“People that I had grown up with in these areas began even accepting the ill-conceived notion that this part of Brooklyn doesn’t care about the arts.”
Even among artists, demz fightin’ words.
Especially among artists.
And so it was that John Avelluto set the tone last Saturday (May 16, 2015) in remarks at the opening ceremony of the Fifth Avenue Storefront Art Walk (SAW), the annual public art showcase he co-founded with Heather Hamilton in 2010. (Editor’s note: Avelluto is also a co-publisher of Hey Ridge.)
But caring about the arts doesn’t always translate into having outlets for the arts. In 2010, “there were no public spaces that allowed practicing artists to exhibit their work, and no place for the neighborhood to view work that was being done in a borough that has accrued a huge notoriety for its cultural output within the arts.”
In a separate statement, Avelluto lamented that according to a 2012 study by Brooklyn College, the average amount of arts funding in Community Board 2 (Brooklyn Heights) was $48.71 per resident, but the funding-per-resident in Community Board 10 (Bay Ridge and Dyker Heights) was a paltry thirty-one cents.
Avelluto and Hamilton sought to reverse negative perceptions and to show that the arts had broad support in the community not by seeking out a gallery space or other individual location already predisposed to showcasing the arts, but by appealing directly to the small businesses that make up the public face of the local community.
It isn’t always an easy sell.
“In terms of finding a space, the thing that makes it difficult is that the store owners mostly do not have a relationship with the art world,” says Margeaux Walter, one of the 2015 SAW artists. “But all of the storefronts that had participated in the past seemed very accommodating and enthusiastic about participating again.” Walter’s photograph is being hosted by Enchanted Florist, which was a part of the first SAW in 2010 and is now a four-time host.
Because the SAW integrates itself with Fifth Avenue’s storefronts, it also differs from popular North Brooklyn festivals that open up its seemingly-inexhaustible supply of private galleries and studios to art fans, and instead takes on the character of public art.
“Knowing that the work will be seen by an audience that’s not the usual fine art crowd, I aim to make work that can be read on a variety of levels that resonates with people of all ages,” says Julia Whitney Barnes, whose SAW project is hosted a couple of blocks down the street at the Sichenze & Sichenze law office.
“The audience for SAW is definitely very different from that of an art gallery, but that actually makes it a lot more interesting and challenging,” Walter adds. “The biggest challenge with the public space as an art context is getting the general public to understand that it is an art project, to participate, and to actually stop and take a moment to look at it. All of these things are givens in art galleries, so it has to be navigated differently in the public space.”
“The great thing is that the people passing by that do stop, seem to be more excited and interested than in a gallery context because the artwork transforms a space, generally close to their home, which they are used to taking for granted.”
Once the SAW is done, a great number of the installations can be reclaimed by the artist, but not all. Whitney Barnes, for instance, created her work directly on the building’s facade. “When I create public work, I have to enter it knowing that I don’t have control over what happens long-term. I want the work to be seen as long as possible to make my time and resources of producing the work worthwhile.” In this case, she told me that the law firm is planning to keep the work after the SAW is done, rather than painting over. “It’s always encouraging that I’m connecting artistically with my audience when something that was initially going to be temporary has an extended lifespan.”
The Fifth Avenue Storefront Art Walk runs through June 28 from Ovington Avenue to 84th Street. For a complete map, visit bayridgesaw.org.