The Mallification of Brooklyn’s Creative Makers

This website has no affiliation to the abruptly shuttered, mismanaged Williamsburg arts complex 3rd Ward, nor did we hold memberships or have relationships with anyone on staff. This is an opinion from afar. If you have not read about this yet, well, read Hyperallergic or let me google that for you.

I’m just going to say it. What happened at 3rd Ward is a symptom of the capitalist corporate structure’s imposition upon the creative arts economy in Brooklyn over the last decade and change. My perch is unique in this arts economy – which includes entrepreneurial journalistic endeavors such as this site, which I own independently – as sites like mine have all popped up to cover what we see before us, but not all have remained completely advertiser free.

“Is it scalable?” is the question that I’m asked constantly by marketers and VC types about this site. The arts complexes, artist markets and blog survivors over time are the ones who have adopted a certain type of corporate structure, and worked with venture capitalist investors, marketers and banks to finance and attain scale. (For the record, I have rejected this model.)

This all relates to 3rd Ward because across all industries here, everybody is obsessed with scale. How big can you make it? It’s a very phallic goal. I always wonder, what does it matter how big it is, if it means that it won’t work properly, or is the opposite of what you intended? I’ve learned that attaining scale in the VC world is just another way of asking, ‘how can you take away the original goals of your good idea, and make it all about money?’

“In the last three months, the place was empty but it looked amazing,” said Ryan OConnor, who taught sculpture at Third Ward for four years.

Within the past year, Third Ward raised its membership and class prices and stopped offering lab or work hours with classes, driving craftspeople and pupils away in droves, and all the while putting investor money into renovations, O’Connor said.

Scale obsession means that a very popular arts manufacturing complex went from inviting people in and making it accessible, to giving members less for their money even if their space looked nicer. This is how it comes down to ignoring the original base in favor of advice from marketers who look at memberships as “products” and think scaling to another city is a valiant goal no matter the cost or original intentions. Not to mention a pair of vacation homes at the opposite end of the island for the leader of the pack.

But what does scale get you if you can’t in fact hold onto what you wanted in the first place? Unless of course what 3rd Ward founder Jason Goodman ultimately wanted was a pair of vacation homes, which very well might be the case. I don’t know him, and he has never returned my emails.

That 3rd Ward was popular and active for so many years did not come from the profit margin seekers – it came from a community of people who loved and populated the place because it meant something to them.

Groupon had the problem of scale in a very public way, and still does without its founder running things. I spoke with a former employee, who asked me after leaving the company, “What other choice did we have, other than to try to own the entire market?”

AKA how big can you make it? This mentality had Groupon chasing down and buying inflated minor copycats the world over, bringing their attention far from the original purpose of helping small businesses connect at scale. They forgot whose scale for which they were working. It is the age-old quandary of whether growth is best served from the bottom up, or the top down. The way venture capitalists do business has an absolute answer for that: they like to be on top.

In the case of 3rd Ward it means that they were setting up shop in Philadelphia also, taking the focus away from what the purpose of his facility was: a platform to support artist’s needs in Brooklyn. That an arts entrepreneur could afford a pair of houses in Montauk for $700,000 is baffling to me. I will never understand how one takes so much capital out of the arts economy in Brooklyn and gives less than nothing back. From my view it looks like that is put in motion when community leaders start focusing on things with a view from the top. Ironically, the last tweet from the @3rdwardbrooklyn account was a response on October 4 that said, “Thx for being a fan! We hope we can be in Vancouver one day!”

When I see projects scaling up and out with venture capitalist investor money it’s usually with the attitude that the big money injection will fix the problems and accomplish all the goals that the meager founding team couldn’t accomplish themselves. Sometimes that’s true, but only if the goals don’t shift to their inverse and they forget about the high value of their human capital and scale with narrow financial goals, which seems to be the case with 3rd Ward.

I didn’t think anything of it at the time, but earlier this year I was at an event for the MIT Enterprise Forum at Rockefeller Center, when a middle aged man in clear crisis mode (soul patch, no tie) from Oracle started up a conversation with me. When he found out that I run this site he asked, predictably, “is it scalable?” That question was followed by, “Do you know the 3rd Ward?”

He went on to tell me that I know what’s cool if I know what 3rd Ward is, though it sounded more like he was convincing himself of that fact. I thought it was funny that knowing about the existence of the first Google hit for “artists in Brooklyn” would make him feel like he was holding hands with the avant garde. Likely, he had just read about the financing for whatever deals were popping up at the time.

The current mallification of creative culture here means that VC-ordained people like Goodman hand in their DIY leadership credentials the day they begin to be landlords. The scaling up from the top is where the selling out happens, even with good intentions of providing more space to more artists with more equipment. That is the precise moment at which your good intentions turn to greedy ones, denial kicks in, and in comes the financing, the bankers, the lawyers, and then through all that BIG PERSONAL SACRIFICE, the struggle, that selfless, noble struggle, one does need to relax somewhere comfortable. Nobody is going to tell you otherwise.

I worry for my fellow makers living in this borough, at this time. The David Byrne piece is still resonating. Patti Smith’s advice to get out of town still eats at me a little. If we are to continue to exist here, and energize our work with the bright lights of this city, where will we go? What will we do? How do we organically and horizontally band together in this time?

The maker community, local arts and journalism all intersect organically and the connections that we have locally and with the world in our creative dialogue are things that can’t happen when the focus is on scale, and solely for profit. There is a volunteer spirit, a deep unmovable passion, and the happiness and energy that surrounds work that is local, loved, focused and goal oriented outside of the overlord of scale.

Is it possible to find a human scale for Brooklyn’s creative makers? One that doesn’t turn our entrepreneurs, food makers, musicians, visual artists, photographers, graphic designers, builders and sculptors into a mall of servants of 1% creative needs, entertainers for tourists, artists as home decorators? Or make us slaves to the “cheaper rents” at 1000 Dean Street – only $30 per square foot, cheaper than DUMBO! Brought to you by “a joint venture between Brownstoner, BFC Partners and the Goldman Sachs Urban Investment Group.”

Is everyone too busy trying to pay the rent?

Nicole Brydson Written by:

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