By Jacqueline Mabey
In collaboration with the blog of Arts in Bushwick
On a rainy day in April, I sat down at Café Ghia with Laura Braslow. Over too many cups of coffee, Braslow — co-founder of Arts In Bushwick, co-lead of Arts In Bushwick’s community projects team, former co-lead organizer of Bushwick Open Studios and current Organizers Emeritus — detailed her history as a part of Arts in Bushwick. What follows is from that and a few other places, a brief personal history of AiB.
In 2005, there was The Bushwick Art Projects, a curated one-day festival of art and music in locations scattered around the Montrose and Morgan L train stops. At the time, Braslow was living in a loft in Bushwick with a number of roommates who shared her desire to be a social entrepreneur. They contacted the organizers of the BAP and expressed their desire to collaborate in the production of their next neighborhood event, and specifically to help organize others in the neighborhood and foster greater community involvement. After the BAP organizers backed out, an email was sent out to the mailing list of interested parties and a few dedicated people — Thom Bell, Christina deRoos, for example— stepped forward to act as co-organizers of the 2006 Bushwick Open Studios.
More people – and an organizational structure – was needed to make Bushwick Open Studios a sustainable community organization. The open, all volunteer, non-hierarchical structure, then, is a matter of both ethics and necessity.
Braslow: The question is can you produce a large scale event with all volunteers? How to get it all done when there are functions that are not as desirable as other functions? The way to make it work… is to give people autonomy to take on as much responsibility as they want in the areas that they’re interested, because why else are they there? When they are bought in and gel as a team, they pick up the slack and work hard together to pull off incredible things.
Community interest and involvement grew, making Bushwick Open Studios 2007 a much larger event, with opening and closing parties. There was a desire to have more than just one event per year and to produce collaborative events not possible within the framework of Open Studios.
It became clear that there was an interest in re-framing what was happening as a larger community organization, not just an event-specific activity… so that was parlayed into the formation of Arts in Bushwick as an organization that produces the Open Studios event as well as other things. None of our events or activities can happen without people making a commitment to producing them, and mostly we’ve been able to maintain that structure and have successful events produced over the past six years.
Other Arts in Bushwick events emerged organically. Beta Spaces, founded by Steve Weintraub, is festival of collaborative exhibitions in alternative spaces. Founded by Chloë Bass, SITE Fest is an interdisciplinary event, exploring the neighborhood as an unfolding collaborative performance enacted in urban space.
As Arts in Bushwick has grown and evolved, Braslow has consistently worked to raise political awareness in the arts community, and to build bridges between the arts community and other groups and interests in the neighborhood. She serves on Bushwick’s Community Board 4, as well as the boards of a number of local non-profits, and organizes discussion events at each Arts In Bushwick festival that engage questions about how the arts community relates to broader neighborhood issues and neighborhood change.
The arts community is often framed as a “first wave” of gentrification… cultural capital being something that is attractive to political and economic growth machines… that attract more middle class residents to “disinvested” parts of the city which often house more low-income residents. [AiB is] an organizing vehicle for the arts community to be more present and more engaged, rejecting the way meta-narratives of change incorporate and reframe their activities… to play a more active role in shaping the discourses and rejecting some of the problematic assumptions what their [the arts] community is doing, what it’s for, what it wants. Basically, rejecting the pioneer narrative and try to… work together to improve sustainability for all current residents in the face of pressure around re-development and re-investment.
For Braslow, the Bushwick Open Studios and other Arts In Bushwick events present a unique organizing opportunity, even as the growing number of participants and viewers each year garners increasing media attention.
There is a challenge of what are the activities of Arts in Bushwick. It’s not just about art and it’s not just an arts festival and its not just made up of artists. There are newcomer residents who are not art producers and community organizations that are not really connected to the arts that are involved at various levels that we work with. For me, part of what Arts in Bushwick is for is to be a gateway for folks who are here because they’re part of or connected to the “artist community” in some way but they don’t have a stakeholder group to join or be a part of… it’s a vehicle for them to aggregate as a group. An agglomeration but not a distinctive ontology; it doesn’t give us the right to say we’re speaking for anyone but it gives people away to get involved in something that is visible as a community organization that they feel suits them maybe better than the many other organizations that already exist in the neighborhood. I don’t think it’s productive to carve off Bushwick as an arts community from larger neighborhood issues. We have to be careful not get swept along in the rebranding process as the neighborhood changes. The trick is to use the visibility and the organizing that we’re able to do to get people engaged an involved and connected.