Nestled between brick warehouses and metal depots, a new and surprisingly nondescript art campus has opened in Brooklyn. Made out of several squat, concrete structures, the Amant Foundation’s New York outpost is located on a quiet, industrial street in East Williamsburg. I was expecting Amant to be incongruous at best, a gaudy symbol of gentrification at worst. But Amant looks to be at home alongside its neighboring structures, which house a mishmash of practical and creative enterprises: a meat market, truck repair shop, and restaurant supply store sit comfortably among a craft brewery, photography studio, and two separate recording studios.
Since officially opening its doors on June 5, the 21,000 square-foot, the SO-IL-designed campus has billed itself as an art center that will host exhibitions, public events, archival projects, performances, and an on-site residency program. The complex, spread across two blocks, includes a performance venue, two galleries, four studios, and a joint bookstore and café.
Amant was founded by art collector and MoMA trustee Lonti Ebers, who has expressed that she has no interest in using the space to showcase her collection of contemporary art, which ArtNews estimates comprises over 700 works. In a recent press release, she said Amant would “encourage artistic research and experimentation, free of the time restrictions and financial and administrative confines that typically accompany art practices in New York.” As for funding, Ebers is married the CEO of Brookfield Asset Management Bruce Flatt, whose net worth Forbes estimates at $2.8 billion. Bushwick Daily’s Andrew Karpan also reported that both Amant Foundation (which has been set up as a nonprofit 501c3) and the company that owns its Grand Street location are registered to the Brookfield’s Delaware address.
With all that in mind, I approached Amant’s opening with some caution: what sort of role did the $40-million structure plan to play within the Brooklyn arts community? One of collaboration, or conquest?
I corresponded by email with several leaders within the Brooklyn art community, many of whom are excited by Amant’s arrival and offered warm welcomes. Houda Lazrack, development manager and head of communications for the International Studio and Curatorial Program, said she admires Amant’s “artist-first approach and the holistic design of their campus.” She felt that the center’s leadership intends “to work with organizations in the neighborhood to make Brooklyn an even better place for our art community.”
Jennifer Carvalho, co-founder and director of the nearby Carvalho Park art gallery, called Amant “a dream neighbor,” and noticed its impact “almost overnight,” with the campus becoming an “anchor for the East Williamsburg art scene, in which Carvalho Park once felt isolated.” Carvalho said that Amant has “primed East Williamsburg to evolve into a landscape for art, design, and architecture,” and praised Amant for being “acutely community-focused in their engagement.”
Other local arts leaders are less confident that Amant’s approach will indeed be “community-focused.” Jazo Brooklyn, who helms the nonprofits Arts in Bushwick and Educated Little Monsters and oversees the Bushwick Open Studios program, said there was insufficient outreach to the community by Amant prior to the center’s opening. She said she also worries that its presence could divert arts funding away from more grassroots organizations, creating “more hierarchy.” Her misgivings are rooted primarily in Amant’s promotional language, which she feels ignores the neighborhood’s already thriving creative community, as well as the sense that in recent years “displacement has been extremely high within [Brooklyn’s] historically Black and brown communities.”
Brooklyn-based photographer Alex Joseph shared similar worries, feeling that Amant is “wedging itself” into the local arts community without connecting with the residents and artists who are already there. Joseph is also fearful that Amant’s well-funded presence could increase rents and force out the area’s largely working-class residents, partially informed by an article published by the Bushwick Daily in which Amant artistic director Ruth Estévez said that she “do[es]n’t see gentrification only as a negative thing,” noting that the area surrounding Amant is “quite gentrified already, and in a positive way.”
In our own correspondences, Estévez said that the organization’s mission is to “be a nexus for all the interdisciplinary artistic and cultural community, both local and international.” Of Amant’s five exhibition projects planned for 2021 and 2022, two spotlight New York artists: scholar and documentary filmmaker Manthia Diawara, who founded the Black Studies program at NYU, and poet and musician Jayne Cortez, who co-founded the Organization of Women Writers of Africa. Amant also plans to host a performance by local dance artists Silas Riener and Rashaun Mitchell.
Diawara is particularly enthusiastic to work with Amant “because it is the first place in the city, between Harlem and Brooklyn, to be interested in my creative work.” In a conversation with Hyperallergic, he lamented that “no major city institution — museum, cultural center, gallery, or press — has, until Amant, critically exhibited my creative work,” but expressed excitement to see the fruits of his decades of labor get their due thanks to Amant. Diawara, who calls himself a “diehard optimist,” fully believes “that Amant, with Ruth Estévez as the artistic director, will use its resources and location to give presence and voice to artists of color from everywhere.”
Estévez said that although several of Amant’s other exhibited artists are from outside New York, “their work is oriented towards themes that are directly related to our local context. Through this, we hope to bring perspectives not currently exhibited in New York, as we continue to build our relationships with local artists and institutions.” The center’s bookstore and cafe also collaborate with local publishers and a local small business, respectively. “Whenever possible,” Estévez continued, “we always want to work with small businesses in our area to create healthy relationships.”
Estévez also highlighted Amant’s annual New York residency, which begins this month and offers artists “the opportunity to create, research and interact with New York.” She said the residency “involves long-term research that requires collaboration with different local institutions and cultural producers.” According to Amant’s website, artists based in New York are ineligible for the New York residency.
It’s somewhat surprising that Amant’s residency excludes local artists, given the difficulties they face jockeying for residencies and studio space, but this stipulation also feels consistent with Estévez’s stated desire to make the New York art scene accessible to those who are geographically siloed from it. She envisions Amant as a cross-cultural “nexus” that will “bring perspectives not currently exhibited in New York.” In an interview with Bklyner, Ebers echoed this interest in out-of-state artists, saying that Amant will support “who would not otherwise have the means to develop their practice — or even make it to New York.”
As for concerns about local engagement, Amant’s curator of public programs Juana Berrío said she hopes that Amant will become a “hub for our immediate community in Brooklyn and New York at large,” thanks in part to its free admission. She cited the upcoming series Brooklyn through the eyes of artists, which will invite New York-based artists to choose a locale in the borough and lead a guided tour of the site. She added that Amant has a unique interest in creating robust Spanish-language programming, as many members of the center’s staff are Spanish-speaking immigrants. The center’s ultimate goal, she said, is “bringing together diverse local and international groups around important ideas.”
After even a brief visit to the Amant, one can sense that the center is dense with possibility. At 315 Maujer, one can view several works from Amant’s inaugural exhibition, Grada Kilomba: “Heroines, Birds, and Monsters.” Kilomba is a Lisbon-born, Berlin-based multidisciplinary artist whose work draws on memory, trauma, and post-colonialism, and this marks her first solo exhibition in the United States. Upon seeing Kilomba’s work, my ambivalence about her being a non-local artist evaporated. The exhibition is extraordinary, showcasing an artist who works with refreshing directness. Across various mediums — photography, film, the written word — her vision, rooted in a desire for colonial and racial reckoning, remains clear and uncompromised.
Then, across a small courtyard behind the exhibition space is 932 Grand’s dreamy combination bookstore-café. The café — operated by local business Drip Coffee Makers — won’t be operational until later this fall, but the bookstore is open for business and stocked with well-curated titles from local independent publishers such as Verso, as well as various university presses. After a chat with a couple of enthusiastic staffers, potential energy seemed to radiate off the place. I was, admittedly, quite taken by it.
But like any shiny new installment in an underserved community, Amant is also a potential site for conflict. How will it dispense of its copious resources, and to whom? The opinions of the local art community are divided. Only time will tell: soon on-site residencies will begin, the Grand Street café will open, and more exhibitions and programming will take place. For the time being, it would seem assessing Amant’s tangible work — its residencies, amenities, exhibitions, and programming — will be the most effective way to gauge its contribution to the community.
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