This year, Bay Ridge hosts its seventh annual Fifth Avenue Storefront Art Walk (or, SAW), in which bona fide artists team up with storeowners to collaborate on an installation in the front windows, providing a free, walkable, outdoor art exhibit on the neighborhood’s streets. We spoke to cofounder John Avelluto, an artist in his own right (and, full disclosure, a friend of the author’s and former contributor to this blog), about how the event has affected Bay Ridge and about what to expect this year.
Did you come up with the idea of a “storefront art walk”? Or is that a thing?
I think that there are many manifestations an “art walk” can take. There was a Bob’s Burgers episode that was titled Art Crawl…so, the idea is definitely something that has been around in the mainstream consciousness for some time. In 2009, Heather Hamilton and I were speaking about the lack of art-outlets in the neighborhood. As an artist having recently graduated from Brooklyn College with an MFA, and a newbie Dad, my range of travel had constricted, and trips to the northern regions of Brooklyn and Manhattan seemed farther and farther. It just seemed crazy to me that there were no public spaces to experiment within or view the visual arts in Southern Brooklyn, where I grew up—Gravesend, Bensonhurst, Dyker and Bay Ridge.
Sustaining sales to support a for-profit gallery space seemed impossible, and arts funding was became more and more scarce. We wanted a common place where art could be shared—not as a commodifiable object—with the public and benefit all involved in a very practical sense so as to democratize the project. I believe that’s where we are unique: artists are given an opportunity to display their work and receive a stipend, the local businesses collaborate with artists and get more foot traffic and visibility, while the community gets to view site-specific artwork for a month.
Has the SAW had an effect on the Bay Ridge art community in the last seven years?
Absolutely. There have been more and more communities of artists within the neighborhood that have discovered each other via the SAW and are collaborating on a number of initiatives within Bay Ridge. 2015 saw the opening of a storefront art space with an exhibition schedule, a number of pop-up exhibitions and immeasurable studio visits/brainstorming sessions/activism. The board of the SAW has doubled with artists from the neighborhood, much to the organization’s benefit.
Are there any windows you’re particularly looking forward to this year?
I have no idea what we are in store for, which makes every installation so exciting. We see the fruits of collaboration springing up the week before the main event, and I am consistently surprised at what artists’ previous work morphs into in its storefront manifestation. I am certainly excited to see storefronts who have never participated become active sites.
The processes of the SAW are unique. Fifteen artists apply to an independent and rotating seven-person jury consisting of past-participating SAW artists, Bay Ridge community members, business owners and arts writers, curators and professionals. After selecting the artists in February, accepted artists bear the task of seeking out storefronts to partner with. The artists select storefronts that can accommodate their regular studio practice either visually, conceptually or pragmatically—”can this space even fit my proposal?” The artists then consult with the store-owner and agree on whether to move forward. If they do, the businesses are encouraged to collaborate with the artist in order to create a project that works for their spaces. Often times an artist has to rethink their studio habits and materials to accommodate this.
What does it mean, in practical terms, for the SAW to be a 501(c)(3) now?
The SAW team is very excited to be able to work as a 501(c)(3) this year, as we can now accept donations! This will help us expand our outreach and further the range of services to both the community of Bay Ridge and additional support to SAW artists. Up until a few months ago, the SAW operated solely on a small budget from the 5th Avenue BID. Close to 90 percent of that budget was immediately redistributed to the artists via their stipend, and the rest went to our website. An overwhelming proportion of work was, and still is, volunteer. In the past, fundraising was substantially more difficult as we didn’t have our own 501(c)(3), but now with that status, we can begin really developing our organization.
What does Bay Ridge need most right now, artswise?
We need the city to start overseeing and distributing arts funding more proportionately: as of 2011, the Center for Brooklyn Studies released a neighborhood report in which I found that CD10 (Bay Ridge, Dyker, Fort Hamilton) receives $0.31 per person in arts redistribution from the state, whereas the average Brooklynite receives $3.43, WHEREAS the community district serving Brooklyn Heights receives $48.81 per person!
As you can see, the majority of the arts funding that is distributed goes to large institutions who also have a lot of individual patronage. And the farther you get from Manhattan, the less funding for the arts. For what is considered, arguably, the center of the arts in the country, we can do a lot better for all of Brooklyn’s communities. I am going to start right here—in the neighborhoods where I grew up and am now raising my children.
The SAW stretches this year from Bay Ridge Avenue to 84th Street (or, from Galaxy Comics to Alpine Real Estate), and kicks off on Saturday, May 14, at 11am, in front of the offices of Community Board 10 (8119 Fifth Avenue). Artists will be onhand, in front of their windows, from 11am-1pm, followed by a fundraiser at the Owl’s Head bar, from 1pm-4pm, featuring music, raffles, and local wine and beer, with 100 percent of the proceeds going to support the SAW. More info here. The art will remain on view until at least June 25.