Long Island City becomes an unlikely arts enclave

Long Island City becomes an unlikely arts enclave – City beat: Long Island City, N.Y

Julie Mehta

From the Manhattan side of the East River, Long Island City is a collection of motley landmarks–the towering Citibank tower; the candy-cane smokestacks of a massive power plant; the red-lettered sign of Silvercup Studios, where “Sex and the City” and “The Sopranos” are filmed.

But there’s much more than meets the eye to this well-established industrial area, the largest neighborhood in the New York borough of Queens. Nestled among its factories, foundries and warehouses are hundreds of artists’ studios and some of New York’s most notable arts institutions, such as P.S. 1 Contemporary Arts Center, Socrates Sculpture Park and, at least temporarily, the Museum of Modern Art (MOMA).

“MOMA has done a tremendous service to the neighborhood, drawing international tourists and Manhattanites who’d previously only been to Queens on their way to JFK or LaGuardia [airports],” said Dan Miner, senior vice president of business services for the Long Island City Business Development Corporation.

Recent exhibits on Matisse and Picasso, Andy Warhol and Ansel Adams have drawn thousands of visitors to the converted Swing-line stapler factory that has been MOM, s home since renovations began on its midtown Manhattan space in 2002. The squat structure is painted bright blue with crisp white letters, a marked contrast to the gritty facades of nearby buildings.

“In Long Island City, you have lots of low-lying buildings mostly used for light industry, so when they clear out, they make excellent spaces for artists’ studios. With MOMA joining the Noguchi Museum and Socrates Sculpture Park, it has created a kind of critical mass. Now there’s almost a domino effect in the arts community,” said Brett Littman, senior administrator of P.S. 1 Contemporary Art Center.

P.S. 1 might well be regarded as the first domino, having made its home in a rundown public school building in Long Island City back in 1971. This world-renowned showcase for cutting-edge contemporary artists is now affiliated with MOMA and draws more than 80,000 visitors a year.

Another pioneer of the Long Island City art scene was sculptor Mark Di Suvero, who founded Socrates Sculpture Park on an abandoned waterfront lot in 1986 to display sculptures by up-and-coming artists. An estimated 65,000 people come to the park each year, and many more on Manhattan’s Upper East Side can see the light-based installations of its annual Winter Light exhibition.

The works of sculptor Isamu Noguchi recently found a temporary home just three blocks away from the MOMA facility while the permanent site of the Isamu Noguchi Garden Museum, in neighboring Astoria, was renovated. One floor up, The Museum for African Art continues to mount its culturally oriented exhibitions while its permanent Upper East Side gallery is being completed.

For the Sculpture Center, the move to Long Island City was a permanent one. In December, 2002, it relocated from the Upper East Side to a former metal-working shop redesigned by renowned architect Maya Lin. “It was important to us to be in a neighborhood already known because of the visual arts,” said Executive Director Mary Ceruti. “P.S. 1 had put Long Island City on the map long ago, and their audience is similar to ours.” Ceruti said attendance has tripled since the move.

The latest development in the art-institution scene has been at the Fisher Landau Center for Art. This previously by-appointment-only private collection of art from 1960 to the present opened to the general public just months ago.

The reason many of the estimated 2,000 artists who work in Long Island City came here is that it’s incredibly convenient. There’s an easy transportation link from just about anywhere in New York. And around almost every corner is a picture-postcard view of the Manhattan skyline, startlingly close.

Melissa Wolf, founder and executive director of the Women’s Studio Center, said this accessibility has been integral to her organization’s success. Her program, which offers studio space and educational workshops to both male and female artists, is based in the Wills Art Deco Building, a converted factory that now houses more than 30 artist studios.

Wills is located in what’s called the Hunter’s Point area of Long Island City, which is centered around Vernon Boulevard and Jackson Avenue. Near P.S. 1, this is where most of the area’s artists have set up shop.

Despite all the industry, Long Island City is a very quiet place. “It’s not as crowded as other areas;’ said Juvenal Reis, who left the Wills building to create his own studio center nearby. “I can still park my car on the street so it’s easy to load and unload my work.” This is especially important to Reis, who does large-scale abstract paintings and installation art. He sublets studio space to about 40 contemporary and experimental artists from all over the world and is a big proponent of open studio events to get the word out about art in Long Island City.

So is Kim Luttrell, who has been active in organizing area artists. Luttrell is one of 80 artists who works out of Crane Street Studios, another old factory that’s set apart by the wildly colorful (and artistic) graffiti splashed across its walls. Her own work is appropriately vivid, including mounted sculptures made out of paint chips from old palettes and workpants. She hopes to help put together an area-wide art event this spring. She also wants to get signs up on studio buildings so visitors can find them amid the industrial buildings.

Luttrell said she’s already seen progress in the three years she’s worked in Long Island City. “There are high-rise apartments and condos going up on the water and new restaurants opening every week. Some are even doing art openings.”


* Garth Clark Gallery, (718) 706-2491

* Luttrell Studio, (718) 729-8960

* Long Island City Business Development Corporation, (718) 786-5300

* P.S. 1 Contemporary Arts Center, (718) 784-2084

* SculptureCenter, (718) 361-1750

* Socrates Sculpture Park, (718) 956-1819

* Juvenal Reis Studios, (718) 784-5530

* Women’s Studio Center, (718) 361-5649

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