Sheltered Past and Art in Bay Ridge: An Essay by John Avelluto

STAND-facebook-cover-Avelluto-PhotoIf someone would’ve told me ten years ago that there would be a space in Bay Ridge where artists could show their work, without the commercial constraints associated with the upkeep of such a place, I would’ve been incredibly skeptical. Now, in 2015, Bay Ridge still doesn’t have a dedicated public space for exhibition. But perhaps, with all the criticism of a corrupt and hegemonic “art-world”, it has something better.

 A few months back I wrote about neighborhood educator, artist and art-activist Jeannine Bardo and her Stand Project. Through Stand, Jeannine is putting up shows for the public to access and neighborhood artists to participate in. The benefit for all involved is nothing short of immense. Artists are not charged an application fee and receive 100% of the sale of their work. Works are priced accessibly ($300 and under) making it easier for us who aren’t oil oligarchs and real estate magnates to bring a piece home and the shows are located in easily accessible, well traversed, highly visible locations…usually local businesses.

At the well-attended August 7th Summer Stroll, Jeannine had coordinated another installation of Stand at the historic Bay Ridge Carriage House at 218 Bay Ridge Avenue (in which I was a participant). Utilizing the audience amassment of the relatively new (4th year running) Bay Ridge event as a means to both expose the community to a historic architectural remnant of a not-too-unthinkable past, the show titled “Sheltered Past” was populated with works that “share stories and experiences from the past- imagined or real, belonging to others or themselves…” and proved a very poetic way to display Stand’s mission. The brick walls adorned, not only with the work of 25 artists, but with all of the curious antiquity of the carriage house…a space that I had wondered about all my teenage years traveling to school on the B1 bus, passing its unique facade.

On August 7th, the large, green, barn-style wooden gates opened for me and over 300 viewers. Inside one could find all the evidence of a world forgotten amongst screens and small hand gestures along with antiquities of the mechanical age whose affectations are so often lifelessly reproduced by contemporary houseware companies: tin drawers affixed to the wall with space for paper labels, hand pulleyed light fixtures hanging from a wooden ceiling interspersed with exposed, steel I-beams. Some works of art hanging on disenjambed doors with impossible-to-replace knobs and embellishments.

The curatorial work of Jeannine (she considers these shows to be artworks themselves) combined with a small but slowly growing network of local artists holding independent meetings and studio visits has made working in this neighborhood far less of an isolated experience. As I have made note of in the past, the arts funding in Community District 10 is around .30 cents per person whereas the average for all of BK is around $4 (rest assured Prospect Heights’ CD6 enjoys a healthy $40+ per person). Despite this, it is quite heartening to know that, with the ever decreasing amount of resources, artists are able to push themselves forward with self-organized events like this. With a growing conversation between artists here, it is exciting to think about the possibilities that lie ahead. Will we see more public artists installations, performative disruptions, interventions or apartment shows (big shout-out to Georgine Benvenuto for transforming her home periodically into Gallery 364 from the years 2008-13). Or is my thinking short-sighted…for the revolution may very well be on its way to your screen?

Whatever outcome that you may envision, there are some concerns that I have for the future for the arts in Bay Ridge, namely the inclusion of the work that has been produced by members of its community in the conversation of “Brooklyn Arts” as well as the under-credited work dubbed “Folk Art”. When will the Brooklyn Museum recognize the generous public work of George Kortsolakis on 79th and Ridge in one of it’s contemporary Brooklyn arts retrospectives or perhaps document all the different hand-wrought, front-yard shrineage that adorn many area homes? Will the powerful memorial mural to a fallen soldier in the first Gulf War by Bay Ridge’s own Mr. Kaves on the 3rd Ave corner of this very exhibition be just a memory I share with a few people from the neighborhood?

With the wealth of information we have about the past at our fingertips, I would hate to succumb to the worst parts of history in art namely the relegation of traditional cultural activities that have happened and are happening now to something other than “Contemporary” and more “Anthropological”. Without a doubt there are other histories and perspectives in Bay Ridge within the visual arts that I fail to touch on here, but the onus is on us to make sure that we trumpet them and bring the much needed attention and arts funding to the community to not only preserve but continue to produce rather than become forgotten in a sheltered past.

John Avelluto is an artist and art advocate, and owner of Owl’s Head Wine Bar on 74th Street in Bay Ridge. John also works with SAW, the Storefront Art Walk that brings art to the storefront windows of Fifth Avenue.