Nicholas Calcott

How Bushwick Became the Center of New York's Art Scene

Artists and gallerists are blazing a trail through the Brooklyn neighborhood and beyond—and they're creating some exceptional work along the way.

“When I came out here, there were no streetlights,” says artist Natalie Frank on a sunny August afternoon. We’re sitting in scuffed-up red metal chairs at a wooden table, having a drink at the Pine Box Rock Shop, which calls itself “Bushwick’s premier vegan-friendly bar and multimedia event space.” We’re looking out on Grattan Street, near the Morgan Avenue L station, ground zero for what has become over the past decade the heart of Brooklyn’s art-production zone. It’s a place people like Frank sought out (in her case, 12 years ago) for the big spaces, easygoing landlords, cheap rents, and DIY possibilities. Now people come from other neighborhoods for the bars and restaurants—Roberta’s, the famous pizza place, which opened in 2008, is a block away from us—and the sense of postindustrial cool you get from converted warehouses and graffitied walls. As we sit, a parade of pale and studiously tattered young people amble past; a young guy rides by on his fixed-gear bike, blasting music from a Beats Pill strapped to it. Another cluster loiters down the block in front of an espresso bar.

Frank is only 37, but she’s an old-time pioneer in these parts. She grew up in Dallas, went to college at Yale, and then got her MFA at Columbia, and has become known for her figurative painting in a fleshy style that owes a bit to both Art Spiegelman and Toulouse-Lautrec. When she moved here, the area was desolate at night and crime was high. A week before her first big New York show, someone in her building got hold of the super’s keys after she complained about noise and stole everything in her studio. Since then, her rent has doubled. She tells me she should have bought a whole building when things were still cheap, like the artist Rashid Johnson, whose studio is nearby, did.

This is an old story: Starting in the 1970s, with New York in bankruptcy, artists got to run wild in abandoned spaces on Manhattan’s West Side waterfront and colonize the cast-iron buildings of Tribeca and SoHo (which was so down-and-out in the late ’60s it very nearly had a highway on stilts built over it). From there artists moved into the East Village, with its old walk-up buildings, then eventually hopped the river to Williamsburg, Brooklyn, and then further along the L subway line to...where we are now, Bushwick, a sort of truckscape of sweatshops and garages and few charming brownstones. Since 2000, according to a survey by the Center for the Urban Future, Bushwick has seen a 1,116 percent increase in its artist population—the biggest increase in any New York City neighborhood.

“This sort of feels like a free corner in the world,” says Molly McIver, who works for the Frieze Art Fair and recently opened 99Scott, a free-form arts and events space. “You really can’t do this in the city anymore. You have to engage at a pretty aggressive level to survive there.”

Olivier Babin, the founder of the Clearing gallery, moved to Bushwick in 2010, when he was still making art himself. There was “a lot of available and affordable space,” he says. “And landlords didn’t care if you lived in your studio. And I did.” But the move coincided with a crisis he was having. “I had reached the end of the road with my own work,” he says. So he started displaying the art of friends, and by the next year he had founded the gallery in his studio. A few years later, he moved to Clearing’s current space, a high-ceilinged warehouse that is now the anchor of the neighborhood for ambitious, collectible art of the type more traditionally associated with galleries on the Lower East Side and in Chelsea.

Ryan McNamara in his studio.

Nicholas Calcott

Clearing inspired Signal, another huge space founded by two then twentysomethings, Alexander Johns and Kyle Jacques. They’d rented a carpet wholesaler’s former warehouse on Johnson Avenue in 2012 off Craigslist, intending to use it as their shared studio and apartment. “It was sort of in shambles,” Johns remembers. “There was no lighting and no finished walls.” They fixed the place up by watching YouTube videos on how to install Sheetrock and wiring. Johns lived there but had to shower at friends’ houses. Soon he realized how much fun it would be to put on big shows in their big space, and little by little they taught themselves how to be a gallery. (The established gallerist Andrea Rosen took a shine to them and offered advice.) “We definitely had an unsophisticated vision of fine art starting out,” Johns says. “Anything immersive, anything large-scale which deserved the space.” And they covered the costs with their day jobs. But over time, they got a reputation. “People come expecting to be entertained,” he says. “They come to see artists they don’t know.” When I was there, they had a show by the artist Travis Boyer called “Ahora y Nunca,” which was inspired partly by the Tejano singer Selena.

There are now about 60 galleries in the area, including Interstate Projects, a nonprofit that gives artists space for large-scale works; a branch of the Chelsea gallery Luhring Augustine; and several smaller spaces grouped in the buildings at 56 Bogart and 1329 Willoughby Streets. And every September, Bushwick Open Studios welcomes throngs of people to see how much work is being produced there. One day this summer, I sat on a chair in the basement hallway of a loft building at 119 Ingraham Street with two other people to see the artist J. Morrison’s interactive and putatively therapeutic performance Escape from New York, which involved us putting on S&M masks and dancing with inflatable dinosaurs in search of psychic release. The show was put on by an artist-run gallery called ADO Project (Art During the Occupation).

It’s easy to get the sense that Bushwick has become something like a postcollegiate lifestyle resort. Step into the hangout bar and art space Secret Project Robot and you’ll encounter a critical mass of the neighborhood’s young artists; its owners also have the popular bars Happyfun Hideaway and Flowers for All Occasions, where many of the employees are artists. Bushwick also has a circus school called the Muse, a feminist boutique called Cult Party, and guided tours of the area’s graffiti.

Now people come here for the bars and restaurants and sense of post-industrial cool.

Several of the gallery owners I spoke to acknowledge that the neighborhood’s appeal to collectors is more about a spirit of discovery than about buying and selling art. Both Signal and Clearing sell at art fairs, and Clearing has opened branches in Brussels and on the Upper East Side. Besides, there is a pervasive feeling that this Brooklyn idyll could all come crashing down because of real estate development.

The artist TM Davy moved with his husband, Liam O’Malley, a teacher at one of the neighborhood’s public elementary schools, to a loft in the area six years ago, and they could do so without feeling like they were displacing anyone. Until the mid-1990s, his building was a sweatshop. Leaning against the wall of his apartment is a portrait he made of the 71-year-old artist A. A. Bronson, nude and in recline against a haunted-looking tree. There is enough light coming through the windows to support what has turned into an indoor rain forest of plants. “These ceilings,” Davy says, casting his eyes up. “I’m about to make a painting for Mass MoCA, and they’ve got incredibly high ceilings. I would like to do probably, like, a nine-foot painting, and I can. In some ways, it’s essential if you really want to be an artist not to be limited to a predetermined scale based on the strengths of the apartment.”

I once went to a party at Davy and O’Malley’s place—they used to have a monthly party on the day of the full moon, even if it was a Tuesday—and the combination of plants, people performing an occult-ish ritual in the middle of the room, and his large, dark paintings of horses was one of those times when I remembered that New York, as orderly and cleaned up as it has become, is still a place for artists.

Work by Marguerite Humeau at the Clearing gallery in Bushwick.

Nicholas Calcott

As Davy’s friend, K8 Hardy, who has her studio a couple of blocks away, says, “I wanted to move somewhere I can see girls skateboarding. That’s my bellwether. I like being around artists and being social.” Her neighbors in the building include the prominent artists Amy Sillman and Bjarne Melgaard, who has an entire floor.

Davy isn’t sure how much longer they will be able to stay before the landlord decides to sell or redevelop the building. Already the new neighbors, many of whom aren’t artists, are paying higher rents and are more likely to complain about, say, a Tuesday night full-moon party disrupting their sleep. One of the big industrial centerpieces of the neighborhood, the former Rheingold Brewery, is now the site of several huge planned apartment complexes. And just this September, Alexander Wang brought his fashion show—#WangFest—to an empty lot, with Kim Kardashian West, Kris Jenner, Bella Hadid, and an entire bus full of models. There was a bouncy castle and a buffet of Dunkin’ Donuts. Cardi B performed.

Davy tells me about how his husband was in Tutu’s, a restaurant down the block from their loft, and overheard a group of men discussing the neighborhood by the numbers: the number of people coming out of the subway station, the number of years before each building reaches a tipping point when it begins to have a more profitable use. “They had numbers,” he says.

Making art is as unforgiving a business to be in as any, especially in a place like New York, which can turn its frontiers into hot neighborhoods in the space of a few years. “I still decide every month which bill I’m not going to pay, and I’m almost 40,” Hardy says. “But I have a lot of cultural capital. These aren’t awful things, but it’s not sustainable ultimately unless you hit it big.” The artist Ryan McNamara has had more success than many Bushwick artists. A chance encounter he had with a curator led to a studio visit, during which the curator fell for a video piece he’d made about his grandmother’s death, I Thought It Was You. She put it in the Athens Biennale, where it got the attention of some MoMA curators, which got him into the 2010 “Greater New York” show at PS1. His career was launched. The day we met, he’d been in rehearsal for a performance he was doing at the Guggenheim. Still, he uses a room in his apartment as his studio. Does he make a living? “I mean, I barely do.”

Painter Loie Hollowell in her studio.

Nicholas Calcott

One way the next wave of artists in New York survives is to keep moving into cheaper neighborhoods. Last spring, Kathy Grayson, of the gallery Hole, did a show of 26 young artists, many of them with studios on the frontiers of L train neighborhoods well beyond Bushwick, such as Ridgewood, Queens. Sarah Trigg had been considering leaving New York to afford being an artist until last year, when her friend Loie Hollowell had a sellout solo show at Feuer/ Mesler, meaning the pair could then lease a huge space that was once a knitwear factory in Ridgewood. The new guard is even leaving its mark farther east in Maspeth, Queens, with the sprawling arts space Knockdown Center and Sara Maria Salamone and Tyler Lafreniere’s storefront gallery Mrs. It’s a 20-minute walk from the nearest subway. The new bohemia is a place you often need to Uber to.

Johns, of the Signal gallery, knows artists who have moved as far out as the Rockaways. He just turned 30, so he didn’t know the city back when bohemia was concentrated along Wooster or Avenue A. He wonders, though, if I think New York is over. I say no, it’s just changing.

Johns accepts this, even feels optimistic. “People still come here looking to make it, with wildly ambitious and unrealistic dreams. It might be getting farther out, but there is still space for weird and poor kids. It’s like Tinker Bell: You just have to believe.”