It wasn’t long ago that artists setting up shop in North Brooklyn were considered visionaries (or crazy depending on who you asked). Back in those heady days, at the turn of the 21st century, collectors would now and again venture into the neighborhood to visit one of its burgeoning art galleries, vaguely aware of others in the area, clueless where to find them.
In 2001, Daniel Aycock, who had been running Roebling Street’s Front Room Gallery the prior two years, saw the need for a neighborhood gallery guide (with maps for the uninitiated). At that time, new Williamsburg arrival Jill McDermid was curating a show called the 21st Suffragettes, for which she had convinced several neighborhood galleries to exclusively exhibit women’s art. Recognizing her skill at coordinating with the different galleries, Aycock approached McDermid with his idea, and following a meeting at Broadway’s Diner, WAGMAG (Williamsburg and Greenpoint Monthly Arts Guide) began.
There were around 25 galleries in North Brooklyn when WAGMAG launched. The first issue was four pages (really a legal-size paper, printed on both sides and folded in half): a full page map on the front, two pages of gallery listings and a list of openings and events along with advertisers on the back. “It was a pretty humble beginning,” recalled Kathleen Vance, Aycock’s co-director at Front Room and his wife (the two met in 2001 at one of the 21st Suffragettes shows). “It was just a way to get people to see what was happening in the neighborhood as far as the arts.”
As the Brooklyn art scene evolved, so did WAGMAG. From four pages it grew into a thicker color pamphlet and eventually the magazine it is today. In 2009, they dropped their tagline in favor of “Brooklyn Monthly Arts Guide” and now support more than 14 artist communities and over 120 galleries throughout the borough. McDermid no longer works day-to-day at WAGMAG, though she sits on its board. She still lives in Williamsburg and runs Grace Exhibition Space in Bushwick. Aycock and Vance do the day-to-day, relying on interns and volunteers for production.
They also rely on an annual fundraiser to cover their expenses, since the magazine is free and galleries don’t pay to be listed. They manage to generate some revenues from advertising and small grants as well. “It’s always such a struggle,” Vance said. “Every month, it’s like ‘Are we going to be able to produce the next issue?’ The benefit is a big part of how we pay to put out WAGMAG.”
For this year’s event, which takes place next Tuesday, May 21st, Aycock, Vance and their Benefit Committee will raffle off around 150 works of art donated by the galleries they support. More than just a regular raffle, it’s a showcase of the different types of artwork shown throughout Brooklyn. “All the donated artwork is on the wall,” Aycock explained. “When the first winning ticket is picked, the person called can choose anything that’s on the wall and our art handlers take it down immediately. The next winner has a choice of what’s still on the wall. It’s really a fun, kind of circus-y atmosphere.”
That atmosphere derives from WAGMAG’s first benefit, Vance explained. “We didn’t have a P.A. system, so one of our friends brought one of those cheerleader cones – a megaphone, but not amplified in any kind of way,” she recalled. “It was kind of like ‘so what do we have?’ But everyone came together to make it work.” The event has come a long way, with drink sponsors, such as BOE Wines, Brooklyn Brewery and Pernod Absinthe and food provided by the Munchie Mobile. Several other local businesses donated items for gift bags.
“There’s a funny element to it,” Aycock continued. “The art handlers dress up in wigs and sunglasses. When they pull a work off the wall, they hold it up kind of like Vanna White, so everyone gets to see what was picked before it goes to be wrapped. The first time we had the benefit, we built all these props out of necessity and found that they were kind of fun, so we continued with them and tried to ham it up a little more whenever it was possible. One of them is a shop vac connected to a 5 gallon water bottle that we put all the tickets into. Before the drawing, we flip the switch and it blows them around, like with lottery balls. It’s really loud and really funny and it gets everyone’s attention.”
Aycock and Vance have been on the front line of the arts scene explosion in Brooklyn almost from the beginning. When Front Room opened, there were perhaps 15 or 20 galleries in Williamsburg and very few, if any, in the rest of the borough, said Aycock. Today there are about 90. In 1999, there were no galleries in Bushwick. In October 2008 there were six. Now there are about 40, most of which opened in the last year and a half.
“I think all the galleries are super excited to be involved with it,” Vance said. ‘A lot of the galleries in Brooklyn are artist run. A lot of people are doing it out of the love of what they’re presenting and that’s pretty much what WAGMAG itself is about…It’s a labor of love.”
Tickets for the 2013 WAGMAG Benefit start at $20. Admission and a raffle ticket (which guarantees an artwork) costs $200 ($250 after May 14th) and a VIP Preview ticket, which includes access to an exclusive pre-event 90 minutes before doors open to the public, an artwork raffle ticket, admission to the benefit, and a WAGMAG swagbag goes for $350. Tickets are available at http://wagmag2013benefit.eventbrite.com/.
More information about WAGMAG, Brooklyn Art Guide and the annual benefit can be found at http://wagmag.org.
For a walk through of some WAGMAG covers through the years, click here.