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Container, Container, 2016. Ikebana flower arrangements by Yoshie Takahashi and students with ceramics by Marc Isaacs. Photo courtesy of Fastnet. 

Rents Are Too Damn High, Hence the Rise of the Micro Gallery

Rahel Aima

Your icebox is an alternative space!

Container, Container, 2016. Ikebana flower arrangements by Yoshie Takahashi and students with ceramics by Marc Isaacs. Photo courtesy of Fastnet. 

It’s late, you’ve just stumbled home, and all you want to do is nuke your frozen burrito. But you open the microwave and see a supersized cross-section of the human epidermis, replete with tufts of hair. Now imagine you’re a cat. You enter your carpeted ecru tower to find busty Egyptian cat goddess Bastet posing like a 1950s pinup, or a two-headed, epoxied sedan warming itself in front of a flickering fire. No, you’re not tripping out. These are just a few of the visions you’ll have should you dip into the new wave of alternative, tiny art spaces that have opened up around New York in the past few years—a trend that is, unsurprisingly, concurrent with the rapid momentum of commercial gallery closings.

Let’s start with Custom Program, a broken, wall-mounted microwave located in an apartment in Greenpoint. The initiative’s founders, Rachel Vera Steinberg and Sophie Tusler Byerley, explain: “We realized that this situation resulted in the waste of a perfectly good white cube, and the idea of an alternative gallery space was born.... People warm to the idea pretty quickly!” The rotation of their programming—“the timer resets every 4-6 weeks”—extends the irradiant theme (one past exhibition addressed US military heat rays), while satellite shows take place in the staff microwaves at other cultural establishments, such as the Artist’s Institute.

Philip Hinge similarly transposes the form of the white cube—though not its ideological underpinnings—to a cat tree in Ridgewood’s Catbox Contemporary. Years spent in liminal living situations meant that his cat and her furniture were always in close proximity to his art, and now he’s aiming to marry this collision of aesthetics. “Part of the live/work situation is maximizing the space you do have. So it seemed natural to try and make the cat-sized room in the cat-tree functional by transforming it into a project space for artists,” he says.

That sedan, and god knows what else, in Christine Navin's exhibition “The Empire State Building Has No Roof” at Catbox Contemporary.

Then there’s an office column in a Midtown auction house, cheekily named Off White Columns in a nod to the venerable alternative space White Columns. Founder Jason Osborne enthuses, “There’s a lot of great unrecognized work out there, and not a lot of places to show. Making a little corner of the world to show it in seems okay, however small or tiny.” Off White Columns isn’t the only exhibition platform alighting on pillars of heavy industry, though: there’s also Cooler Gallery, which inhabits a repurposed industrial icebox in the Brooklyn Navy Yard; Fastnet, a retrofitted shipping container currently located in Staten Island; and Lock Up International, a “transient project space in storage units worldwide.” The prevalence of initiatives like this semaphores a familiar tale of rent versus resources in an increasingly unaffordable city, but dispensing with the usual degrees of overhead also allows for a rare flexibility that levels the playing field between artist and gallery.

Then again, given recent events in Los Angeles—not to mention Real Estate in Greenpoint, which outrageously doubles as a brokerage firm—it’s worth considering these venues in terms of their role in urban gentrification too. “Making use of unused space was definitely a factor, as was not taking over space that is better serving the community in other ways,” the team behind Custom Program says. “Ridgewood is quickly feeling the effects of gentrification. While it’s a concern, I think the means and low-budget attitude behind Catbox help project its earnestness, and separate it from a gallery that’s trying to find a way to make the gallery model profitable again by capitalizing on new money in the community,” Philip adds. There’s no question of feline displacement, however. She’s “very respectful of shows and is convinced this is all done to enhance her life (which isn’t all wrong). I’d have a hard time repurposing her space if she really hated it.”