Moving on Up(town)

By Laura Kuhn

LONG ISLAND CITY, Queens—M55 Art Gallery’s 2007 move from Soho to Long Island City, Queens was a change of scenery. Visitors no longer have to wriggle through camera-toting crowds to enter the front door; the streets in the residential neighborhood are more filled with cars than people. The loiterer on the sidewalk is more likely to don workman boots than a pair of heels. Not a single Starbucks is in sight; instead gallery sitters grab their drinks from the coffeeshop next door.

When the M55 Gallery announced the move in 2007, the word “Queens” frightened many members of the artist collective. But what started as a financial necessity, ultimately revitalized the Gallery.

The Gallery is a not-for-profit, artist-run collective composed of around 15 to 25 members at any given time. Essentially, selected artists pay a membership fee and contribute their labor to the gallery in exchange for the opportunity to show and sell their work without the gallery taking a cut. One of the first co-op galleries, M55 opened its doors at 55 Mercer in 1969. It remained there until 2007, when a 30 year lease expired and the rent climbed from $4,000 per month to what director Assa Bigger describes as “something closer to $40,000.”

This soar in price meant the gallery had to search for a space elsewhere.

“For a year we were looking for space. From Bushwish to South Bronx to Chelsea to Soho to Lower East Side,” said Bigger.

In different neighborhoods, they encountered different problems. Manhattan, in the months before the recession, was excessively expensive.

“We got lucky,” said Ed Rath, 57, gallery treasurer. “We almost leased in Chelsea.”

Had they taken the space on West 27th street they would have paid $12,000 per month, more than 4 times their current rent in Long Island City.

However, other neighborhoods like Bushwick and the South Bronx posed problems too. The collective felt that long distances and rough neighborhoods would make attracting visitors more difficult.

“When you have a gallery you like traffic. You like to have people coming without feeling like ‘it’s dangerous,’ ‘I’m not going to take a 45 minute subway,’” said Bigger.

After a year of searching, they found their well-sized, affordable place in the comfortable Long Island City neighborhood. Using half of a $64,000 settlement, they received upon moving out of their Soho space, they renovated. The result is a clean, airy space. Sunlight pours through the windows that stretch from ceiling to floor, highlighting the crisp white walls and the colorful art that hangs on them.

Apart from the building, the gallery is happy with the neighborhood.

“It’s wonderful,” said Bigger. “You have a coffeeshop, you have traffic, you have people, you have PS1.”

Long Island City is also home to a burgeoning art scene. In addition to the MoMA affiliate PS1, a number of smaller galleries pepper the neighborhood’s landscape.

“There’s a lot of support,” said Bigger. “Mental support, physical support.” There’s always a venue we can work with. If there’s an empty space, we find people to put stuff in there.”

Encouraging artists to hang their work outside the gallery is one of Bigger’s top priorities since taking over as director in August. He is the gallery’s fourth director in two years.

Before the move, M55 had no director position and was instead run entirely as a group. The whole was responsible for every task. The members made (or in some cases didn’t make) all decisions as collective.

“It was a loosely held together anarchy,” said treasurer Rath. “It was a collective, but the only thing that was consistent about it was that it wasn’t consistent. There wasn’t even a letterhead that people could agree on.”

Nobody was paid for anything. Rath told how the gallery let a man run his own consulting business from the front desk of the gallery in order to have a “sitter.” When people walked in, he said, the man didn’t even look up.

The group voted Bigger, a working member, to be the director last summer. Though he is paid a salary of $1,500 per month, he contributes the same $330 monthly membership fee as the rest of the artists. Bigger now spends his days helping the artists in whatever ways they need. He aids in organizing exhibitions, works with artists on press releases, suggests pricing, and promotes through the media. Essentially, he is there for the artists whenever they have a question or problem.

“I do my job best when I am doing nothing,” Bigger said.

But questions and quandaries do arise. Without the resources of a traditional gallery, artists are left to do all of their own promotion and installation, often difficult and costly tasks.

The payoff, however, comes in the freedom the artists have with their work. The gallery represents a range of artists from different places, ethnicities and generations. They work in all different mediums, sometimes even combining.

Shows by gallery artists have included everything from sketches to painted wooden assemblages to blacklit neon cutouts inspired by the movement of sperm under a microscope.

“Its an important contribution to the art world because if your in a commercial art world your work will always be edited to fit the commercial agenda,” explained Rath who paints often pleasant-looking landscapes with darker subtexts.

Melissa Starke, 35, a member of the collective, expressed a similar sense of freedom.

“This type of gallery is in an effort to create its own identity rather than an artist taking on the identity of the gallery that he’s represented by,” she said.

Still, artists struggle with whether to focus on selling paintings or exposing their work to the community at large.

“I happen to think any business or organization needs solid by-laws and a business plan or structure,” said Starke. “There’s no way around it. There can be a mix of being business oriented and creative.”

Still, others see their art as having a greater purpose beyond money.

“We want to build a reputation within the community,” said Garret Klein, 24, a member-artist. “It’s not just, ‘This is our gallery—We want to see our work.’ Our goals are more cultural.”

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