Mar 23, 2016
How Did the Wythe Hotel Become an Incubator for Artists?
On a breezy night in September, I was perched on the rooftop terrace of the Ides sipping wine out of a plastic cup and talking with the redheaded doorman of the Wythe Hotel, who also happens to be a painter. Austin Furtak-Cole was off-duty, but he was hanging out at the opening for the new works installed in the rooms on the fifth floor. He had moved to New York from Vermont, where he worked at the Vermont Studio Center, and applied for the job through NYFA. “I think I was a little apprehensive of choosing art as a career, but it was always something I knew that I would end up doing,” he told me a few months later. “Through time it’s been: Why am I doing this? Or how do I do this? What do I paint? Those are the things I’ve had to figure out, and then how to support myself as an artist. I think I was apprehensive because both of my parents are artists, and we always had a loving family, but we never had money, and I think I saw that struggle growing up, so it kind of made me afraid of committing to this, but it also feels like an inevitable thing.”
That sense of purpose—of fate, almost—is a common feeling among many of the artists I’ve talked to. “I’ve always made art, ever since I was little. It was always something I loved doing,” Kimia Ferdowsi Kline told me one afternoon over tea at her Fort Greene apartment, where she has her studio. As the Wythe Hotel’s art curator, Kimia is in charge of establishing the hotel’s permanent collection, organizing openings, arranging rotating exhibits in the lobby, inviting artists to come for residencies, and maintaining the hotel’s social media accounts. If you follow @wythehotel on Instagram, you’ve probably seen many of her photos, but first and foremost, she’s a gifted painter making her way in the art world. In the past six months alone, she had a solo show at Turn Gallery on the Lower East Side (with two more coming up this spring), participated in three group shows, did a five-week residency in Detroit, and was the subject of several articles, including one I wrote about the inspiration behind her painting “Homeland” for the October issue of Travel + Leisure—all on top of her work at the Wythe Hotel, where she has added 60 works of art to the permanent collection and organized two major openings. Like Austin, Kimia originally applied for a job at the hotel because she needed some steady income outside of her art.
“Kimia’s job didn’t really exist before Kimia came along,” Peter Lawrence, co-owner of the Wythe Hotel, told me later over lunch at Reynard. Lawrence and his partners Andrew Tarlow—owner of a mini-empire of pioneering farm-to-table restaurants including Diner and Marlow & Sons—and Jed Walentas—the wildly successful developer behind the Domino Sugar Refinery project and much of DUMBO—are firm believers in Brooklyn’s artistic community. Tarlow has been filling his restaurants with creative types for the past fifteen years. Walentas has long supported the arts, commissioning public works for Brooklyn Bridge Park, offering free studios for artists (for limited amounts of time), and serving as co-chair on the board of Creative Time, the non-profit behind “A Subtlety,” Kara Walker’s mammoth installation at Domino. They tapped into their network when building the hotel. Emily Klass, who worked with Tarlow at Marlow & Sons, served at Reynard when it first opened and became the first artist to display work in one of the hotel’s rooms. “It felt very familial. They’ve done a good job of getting to know the different artists in the neighborhood,” Klass told me on a sunny afternoon in December. “I see that in the way that they built out the hotel using local craftsmen, artisans, artists, and that attention to detail I think is aesthetic and fits the boutique hotel, but also they like these people. They wanna support the people they’ve gotten to know.”
Everyone who’s familiar with the Wythe Hotel knows it as the hotel by and for Brooklyn; when it opened in May 2012, with 72 rooms in a former cooperage on the Williamsburg waterfront, it was the neighborhood’s first boutique hotel. Many would describe it as a hipster hangout, but such an easy categorization flattens it and obscures the thoughtful planning behind such an ambitious undertaking. “Originally the idea was to build something that really belonged in Brooklyn because at the time that didn’t exist as far as a hotel was concerned,” Lawrence told me. “But obviously a huge part of Brooklyn’s story, especially the waterfront of Williamsburg, is that quintessential story of artists finding inexpensive large space, bringing creativity and energy to a neighborhood that in New York these days inevitably starts a snowball effect that ends up with those artists not being in the neighborhood anymore and moving on to the next place,” he continued. In order to tell that story, they wanted to get as much of the community involved as possible, so they employed local welders and craftsmen in the construction process. They worked with Brooklyn-based artists Tom Fruin, Duke Riley, and Steve ESPO Powers on pieces for the public spaces. Fruin’s colorful “Hotel” sign may be the most recognizable piece, but visitors passing through can admire Powers’s street art-style murals and Riley’s politically incorrect tongue-in-cheek representation of Brooklyn’s history in the lobby.
The trio’s efforts didn’t go unnoticed—the hotel’s opening was probably the splashiest development to hit the borough since the Brooklyn Bridge—thanks to coverage from just about every major publication you can think of. In 2012, the New York Times, T Magazine, Vogue, Condé Nast Traveler, Wallpaper, Elle, and many others covered the hotel; GQ interviewed Tarlow not once but twice; in 2013, Travel + Leisure included it in their annual “It List” of the world’s hottest new hotels. It was the darling of glossy magazines from Paris to Japan. But with so much media attention, such high hopes and great ambitions, how does the hotel live up to its own reputation now, nearly four years later? How can a property that claims to have art at its core stay engaged with Brooklyn’s creative community? What’s to stop it from becoming a mere repository for works that only out-of-towners who can afford to pay rates upwards of $300 a night can appreciate? These were the nagging questions in the back of my mind as I set out to investigate this article.
The answer, I found, is a combination of things—art openings, film screenings, artist residencies—but it all comes down to recognizing the value that Brooklyn’s creative community brings. In part, it’s the permanent collection of works by local artists of a certain caliber, but it’s also the staff, most of whom are artists of one kind or another. It’s not just Austin and Kimia. It’s Erin Webb, the concierge/singer, who performs at Pete’s Candy Store; Deva Mahal, events coordinator and singer who has performed at the Highline Ballroom, Union Pool, and other local venues; Caitie Moore, a poet who works at the front desk and has poems framed in one of the rooms on the fourth floor; Filmore Bouldes, a photographer who works the host station at Reynard and the Ides. Others, like former coffee boss/musician Emma Blankinship, and painter Emily Klass, who once worked at the hotel, have gone off to focus on their art. They form a tightknit, supportive community of young artists trying to make it. “This place is one of those magic spots that is home to a lot of people that are exceptionally intelligent and really talented,” Mahal told me over a cappuccino at Reynard. “The people here are really exceptionally talented, and they don’t brag about it, they don’t boast about it. It’s not like a thing that people run around trying to impress each other, they just do really amazing things and you find out because you’re surrounded by it.” Mahal was on the opening staff at Reynard after being lured away from Dumont, where she worked as a host. She explained that from the beginning, she appreciated the owners’ holistic approach to running the hotel. “Well, this is just my experience, but working here you’re really allowed to be who you are when you walk in the door. Like, when you start working here, they’re not trying to change who you are,” she said. “So I think first and foremost that’s a really important thing because they like the freedom you get from feeling accepted in a space like this.” Mahal, Blankinship, and Webb all told me that if they tell their co-workers they’re performing, a crowd will turn up to support them.
Equally important is the flexibility in terms of scheduling. If, say, one of the employees can’t make a shift because she landed an amazing gig, or wants to go away for a few weeks for an artist residency, Lawrence finds a way to make it work. “For me it’s really been like a home base,” as Kline put it. “As I’m pursuing my own creative stuff, it’s a place I always feel comfortable coming back to, both in terms of the financial security that it gives, having a stable part-time job, and the emotional support that you have when you work with other creative people.” Moore and Furtak-Cole agreed, adding that from day one, Lawrence encouraged them to pursue their artistic interests outside of the hotel, and assuring that if an opportunity came their way, they’d have no problem taking time off. Lawrence seems to have unlocked the secret to keeping morale high—a shrewd business move that mutually benefits both the owners and the staff. It’s a conscious decision on his part—whenever he needs to hire someone, he lists the position on NYFA because he inevitably finds people who are well educated, socially sophisticated, and accomplished. He knows they might disappear for a while, but then they come back with renewed energy because they’ve been off doing something they’re passionate about. “From a service point of view, it helps narrow the space between people getting the service and people offering the service, which, when you reach a certain point dollar-wise, ends up getting further and further and further apart,” Lawrence added. “My guys at the desk can talk to anyone about anything at anytime, which is lovely because then that gap closes and the people that come and stay with us feel like they’re a part of something rather than just buying something.”
Obviously, running a hotel is a business, but it’s nice to think that guests who stay there are paying to support the creative types who work there and the artists whose pieces adorn the walls. Originally, the permanent collection came about because Lawrence and his partners didn’t want to buy a bunch of artwork in bulk. Instead, by hiring Kline to curate a collection of one-of-a-kind pieces, they took a much more organic approach that allowed them to stay true to the hotel’s mission of being by and for Brooklyn. With one exception, all the artists whose work forms the permanent collection are Brooklyn-based. “I think the approach Peter took was wise, because if they had just bought 70 paintings or 70 photos and stocked the hotel with it, it would have been such a missed opportunity for us to then host openings and do all this fun stuff in the rooms and to extend this creative story past our walls and into the Brooklyn community,” Kline opined. Lawrence added, “That has been really fun for me to watch because one of the things we talk about a lot is how to have real art in a hotel given the constraints of hotel rooms—it can’t be too challenging, it can’t be obscene, obnoxious, lots of the things that sometimes it’s really important for art to be and to challenge people. So finding a way to walk that fine line, and generally give emerging young artists a platform, but also figuring out how the hotel is actually a good platform for those guys and they don’t feel like they’re selling out, or that they’re putting their stuff in the wrong place. And the openings are a huge part of that—all of the artists are almost always here.”
For the broader community, the openings are a fun way to peek inside the rooms and meet the artists. It harkens back to the days when hotels served as the gathering places for their cities—when people would flock there to celebrate, mourn tragedies, attend to business, and mingle with community members. In the two openings I’ve attended, I had a chance to chat with three of the artists, including Brad Kahlhamer, an artist represented by Jack Shainman gallery in Chelsea and whose work appears in museums across the country. I later visited his Bushwick studio to learn more about his experience. When I asked if he had any doubts or hesitations about putting his work in a hotel, he replied, “You know if you asked me this question like ten years ago, maybe I would have had more concerns, but I think the art world and the culture is now expanding out to such a degree that everything has to be looked at as a potential stage or venue.” Beau Stanton, an artist known for his vintage-inspired paintings and murals, told me he always enjoys putting his work outside of the traditional spaces for showing art and appreciates the intimacy provided by a hotel room. Matt Kleberg, a recent graduate of Pratt who has shown work at art fairs like Untitled and galleries all over the city, agreed. For them, the openings were like the icing on the cake of opportunity.
At the opening I attended in January, it was too cold to stay outside, so when the rooms were closed up, the after party was held in the back room at the Ides. I found myself chatting with Austin once again, and then with Kimia, her husband, and a group of their friends. She pointed out Trudy Benson, whose work is on the fourth floor and who’s married to Russell Tyler, whose paintings on paper I was admiring earlier that evening. As the night drew to a close, Kimia called down to see if we could check out Kahlhamer’s work in the penthouse, but it was booked for the night. Just being in such great company, I felt more strongly than ever before that I was part of that world—that as a writer I shared that need to create, and I had finally found a community with the same sense of purpose. You’ll see me at the Wythe Hotel’s next opening, whenever it is.
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