Gowanus Open Studios is back this weekend for its 25th year, inviting Brooklyn’s art-loving public into galleries and studios for a weekend of browsing, shopping, and performances hosted by Arts Gowanus.
More than 400 artists are preparing to show their work in over 100 locations from Boerum Hill to South Slope in the midst of a particularly difficult year for local creatives. Catastrophic flooding from Hurricane Ida destroyed artwork and endangered livelihoods for artists at 540 President St., the home of Arts Gowanus, and the pandemic cancelled art shows and shuttered studios, slowing down creation and sales.
Last year, in the midst of the pandemic, Open Studios became ArtWalk on Atlantic, a socially-distanced exhibition making use of storefronts from Brooklyn Heights to Gowanus.
The organization didn’t decide they were going to move forward with Open Studios this year until June, about six weeks after they would usually start planning, said the group’s executive director, Johnny Thornton.
“We had a couple of backup plans,” Thornton said. “The new strains of COVID were freaking us out a little bit. This was a very difficult decision, but ultimately I’m glad that we made it, because I think that it can be done safely.”
This year, participants and visitors must wear masks at all indoor spaces – whether they’re studio buildings or cafes. Individual artists are choosing whether or not to check vaccination status, but Arts Gowanus has asked that no one serve food or drinks indoors.
Ceramicist Kasia Zurek-Doule, who has been working out of a local studio for more than a decade, has been participating in Open Studios for five years, joining up with a group of other ceramicists to show their work together.
She’s already been able to return to in-person shows, taking part in an exhibition at Brooklyn Waterfront Artists Coalition, and she says having people see her sculptures — in all their three-dimensional, textured glory — has been particularly satisfying.
“This piece that I made, the ‘Bird/Thorn/Claw,’ that one I showed at BWAC already,” she said. “And I don’t like to tell people this, but I really want them to touch it.”
Aside from the tactile benefits of an in-person show, the return of Open Studios is also the return of a long-separated community of local artists.
“Some people go to church, some people go to yoga,” Zurek-Doule said. “Going to the studio is something that is incredibly healing and important to me, and like, I didn’t have that, didn’t have the community.”
The isolation of lockdown inspired Zurek-Doule and two of her friends, artists Bonnie Ralston and Miska Draskoczy, to create Gowanus Night Heron. The group held their first pop-up event on the banks of the Gowanus Canal last June, and collaborated again on a group show called “Case Study” for Open Studios.
“They had this idea to give 30 different artists one object and see how they would change it,” Thornton said. “They gave 30 artists an acrylic box, a clear acrylic box, and said ‘No rules, just bring it back.’”
“We’ve been working on this project virtually up until the very minute where people were dropping their objects off,” Zurek-Doule said. “I’ve never met some of them, so it was really fun to actually meet them, and maybe talk a little bit about their work. It’s nice to have this moment where we actually get to get together and celebrate the thing we like to do most.”
For the first time in the event’s history, Arts Gowanus has carved out a space at 540 President for more than 70 artists who were displaced from their studios in 2020.
“Keeping the community strong and vibrant and making sure everyone has a place has always been one of my top priorities,” Thornton said. “Early on in discussions, was, how can we help people who don’t have a place to show, who have participated in the past.”
Liza Domingues is one of those artists. A longtime painter, and, more recently, a sculptor, Domingues had been renting a studio at the now-defunct SpaceWorks, in the same building as Arts Gowanus. It’s where she met Thornton and dozens of other artists.
While she was able to hold on to her studio through the turmoil of SpaceWorks closing, Domingues and her husband, like everyone else, were still spending most of their time at home, and realized they needed to move out of their small apartment into something with more space. With more space comes higher rent, and Domingues gave up her studio to bridge the gap.
“Now, I have, like, this corner,” she said. “My studio right now is the corner of my home.”
She’s managing just fine at home, she said, but realized over the summer that she wouldn’t be able to participate in Open Studios.
“But then, they sent us, like if you used to be a Gowanus artist, to fill out a form,” she said. “And then they followed through, they found places for everybody. It was amazing, I’m really happy with it.”
In 2019, she sold all over her smaller works at Open Studios, she said, and made connections with artists and buyers.
“I feel, like, hopeful, but also at the same time, I don’t know what to expect,” Domingues said. “I hope we have as many people as before, but I really don’t know.”
All Zurek-Doule wants is for the community to come support their local artisans.
“We want them, we need them,” she said. “We want to talk about our art, we want people to show up. It would be really, really great if people supported their local artist economy a little more, and their local institutions.”
Earlier this week, Thornton and David Kutz, the board president of Arts Gowanus, testified at the City Council’s hearing on the Gowanus rezoning, asking that a Community Benefits Agreement that would have developers include at least 200 subsidized artists’ studios in their new buildings be codified before the council vote on the project. If it isn’t agreed upon, he said, it could be a “death blow” to the already struggling community.
“If you think about Williamsburg and Greenpoint back in the 90s and 2000s, it’s always the artists that create the space, that create the community, and then people profit on it,” Zurek-Doule said. “It would be nice to have some static spaces where that wasn’t something that was always at risk. Because finding space is incredibly difficult.”
If anyone has been sitting home thinking about buying a new painting for their wall, they should head out this weekend to buy it, Thornton said. The organization will also be keeping their online directory open after Open Studios ends, so if a particular work or artist sticks in a shopper’s brain, they can seek them out and make a purchase down the line.
Gowanus Open Studios runs Oct. 16-17, noon to 6 pm, with a closing party at the Gowanus Dredgers’ Boathouse on Sunday night. Use the map to find participating studios and businesses, or take a curated self-guided tour.