Though the theme was decided on in December, long before COVID-19 was added to New York City’s daily vocabulary, the thread for this year’s exhibit seems eerily appropriate in July.
Over the last four months, the words “shelter,” “safety” and “security” have all taken on a fresh significance as the world navigates an unprecedented time of crisis.
Juried by Nicole Mouriño, a Cuban-American visual artist and program administrator with The Latinx Project at NYU, “Refuge” features more than 30 pieces exploring the artists’ personal interpretations of the term in their own life experiences.
“We weren’t even thinking about seeking refuge from a virus,” explained 440 Gallery director Amy Williams, who is currently finding her own variety of refuge from the city while living upstate.
“And then of course the protests and the Black Lives Matter movement happening simultaneously,” she continued. “The exhibition just feels timely right now.”
Each piece depicts a unique setting, from Matilda Forseberg’s “Beach scenes: Observing family rituals,” to Armando Alleyne’s “The Barbershop,” to “Into the Wild” by Buket Savci, a painting of a woman who lies contemplative in bed.
“What I love about this exhibition is that every artist has a different interpretation of what ‘refuge’ is,” said Williams. “Sometimes it's someone seeking refuge, other times it’s someone offering refuge, and there are many places where that happens within a particular artist’s perception.
“It has really expanded my idea of the concept,” she added.
Williams also noted that in working with Mouriño, 440 Gallery was able to greatly expand its representation in relation to the diversity of exhibiting artists.
The artist-run gallery typically relies on membership and application fees in order to support operations, but in light of financial stress induced by the pandemic, the pair decided on a donation-based approach when it came to its call for artists.
The result, according to Williams, was an increased number of artists submitting works for consideration compared to previous years. She plans to pursue a similar model for future ventures.
“Nicole put together a beautiful show, and she helped me to consider things that I hadn’t before in terms of access and inclusivity,” said Williams. “I don't want money to ever be a reason why people don't apply for our shows or don’t have art in their lives in some way.”
“Refuge” is displayed through a partnership with Artsy (artsy.net/440-gallery), an online platform for the arts that 440 Gallery has had a relationship with for some years.
Most of the artworks, barring a few that have already been sold, are available for purchase on the exhibition site.
“It’s a great way to support artists during this time,” explained Williams. “Many have lost their jobs or are on furlough until who knows. I’m also the only employee at 440, and I don't want the gallery to disappear because I can't be paid to work there.”
440 Gallery celebrated its 15th anniversary back in January, a milestone which Williams explains is noteworthy for any small art gallery. Just three months later, the showroom was forced to shut its doors amid public health concerns.
“One of the things I’ve been really proud of is that I’ve always envisioned 440 as being a destination for culture in the neighborhood,” said Williams.
The ongoing connection with Artsy made exhibitions a near-seamless transition during the pandemic. When it came to 440 Gallery’s program of live performances, artist talks and young artist workshops, Williams was tasked with the challenge of translating these events into a virtual space as well.
Through the use of video conferencing, the gallery successfully pulled off a slate of virtual events, attracting steady audiences from all over the world, a strategy that Williams hopes to employ in the future.
“I’m not sure what that will look like yet,” she said, “but I have come to appreciate what having these virtual events can do in terms of visibility for the gallery.”
On July 26, the gallery will host an online reading on Zoom of local author Catherine Gigante-Brown’s “Brooklyn Roses,” the third installment of a trilogy chronicling an Italian-American family from Borough Park.
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