Q&A

Signal's Closing Reveals Both the Problems & Potential Solutions Facing Brooklyn's Galleries: A Q&A with the Director

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Signal's Closing Reveals Both the Problems & Potential Solutions Facing Brooklyn's Galleries: A Q&A with the Director
A still from a video by Fluct, exhibited at Signal March 23 - May 6, 2018. Image via Signal.

Last week, Signal, a project space in Bushwick founded in 2012, announced its closing. The gallery has been a staple of the Brooklyn art scene for the past six and a half years, producing ambitious shows by emerging artists, some of which propelled those artists towards success and opportunity elsewhere. For instance, Signal worked with Meriem Bennani on a two-person show with Hayden Dunham in 2014, and again (on a solo show) in 2015. The later exhibition was reviewed in the New York Times, among others. Since, the Moroccan-born multi-media artist has had solo exhibitions at MoMA PS1, Art Dubai, and The Kitchen in New York.

The gallery's openings draw big crowds of mostly artists, and the gallery has functioned not only as a place in which to discover and experience art by emerging artists but also as a space for community and socializing. Bonfires in the gallery's backyard give their openings a welcoming glow, as do their occasional pay-what-you-can dinner parties, open to all.

Signal gallery in Bushwick, Brooklyn. Works by Jordan Casey. Image via Signal.

When Signal announced they would close, they offered few details. These types of announcements have been almost common in the past couple of years, though they typically come from mid-tier galleries located in the Lower East Side, and not from the scrappy and lean artist-run project spaces that pepper Bushwick and its surrounding Brooklyn neighborhoods. Many theorized that, though they generate significantly less money than mid-tier galleries, project spaces (which don't invest in representing artists but instead work with a rotating cast of artists who consign their works for several-month periods, and which most likely occupy cheaper spaces outside of Manhattan) were somewhat immune from the precarity and risk of closure facing mid-tier galleries. Signal's closing shows that this is far from the case: project spaces struggle to keep their doors open, but perhaps, they're also in the best position to adapt to new survival strategies that could benefit the community as a whole.

Here, we talk to Signal's co-founder Kyle Jacques about why Signal closed, about what it means for a project space to "professionalize," and about how collectivizing might be the answer for young exhibition spaces hoping to stay afloat.

Signal's final farewell celebration is Friday, November 2nd, and starts at 9pm. 

How did Signal start?

Signal was started in 2012 by me, Alexander Johns, and Mckenzie Ursch. Alexander was working for an art publisher at the time, and I was doing mostly interior design. We were considering getting a studio together, but as we started looking for a space, this energy sort of picked up and we decided to start an art gallery. We wanted to do it in Bushwick, which is where we both were living, but we wanted it to look different than most of the other galleries that were there at the time, which were some version of tall-bike-Burning Man, with everything neon and duct-taped.

We ended up stumbling upon our space. At the time, it was a rug storage facility. We did some hard and fast renovations and opened our first show June 1st of 2012, which was a site-specific, minimalist, sort of Brutalist installation called "Atlas" by Bennet Schlesinger, and convinced our friend McKenzie to move back from Seattle and join us.

Financially, how did you make Signal work?

Rent was so cheap. It was less than half of what we’re paying today. The space was super undervalued, probably because it had been a storage space for so long and because it’s across the street from a concrete plant. Alex moved into a small room there, while I took the $500 that I was paying for a studio and began putting it into this project. We also asked artists to cover the costs of their materials and shipping and kept our overhead extremely low. The space never had air conditioning.

Buying and selling art was never part of it for us. It took one year before anyone to buy anything. We just didn’t expect to make money—especially with the exhibitions we were showing, which often had very few purchasable objects. Whenever I’d listen to interviews with different entrepreneurs, the thing I would always laughingly come back to is our “business plan”: it made zero sense. There were few ways for money to come in, but many ways for it to leave. Because we started the gallery younger than other gallerists in our generation, it was almost like those extra couple years of being naive and out of our minds was what gave us a leg up for a while. But we didn’t have that extra period to think like, “How should we structure this as an actual business?” because we never expected it to be one.

What challenges did you face and how did they lead to Signal’s closure?

As we broadened our scope––to paintings, objects you could purchase––we realized that, instead of pooling our money or renting out the gallery for a rave, we could actually make money selling art. So, from 2014 onwards, we began thinking, “Ok, let’s get into an art fair, let’s find actual collectors to reach out to, let’s really try to professionalize this thing and make money. This seems to be what other galleries do."

But professionalizing meant spending a lot more. We did an art fair in 2017 in which we shelled out $15,000 and sold one thing for $1,500. And everyone was asking us, “Did you sell art? Did you make a profit?” We didn’t, even though the booth had really incredible works by really incredible artists. The formula didn't work for us.

At that point, we were just trying to stay afloat. Our rent had officially doubled. We were transitioning from being kids in our twenties to slowly turning thirty and it was getting harder to just dive into projects. Putting money into a show and knowing that in six weeks, we’d have to spend even more money to trash it… the cycle stopped feeling worth it. There was pressure to professionalize even further. As recently as February, we were considering getting a space in Manhattan, developing a full-time roster, making more time to reach out to collectors and go to events.

While we were still evaluating things, I would reach out to other gallerists and would get the same advice: “This could really work, but you have to be prepared to take out a $100,000 loan, and maybe in ten years, you’ll make it back.” But why would I keep spending time on the business end when I wasn’t excited by or necessarily good at it? Why would I invest even more money when I’d never wanted to interact with art and artists via a professionalized gallery? I don’t want to be making PDFs or talking with people who don’t respect artists.

Once we stopped trying to be a sales-based business, we realized we’d succeeded more than we’d ever thought possible in 2012. It was beautiful interpersonally, we still all have amazing relationships, and it was like, why don’t we call it when it feels good?

Are most galleries at your level are facing similar issues?

Yes. I don’t know anyone who’s just like… making a lot of money right now. When I started quietly telling other gallerists that Signal was closing, I felt like the guy in the factory who’s like, “Hey, you all know there’s an unlocked door here, right? We can leave whenever we want.”

Do you, personally or collectively, want to keep curating in a different capacity?

I think we’re both going to pause and collect ourselves. This has been our lives for six and a half years. We need to figure out who we are without Signal. I think we will inevitably go on to work with artists.

How do you think the landscape for small and mid-tier galleries will change in the next five to ten years?

Spaces will continue to get smaller and move farther away from the center of the city. I would really hope that people exist less in this middle-ground of being young and scrappy and then trying to put on this cheap suit and tie and be a salesperson to just… be more ridiculous. The best show I’ve seen all year was by this artist David Kirschoff. He did a show that was entirely suspended from a crane out on the Newtown Creek. And it was real, and it was a moment. And there wasn’t a press release. It was just a happening. I’d prefer to see more things like that, for the people running it but especially for the artists. Or, if you’re going to play around with people’s lives and careers, just get a bunch of money early on. But overall, I don’t understand how the system is going to keep working.

Could galleries collectivize or unionize?

Totally. One of my regrets is that I only reached out to my peers seriously and explicitly about what we were going through this past year. But those conversations are critical! At one point I started wondering, should Signal actually be a consortium? Instead of individuals or small groups trying to battle these giants alone, why don’t we create our own mini corporate structure with three, five, ten galleries as a force willing to share that projector, share that client list? I really do think the only way for people to make it through the first five, ten years of their gallery is to work much more closely together. There are only so many art collectors, and if we were all better about being like, “Wow, your show is incredible, let me put you in touch with a guy,” with no expectation of trying to make a buck off your friend, things would be easier for everyone.

Why hasn’t that happened already? I imagine that it’s more difficult to collectivize when you aren’t in a single space, organizing against one concrete enemy. In this case, everything is more dispersed.

If you’re the kind of person who’s doing your own thing, it’s probably because you didn’t want to work for or with other people. It’s a self-selective group of individuals who want to do things their own way. You want to maintain what’s special about your space. But in terms of resource-sharing, I don’t know. It seems so obvious. Especially since we’re all friends. We all have each other’s contact info. Although I do think that people are working together more out of necessity, and also because, emotionally, having that collective support is so important.

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