If you’ve gotten on or off the E, M, or R Trains at Queens Plaza, you may have noticed an old, elegant, tan-colored office building topped with a clock-tower situated across from the park, rising above the elevated curve of the N train.
As is so often the case with anonymous buildings throughout the city, 29-27 41st Avenue has a fascinating history. It was built in 1924 as headquarters for the Bank of Manhattan, an institution that had been in existence since the 1700s and was founded, amazingly, by Aaron Burr – that’s right – arch-rival of Alexander Hamilton, who had established the Bank of New York. The first high-rise structure in Queens, today the rooms on the upper floors have tenants – mostly small law offices – but the ground floor is empty and has been so for decades.
Fittingly, from December 12, 2012 – March 15, 2013, the retail floor, basement-level vault rooms and mezzanine will be the site of a three-month exhibition entitled How Much Do I Owe You?, a project by the organization No Longer Empty that invites 27 artists from 15 different countries to make site-specific works (or contribute appropriate existing pieces) addressing personal, societal or cultural ideas of currency, value and exchange. Our relationship with the banking industry – both as consumers and as a governed people – is complicated, and in this time of financial insecurity, unsettling debt and widespread unemployment, the exhibition is meant to bring people together in a specific place and time to talk about these issues.
No Longer Empty is the brainchild of Manon Slome, a curator of modern and contemporary art with a focus on work that provokes dialogue. When the 2008 financial meltdown began to manifest in business failures, she sought to address the ensuing feelings of loss and fear in New York City by putting art in the spaces they left.
The first was in a space near the Chelsea Hotel recently abandoned by a fishing and tackle store, and the show was called Empty. Encouraged by its success, she brought on Naomi Hersson-Ringskog, an urban planning professional, to expand the scope of subsequent projects, implementing strategies for local community engagement and economic impact.
Thirteen exhibitions later, this past spring, No Longer Empty produced This Side of Paradise, a massive installation in The Andrew Freeman Home, once an estate-like retirement home for seniors located on the Grand Concourse in the Bronx. How Much Do I Owe You continues this mission to bring art to empty spaces, engaging people with places that time has lost and enriching communities in the process.
There are many interesting nooks and crannies in the old building for the artists to utilize and respond to. Chris Jordan, an artist who works large-scale in light and is interested in “changing people’s perceptions of overlooked or invisible spaces,” is installing a rotating wheel featuring silhouettes of locals to be installed way up in the clock-tower. Orit Ben-Shitrit will be showing her celebrated film, Vive Le Capital, in the largest of the bank’s old vaults, a space with an 8-foot round door, made of concrete clad in stainless steel. Paulette Phillips is creating a sound installation, Tatlan’s Monument to the Third International, referencing a colossal sculpture honoring the world’s workers that was never erected. The piece will be experienced on the mezzanine, tucked between the original walls of the 1924 building and insulated dry-wall installed in the 1980s.
No Longer Empty partners with local organizations to find meaningful ways of engaging the community. Key early partners in this case were the Queens Economic Development Corporation, the Long Island City Partnership, and the Long Island City Cultural Alliance. There are many others teaming up with No Longer Empty to host one-off programs and events – there will be a total of 31 public events, performances and programs throughout the course of the exhibition.
If you’re looking for thoughtful discourse, check out “Re-evaluating Arts and Labor,” a panel discussion with Occupy Wall Street’s Art and Labor Movement, or the “Arts Funding Death Match” produced with Flux Factory. If you want activities for kids, What Do I Owe You is offering three free Family Days in partnership with Materials for the Arts and others. For participatory performance, artist Shaun Leonardo is planning a fun twist on the classic Latin dance club, a place where men can pay $2 for a dance, and in fact, a growing number of these places exist in Queens. But at Leonardo’s event, this iteration, women will be able to buy a $2 dance with willing and able men, flipping the standard of this simple transaction.
Teens famously respond to concepts presented in contemporary art and No Longer Empty embraces this opportunity with great programs for youth. (Here’s a generation who comes of age during ‘bust’ years – what does that feel like?) The organization develops a fresh youth docent program for each show, along with school tours, and a local school will be making a film about the project. Partnering with ArtsConnection in a program called TraCTION, No Longer Empty is inviting students to curate their own exhibition in a room on site dedicated for this purpose that will feature Queens-based teen artists.
With fourteen exhibitions under its belt, I wondered what is unique about the nature of the What Do I Owe You project. Lucy Lydon, communications manager for No Longer Empty, said that since the borough of Queens is so diverse, artist participation and response to the themes of the show definitely reflect this. Their individual interpretations of finance, exchange and debt – such as using rice to represent valuable currency or obsessively inscribing pithy, meaningless slogans used in bank advertisements on a corridor – are wildly different. Financial issues are complicated and the feelings are personal, but we all experience them equally, and will each bring a unique perspective to the exhibition.