Gowanus Artists Forced To Look For New Space During Pandemic

Gowanus Artists Forced To Look For New Space During Pandemic

On March 30th, a group of 28 artists based in Gowanus received news that their contract at their studio space, managed through Spaceworks, would be ending. The management company was closing its doors, but informed tenants that the current landlord, PDS Development Corporation, may be willing to negotiate a similar contract. This was not the case.

Johnny Thornton, one of the artists formerly in the building and the Executive Director of Arts Gowanus, a not-for-profit that aims to support and advocate for local artists, said that the landlord was unwilling to negotiate with the group, and insisted that they all be completely out of the space within sixty days.

The building in question, at 540 President Street. Courtesy of Johnny Thornton.

Arts Gowanus, who has taken a leadership role among the artists, recognizes that PDS is within their rights to do this. What they find fault with is the, in their view, unreasonable time limit and lack of willingness to negotiate, especially in the midst of a global pandemic.

“For many [of these artists] this is their livelihood. Having to move in the middle of COVID and essentially rebuild somewhere else is outrageous. I mean if [PDS] said ‘hey, you can leave your stuff here indefinitely, you’re just not allowed to work here’, that would be one thing, but they’re asking everyone to vacate and move. That means putting themselves in jeopardy, organizing moving, which is another economic hardship, and setting up shop somewhere else. If this had happened when COVID wasn’t happening we would still be very distressed about this situation, but I feel like because people have been asked to jeopardize their safety— that’s where we really take issue,” Thornton said.

As far as he knows, the space at 540 President Street will be empty after they move out. PDS Development did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Karen Mainenti in her studio. Photo by Sina Basila Hickey

“We’re looking for a space in Gowanus. I feel like this is another huge loss for the neighborhood. We’ve been hemorrhaging studio spaces for years. Artists are the ones that made this neighborhood so vibrant, and we’re sort of getting pushed out as any available space can become more profitable, and this is just sort of part of that pattern,” Thornton said. Most of the 28 artists live in or around the area. The group has had some offers from buildings in Manhattan or Sunset Park, but are so far insistent in their desire to stay in Gowanus, where they are able to easily walk or bike to their space. Their previous contract with Spaceworks offered space at a slightly subsidized rate, something that they would love in a new landlord as well.

Liza Domingues in her studio. Courtesy of Johnny Thornton.

The artists bring a diverse range of backgrounds and styles to the neighborhood, Thornton says.

“[They are a] really diverse group of artists who span most mediums. A lot of painters, there’s a jewelry maker, a video artist, an installation artist. Just a really amazing group of artists. Losing these would be a real loss for the neighborhood,” he added.

Although the artists are not a formal collective, they are a community, Thornton says. They often have studios together and are a close-knit group.

“I feel like Gowanus is a special neighborhood. Those of us who have studios there and work there and live there love it, and I do think it is artists like these artists that make the neighborhood such a great place to be. They make it a great community. They’re all very community oriented, they make it a neighborhood, and sometimes they get lost in the shuffle after property prices start going up. It’s usually the artists that made the community so great that are pushed out first,” Thornton said.

Artist Rachel Selekman and Councilman Brad Lander. Courtesy of Johnny Thornton.

Arts Gowanus will be meeting tomorrow with City Councilman Brad Lander about potential solutions.

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