Galleries abandoning North Brooklyn for cheaper pastures

Galleries abandoning North Brooklyn for cheaper pastures
Photo by Tom Callan

Williamsburg is no longer an arts community.

Two of the last bastions of artistic creation in North Brooklyn are closing this month after providing performance and exhibition space to thousands of artists over the past seven years.

Secret Project Robot, an arts space on Kent Avenue that regularly hosted experimental art installations, and Not An Alternative, a co-working space on Havemeyer Street known as a hub for neighborhood activism, will move to Bushwick and Greenpoint, respectively, after finding themselves priced out.

Secret Project Robot’s lease ran out this summer after seven years. The building’s owner, the Chetrit Group, plans to tear down the entire block-long complex, which includes music studios, a screenprinting shop and a surfing store, to build a retail space for a grocery store, a real-estate source said.

A specialty barber shop will be replacing Not an Alternative’s storefront, which is across the street from the Knitting Factory, a slew of pricey restaurants and bars, and a high-end salon.

“This is a dramatically changing neighborhood,” said Not an Alternative’s Beka Economopoulos, whose rent shot up from $2,400 to $6,000 per month in August. “The hipster is on its way out and there is a new breed of resident here now.”

And what a long, strange trip it’s been.

Artists first moved to the neighborhood’s northside and waterfront in the 1970s, attracted to large warehouses that once housed working factories.

Over the next 20 years, they converted these buildings into lofts and art studios. By 1990 there were an estimated 2,000 artists living in Williamsburg.

In the 1990s, a handful of galleries led by Pierogi Gallery on N. Ninth Street and Eyewash on N. Seventh Street opened, and artists such as Fred Tomaselli, David Opdyke, Lisa Hein and Bob Seng began to receive more attention from the art world.

But as more artists and young professionals moved into Williamsburg over the next decade, the common New York plotline played out: new stores opened and real-estate prices began to rise.

Moving day last week was a trying time.
Photo by Tom Callan

The neighborhood’s rezoning in 2005 further encouraged condo development, pricing out hardscrabble artists and art spaces.

The latest closures are part of a downward trend in the art gallery world. Momenta Art, Nurture Art, and Cinders Gallery have decamped from Williamsburg in search of cheaper spaces further east and north.

Momenta Art and Nurture Art have relocated to a loft building on Grattan Street in East Williamsburg while Cinders is looking for a new home.

“Times around here are difficult for art spaces,” said Marissa Sage, founder of Like the Spice Gallery. “It makes sense that they’re moving. It’s cheaper in Bushwick and more experimental spaces are moving there because they don’t have to worry as much for rent.”

Williamsburg art critic Hrag Vartanian of Hyperallergic said that the change isn’t necessarily for the worse and pointed to several “polished” galleries quietly popping up in north Brooklyn including Rawson Projects, Soloway Gallery and Devotion Gallery.

“The lower rents of Bushwick allow more experimental and less-commercial spaces like Cinders and Secret Project Robot to mount their types of shows, and that’s great, but I don’t think they’re the same thing,” said Vartanian.

But Cinders’ co-founder Kelie Bowman worries that “blue-chip” galleries will ignore newcomers in favor of established artists.

“So many of my favorite places to see art have disappeared,” said Bowman. “Now the galleries are less likely to risk doing shows with emerging artists. How does the working artist provide for themselves when they are not selling to the mega rich?”

Economopoulos, who is moving her space to a third-floor warehouse building off West Street, is optimistic that her venture will keep North Brooklynites engaged in political and social activism. But she is still shocked at how fast Williamsburg has changed.

“At our space we were dedicated to how we can leverage our role as hipsters to do something about [gentrification],” said Economopoulos. “But we fell victim to the very narrative that we aimed to intercept.”

Secret Project Robot has also moved, leaving Kent Avenue for Bushwick.
Photo by Tom Callan