Second Long Island City Open Studios
Weekends 1-5pm October 10-11, October 17-18
Lobby Showcase Exhibition
Fiorello LaGuardia Community College, CUNY , Long Island City, NY October 9-30, 1987
QCC Gallery Queensborough Community College, CUNY, Bayside, NY – November 8-December 17, 1987
The southern tip and mouth of Newtown Creek, Hunter’s Point. Gazing out across it, its seventeenth century Dutch and English landowners must have experienced a view similar to what a visitor can see today at the Jamaica Wildlife Sanctuary, part of the Gateway National Seashore area near Kennedy Airport: flocks of nesting migratory birds, waving salt hay, and clumps of sea grape and scrub pine.
In 1870, Long Island City was formed from an incorporation of the business and residential communities of Astoria and Ravenswood with their elegant mansions, the farmhouses and rural tracts around Dutch Kills, and the burgeoning industrial sites at Hunter’s Point, the “downtown” area. After 27 years of independent growth as an important industrial and political complex, Long Island City was finally incorporated as a Borough of New York City in 1898. Impelled by rapid urbanization, pastoral Queens was swept east, leaving behind here and there quiet oases from its past, setting a pattern of mixed use that remains today and gives Queens its special character. Now overlaying Long Island City and concealing its original moist, earthy configurations, is a man-made crust of landfill, acres of stone-studded cemeteries mixed in with waste and energy plants, rail yards, brick and metal-sided factories sealing off the land from the once-cleansing incursions of the sea . Striding over all are monstrous elevated roadways and bridges in orange, blue, green, and black, which have cut off sections of Long Island City from one another, and have created a virtual ghost town out of once-thriving Hunter’s Point.
Ferry boats once exchanging goods and people between Manhattan and Long Island City at Hunter’s Point and 92nd Street were supplanted at the turnm of the century by bridges and tunnels. The most momentous transportation change was the opening in 1909 of the Queensborough Bridge, which brought trolley lines into the heart of Queens at its Long Island City terminus, creating a suburban frontier for New Yorkers . The last farm outpost still stands as The Queens Farm Museum in Bellerose, where Queens borders Nassau County (in common parlance, where “Long Island” begins), a Colonial remnant left when Queens became a bedroom community for Manhattan.
Despite chaotic industrial growth, Long Island City has remained attractive to artists. They enjoy the low density, mixed industrial and residential neighborhoods, the access to materials and fabricators, and, as more than one visual artist has stated , “the serenity.” Much heavy industry has left and what remains lets enough light and air into the low-rise blocks of buildings to give needed natural illumination for factory loft studios and single-family houses. The rents have been modest. Unlike similar waterfront in Brooklyn or Manhattan, stable family neighborhoods remain.
During the 1970’s and 1980’s new growth of cultural institutions all over the Borough stimulated a new influx of artists and with them, the area is becoming transformed again. Old abandoned buildings were in some cases renovated and preserved for public use: among these, the Jamaica Arts Center was created out of the old Hall of Records in Jamaica in 1974, and the First Ward Primary School, a giant pile of dark, Romanesque-Revival masonry on Jackson Avenue, Long Island City, built in 1892 and abandoned in 1962, was re-opened in 1976 by the Institute for Art and Urban Resources as Projects Studios 1-P .S. I offering one- to two-year studio rentals plus exhibition space . The ambitious scope of its program and its sheer size quickly attracted attention and applications from artists. Initially, artists had to repair their own rented spaces, but rents were kept low. With this incentive plus the media attention and critical acclaim given P.S. 1 because of its advocacy of the avant garde, an international, transient population of artists was created. Some remained to seek workspace and, if possible, living space, in the neighborhood. A few enterprising groups established cooperative lofts for studios, smaller galleries, and public exhibition spaces, and have worked hard to create and curate exhibitions, such as the First and Second Open Studios Exhibits, 1986 and 1987.
Among the first and most determined of these artists has been a remarkable core of activists with community roots in Queens. They were colleagues in a non-profit artists’ organization called J.A.M.Jamaica Art Mobilization-formed in 1973 by graphic artist and painter Florence Siegel of Jamaica. The group; at one time numbering 200, played a major part in an enormous urban revitalization movement in downtown Jamaica. J.A.M . artists were catalysts in the creation of the Jamaica Arts Center, and Queens’ first cooperative art gallery, The Exhibitionists, Inc. (1976-79). Until they disbanded around 1980 they were involved in major public art projects and institutions in Queens. Many evolved into community leaders. Painter Janet Schneider became Director of the Queens Museum and graphic artist Carole McCully was Program Director for the Queens Council on the Arts for over a decade, to name only two. The J.A.M. artists worked closely with a coalition of business, political, and civic groups to raise money; they helped artists identify themselves as a broadly effective force for preservation and change that could bridge diversity and unite limited local interests in a common cause.
A significant number moved through P.S. 1 in its early years and then were the first to establish cooperative workspaces in factory lofts in Long Island City: Independent Studios I (I.S. 1) was founded in 1978 by Phyllis Bilick (Kew Gardens), Jackie Freedman (Elmhurst), and Frances Hynes (Bayside); Five Plus One was established in 1979 by Louis Kunsch (Flushing) with Tobi Kahn; ARTSP ACE was launched in 1983 by Pat Hammerman (Richmond Hill) with Pat Walsh; LIC ARTLOFTS, created in 1985 by Manhattan painter Margret Dreikausen and Brooklyn painter Jo Yarrington, typifies the “second wave” of artists who first sub-leased studios from the first groups, then established their own. The formation of studios, singly or in collectives, continues; as in SoHo twenty or so years ago, the desire is also to beat high rents and create living and working space-legal, if possible.
Long Island City artists’ efforts have not been limited to creating studio space; exhibits and exhibition space have also been created, sometimes on a grand scale. In 1983 sculptor Isamu Noguchi opened his Garden Museum on Vernon Blvd. and 33rd Rd., within sight of Hallet’s Cove and on the site of the seventeenth-century land grant that marked the beginnings of Astoria. Diagonally across the Boulevard on riverfront landfill, Socrates Sculpture Park celebrated its opening in 1987 through the extraordinary community effort of sculptor Mark di Suvero. About 1984 two commerical galleries were opened: Forefront, by Billy Arvidson, and Studio K, by Kenneth Bernstein. The latter gallery still operates at 1215 Jackson Avenue,and through Bernstein’s energies serves to draw together many of the artists working in the area. Other show spaces have followed.
P.S. 1 instigated a tradition among its studio artists of public visiting days, during which residents are encouraged to open their studios to strangers. This is a vital move toward public information and audience development. The concept of having an Open Studios exhibition within the private loft studios came from Frances Hynes; Pat Walsh carried out the coordination in 1986 and LaGuardia Community College in Long Island City agreed to participate and help. This year’s Open Studios Exhibition has been organized by Margret Dreikausen and Jo Yarrington. The twenty artists who have directly benefitted have stimulated others to consider continuing and expanding it into an annual event.
Building upon the cultural attractions of Long Island City, business, political, and real estate interests have planned mammoth waterfront projects-high-rise luxury condominiums in Hunter’s Point and near Hallett’s Cove. What is to prevent these commercial interests, which are supported by municipal economic incentives, from driving out the artists who have created the cultural milieu? It happened in SoHo. Many of the artists “discovering” Long Island City are refugees from Manhattan’s manic real estate boom. The general consensus among artists presently active in Long Island City is that there is no center or central guiding force or artists’ advocacy organization doing for Long Island City what J. A.M. did for Jamaica and the entire borough. How can we reverse a well known trend in which artists pioneer to rehabilitate and enrich an urban area only to be swept aside once commercial profiteers move in? Who speaks for those with roots in the community? This is akin to the universal cry of all New Yorkers: how do we preserve adequate low-income housing and diversity?
The Report of the Mayor’s Commission on the year 2000, “New York Ascendant,” published June 1987, makes some strong statements and recommendations for restoring and keeping New York in the forefront of “world cities.” Chairman Robert Wagner, Jr.; urges New Yorkers to expand their sense of daring and widen their vision in seeking solutions for problems of poverty, housing, health care, education, public services, and for the preservation of a beautiful and humane city, a more civil place to live, not just a marketplace. Long Island City is classified as a regional center and waterfront to be developed.
Artists have a unique talent to help in this regard, as well as a unique opportunity to benefit, given the right coalition of interests. The arts-both performing and visual-are one of the industries in New York City threatened by the high costs of housing and doing business. As a $5.6 billion industry providing 117,000 jobs and drawing in one-fifth of its audience from outside the region, the arts should be pursued as the corporations are, suggests the Report. The moneyed interests who understand value as “$” primarily are thus courted by touting the dollar value of the arts “industry”; the short-sighted aspect of this, however, is that art is not merely a “product” but a process, and a way of life peculiar to artists, not commerce. Artists should be valued not merely as decorators of the environment and entertainers for the wealthy, but because they are necessary. New York, regularly praised as a cultural center, is primarily a cultural marketplace, not a nurturing place. People need to understand the value of the artist as a creative human being and to appreciate the artist’s talent for creative problem-solving before they will truly strive to nurture and preserve an environment in which artists can thrive. When Chrysler teetered on financial failure, it looked first to its in-house trainees for help and found that for all its education of employees and executives it had produced only technocrats, not creative thinkers. To stimulate creative thinking you must reward it, provide wide-ranging opportunities for it, unencumbered by politicking; and turn it to community use so it can be seen at first hand.
The Report urges that artists be put to work preserving and rehabilitating housing , parks, works of art, giving public performances, writing histories, etc. – in short, applying their talents in a wide variety of ways as they did in the 1930s with the W.P.A., earning by doing creative work for posterity.
The report does not make clear, however , that artists are a rather unique low-income group. Despite a declining average income that was around $8500 in 1979, according to an N .E.A. study of 1985, artists are not among the disadvantaged poor in education, skills, or motivation ,. nor are they lacking family and cultural ties. They are generally intelligent, sensitive to environmental quality, and are original thinkers with a special ability to communicate nonverbally, reason abstractly, and apply their knowledge pragmatically. They are super problem-solvers . It would seem a marriage made in Heaven (or, luck willing, Long Island City) to barter the artists’ need for low-income housing and workspace for their creative problem-solving efforts on behalf of the city-all problems, not just issues of “art.” As far as Chairman Wagner’s dream of creating a more “civil” city-use artists. They are builders and generators, not destroyers, and they are ubiquitous . With more of them visible and visibly supported and respected, they will be perfect models for teaching peaceful coexistence amid the diverse elements of urban life.
Long Island City’s artists are but a small group of the whole ; what makes their situation special right now, however , is the present chance for government, business, and politics to create a model situation in Long Island City that will incorporate the arts in harmony with everyone’s needs for a stronger, more humane existence. They shouldn’t miss the opportunity.
Queensborough Community College’s Art Gallery is proud to celebrate the existence of all the artists among us by presenting this exhibition and catalog acknowledging their very special contribution to our society. The QCC Gallery will host an Open Forum on Artists’ Housing /Workspace November 19, 1987, and plans a Symposium in Spring 1988, to encourage a working coalition of art, business , education, political, and civic groups to address the issues and problems unique to the artist in an urban environment.
Acting Director, QCC Gallery
Queensborough Community College