A few weeks ago, an older couple walked into 99 Cent Plus Gallery in Bushwick and told Riley Strom, painter and co-owner along with Zoe Alexander Fisher and Simran Johnston, about an idea he had for the gallery. “He must have been 80 years old—well, maybe 70—but he was old,” Riley said. “He came in and looked at what we were showing and he was like, ‘My wife and I have been collecting bottle caps for 20 years, and now we have an idea of what we’re going to make with them.’ And we were like, alright, bring em in.”
“I can’t wait to see if he does it,” Zoe said.
There’s something about Bushwick’s 99 Cent Plus that draws people in. The gallery owners have maintained the original dollar store signage, which inspires a lot of curious and sometimes confused reactions as to what kind of 99 cent store this actually is, and large picture windows looking out on the street give people walking by a full view of what’s happening inside. The interior changes often; exhibitions (so far) have been cycle through at a furious pace. Each month 99 cent welcomes a new artist or group of artists. “It’s really fun to just let artists do their thing. And especially if we know them really well, we’ll kind of just let them take over the space and really transform it,” Zoe said. Even the small design shop inside, Handjob Gallery, features a variety of handmade goods that are only one of five or ten editions, which makes for an ever-evolving stock of products.
A small corner of 99 Cent Plus is devoted to Handjob Gallery and Store, which is Zoe’s project. Artists from around the world contribute handmade, functional objects that are priced anywhere between $5 and $400.”Accessibility is definitely the idea behind it, but it’s also about bringing art work off the walls and off the pedestal into your hands,” Zoe explained.
Since its opening back in April 99 Cent Plus has played the part of serious gallery for openings and exhibitions, but the place also manages to maintain a laid-back vibe that’s decidedly un-gallery. The three owners, all working artists, have their studios here. They’re partitioned off at the back, scattered with paintings, paints, brushes, plaster, and stacks of beer for openings.
“Because we make art here, there are lots of people walking in and out who are like covered in plaster or covered in paint,” Simran explained. “There’s art, but it’s also a store where you can touch things. It’s more interactive than just a gallery.”
After graduating college, Simran said she suddenly felt detached from an artistic community. So instead of sticking with private studios, the three artists decided to pool their resources and rent a space that could function as studio, retail space, and gallery.
The plan also made sense financially.
“We’re all just paying like $60 more than what we were [paying] before for studio space,” Simran said. “We’d all be paying this money anyway and we also get a place to show work and we don’t have to have the same financial strain. Of course there’s still, like, booze and electricity.”
Combining studio space with gallery and retail space has given the gallery the opportunity to take risks with exhibitions.
“It’s really allowed us to be totally open with it and curate any shows we want to do,” Riley said. “We don’t have to really think about it in terms of what’s going to sell and what’s popular.”
The affordability of Bushwick, of course, was a huge draw. “But we’re here all the time anyway,” Zoe said. “We live in the neighborhood. But it’s really important for it not to be a formal gallery. We still want to properly represent the artists, but we also want it to be casual and fun.”
Riley added: “It was really important for us when we got the space to be conscious of the existing community here. We were a little bit nervous that we were gentrifying the block. We were afraid about what it was going to do to other people on the block.”
But so far, their fears have been unfounded. “It’s been such a positive experience; everybody’s so nice. We’ve become really good friends with all of our neighbors,” Riley said.
“And that’s the thing about this block that’s so great. It feels like a little community,” said Zoe. Another gallery, Outlet, also calls this stretch of Wilson Avenue home, and opened across the street long before Zoe, Riley, and Simran arrived. “We have a really good relationship with them,” Zoe said.
During my visit, as if to confirm everything they’d been saying about the neighborhood, a girl pulled back the curtain and plopped onto Zoe’s lap. Simran introduced her as Lionela Espiritu, “one of the little girls whose parents own the nearby flower shop.” Lionela was happy to answer some questions about the gallery. She explained that she “sells art here,” and makes “sculptures and flower paintings” of her own.
But the gallery is accessible in more ways than one. “Affordability is also really important,” Zoe said. For 99 Cent’s first show, the gallery asked artists to donate their artwork to be sold at the opening for anywhere from $.99 to $9.99. “We collected funds to help build out the space, and everything was really small, but we had some really legitimate artists,” Zoe recalled. “It was like this crazy opening, we had 600 people come.”
She explained they hope to recreate the event as an annual happening, but in the mean time they’re trying to maintain the same spirit of inclusiveness. But besides the affordability of small art work on opening night, the owners were careful not to brand themselves as an “affordable art gallery.”
“I like having art that people who aren’t wildly wealthy can buy, that’s really nice,” Simran said. “But affordability is tricky, like a $100 piece of art is still… $100! And for a lot of families, especially in this community, that’s not an affordable piece of art. We are affordable in the context of art.”
But the owners say they are bringing art to people in ways beyond monetary transactions. 99 Cent has also hosted events like “Don’t Play in the Garden,” a performance piece by Kelley McNutt and Izabelle New. The artists took over the whole gallery space, and transformed it into a giant performance box. “The walls and the floor were covered in this crazy felt fabric. It was awesome. And there was creepy music playing,” Zoe said.
“It was like a giant TV,” Simran added.
“People were standing outside watching and then running up to their apartments to get other people to show them, like ‘Look at what’s going on, it’s crazy!'” Riley said.
Despite the welcoming vibes and their emphasis on inclusiveness, 99 Cent is committed to not letting their openness dampen their devotion to weirdness and experimentalism. Zoe made clear: “We’re not saying that making people uncomfortable is a bad thing.”
99 Cent Plus Gallery is located at 238 Wilson Avenue in Bushwick and will open a new show on Friday, November 14th from 7 to 10 pm, To Several Futures (Not To All), featuring paintings and sculpture by Diana Sofia Lozano.