By Sean Alday
Austin Thomas and I sat down before Bushwick Open Studios in her art gallery Pocket Utopia to talk about loss and failure. Or so I had planned. I was losing the lease on my space and thought that her story of rebirth and regeneration would be exactly what what I needed to hear.
So we spoke and she interviewed me as much as I interviewed her. She reminded me that failure is one of the most important components to success, and that true community can overtake conformity.
Austin Thomas: I never considered myself a gallerist at the time. What I was doing was an extension of my artwork. Pocket Utopia in Bushwick was run like a salon space, it was only open on Saturdays and Sundays, we had artist residencies, exhibitions, and talks. So I think that giving it the title of a gallery, may be giving me too much credit [laughs].
Sean Alday: So what did you call what you were doing?
Austin: It was really a place to expand my own ideas on what running a social space meant. We didn’t really sell work either. The work we did show included things like Andrew Hurst doing a performance drilling up through the floor from the basement. There were a lot of performances and an exploration of ideas more than anything else.
The current iteration of Pocket Utopia is also an exploration of ideas, but it’s a deepening of the understanding that started there.
Sean: Where was your artwork developmentally, before Pocket Utopia?
Austin: I had been building a lot of social structures. Things like benches, tables, chairs, for people to sit on and communicate with each other. They were hard structures that I made primarily at a woodshop in Bushwick.
I thought that my work was going to move in the direction of furniture. So that’s one reason that I opened Pocket Utopia, to see if I could run a space as an artwork. Which was very different from the idea of running a gallery. Plus it was only open on Saturday and Sunday, I had to work five days a week.
Looking back, it was my vacation house [laughs].
Sean: What was it like running an social arts space in Bushwick at that time?
Austin: We didn’t know that we were in Bushwick. We laughed one day when someone came in and asked “How does it feel to be the first art gallery in Bushwick?” We laughed because we thought that we were in East Williamsburg.
I knew that it was an artist neighborhood. The relationships between artists grew stronger as Pocket Utopia carried on. Building an arts community was the main byproduct of running it, whether we were in Bushwick or on the border [laughs].
I had a blog and wrote about how artists approached showing their work. I definitely noticed that it was more about the work and not about who you knew. With that knowledge I always tried to keep the focus on the artwork. I learned a lot about what making art meant to me.
The whole experience of having a community of artists to talk to… I had never had that before.
I don’t know what your experience has been, if you moved to Bushwick with your community of artists. Maybe saying “I didn’t have a community.” sounds foreign to you. But I had lived in New York for thirteen years before opening Pocket Utopia, with a studio in Chelsea for ten years, and I never found that I had a group of artists to talk to about making art. And what it felt like, was having a community who had my back through the experience of failure. Sometimes as an artist – failure is the best thing that can happen to you. We can get confused at always being successful or being surrounded by success.
Pocket Utopia had a beginning, middle and end, I had always planned on doing it for two years. Other things were happening, I was advocating that other artists open their own spaces too. I had learned so much about my own practice through having done that, that it seemed like something worth sharing. I don’t know if that’s your experience…
Sean: When I moved here, I didn’t know what Bushwick was. I just wanted to live and write in Brooklyn for a while. I realized that there were a lot of artists in my building that I got along with. So we started our space out of their adjacent apartments.
Austin: And it has the downstairs right?
Sean: Yes they are both duplex apartments.
Austin: Right… That’s where I saw the work that I liked. It was during Jason’s latest Beat Nite.
Sean: What were people telling you about your space. And were you aware of what people were writing about Pocket Utopia?
Austin: In what sense?
Sean: On Edward Winkleman’s blog in 2007 he openly wished that your approach would be the new mould for art galleries. That is, artist-run and artist-friendly.
Austin: That’s interesting… The funny thing is that that’s not far off the mark from what happened in Bushwick. I mean, here we are on the eve of Bushwick opening up, and there’s over 500 spaces advertised. That’s incredible.
It’s great that artists move there and think about community. And it seems to be the main reason artists cite for moving there. It’s great to find that ideas can manifest so quickly.
That quote from Winkleman is as relevant now as it was then. There is a lot of opportunity to do things, show things, write about things. It seems like there is a nurturing community in which you can show what you do with a lot of freedom.
The dialogue is moving forward. That part never stopped. I started with a few goals in mind. One was to run it for two years, the other was to do it as artpiece. Afterwards, I wanted to run with the idea of Pocket Utopia without a space.
We’re artists, we add and subtract things.
Sean: What was the transition like from closing your space and going out on that limb, of trying to carry the idea forward, to where you are now?
Austin: I never thought that I was going to reopen. Immediately after it closed people started asking me to do things. I worked a lot with Jason Andrew of Norte Maar and he runs one of the most collaboration-minded organizations around.
We worked together to put on Camp Pocket U in Rouses Point, one year after I closed the space. So that was 2010.
Sean: How did you like being in Rouses Point after having been in the city for so long?
Austin: I think that it was good for everybody. It was ten days. A lot of people came and it seemed to have a strengthening effect on the community. I love how Bushwick is this ever changing landscape right in the middle of the city. But that ten days was good for all involved I think. Sorry you couldn’t make it.
Sean: I am too in retrospect. But I had no idea about it at the time.
Austin: How has it been for you running 950 Hart?
Sean: It’s been a lot of fun. Definitely the best two years of my life. But I also learned more doing this than I ever did at school.
Austin: I feel the same way about Pocket Utopia. It’s been a great time in my life and it was worth several Masters Degrees based on what I learned. But the community that came out of it had the most lasting impact. The friendships, collaborations, the spaces that opened and have grown since then. Art should have a firm foot in community. We should support each other.
My wish would be for that collaborative community to continue. I think that it will, it’s been proven to work. On that note I look forward to collaborating with you in the future.
“Hello, babies. Welcome to Earth. It’s hot in the summer and cold in the winter. It’s round and wet and crowded. At the outside, babies, you’ve got about a hundred years here. There’s only one rule that I know of, babies—God damn it, you’ve got to be kind.”