. But its very D.I.Y. ethos has made it something particular: A self-sufficient community of small businesses. 

Bushwick was, he said, “self-sufficient from the get-go. There isn’t this far-flung idealism.”

Dodd had a similar perspective on the practicality of the art scene in Bushwick, which went hand-in-hand with a kind of realization of life’s hard truth. 

“What gives me pride about all my tenants, is this entrepreneurship,” he said. “The idea of being discovered and becoming a famous painter. Everyone knows that probably isn’t going to happen. But I’m going to get a space where I can be a micro-manufacturer and I can be creative with my business. Art is evolving into this thing that is going to pay my bills. I can navigate and survive in this fast-moving economy. If you’re not artistic in business today, you’re gone. The reality has set in. Life is hard and I better hustle.”

Paul D’Agostino, the owner of Centotto, asked “Allegedly the Boar’s Head company is vacating in a few years, and I’m wondering if it’s true that there’s a short or long term plan to turn it into an exhibition hall for art fairs.” A hush came over the audience, there were a coupe of “Oohs.” It turned out he was only joking.

Artist William Powhida, known for his satirical send-ups of the art world in the form of stylishly hand-drawn diagrammatic rants, and who had a look-alike drive a classic Mercedes into the Marlborough Gallery for his exhibition last summer, had a large notebook on his lap, in which he was taking meticulous notes. 

Powhida moved to Bushwick in 2008 from Williamsburg where felt the art scene had become dominated by an “opportunistic madness.”  

Though he still works in Williamsburg, he doesn’t love the scene there. 

“It just seemed like it was about selling work,” Powhida said. In Bushwick, he said he feels like “an occupier in the bad way—part of the process of raising rents.” 

“The commercial galleries are moving in,” he said. “I would ask why. I’m not sure. I don’t think there’s that much to be critical of. Is it a starting gate or an endpoint?

Powhida qualifies for an opinion on the matter because of all he’s written about Bushwick, dating even back to that appearance of Smith and Saltz at the 2008 Open Studio tour.

“What really isn’t over is Bushwick’s freedom from commercialism, commodification, and money,” he wrote. “A few short years ago if Jerry and Roberta had toured BOS and written it up in New York magazine and/or the Times, a small army of town cars would have descended upon the next round of openings for small, yet interesting shows like Fortress To Solitude at 56 Bogart Street curated by Guillermo Creus, ready to assimilate Bushwick right into their collections.”

In Powhida’s case, and, one sensed, in the attitudes of many others, there is a strong strain of ambivalence about why that seemed not to have happened so quickly, or whether it still may. 

“Curators and dealers may have also swarmed the open studios looking for artists to keep Chelsea and the art fairs swollen with work,” Powhida wrote. “(Un)Fortunately this isn’t happening.”