Too big to prevail: Developer cancels Dumbo Arts Festival, citing crowd size

DUMBO’s art weekend turns a neighborhood into a gallery
Courtesy of Leo Kuelbs

It’s Operation Dumbo Arts Festival drop.

The nearly two-decades-old arts event has already had its last hurrah, its primary sponsor Two Trees Management announced on Jan. 27. The event drew 200,000 people to Dumbo last September, and the throngs have become too much to handle without the help of more corporate money, which an organizer said would ruin the vibe.

“It became clear that we could no longer mount the festival ourselves without commercializing it in a way that didn’t feel right,” wrote Lisa Kim, cultural affairs director at Two Trees, in a letter to festival supporters. “We were getting too far from the original mission.”

Artists Joy Glidden and Tyson Daugherty founded the event in 1997 as the “Art Under the Bridge Festival.” The idea was to entice people to the neighborhood at a time when it still lacked city services, such as trash pick-up, and to brand it as a haven for creative types, Glidden said.

“We had 8,000 visitors the first year,” she said. “That was unheard of. No one would go to that area before.”

The festival gave artists a platform to experiment, according to Glidden.

“It was a great place to experiment, to try out some really wild stuff,” she said.

In addition to paintings, sculptures, and photographs, the Dumbo Arts Festival also included performance and dance pieces, as well as big light projections.

Two Trees, the developer that made Dumbo the arts destination and real-estate pressure cooker it is today, took over sponsoring and organizing the event in 2009 when Glidden’s group, the Dumbo Arts Center, decided to give it up. Two Trees’s reasoning for ending the festival makes sense, as growing crowds and increasingly stringent city regulation have increased the cost of the event over the years, Glidden said.

Yarn-ing man: Agata Olek Oleksiak's “sculptural installation instigation,” “100 Percent Acrylic.”

Area gallery owners who participated in the festival are disappointed about its anticlimactic end.

“We’re sad to see it come to an end,” said Kathleen Gilrain, executive director of Smack Mellon Gallery on Plymouth Street. “It helped put Dumbo on the map.”

United Photo Industries started its shipping-container exhibition Photoville at the arts festival. Its creative director is also disappointed that the show is over, but he said he understands the reasoning.

“You have to draw a line some where,” said Sam Barzilay. “At what point does the commercial aspect overshadow the original intentions? You don’t want to do it at all costs.”

Borough President Adams pointed out that the event was not just important for the galleries and businesses in Dumbo, as it helped individual artists raise their profiles.

“It’s not just a chance to showcase the area,” he said. “Every artist will tell you, they need eyes on their work.”

Adams said he is making a push to save the festival, talking with stakeholders and participants to try and come up with a way to carry on the tradition in some form or another.

“The numbers speak for themselves,” Adams said. “We don’t want to throw away the fruits of our labor.”

The gathering is not the only Dumbo arts institution to fall victim to the neighborhood’s success, or the end of Two Trees’ largesse. The massive venue Galapagos pulled up stakes at the end of 2014 when the developer sought to raise its below-market rent. The venue is in the process of moving to Detroit.

Head space: Artists wearing giant heads roamed the streets at the 2014 festival, which it turns out was the last one.
Photo by Morgan Marlatt

Reach reporter Matthew Perlman at (718) 260–8310. E-mail him at mperl‌man@c‌ngloc‌al.com. Follow him on Twitter @matthewjperlman.