In Brooklyn Art Scene, Some Areas are Out of the Picture

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The walls outside the Owl's Head are adorned with murals commissioned by owner John Avelluto. It's nothing novel in the burgeoning Brooklyn art scene, but new to the bar's Bay Ridge neighborhood.

Daniel Stein-Sayles

The walls outside the Owl's Head are adorned with murals commissioned by owner John Avelluto. It's nothing novel in the burgeoning Brooklyn art scene, but new to the bar's Bay Ridge neighborhood.

With his worn rectangular, frosted glasses with white accents and a full brown beard, John Avelluto looks the part of the hip entrepreneur thriving in culturally abuzz Brooklyn.

The aesthetics of his bar also reflect this popular image of the borough. The walls outside are adorned with the vibrant and emblematic murals commissioned by Avelluto. To the left of the bar is a colorful motif of geometric symbols and patterns and to the right a depiction of nature through words in black and white.

But Avelluto’s bar, the Owl’s Head, isn’t in Bushwick, Williamsburg or even Park Slope. It’s in what he calls “deep-south Brooklyn.” Instead of sprawling former industrial spaces that house galleries or theaters, The Owl’s Head sits across the street from Gary the Barber and down the block from a 99-Cent store on the corner of 74th street and Fifth Avenue in Bay Ridge.

Like others trying to bring the arts to southern and central Brooklyn, Avelluto finds that it is hard, slow work.

In a borough where the arts and culture are supposed to be thriving, many Brooklynites are not feeling the love. Outside of Brooklyn’s northern neighborhoods, large swaths of the borough receive relatively little cultural funding from the city and lack resources. Everyone seems to have a slightly different opinion as to why this is the case, but there is agreement that a problem exists.

Money is a medium

The reasons offered for the disparity in funding range from blatant neglect from the city and distance from Manhattan to a shortage of work spaces or visible artistic communities in some neighborhoods, and more.

Avelluto is precise about the funding disparity. “I believe on average the average Brooklynite receives $3.81 for the arts in redistribution funding and the state and the city, both. In Bay Ridge I believe it is something to the tune of 31 or 32 cents,” says Avelluto, 35, who was born and raised in Gravesend. “It is just different growing up here.”

The statistics Avelluto refers to are found in a report the Center for the Study of Brooklyn issued in 2012 that details an inequity in distribution and in participation of arts and cultural funding in Brooklyn.

This inequity affects low-income communities like Brownsville and East New York as well as to middle-class neighborhoods like Bay Ridge.

“There is a lack of access [to] formal arts opportunities,” says Tynesha McHarris, the director of community leadership at the Brooklyn Community Foundation. “We just know that kids in more affluent neighborhoods are going to get access.”

According to the report, Community Board 1 in Greenpoint and Williamsburg had 126 arts and cultural organizations in 2011. Community Board 2, which encompasses DUMBO, Fort Greene, Brooklyn Heights and adjoining communities had 181 organizations and Community Board 6 in Park Slope and Red Hook and other nearby neighborhoods had 119 arts and cultural institutions.

But community districts 10 through 18—which encompass Brownsville, Bensonhurst, Dyker Heights, Canarsie and all of the surrounding neighborhoods—had a combined 102 arts and cultural organizations, less than a fourth of just the three districts to the north.

This disparity in the number of cultural organizations unsurprisingly leads to a wide gap in city and state funding resources.

In 2010, five of the six community boards in the northern section of the borough received at least $325,000 each in cultural funding with Community Board 2 receiving a massive $5,796,165. (These figures do not include the baseline funding the city provides for major arts organizations on city property, such as the Brooklyn Museum of Art or Brooklyn Academy of Music.)

Of the other 12 community boards in Brooklyn, no district received more than $159,000 and three districts (12, 16 and 18) received zero dollars in funding. It is important to note that these statistics only include money given out by the city Department of Cultural Affairs and the New York State Council on the Arts. Some organizations like the Brooklyn Arts Council provide other funding. But there is still a stark disparity within the borough.

A two-way street

Former City Council member Sal Albanese, a Bay Ridge Democrat, says that the mayor and Council should see to it that every neighborhood gets a minimum amount of funding.

“We have got to ensure that everybody has at least a minimum amount of access to these important activities. It has got to come from City Hall and our elected officials,” Albanese, who ran for mayor in 1997 and 2013, says. “They are the ones that have to provide the leadership to make sure that every neighborhood is receiving its fair share of services.”

At the same time, Albanese said it is important to create more interest in the arts throughout the borough. “I think that we have to change the mindset, especially in communities that aren’t as economically advantaged as others,” he says. “These [programs] are not frills: They are part of living in the city that really makes a difference to young people and people in neighborhoods.”

The city’s Department of Cultural Affairs defends its process for awarding grants, but acknowledges that there is a need to expand services in some neighborhoods.

“The Cultural Development Fund grant process is set up to be as equitable and transparent as possible,” the agency’s deputy director for external affairs Ryan Max wrote in an email. “This administration takes very seriously the responsibility to engage underserved communities. We are working with partners across City government on new initiatives in neighborhoods like East New York, Brownsville, and Jamaica to find new ways to expand an improve the services provided to residents of these neighborhoods, including access to cultural programs.”

But Arthur Melnick, executive director of the Brooklyn Streetcar Artists Group, an arts organization based in Coney Island, feels his neighborhood is still a low priority for city arts funding.

“Where we are, we are the last thing to be funded,” he says. “Anybody will pay lip service to culture, but nobody really supports it. Getting funded is insane.”

There’s art out there

The lack of funding for arts organization in central and southern Brooklyn does not mean there is a dearth of artists or talent in these areas. Rather, artists channel their work through other venues—a gallery in an artist’s apartment in Bay Ridge or local poetry readings being held on the top floor of a Brooklyn Public Library branch in Brownsville.

The Brooklyn Arts Council, which dispenses grants and serves artists and organizations throughout Brooklyn, said it is trying to create more cultural infrastructure in areas that lack it.

“We had looked at the borough of Brooklyn and decided that the need was great in many neighborhoods for the building of more arts infrastructure,” says Ella Weiss, the president of Brooklyn Arts Council. “There are certain neighborhoods, like DUMBO, that [are] ‘arts hot.’ They don’t need our help in building an arts infrastructure, but there are other neighborhoods that do.”

This recognition resulted in the creation of Creative Coalitions, a Brooklyn Arts Council program that targets East New York, Brownsville and southeast Bushwick—areas the Arts Council recognized as under-resourced, and under-noticed, yet arts rich.

Jen McCoy, an electronic artist who has a studio in Greenpoint and is a professor at Brooklyn College, is a mainstay in the Brooklyn arts scene. She says artists cluster in northern Brooklyn neighborhoods to be near downtown Brooklyn and Manhattan, and because they want to live and work in artist communities. That, she says, is why the artistic and cultural climate is stronger in some neighborhoods than others.

“Why people go to art school and why they move to New York is to have a sense of community,” she says. “You want people around to sort of show your work to; you want to run into them in cafes.”

Avelluto’s bar plays a role in the Bay Ridge cultural scene, hosting a poetry night every month and promoting arts through programming held at the bar. He poked fun at what artists moving into neighborhoods like DUMBO or Williamsburg feel and why artists do not cluster in neighborhoods like Bay Ridge.

“‘It feels so Brooklyn.’ They get to wear the badge of Brooklyn, it is like, ‘This is so great, it is an industrial wasteland and I am around poverty, this is wonderful’, and they get to be around the arts at the same time,” he says. “This part of Brooklyn was always a neighborhood. The architecture does not lend itself to having studio space.”

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Get The Picture

See a map of arts funding in Brooklyn

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Got to have art

Regardless of the reasons, some in Brooklyn are feeling the effects of a lack of commitment to the arts in much of the borough.

William Wonders, an arts educator who lives in Bedford-Stuyvesant, started his own film company in Brooklyn—Quiverfull Productions—to work with young people in underserved areas to create films. He sees vast talent throughout Brooklyn, yet a lack of opportunities. Young people he talks to complain of having little to do.

He is frustrated by what he sees as a misallocation of resources within the borough and believes the answer lies with new investment.

“People have the resources, but they have only delegated the resources to certain groups, areas, communities,” he says.

But concerns about arts inequity in Brooklyn play out in a rapidly evolving borough, where neighborhood character is a complex and delicate asset. Addressing arts disparities in that environment won’t be easy or straightforward.

McHarris of the Brooklyn Community Foundation says it is important not to destroy local, established culture when trying to increase the artistic and cultural presence in neighborhoods.

“Folks do not wait for institutions to come up. They create their own and so there are definitely—I hate to even call it informal—but there are definitely these kinds of spaces where arts and culture are happening,” she says.

The trick, then, is bringing in more robust support for the arts that doesn’t overwhelm that existing creative infrastructure. “You want a large institution that does really great programming to support young people and bring [cultural] work to residents, but you also do not want to silence or displace the folks who are actually doing arts and culture already that aren’t getting paid for it whether it is coming out of their church or their home,” McHarris adds.

The arts scene is evolving in Brooklyn, but the gaps remain. Maps created by the Brooklyn Arts Council that track the number of arts and cultural organizations in Brooklyn shows that the number of organizations in underserved areas has increased over the past few years. But this has coincided with an increase of organizations across the borough over the past few years.

So the maps still show a stark disparity between the number of cultural organizations in the northern section of the borough and everywhere else—a picture that artists and supporters hope, carefully, to change.

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