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Utopia or Gimmick? Meet the Creative Team Behind Williamsburg’s Latest Artist Housing Space

We recently ventured to Bushwick to catch a glimpse of the Brooklyn Artillery Art Fair, which promised to be “our answer to the art fairs of Basel and Armory, but more than that… a cache of ongoing creative events and happenings that will take place throughout the building and neighborhood.” We expected the multi-gallery show to be similar to many of the Bushwick art fairs and open showings we’d been to in the past — disorganized and housed in a dingy space, with nary a curator to be seen. However, when we arrived at Castle Braid, we found a group of bright young creatives all working towards a goal of forming a true artists collective in Bushwick, something rare if not extinct in this modern age.

Castle Braid is a new housing development with a twist — it has donated the ground floor of its 146-room complex to the Brooklyn Artillery to create the fair, but in addition will provide residents with art spaces, a library where they can check out community books, a courtyard which will screen films and experimental pieces, a proposed food co-op and farmers market shared with the neighborhood, community classes offered by residents, a shared garden on the roof, and best of all, affordable housing to artists in a rapidly gentrifying area. We spoke with the creative masterminds behind the space to find out how they got involved with the project, and why they would like to see Castle Braid develop with, rather than against, the community.

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Flavorpill: First off, what is your title?

Leia Doran: Brooklyn Artillery Creative Director

John Swanson: Castle Braid Digital Media Manager

Taylor Clark: Castle Braid Marketing Director/Lead Broker

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FP: How did all of you come on board?

JS: I built the website and a social network for the residents of the building that will facilitate things like the community library, where residents can check out books, or the media lab, where residents can check out equipment. I am generally in charge of all things that you could call “nerdy.”

LD: I think that with minor differences in storyline, all of our involvement in Brooklyn Artillery stems from living at the Opera House [another artist housing space in Bushwick]. The three of us live in a building a couple of blocks away that’s kind of the model for what we hoped Castle Braid will be — an anchored artists’ community that is pretty much self supportive in the sense that personal artistic, musical and business endeavors are generated by a collaboration by the tenants.

I’ve worked with the Williamsburg Gallery Association for a few years, and I’d passed our gallery guide to John at an Opera House arts night (I was too chicken to actually stay at because at that point I didn’t know anyone in the building). A few weeks later I was tanning on the roof, and Taylor and John came up and we sat around and invented this beautiful but impossible idea about a Bushwick arts fair that would bring together all the corners of North Brooklyn in one place. It was one of those things that seems destined to get tossed around forever as one of those “wouldn’t-it-be-awesomes” but Taylor got the okay from Mayer Schwartz [the developer behind Castle Braid, The Opera House, and the Bedford Mall on N. 5th in Williamsburg], John put together the website and together we put the word out to the Opera House, I pulled in the WGA, and a week later we were officially embroiled.

TC: It’s the longest short story of my life. Basically I was a babysitter and a skateboarder with nothing more than a family background in marketing and sales. I had been living at the Opera House close to a year when I met Mayer at a building meeting. Shortly after, based on his perception of my personality and ability, in combination with my adoration of the Opera House, Mayer asked me if I wanted to market and show apartments for a small building nearby, nothing close to what Castle Braid is.

The first thing I needed was a website and John had just moved into the building. After running into him randomly in a serendipitous type of way looking back, I asked him to build the website and introduced him to Mayer. Long story short, I succeeded in filling the building with quality people and the website worked beautifully. We had developed a fabulous working relationship with Mayer, and so began our story at Castle Braid.

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Flavorpill: What do you think Castle Braid will bring to the neighborhood? What do you hope?

JS: I picture Castle Braid becoming a place where someone can have the same kind of supportive community and facilities that I had while I was in art school. For myself and a lot of my friends, once we finished art school, it felt like a loss without the people around and access to space to work. It becomes much harder to focus and make art in the real world. I hope that Castle Braid will create an atmosphere that is conducive to collaboration, and that the drive to create will be common to everyone who lives here.

LD: I really hope that this building stays true to its goal of fostering and supporting Brooklyn artists in a direct way — artist residencies, networking opportunities, and a kind of open-source approach to programming that lets people get involved in planning their own events and telling the building what they want and need. In terms of the immediate community, we have a lot of ideas for workshops and community events. All events are open to neighborhood kids and families — we sent out a lot of invitations on the blocks around us. We are also unbelievably lucky to have Chez Bushwick / Capital B as an exhibitor. They do and have done truly effective work for the benefit of the neighborhood, and I think their involvement is really key to keeping Artillery community-oriented.

TC: Already we have brought an arts event to this neighborhood the likes of which the surrounding community has never seen. There were neighborhood kids standing in front of statues from Art 101 with their jaws dropped. Those kids will remember this forever. That kind of thing is priceless.

I hope that, and have seen evidence of, the community becoming involved with our events. This is great because it would be unfair for the community to be shut out of such and amazing space.

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Photo credit: John Swanson

Flavorpill: What was the opening weekend of Brooklyn Artillery like? Would you say you had a positive reception in the neighborhood?

JS: I had a lot of fun. It was great to see all the galleries in one place. For me it was like a quick orientation to the local arts scene. It was also great to see Castle Braid all full of life and action. It felt like I had been holding a secret that I could finally share with everyone.

LD: We’ve had some really excited reactions to the concept of Brooklyn Artillery — but even with the hype I was amazed at how many people showed up. People were asking questions and the exhibitors seemed pretty pumped to have such a steady crowd. The end of the night was my favorite part, though. All of the exhibitors and people who had stayed late were lounging on the grass mellowing out and listening to music, and it was just such a good, satisfied vibe.

TC: It was surreal. To have an idea like this be carried out so successfully was amazing to me. We had the roughest time getting prepared for a gallery exhibition at a construction site. I mean people were putting in grass and painting walls still when people showed up. It was down to the wire, but we pulled it off and everybody was happy.

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Photo credit: John Swanson

Flavorpill: What would you say to people who say this is just another real estate gimmick?

JS: People should be skeptical at first. I always say never believe anything anyone tells you. I was skeptical too, but after seeing all the things that Mayer has already done (like the Bedford Mall on N. 5th, and the Opera House where I live) it puts this project into a bigger perspective. Once you see Castle Braid in person, it becomes apparent that it’s not just a gimmick. Of course any building developer wants to fill up apartments, but the number of things that are provided by the owners would be unnecessary if it were just another marketing trick.

LD: Comment about it on the our blog. It’s a really important conversation to have, and we haven’t ever had any illusions about the possibility of people interpreting Brooklyn Artillery that way. There’s a lot of justified wariness in Brooklyn (and everywhere) about the relationship between artists and real-estate developers. To be honest, I’m still formulating my own opinion. I think it would be wrong to say that it won’t take a lot of effort and outreach to make this particular building different from the ones that have made everyone so cynical, but having seen the artist-community model succeed at the Opera House I do have a lot of faith in the of integrity of Mayer’s idea.

TC: I would say, “Yo bro, gimmicks are for kids.” Fact is, gimmicks don’t have any substance. A recording studio isn’t a gimmick if it’s real. If we said, “great for musicians” and had guitar painting in our lobby, that would be a gimmick. We say great for artists because there are REAL things here that are great for artists. Like lounge areas and ashtrays.

All joking aside, we do have a lot of ashtrays.

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