Harlem artists organize themselves to develop studio space

Brightly colored murals adorn the facades of a handful of buildings in Washington Heights, often bearing the tag line, “I love my hood.” The guerilla art, done by Dominican street artist Dister Rondon, might be rogue graffiti, but it is also emblematic of a larger trend among the community’s traditional artists who are agitating for more vehicles to show their work.

In the past year, ten Dominican artists from north Manhattan and Inwood have mobilized a group called the Dominican York Projecto Grafico in an effort to generate awareness of local talent and with the hope they may obtain desperately needed exhibit space. Dominicans in the area are fostering a distinct body of creative work that they want to make available to their community. But it has been a struggle to find traditional gallery space in the neighborhood and so they are forced to ingenious means, often holding temporary shows in borrowed venues.

In 2007, a not-for-profit organization, the Northern Manhattan Arts Alliance (NoMAA), was established to address the needs of local artists after a survey conducted by the Upper Manhattan Empowerment Zone indicated that they were unhappy with the resources available to them. Yet, three years after its conception, exhibit space is still scarce.

“We don’t have a lot of that stuff in our community,” says Sandra Garcia, CEO of NoMAA. “Those spaces have been created by artists throughout the years in collaboration with local businesses and local institutions. For example, they went to the hospital — the Presbyterian Hospital — to do a show and they lent the space.”

Today marks the end of the store-front art project “El Escaparate,” and with its close Washington Heights loses three more temporary galleries. Housed in the windows of vacant commercial units, for the month of October ten artists from Projecto Grafico displayed their work while residents of the neighborhood benefited from the street level art.

Though new to Washington Heights, pop-up galleries — temporary art installations set up in borrowed, vacant spaces — have appeared in other parts of Manhattan, Brooklyn and Queens.

Janusz Jaworski, Programming Director for Chashama, an arts service organization founded in 1995 to connect local artists with empty spaces, says that by occupying what would otherwise be an empty space, they help keep the area clean and free of vermin, take care of minor problems like leaks and, most importantly, set a positive tone in the neighborhood by virtue of their presence. According to Jaworski, ‘pop-ups’ can revitalize a community.“In the city of over-stimulation of ads and everything else, a shuttered space is essentially visible.”

Most often, discussion of pop-up galleries focuses on how the artists’ presence will benefit a community; how the program will benefit the artists is generally assumed. But in Washington Heights, where the only commercial art space is housed in the penthouse level of a luxury condominium building, The Rio, the community’s access to create and enjoy art is neglected. Projecto Grafico hopes to bring greater accessibility to art in the area by developing classes, galleries, and local studio spaces.

“[The group] is working in a new way,” Moses Ros-Suarez, one of the ten artists explained. “[We are] collaborating with each other, interacting, sharing ideas. It is new for Dominicans.”

But the arts community in Washington Heights needs to form a base for success. “The problem with small, isolated galleries is that there is nothing around it,” argued Pepe Coronado, another artist from the group.  “In the community, a small gallery is likely to fail unless we build structure around it.”

Maggie Mailer, artist and founder of Storefront Artist Project in Pittsfield, MA and daughter of Norman Mailer, understands the difficulties of providing borrowed space to a group that may genuinely need it. “People got used to using free space,” she explained of her own initiatives with local artists. “I had to remind them: this is an experiment.”

Still, the awareness generated by Mailer’s storefront art has tangible results. Her organization, started in 2001 with no vision of longevity, continues to sustain itself and played a significant role in the development of a Cultural office in Pittsfield. “Artists can make something out of nothing,” she says. “You can’t say that about other people. To make a space come alive in a way another can’t.”

When discussing the art he exhibited at “El Escaparate,” plaintain-birds made from recycled material, Ros-Suarez spoke in a similar vein. “It’s a metaphor,” he explained, referencing the resourcefulness of the artists.. “What’s that term? ‘Waste not want not?’ We have done all of this stuff with nothing.”

Photo caption: Moses Ros-Suarez’s “Viveres Volantes” hang in a temporary storefront gallery in Washington Heights.