Chelsea Gallery in a Living Room
Artists of all time had to solve the problem of finding a place to exhibit their work. The roots of it are diverse: financial, political, social...But in many cases, there has been only one solution to host exhibitions at artists' or curators' private residencies. Even the world's most famous curator Hans Ulrich Obrist started with making exhibitions in his own kitchen.
What makes artists do that today? What does it feel like to let tens of strangers into your house in the name of art? And how do you to transform your living room into an inspirational art gallery? Emmanuel Knight, the co-founder, and curator of Arts Avenue NYC is the best person to answer these questions.
EK: My name is Emmanuel Knight. I am an NYC-based illustrator, painter, and I’m currently a co-founder and curator of Arts Avenue NYC, a platform here in the city, Chelsea primarily, for visual showcasing, musicians, and all kinds of creators to come and showcase their best talents.
AF: Can you tell us how Arts Avenue was created?
Arts Avenue was created off of the idea, that the local artists are the real hit and gems of NYC. Being a working artist here, it could be very hard to showcase and get your name out there if you’re not already established, or already in cahoots with somebody that has a gallery or something. That leaves a lot of artists working a little bit aimlessly and working towards that when they could be doing much more [art. - edit.] as well.
We started about 2 years ago. We moved to Chelsea and went around to some galleries and pitched the idea of having a showcase. And [the price for] just renting a space was just wow, yikes. I have a background as a muralist painter and had experience working with non-profit organizations and communities and youth and my friend, and co-founder, Gerard Thelemaque was working in business at the time, so we just decided “Hey let’s just do it here in our place”, so we started making that shift and we just went from there.
We got some cheap little LED puck lights and we taped them to the ceiling. We made sure our walls were decent. Even though they were like super decent because we just moved in.
Our first show was modest and small. We didn’t think anybody was going to come out. But it was a pretty good crowd. And talking to local artists, I found myself being able to relate to them because I am a working artist. It was heartbreaking to hear some of their stories and very uplifting to hear a lot of them, who just had the hope to be more than what they felt they were at the time.
Arts Avenue is basically a platform to showcase artists at the level that they truly are, and maybe that they don’t see [themselves at], and present them to the common person, showing that, “you don’t have to be in a gallery or be a Banksy to be a worthwhile artist. Art is determined on the terms of the artist, and the people who believe in it mutually together.
Who are the artists that exhibit at Arts Avenue?
We get a whole multitude of artists that have very different skill sets and surprisingly a lot of what we get are first-timers and people “getting right back to it”. We get a lot of students that are not quite sure how to pursue their career and think that there is only one clean-cut way. I can relate to that because it was me at a certain point in time. I [believed that I] had to do it a certain way to be known, not knowing that there are so many ways to put yourself out there and that the true key to becoming successful in anything is just networking and communication and being unapologetically authentic with yourself and other people. It is one of the clearer ways you get to places. The more genuine you are the more people relate.
So...yeah, students and the "returning artists", that have that "itch" again but don’t want to start too big. There are a lot of artists that are just looking for something more intimate and once we started hearing that our space was exactly that, we started playing around with it more and making it a bit more fun. We are just surprised at how many people come through. We get sculptors and painters and abstract painters and photographers as of lately. And the real boom is musicians and live performers, we never even dreamed that we’d get live performers and they hit us up like “we love the venue, we love the space, could we perform with the artists?”. And [at first] we were like “How?” [but we figured it out]. It’s a lot of me helping the artists out, but them teaching me things as I go. And because of the musicians and how the artists collaborate, we were able to create beautiful stunning showcases that just wowed the people and the artists and the musicians themselves.
There’s one thing I just don’t like about the gallery scene is when they call someone "an emerging artist". It’s a little condescending in the sense, that someone could be working as an artist for over 65 years and they "just emerged"? Nah, they have just not been looked at through the right telescope yet.
How do you transform your place? What happens on the night of the event?
If anyone is familiar with the game Tetris, we play that! Arts Avenue NYC takes place literally inside our Chelsea apartment and our living room. It’s two tiers. We use our living room space and we use our cellar floor. We’ve creatively rebranded them so they sound and look very nice.
The upstairs is known as The Loft Studio, where we pretty much take everything out of our living room and throw it into our bedroom...and trust me we have a full living room. We’ve invested a lot into it. We installed track gallery lighting as well as added sheets and curtains that create more of a gallery feel, but we also wanted it to be a little bit more authentic and we added a lot of greenery leaves, and incandescent lighting and it has really given great results. People are saying “Oh my god it feels so soft and nice in here” and this is what we are aiming for...it’s just magic...you gotta come and see it for yourselves. The downstairs of the Arts Avenue is a basic community room and we live it up too.
We’ve invested a lot of time, energy and money to it because we truly believe in arts and the community, so we barely ask for anything in return, but just some likes and support. Because we know what it’s like to be at the bottom, and we know what it’s like to be struggling. We are learning and we are getting there ourselves and we figured if we all get there together that’s how we are successful. Andy Warhol, [Jean-Michel] Basquiat, Keith Haring all those people “did it together”. People seem to forget it when they look at the highlights of the successfulness of those people's careers, but each one of them had a group, where they grew upon each other and it’s kind of what we do.
Do artists usually come to you knowing that it is going to be a residential building or do they come to you, thinking it’s a big gallery and what happens if they get not what they expected?
It’s all of that. It’s literally all of that. It’s fun if we get all of that at the same time. When we were first starting we had some artists who thought we were some fancy gallery. Then they were like “this is too good to be true” like the fees are low, and this is Chelsea, and one day they’d stop by to drop off their work, and be like “Yup, it is not true, I’m about to get stabbed. This is a residential building. This feels like a craigslist ad [scam]”. Granted they probably found us on craigslist. But, you know, they come in, and sometimes they are a little apprehensive at first. I tell them we are legit… And they are like "Can I see the space?". And I say "ummm…not yet", because it’s literally in the house mode. But they trust us and you know, once it’s a showcase time and they come in, their minds are blown.
The first thing I get asked is “Where do you live?” and I say “I live here”. “On the floor?”, and I explain that it’s a real house, and it’s actually a living space. They get so impressed and say “I want to be a part of it. This is unique. This is something different”. A lot of times now when we get hit up, it is people hearing about us, and being referred. Like “Hey I’ve seen photos, videos” or “my friend showcased in the last one. How do I become a part of this?”. And a lot of these artists, they just trust us.
I had this one pushy artist, a cool guy by the name of Dylan Bauer and he showcased once with us and now he owns his own graffiti company, and a mural company. And he’s amazing. The day I met him he was like “I’ll just come up and see the space”. “It’s in a house mode”, I said. He’s like “that’s cool”. And he just walked into my house and he was looking around. And then we sat on the couch and had an hour-long conversation about art, and putting yourself out there and meeting the right people, and trusting people and he seemed like a guarded person [at first], but then he completely opened up and became one of my really good friends. And whenever he can, he showcases with us, and it’s really dope.
First-timers are the best. They have no idea of what to expect, and whether it’s residential or not, they are just happy to be there. And then that “happy to be there” engulfs into something more. And I like to call ourselves “developmental” for certain senses for beginning artists and I kind of take pride in that, because we’ve had a lot of students showcase with us for the first time and then they’ve gone on to do great things, in terms of showcasing elsewhere. One artist by the name of Justin H or “CentipedeStyle”, who’s a photographer and who didn’t really dabble too much in it, he did one show with us when we were super modest, with duct tape lights, and then kept showcasing. About a year later, when we were really upgrading, he came back and told us “I’ve been selling non-stop. I’m getting gigs, I’m getting jobs, and I’m super happy. And that same show he sold prints. And we thought “Wow, that’s a great feeling to have”.
What about the audience? What are the audience's reactions?
OMG, they are all of the above too! We do a thing where we have them all meet up in the lobby. We have them sit there on purpose, for maybe 5-10 minutes, to just let them brew and stir, and we kind of forcefully let the conversation begin. Because once they get upstairs they are already acquainted with each other, they are already friends, they are already chatting with each other. And it blows my mind because, at certain galleries, people are all together but there are no clicks, and they are talking about the art but they are not really interacting with each other and in Arts Avenue everyone is talking to each other non-stop.
We meet them in the lobby, when they already understand it’s not really what they thought it’d be like and its different and we tell them a bit about who we are and what we do, and we instantly see them start to smile widely, and we bring them upstairs and they are just blown away once they see the art all hung up very professionally, At that point, they run the show. It’s very interesting to see.
How does it feel to you to let strangers into your apartment?
Funny enough, I’ve kind of always been like that. So it never really bothered me. When you are working in the artist environment, and especially in art studios, people just come and go. People that you never met before come and do their business and leave, or come and chat you up. And you become one of those people that come and go, when you are working [too], so I kind of don’t see it any differently. All of the strangers, that come and go, I see as my residents, and I see them as our avenue, our community, our neighbors. We are all on the same block together.
It’s always exciting to meet new people, and of course, there are some unflattering [encounters] at times, people that come use the amenities and leave, which is fine, but it’s mostly outweighed by the great people that come and show respect for the space. And I am super happy that a lot of them do, and the majority of them do, and they are mindful. We barely ever have any wine spilling, we direct traffic really well. It goes very well. That’s where I’m at about the strangers in my house. Just don’t come when we are in the house mode. I’m not gonna open the door.
How do you see the development of Arts Avenue? Do you want to stay in this mode for some more time, or do you feel like you’re ready for a larger setting?
It feels like, inevitably, we are going to be moving to a bigger space. I’m just enjoying what we have here right now and enjoying the environment. But I know that Arts Avenue is not just the space now. It’s the artists it’s the people, it’s the vibe. So we can take that anywhere and it’s gonna be the same now. And I trust in my people and in my community for the content to be just amazing anywhere else, and I know that they trust us to be able to produce that, so I think it’s a great healthy amount of trust between the two of us. We will be expanding in the next couple of years, and maybe even this year. The demand for the space among artists is starting to grow. The last show I could barely fit the art pieces on the wall. I feel like we will have to expand rather sooner than later, but it’s ok. It just shows that things are progressing healthily and it’s time.
What do you think people love about your space?
I can’t really speak for them but my inkling of the idea would be for the atmosphere, because it’s cozier, it’s smaller and in a way it is a home. You have that vibe like “I’m at home with these creatives. We all share a common space”. It’s kind of like back to those days when you had a common area in college but nicer, and there are no TAs there.
What event you would never allow happening in your space?
What haven’t we had in our space...? I honestly, don’t know. We have a comedy coming up, which is going to be very interesting. We’ve had concerts on the regular, we do “paint and sip”. We do all types of showcases you haven’t thought of and that you think of. We have done them or we will do. The ceiling is very high, for what we can do. In terms of...we always find a way to do it. I never thought, we’d be able to do sculpture and we found a way to get some sculpture pieces [exhibited], using the furniture we have, and some sheets and people loved it...So I’m gonna find out when we get there.
Is there an event you would really want to do in your space?
Yeah! I just don’t know if it’s possible. I think I’d need a lot of volunteers. I want to do an Art Mania, where everything is happening in between the floors, where we have poetry, we have music in the background, we’ve got live painters just doing their thing in the background. There are photographers, maybe a photography booth, where someone with a Polaroid could take a photo of someone and give it to them right on the spot as a souvenir. Stuff like that. My main goal this year is to do Art Mania.
What you’re hearing right now, I haven’t told anyone, besides Gerard. So it’s very exclusive. It’s just a big celebration of art done in a grandiose scale with everyone involved and I want to get that off the ground in any way possible and Arts Avenue is a perfect platform to do Art Mania... I might have to get it trademarked. Sounds like a wrestling event.
Are there any artists you would like to invite to Arts Avenue and your events?
Yeah. Any of you out there, that have a dream and a passion, that you know deep down you got it. And you just are looking for the right place and the right time. Arts Avenue is always that place and always that time. Regardless of how time flows, we are here for you.
Specifically, to whoever is open, we are open. I feel like, the moment we start working with exclusive artists, we start creating boundaries that other artists would feel like they can’t cross. I’m gonna treat Damien Hirst no different than I’m gonna treat a hard-working artist my neighbor, my peer. We are all equal, regardless of our background or where we are from.
And the last question. Do you get any complaints from your neighbors?
We have had experience with both people who are loving what we do, and people not liking what we do because they don’t understand it quite yet. Everything we do is well within the ground rules, of all regular places. Our guests are respectful, there is no one, wandering the hall. We have great volunteers that work with us and help us regulate and control everything. We’re very safe and very respectful of our neighbors. That being said there are always gonna be people that don’t understand it so they want to shut it down so they don’t have to deal with it. But an open conversation is always the key to be able to prevail.
So you’re saying “Yes”?
I’ll let you guys interpret it. ----------------------- Have you done any art events at your home? Tell us your story in the comments below.
If you'd like to learn more about Arts Avenue visit their website 529artsavenue.com, or follow them on Instagram @artsavenuenyc. If you noticed a mistake in this article, that's because we are currently looking for an editor. Maybe it's you. Seriously. Shoot us an email to firstname.lastname@example.org