A group of 28 artists will be kicked out of their Gowanus studio when the non-profit Spaceworks shutters operations in mid-June, forcing the creatives to move their artworks and belongings during the novel coronavirus outbreak, according to one local painter.
“It’s unconscionable to ask us to vacate our spaces while dealing with this disease,” said Danie Herard.
The once-charitable Spaceworks offered affordable spaces for artists at the sprawling 540 President St. building, as well as buildings in Park Slope, Williamsburg, and Manhattan — but the organization announced on March 31 that they’d be closing their doors this spring.
One artist who already moved their belongings out of the space subsequently contracted COVID-19, leaving others fearful about entering the building and the potential moving process, according to Johnny Thornton, the director of Arts Gowanus, an arts nonprofit based in the Gowanus space.
Spaceworks had initially told artists to pack up their belongings by May 25, but ultimately extended the move-out window to June 15 — nearly a month after the end of Governor Andrew Cuomo’s shelter-in-place order — after mounting pressure from tenants, said Thornton.
“It is a tricky legal situation for everyone involved, but artists should not be asked to risk their safety in the middle of this world pandemic,” said Thornton.
Spaceworks, which is the management company for the President Street building that’s owned by local real estate firm PDS Development Corporation, assured tenants that they would not dispose of any personal property without permission, and that they would waiver rent for May and return security deposits.
“We will be working closely with the landlord as things evolve,” said Spaceworks in a statement to tenants. “No personal items/ belongings will be disposed of unless you’ve let Spaceworks know that they’re unwanted or you’re leaving them behind. We appreciate your patience during this extraordinary time for all of us.”
And beyond the safety hazards of moving during a pandemic, Thornton worries that the loss of over two dozen artists would be devastating to the neighborhood that’s undergoing rapid changes amid a planned rezoning of the area.
“Gowanus has already been hemorrhaging artists, losing hundreds of artist spaces just in the past three years due to rental hikes and gentrification,” he said. “There is a real risk the neighborhood will permanently lose its unique character and artistic DNA if this trend continues.”
The non-profit kicking them out would also be particularly disastrous for the artists, many of whom recently lost their income due to the pandemic, according to Herard.
“I know it’s a difficult time for everyone overall, but for me and other artists who are likely to freelance to make ends meet, this has been extraordinarily challenging,” Herard said. “Without the necessary support we will lose the artists that have contributed to the vibrancy of Gowanus.”
The landlord cannot legally evict the tenants, as Cuomo’s 90-day ban on evictions is in effect until June 20 — even if the non-profit building management company dissolves, according to Prospect Heights-based tenant lawyer Edward Deignan.
“Tenants are tenants of the property owner, not the management company,” said Deignan. “The owner of the property could say, ‘Just pay your rent to me.’”
But even if they tried to fight an official eviction in court, many artists are wary that the landlord could simply lock the doors and hold their artwork and equipment hostage.
“We have keycard access, so once we lose that, what happens then?” Thornton said.
The artist’s lawyers pointed to the destruction of the 5Pointz graffiti in Queens, which showed that, even if artists win legal battles against a developer, their artworks might not survive the process.
“What landlords do and what’s legal are very different things, especially when it comes to artists,” Thornton said.
Thornton’s lawyers declined to comment directly.
Arts Gowanus proposed taking over as the new management company at the same rental rates — but PDS reps wouldn’t budge, according to Thornton.
“There was no movement there, they wanted to vacate it,” he said.
PDS Development Corporation did not return requests for comment.