Saturday, July 3, 2010

Urban Artisans: A Collective Thrives in Brooklyn

Piotr Redlinski for The New York Times
A bicycle ballet at 3rd Ward, the arts and design collective in Bushwick.
A proclamation from Marty Markowitz, the excitable Brooklyn borough president, is no rarity. But receiving it under the head of a quasianimatronic wolf-creature, while, around the corner, a guy upholsters a seat cushion in brown argyle, and another blends cocktails by bike — that is something special.


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Piotr Redlinski for The New York Times
From left, Brooke Smith, Charlie Mirisola and Jason Goodman.
At a party for its fourth anniversary last month, 3rd Ward, the arts and design collective in Bushwick, received a commendation from Mr. Markowitz for its program giving free bicycles to members. But 3rd Ward hardly needed the boost: hundreds of people had come to its brightly painted labyrinthine space to celebrate. Outside were bands and burgers; inside there were demonstrations of screen-printing, woodworking, weaving, designing jewelry and welding, as well as vodka-spiked strawberry lemonade. (A bike was powering the blender.)
Since its inception, 3rd Ward has become something of a D.I.Y. utopia. When Jason Goodman, 31, and his partner, Jeremy Lovitt, 30, conceived of it, it was as a continuation of the facilities and atmosphere they had had as students at the School of the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston: a grown-up art campus. Instead 3rd Ward has evolved into an art and design incubator, where members pay a fee for access to wood and metal shops, photo studios, media labs and other spaces. It attracts hobbyists and professionals alike, as well as dabblers who sign on for a class at a time. As a one-stop network for the creative set, it has managed to be profitable even in a down economy, with annual revenues of about $1.5 million, Mr. Goodman said. It has expanded to a second location, in Williamsburg, and, as of this month, opened a restaurant, Goods, out of a converted trailer nearby.
As a model for the development of a creative business sector, 3rd Ward has attracted attention from other entrepreneurs, community leaders and cities. Six months ago Mr. Goodman and Mr. Lovitt were finally able to quit their day jobs as freelance designers and contractors to focus on 3rd Ward full time.
“We’ve changed a lot,” Mr. Goodman said. “When we opened, because we came from art backgrounds, we were thinking, like, artist, artist, artist, but really it’s like designer, designer, designer, artist. We have way more inventors, furniture makers, cabinet makers, commercial photographers, hackers, than we do what you would originally conceive of like an artist.”
Their success came in identifying a market and tailoring to it. “The industry here that’s really exploding right now, and it’s really underserved, is this freelancing creative industry,” Mr. Goodman said.
Chiun-Kai Shih, 34, creative editor for Condé Nast China, has been a 3rd Ward member for three years, commuting there several times a month from his home on the Upper West Side. He parks his assistant there full time; hired a 24-year-old woodworking teacher, Becky Carter, to build sets for a photo shoot; and, more than a studio, considers 3rd Ward a resource for young talent.
“I just went to the front desk and said, ‘Do you know any great graphic designers,’ and they said, ‘Yes, we’ll give you names,’ ” he recalled.
Mr. Shih holds casting sessions there too. “Even supermodels who don’t like to travel for casting, I drag them out to 3rd Ward,” he said — via car service, of course.
In September 2005, when Mr. Goodman and Mr. Lovitt signed a lease on a 20,000-square-foot shell of a warehouse on a desolate block in Bushwick, they had no business plan. By the time they opened their doors in May 2006, nothing had changed. While they built their clientele and space, they sustained themselves by hosting lavish rent parties in partnership with underground promoters.
The raucous till-dawn affairs, with rooftop fire spinners and marching bands in the hallways, often attracted the attention of the police. After about a year, the parties had to end. If you want professionals to come work during the week, Mr. Goodman said, “you can’t trash a place every weekend.”
Not that 3rd Ward has become a party-free zone: it is still home to art receptions, concerts, barbecues and the occasional blowout. (The underground promoter William Etundi is now on the payroll.)


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