Executive director, Arts Gowanus
Jun 16, 2022
Johnny Thornton took on the leadership role at Arts Gowanus at an inauspicious moment. It was early 2020, there was maybe $4,000 in the bank, the neighborhood was in the midst of a long and contentious transition period … and a global pandemic had just touched down.
“It was a fun time to take over an organization,” he half-joked to Brooklyn Magazine in April.
Now in its 26th year, Arts Gowanus is a nonprofit organization that supports and advocates for artists in the Gowanus area. There are currently around 400 member artists, Thornton said. The group is known for its hugely popular annual Gowanus Open Studios, which invites the public into galleries and studios for a weekend of browsing, shopping, schmoozing and entertainment.
Thornton’s job as executive director is to agitate for affordable working conditions, diversity, robust public arts programming and sustainability in the neighborhood’s arts scene. “Artists have been getting priced out of Gowanus for as long as I’ve been working there,” said Thornton on “Brooklyn Magazine: The Podcast.” When developers came for Gowanus with an eye toward an historic reshaping of the area around the canal, Thornton made sure the artists had a seat at the table. Working with community leaders and local officials such as Brad Lander (then a city councilor, now the city comptroller), Thornton led the charge in negotiating a community-benefits agreement that will provide 30,000 square feet of highly subsidized studio spaces for artists as well as a community arts center in the new Gowanus.
“With any sort of deal, and as these buildings are getting built, it’s just a lot of oversight,” said Thornton.
Thornton — an artist and gallery co-owner in his own right — is perpetually on the lookout for ways to expand the Arts Gowanus footprint. When the pandemic forced Gowanus Open Studios to skip a year, Thornton organized a Covid-friendly mile- and-a-half-long art walk along Atlantic Avenue. Ten thousand stir-crazy locals came out in the middle of a pandemic to take in some art. He’s currently working on reprising it at a bigger scale this year.
In April, the group co-presented “Brooklyn Utopias: Along the Canal,” a multisite exhibition that explored what a “utopia” in Gowanus would look like. “I see art as this place that grows community and gets people from all walks of life having a conversation,” Thornton said.
Which is not to say he expects the area around the canal to turn into some kind of Shangri-La overnight.
“I’m never happy,” he said. “[In] New York City and Brooklyn, it’s very difficult to be an artist. It’s very difficult to find affordable work space. I’m always fighting for more. That’s kind of my motto: More.”
Thornton, who grew up in apartheid South Africa before moving to the United States, credits his drive to a kidney illness that left him practically bedridden for a decade. “I don’t like being bored,” he said.