My sophomore year of high school, I threw a Boom Boom Room themed party in my rural Pennsylvanian garage. The concrete space, decorated solely by clutter and my father’s Grateful Dead posters, would never resemble what I considered New York’s most exclusive club. Still, I tried to install a sense of prestige with stern invitations advising that there would be no food, only water, and that all attendees must wear sequins. I spun a Grooveshark playlist with MSTRKRFT’s remix of Justice’s “DANCE” as the centerpiece. My boyfriend left the soiree in a huff, perpetually enraged by my burgeoning passion for New York and nightlife. We could hardly hear him slam the door over our revelry.
In my six-year tenure as a resident of New York City, I have managed to party at Boom Boom Room exactly zero times. During the brief era I spent drinking here, I preferred dive bars and forgotten pubs, places where I could meet salt of the Earth folk who matched my level of cynicism. When I did make it to clubs, I preferred Lavo, Gilded Lily, and Up&Down, rarely straying, because those were the places where I knew the promoters. I walked past the Standard Hotel several times and scoffed at the line in front. Disgusting. Who wants to wait? It seemed both humiliating and cumbersome.
My drinking days are gone, but my ego remains. I met Rachael Clark, the curator behind Street heARTS: Valentines & Confessions, at The Local in Long Island City. We made our introductions after chatting in the bathroom, where I complimented her skirt. “There’s a lot of well-dressed people here tonight,” I beamed. She smiled in return. I was pleased to meet her; the UP staff had already planned to attend her pop-up’s opening. Clark handed me a flyer for the event. “RSVP” it read at the bottom.
The day of the show, I mulled over whether or not to RSVP. I already knew Clark and several of the artists being featured. “Do you think we should RSVP to this?” I texted street artist Kafka, who I’d planned to meet there. “They’re lucky we’re even going,” Kafka wrote back. “You’re right,” I responded, as if I weren’t going for a work obligation, to continue building my career in the extremely competitive field of New York art journalism.
Kafka is kind of famous, but I am not, as I was reminded at the door. There, the bouncer asked if my name was on the list. Pellegrino in hand, I replied, “no, but I met Rachael last week.” He paused, examining his list. “And I know several artists here,” I continued, anxious over his silence. He looked me up and down before telling me the show would open to the public in half an hour. I immediately attempted to call in reinforcements, sending Instagram messages to AJ Lavilla and Renda Writer, the two artists I knew in the show. No response. I stood on the phone with T.K., filling him in on the situation, looming dangerously close to the bouncer in a weak attempt at intimidation. I looked up to find a growing line snaking around the corner. The realization hit: I was being a douche. I hung up the phone and walked to the end of the line.
I eventually made it inside thanks to T.K., my more even-keeled, emotionally sound half. He had RSVP’d days in advance. Sheepish and a tiny bit shaken from the blow to my sense of self-worth, I was happy to find a smattering of familiar faces inside. As I spent my time at the show talking with them, it became apparent that the difficulties had not been mine alone. Some artists joked that they’d had to ask people to leave so their friends could enter. Madvaillan told me he’d snuck in through the back. When I left, I felt I was doing those outside a service.
When I caught up with Clark a few days after the opening, I learned that she is a privacy attorney and consultant, recently turned curator. A resident of the Lower East Side for ten years, she fell in love with street art while working through a breakup, walking several miles every day. She began noticing artists’ work and appreciating their styles, alongside the community they fostered. Her newfound interest inspired her to expand upon this connection between street art and heartbreak on a run one morning, when the idea for a Valentine’s day show came to her. “Essentially, this is my phoenix,” Clark said.
Preparation commenced, and her idea rapidly expanded. “The plan was that it was gonna be in a small space… just casual, one night. Beer, wine, whatever, people drinking 40s out of paper bags. Something super casual, like old school Cali skater community. And then the more I thought about it, I realized, it’s a lot of work for just one day. And that’s why I wanted to create and find a space where I could have the show run for ten days to two weeks.”
She held ambitious plans for a new girl on the street art scene, an observation Clark acknowledged. “The perception, I’m sure, would be that I’ve just kind of come out of nowhere, because it’s true.”
I asked why she instituted an RSVP in spite of her affection for street art’s emphasis on community. “It breaks my heart, it still causes me a lot of angst, because I know that a lot of people couldn’t get in. But the capacity for the space is only 75, so we were really tied to that.” She cited further legal constraints, such as liquor licenses, fire codes, and insurance for the art. “Every event that I’ve ever coordinated has always had an RSVP… The impetus for it was ‘I need to know how much liquor to buy.’ I never dreamed that we would sell out.”
“Every event that I’ve ever coordinated has always had an RSVP… The impetus for it was ‘I need to know how much liquor to buy.’” – Rachael Clark
Clark also touched upon the marketing utility of the RSVP, and how it could benefit artists. “I want people to understand that street art is contemporary art, and street art belongs in a gallery. And so I wanted to have a gallery feel.” She recalled that on a catamaran in Mauritius, “I realized that I only get one chance to have a debut as a curator, and so I wanted it to be done well, I wanted it to be first class.” She posited that this attribute “is critical to my mission of #supportlivingartists to share their work with a larger audience.” She maintains that “the first idea was a pop up one night, casual, which morphed into ten days with all the bells and whistles … I had no intention then, nor do I have the intention now of creating exhibits that feel like the posh, hoity-toity Chelsea gallery scene.”
Still, it poses a professional concern when members of the community you’re working with cannot gain entrance to your show. Clark emphasized that the ultimate cause for this difficulty stemmed from the length of attendees’ visits. “I was surprised at how many artists were [there] because I knew the artists didn’t RSVP, and so I struggled with that as a curator … I didn’t anticipate that people would stay for several hours.” Her comment made some vague notion suddenly clear in my mind, that every street art gallery show that I’d been to had been an excuse for artists to hang out and support each other’s’ work, rather than supporting traditional art world rituals. This focus on art for art’s sake, even when it’s illegal, as an outlet and occasional means of subversion is what allowed me to empathize with the craft over others. The attitude spills over into shows.
3RD Ethos art gallery in Bushwick embodies these precise principles. The shows that owner and director Connie Byun puts together serve as the centerpiece for an active, tight knit community of street artists. I typically spend roughly two hours at every show here, content to polish off half a pack of cigarettes over conversations in the spacious backyard. Byun created the space to serve as a ‘third place’ where artists, professionals, and enthusiasts could come to share good times.
I asked Byun about her thoughts on utilizing an RSVP. As a business owner, Byun mentioned the same ramifications cited by Clark that render an RSVP prudent, like fire codes. “I just don’t see the point of it… unless they have a capacity limit. Especially for street art … it’s a public thing, you can’t just make it so exclusive.”
Byun has questioned whether or not she should charge cover at the door to help compensate the musicians who perform at her openings, but she said, “I haven’t done that yet, because I just feel like that’s a turnoff. I feel like it may be too early to have street art so high brow… Normal people [who aren’t in the art scene] already feel like it’s inaccessible. Street art, the whole point of it is that it is accessible, it’s on the street. I mean, fuck, we could have an art show on Knickerbocker right now, outside the gallery.” She thinks having a bouncer at the door might scare people who are already intimidated by the art world. 3RD Ethos has had success with suggested donations, which help her account for the costs associated with running the gallery.
Irv Ortega has done it all, as a DJ, skater, artist, and arts entrepreneur. In addition to his creative pursuits, he runs TMJ Arts Collective, an artist collective that also owns the intellectual property for his projects completed over the past ten years. Thanks to serendipity, TMJ merged with CJ Yao Gallery in SoHo, overseeing the landmark building’s gallery space. There, he throws shows like April’s Black Book Stories, an event I paid a $10 cover to enter. Sitting on the stoop alongside Irv, I watched him haggle with some kids who hoped to “take a quick look” without paying the entry fee. I watched Connie’s concerns over accessibility to the arts playing out in real time.
I interviewed Irv to ask for his perspective. Not only does his work with CJ Yao support a larger arts organization, but it also focuses their shows’ audience. Irv explained, “the reason that we charge is based on the people who really support, and only the people that really support. It would never hurt them to pay ten bucks, and you’re getting mad hospitality which is actually more than ten bucks, at a location that’s full of artists that are actually worth more than ten bucks. It’s really expensive to make these shows happen at different locations, so I have to fund all of the artists. That’s exactly what we do, and it filters out all the bullshit and the people who are really about it.” Ultimately, he believes, “people that care wouldn’t mind donating. I donate to my friends’ shows, and they’re my friends that let me in for free. So, I’m firsthand, like a person that understands that that system is made for a reason, when the person is using it for the right reason.”
“The reason that we charge is based on the people who really support, and only the people that really support…” – Irv Ortega
I love the hospitality aspect of shows in the street art community. Given the competition in the streets, it’s incredibly refreshing to hang out with artists who are open-minded and chill, yet generally passionate. Though street art is growing in popularity, its revolutionary roots render it the one movement potentially equipped to re-think how we approach prestige. When asked how the community can tackle this riddle, Byun said, “I think street art now is blurring what is considered contemporary art… a lot of the street artists are fine art trained. Their canvas work is beautiful. But there’s gotta be other ways you can do that, to be able to raise awareness or change people’s minds or add more value to street art. I think there’s gotta be different ways to do that than just blocking out the public. Because that’s already a problem.” She noted that accessibility will encourage society to embrace art as a whole, to patronize artists at more universal price points and keep their livelihoods going. Price and quality are presently tightly connected, and this type of mindset needs to shift. In my opinion, society benefits more from a large number of artists earning livable wages off their work than it does from a small handful achieving massive wealth and god-like reputations.
Street artist and occasional curator Dirt Cobain summarized the positive and negative aspects of the RSVP, explaining, “RSVP is fine you expect your event to reach capacity, if your event reaches capacity then it is fair to let those who have RSVP’d in the door and if you did not RSVP then you’d have to wait for people to leave before you enter.” He qualified, though, that “if you’re just using the RSVP as a way to turn people down at the door and try to use it as a way to hype up your event for no reason other than you’re just trying to gain notoriety then that is lame.”
“If you’re just using the RSVP as a way to turn people down at the door and try to use it as a way to hype up your event for no reason other than you’re just trying to gain notoriety then that is lame.” – Dirt Cobain
In the end, the appropriate requisites for entry to an art show vary according to each situation. Legal stipulations dictate the primary mandates. A show like Valentine’s Day’s Street heARTS, which was hosted in a small gallery on a bustling corner and generated widespread buzz, definitely requires some sort of moderation. Others, like the Black Book Stories show presented by TMJ Collective may have the additional need to fund larger institutions. 3RD Ethos is afforded the space and community ties necessary to host a plethora of open gatherings at will. However, when event hosts are planning their art shows, these are necessary factors they must consider in the early stages of their shows’ inception.
While street art does deserve recognition and respect, it inherently strays from the entrenched rules of the fine art world. Taking this into account, curators must establish a purposeful mission in the beginning to ensure the show achieves its desired outcome. Even though I thought I’d wanted to imitate the pristine chic of Boom Boom Room my sophomore year of high school, deep down my truest self probably knew I’d rather party in some rural garage.