Gowanus, a Brooklyn neighborhood iconic for the eponymous polluted canal that runs through it, is zoned for light to mid-manufacturing, and is one of the New York City neighborhoods that, in complement to its current zoning, is a welcoming environment for makers of all sorts: fashion, furniture, product, printmaking, photography, painting, ceramics, sculpting, textiles, architecture, glassblowing, drawing, woodworking, lighting, and other industrial design and artistic practices.
Rewind to the mid-90s, to precisely 23 years ago, when the neighborhood's artists, designers and manufacturers decided to band together around the importance of the creative community they belonged to. This, in part, stemmed from an acknowledgement of the nascent pressures of real estate development, and the necessity to collectively protect their haven of affordable work space.
One-of-a-kind hand woven horsehair and cast iron Bench No. 05, designed by Alexandra Kohl and J.M. Szymanski; Kohl's studio will be open to the public for Gowanus Open Studios, where you can view more of her provocative textile and furniture creations
"A bunch of artists in the neighborhood got together. It started very small," says artist and curator Johnny Thornton of Arts Gowanus, of which he's Program Director. "Then [it] just sort of grew and grew." In 2006, in the organization's 20th year, Arts Gowanus became a nonprofit, and further incorporated advocacy into the suite of programming and services it offers the artists in Gowanus that make up its constituency – the pioneers and the creative progeny of Arts Gowanus' founding members.
The City's 2019 rezoning proposal, then – which is referred to as a "Draft Scope of Work" – cites as a main priority the "support [of] existing clusters of economic activity" (P. 5); however, in its introductory summary, it outlines that implementing the rezoning "would result in net decreases of 104,000 sf of warehouse space… and 60,000 sf of other industrial space." Despite the unfortunately problematic nature of these contradictory propositions, there are many positive line items within the proposal, including supporting some existing protections for industrial space, enforcing affordable housing requirements, provisions of industrial job training, safeguarding along the Gowanus Canal waterfront, and more.
Because of the infiltration of real estate interests into urban design priorities citywide, and now most pressingly the current proposal (which is in community evaluation stages, although no progress on approving or revising the proposal has been reported since earlier this summer when a series of community open meetings was held), the presence and impact of Arts Gowanus is all the more crucial.
Anonymous (2012), designed in steel by figurative metal sculptor Alexandra Limpert. (Dimensions: 70" x 22" x 13".) Her art is inspired by cityscapes and the human form, and she's interested in automatons and additive manufacturing in her sculptural constructions, which involve animatronics. Visit her studio for a glimpse into the process and engagement with the work it produces.
One of the organization's most community-building and highest profile endeavors is its annual Gowanus Open Studios (GOS) weekend, this year taking place October 19th and 20th from 12 noon to 6pm.Citing growth year-to-year, Thornton shares that, with more than 400 studios now participating, engagement is estimated to be upwards of six thousand passers-through (perhaps even closer to the ten thousand mark, if exponential patterns of past attendance rates continue).
This estimation is important for two reasons: one, it references the symbiotic relationship between commerce and industry in the Gowanus neighborhood, a value that some local restaurants and storefronts have acted on in the form of becoming official GOS sponsors. "A lot of our central businesses are packed that whole weekend," Thornton says. "One year, Fletcher's [Brooklyn Barbecue] ran out of meat!" Arts Gowanus, as evidenced, is contributing to a neighborhood economy beyond just the arts-specific realms; it is testifying in realistic, quantifiable ways how interest and investment in the creative industries offers a reciprocal commercial value to the communities it remains a part of.
And that is the second reason this anticipated foot traffic is so important: That is, the interest (and the broader value of that interest) that its audience specifically points to. The guests, says Thornton, can be divvied up between demographics who are coming from Manhattan, including "a lot of curators, a lot of buyers," as well as people coming from all over the borough and are interested in meeting artists in their usually-private studio environments, and those coming more locally from within Gowanus, to simply get to know their neighbors.
The draw for city-based curators and buyers represents the serious relevance of the economy that local Gowanus makers are forging from their concentrated, South Brooklyn footprint. The current proposal by the City grants some protections for, but also poses some threats to, this stronghold that artists maintain over the neighborhood's current commercial-industrial ecosystem.
To familiarize ourselves with that hyper-localized ecosystem – one of many in New York City's boroughs whose landscape is within the scope of the City's present attention – we've perused the recently released Gowanus Open Studios map to get a feel for the diverse community of artists and makers whose doors will be open wide to guests throughout the upcoming, celebratory weekend. We encourage you to visit Gowanus (and its adjacent areas) for the event and visit the makers and spaces listed below, and to make your own route beyond that for a self-guided tour. As for what exactly to expect 'round the Canal? "Any sort of creative" can get involved, says Thornton. "We don't put a cap on what art means to us – that's for the artist to decide."
For more information about the participating creatives and their locations, including sponsor restaurants and other commercial sites, visit artsgowanus.org.
Seven Select Core77 Studios to Suggest for Your Schedule of Stop-ins
Helmed by experimental, experiential artist and sculptor Jason Gandy, Aardvark Interiors creates site-specific interiors installations and produces its own collection of fine furniture. An expansive studio housed in a building amongst other creatives and GOS participants, the unexpected abounds within Aardvark's workspace footprint. Gandy's interactive, mobile peephole artworks will be on view alongside his finely constructed debut furniture collection and other works in progress.
Vignette featuring the collection pieces Dark Matter Desk and Portal Mirror, via Aardvark Interiors
Based in the neighborhood's eponymous artist studio complex, Algierwork welcomes people to view its workspace, which produces furniture, sculpture and objet. With a playful and sometimes ironic approach to furniture making, Algier's practice encompasses a broad range of design pieces that are responses to the way people naturally interact with the things and spaces around them.
Musician and visual artist Clare Burson will be showing, in addition to other work, pieces from the Bumps Collection, a series of functional objects – at once beautiful and bizarre – including vases and jewelry dishes. Through wheel work and hand-building/-painting, the designs' exteriors boast tactfully placed knobs made of a semifluid glaze, resulting in irresistable touchability.
An extension of LES Ecology Center, the Warehouse is the only free, permanent e-waste drop-off center in all of New York City. Specially for GOS, the site will be leading hourly tours, inclusive of a hidden "Prop Library" and featuring information about the mechanics of E-waste recycling.
Makeville is rooted in the ethos of sustainability through resource-sharing and responsible materials-usage, and the development of community-creator relationship. Offering shared shop space, events, classes and lessons, the artist membership base will be exhibiting their work (primarily in wood), and meeting and greeting guests interested in its programming, products, and mission.
Wood sculpted bowls by a Makeville-based artist, via Makeville.com
Originally founded by Amy Shakespeare (no relation to the Bard, that we know of), this women-owned architectural firm, often focused on affordable housing and other community-centric projects, is opening its doors for an exclusive viewing into its working offices, plus a special installation.
SGVA design for a Park Slope brownstone. Image via Brownstoner; photograph by Andrew Rugge.
Hosting creative educational programs, artist residencies, exhibitions, technique-focused classes and more throughout the year, the TAC fosters appreciation for and explorations of textile arts, history and culture. And for all you fabrics-inquisitive makers touring around GOS: they also offer space and loom rentals!