Jeffrey Peña is the creator of www.curbsandstoops.com which began as a web blog based out of the Rhode Island School of Design and has ballooned into a full blown, think tank about the accessibility of contemporary art. It has also given rise to an old, 18-thousand square foot warehouse that’s evolving into a cultural center in Brooklyn, New York … where I grew up. I talked with Pena about how he and colleagues brought their vision into being.
MICHAEL: Hello Jeffrey. I’m very impressed by your website and I love the fact that we share the same mission regarding contemporary art. How did you come to adopt such a mission?
JEFFREY: Growing up in marginal areas in the Dominican Republic and the South Bronx, there was a lack of access to almost anything cultural. Yet, paradoxically, there was a lot of great culture that grew out of these areas. Still, I noticed that in my environment, there weren’t many opportunities for engaging fine art and becoming a part of the dialogue was simply out of the question. That was for the elite. When people like (street artist) Banksy started popping up all over the world, making quips on the establishment and democratizing the access to the work by putting it in the streets, I found the answer.
MICHAEL: Is this where Curbs and Stoops comes in?
JEFFREY: The dialogue needed to happen at the thresholds that defined our cities … our curbs and our stoops. I started sharing street art because this work is more accessible. The community was welcoming and most of all, they were eager to give it out and redistribute online for free. Still, the mission was much bigger than that. I was interested in learning about every kind of art and someone in my situation had no way of doing this. I started coming up with scenarios to use the internet and other interactive media as a way to spread art. For example, Art Basel Miami Beach is one of the greatest art fairs in the world, however, this experience is only enjoyed by a very select few. We used u-stream to give insight into the top shows, we conducted live interviews and we even broadcasted the strippers at Ryan McGuinness' show. We started doing pop-up shows in places that were never meant to be locations for fine art. It became a think tank for sharing work, and motivating conversations.
MICHAEL: I’m sure that you had other experiences that helped you reach that point.
JEFFREY: I started travelling. There were study abroad opportunities, but this wasn't a reality for my family. Those opportunities lacked funding for “scholarship students.” I went to college at Northeastern precisely to have the opportunity to travel. But I decided to study architecture, knowing that I was interested in art, simply because I wanted to learn about making environments. Boarding school was my first time in a “designed environment.” All of the experiences were orchestrated. Basically, every interaction there happened at a heightened level.
MICHAEL: Did you continue to study at this time?
JEFFREY: I worked in Tokyo for a semester after being chosen as one of two international apprentice architect positions at Tezuka Architects and where I also helped with projects in his design think tank, Tezuka Lab. I then studied in Rome for a semester and finally worked in San Francisco. Everywhere I went I found artists and galleries – and realized that there was a disconnect between all of these scenes and all of the types of work being made. I don't know what I am yet, a painter, a designer, but I knew that I was interested in the act of making more generally. I wanted to have access to the contemporary art scene in its entirety. The New York bubble and the people in the rest of the world wanted to know what was going down in New York. We became interested in all high levels of contemporary art. It didn't matter that we were showing street artists, sculptors, photographers, and academic painters in the same forum as long as all these people were responsible. That attitude is what led to our motto, “Contemporary Art. Accessible.”
MICHAEL: Where were you actually when Curbs and Stoops came about?
JEFFREY: The actual idea of Curbs and Stoops started in my period in San Francisco. When I came back to the U.S., I wanted to check out the other American art scenes. San Francisco was more visually stimulating. The scene there was also younger and I quickly found a home in one of the most amazing art venues in the world, The Luggage Store Art Gallery. I found myself at the center with the people who brought up some amazing talents like Neckface, Barry McGee, Os Gemeos and the list goes on. They did this all in the Tenderloin district, one of the most destitute neighborhoods in all of the U.S. The Luggage Store was a beacon in the neighborhood ridden with drugs. It was exciting for me to finally see art being used as an agent of change. I shared my ideas with Darryl, one of the founders of the Luggage Store, and when he was supportive, I needed no more motivation. He was encouraging in scaling up their definition of accessibility.
MICHAEL: It’s great to hear that Curbs and Stoops has grown into a cultural center project. What has you excited about that?
JEFFREY: Having a physical space was important in making the project grow. The space that we got was once a feather factory. The landlord, David Welner, has a few traditional artist spaces. This was going to be his next one. He started by developing one floor, but was only able to rent out the three smallest studios. With fewer artists renting spaces, all of the larger spaces remained un-rented. I started a residency program with two test artists, Jonathan Chapline and Rachel Labine, both top graduates of Rhode Island School of Design painting. While looking at work in a crowded studio, I had the idea to simply move a few things into one of the vacant studios … ideas about how the spaces could be used alternatively started running through my mind.
MICHAEL: How did you bring this concept into actual existence?
JEFFREY: I put together an unsolicited 16 page proposal of what David could do with the studios. This outlined a plan for growth, parts of which are now shared on our website under “Active Space.” I knew that he wanted to do another floor of studio renovations and to our surprise, there was a third floor and a small gallery on the side that he’s currently renovating. So in total, we’ll be in charge of over 18-thousand square feet of spaces for exhibiting, producing and sharing art ideas and conversations. This business plan is still being flushed out, but it’s something we expect to have soon.
MICHAEL: Will you have programs of any sort?
JEFFREY: We’re interested in developing diverse programming that we have had on the site at a real venue. I want to see if this will work in the realm of exhibitions. On a website, you can quickly scroll over work that you don't like or make searches for work that you do like. I’m interested in seeing how a street art show can impact an academic show. I’m also interested in seeing how visitors respond to seeing high level imagery versus high level concept in the same venue. Also, the artists who have studios here will have to agree to hosting open studios once in a while. I’m interested in seeing how a community impacts the process of making work. Can all of Bushwick (the part of Brooklyn where the C&S warehouse is located) get involved in the making of my pieces? What is the role of my environment?
MICHAEL: Would you say that Curbs and Stoops has a target audience?
JEFFREY: The audience that we’re focusing on now comes from two different ranges. We want to connect with seasoned collectors and with the rising artists. For this reason, we are going to more fairs and are doing all of the necessary networking that we weren't interested in doing as art students. To connect to the students we have started recruiting top students in each of the top art schools as “Curbs and Stoops Ambassadors.” They become a filter between us and the collectors. This has been great because it lets me spot trends at the art schools before anyone else. I can grab artists early. We opened with 5 exhibitions and three open studios with top young alums from RISD, Yale, Columbia, SAIC, and MICA (Works here: http://www.curbsandstoops.com/blog/shop/).
MICHAEL: That all sounds great, but how do you engage people with art and convince them that art is for everyone and not just the elite as you mentioned earlier?
JEFFREY: Building community through art is the overall mission of the physical space. I am an ardent believer that art can be used as an agent of change. We are in a community that was once desolate like the Tenderloin community above. Art was once an event. People went to visit art as an activity. With the excess of imagery in television, internet, movies, etc., people kind of forgot about art. People weren't interested in thinking about art and design as a way to solve problems or as a way to communicate human emotion. We want to use the space to get that back. This is why it's important to show the super academic works and more illustrative works in the same venue. We’re interested in connecting with an audience and educating them until they look for deeper meaning. It has already started to happen.MICHAEL: Thanks for chatting Jeffrey. I wish you much success with your exciting venture.
For more information about Curbs and Stoops, check out their website at www.curbsandstoops.com or their “Active Space” at http://www.curbsandstoops.com/blog/active-space/