From the Issue: Paint by Neighborhoods

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The Blue and White’s Gavin McGown ventures up to 126th Street to find art and innovation.

“This space used to be a machine shop,” says Darryl Hell, technical director and co-founder of New York-based artists’ initiative Chashama, as he walks the halls of its Morningside studio space at 461 West 126th Street. “Before that it was a brewery.” The stained bricks of 19th century industrycould easily hide the studios and exhibition spaces within, but the front entrance has been painted over in vibrant colors that catch the eye. While construction crews restore the exterior, over a dozen artists fill the building with what Chashama considers some of the most innovative art now being created in the city.

Chashama (Farsi for “foresight”) has garnered bothsuccess and recognition for its innovative mission: the organization takes over temporarily unused or abandoned buildings and transforms them into studio and performance spaces, leased to artists for highly subsidized rents. Founded 13 years ago by New York artist Anita Durst in memory of deceased director and playwright Reza Abdoh, “Chashama was one of the original people before the pop-up gallery and the pop-up art space came in vogue due to the real estate crash,” says Hell. “That was always our model.”

The organization now runs 12 facilities in Manhattan, Brooklyn, and Queens, a success story Hell attributes to their willingness to renovate dormant spaces themselves. “We’re an economic solution for landowners to be able to rent their space for more money than they would otherwise get.” Now, Hell says, some landowners go out of their way to approach the organization with space offers. “Before, we were limited to a space that was beat up from the feet up.” He says of 461, before Chashama moved in, “it looked like hell.”

Inside 461, Chashama has maintained as much of the spare beauty of the original space as possible while also making it feel welcoming to the artists who use it. Rows of removable walls divvy up the ground floor into a labyrinthine gallery. Larger spaces are used for exhibitions and performances, smaller spaces act as studios. Upstairs, former offices with colored glass doors provide a few artists with private space. Hell, who manages the organization’s facilities, betrays an affection for the building’s physical structure. He takes a paternal pride even in the imperfections of the uninsulated, unlit top floor.

Hell stresses that the mission of the organization is as devoted to supporting neighbourhoods in the five boroughs as it is to providing a much-needed break to the city’s cash-strapped artists. “Chashama works to help reinvigorate areas that used to be art hubs for the average people, for the community,” Hell says. “As opposed to, ‘We’re the art scene and we’re going to move you all out.’”

The organization’s spaces in Brooklyn and Queens highlight the diversity of the artists Chashama serves as well and its community focus. While Hell acknowledges the tension an influx of artists can cause in a community, he is quick to note that Chashama works hard to balance the spatial needs of artists and the needs of the neighborhood surrounding their studios. As a result, community development groups across the city have welcomed the organization into their locales.

Of the artists Chashama houses, Hell says, “I’d say that we pride ourselves on being multicultural, multidisciplinary, multigenerational,” and that diversity distinguishes Chashama from other artist groups in New York. Chashama also forgoes any focus on an artist’s credentials, formal training, or style. “Our main focus is the artwork,” says Hell. “What does the work say? What is the person’s vision? And as long as they have a vision, that’s all we really care about.”

Illustration by Maryn Carlson

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  1. taoist of  

    How lovely, Gavin.

  2. Anonymous  

    *chashama. not Chashama.

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