Trouble is brewing in Sunset Park. Since April 2013, close to 100 artists have been pushed out of their studios in Industry City, a manufacturing complex and rental agency that describes themselves as artist-friendly. As we reported at the time, artists in three Industry City buildings, 220 36th Street, 251 36th Street, and 88 35th Street, were forced out. Since then, artists on the 3rd floor of 55 33rd Street were recently given notices that this November, their annual rent increase would jump from 4 percent to 20 percent.
It’s curious then, that The Dedalus Foundation, Jamestown Charitable Foundation, and Brooklyn Rail would decide to mount the benefit exhibition Come Together: Surviving Sandy, Year 1 at 220 36th Street, the very location where artists are being forced out. This 100,000 square foot exhibition with over 800 works aims to raise funds for artists affected by Sandy and the participating artists in the show; all proceeds from sales go to the artists, who are expected to broker the transactions. In return, the exhibition organizers ask that 10 percent or more be returned to them and a portion of those earnings will be donated to a Brooklyn foundation that has not yet been decided.
Though meant to “commemorate” Hurricane Sandy, not all the artists were directly affected by it. That might attribute to the show’s aesthetic, which surveys the contemporary art landscape in much the same way as an art fair. Phong Bui, The Rail’s publisher and curator of Come Together, invited several well-known activists to participate, among them Mark di Suvero, Bruce High Quality Foundation, and Shirin Neshat. Some artists, such as Alex Katz, Superflex, and Chris Martin were selected simply to participate in solidarity with the storm victims. “If it is about Sandy alone, it’s no longer a festive affair,” Bui told Artnews earlier this week.
And according to the Dedalus Foundation there is plenty to be festive about. In a statement to AFC, they wrote Industry City has been very supportive of Sandy victims in the past.
The Dedalus Foundation is presenting the exhibition jointly with Industry City, which has been involved with Sandy relief since Sandy hit. At the time of the storm, Industry City Associates donated the use of 18,000 square feet of space to volunteer art conservators who worked on the recovery of hundreds of works of art.
At press time, Industry City had not returned our request for comment.
Still, artists who have lost studios thanks to Industry City aren’t wooed by the company’s seemingly giving spirit. “IC is using good will toward Sandy victims to profit,” one artist told us on the condition of anonymity for fear of a rent hike. Others are upset that The Rail didn’t express greater solidarity, particularly given the time of the exhibition. The Dedalus Foundation invited Bui to coordinate the exhibition just three months ago, and by that time, many of the artists hit by Industry City’s decision to raise rents had already been pushed out.
When we contacted Bui for a statement on why the organization chose Industry City as its location, we were told he was too busy to respond personally because his schedule was filled with fundraising meetings for the show. Sara Christoph, the Rail’s managing director responded on his behalf. “It was not until recently that the current dispute came to our attention,” she explained, “and we realized the complex relationship between Industry City and the artistic community of Sunset Park.”
According to Tamara Zahaykevich, co-founder of the group Artist Studio Affordability Project (ASAP), and an artist who lost her studio in July, “recently” may be defined as going as far back as June 30th. After seeing Bui in the hallways of Industry City a week prior, she sent him an email informing him of Industry City’s decision to increase tenants’ rent by more than 50 percent. She asked for the Rail’s assistance with help finding studio space, and informed him that a group of artists would file a formal complaint with the Better Business Bureau against Industry City. She received no response.
In late September, Jenny Dubnau, an artist co-founder of ASAP told Bui that some artists were considering handing out ribbons at the show for those had lost their studios at IC. A week later, with tensions rising, Osamu Kobayashi, an artist forced out of the NARS Foundation studio was approached by Bui. Bui, concerned about a potential protest, claimed sympathy, and requested to hold an emergency meeting with the artists. Many expressed disinterest in meeting, while the group refused Phong’s invitation to be part of the show. They explained to me that those unfamiliar with the company, would either never learn about what happened or be given the impression that their practices were okay with them.
“Artists are VERY ANGRY with IC for poising themselves as artist friendly,” Zahaykevich wrote to me. “People are also upset with Phong, as there are rumors flying around about the benefits he is reaping from doing this and for advertising IC’s spaces on the Sandy website.” One rumor proposes that the Brooklyn Rail plans to move their offices to 220 36th Street, but that was quickly disputed by Sara Christoph. She told me the offices at that site were temporary and meant to allow the publishers to focus on the exhibition.
None of that background was evident yesterday, though, at the exhibition’s VIP opening. “What does a manufacturing industrial complex have to do with art?” Industry City’s CEO Andrew Kimball asked the audience in his opening statements before quickly concluding that it meant embracing artists. Bui, for his part, compared the experience to “recreating Woodstock.” He did not specify whether he was recreating the Woodstock of the 60’s, a concert that brought throngs of people together through love and optimism, or the 90’s iterations, which were widely criticized for capitalizing on the spirit of their predecessor.