BMCC’s Shirley Fiterman Art Center finds its voice

Photo by Louis Chan  An installation view from 2014’s “Material Way” exhibit.
Photo by Louis Chan
An installation view from 2014’s “Material Way” exhibit.

BY STEPHANIE BUHMANN  |  New York’s gallery districts have been in constant flux since the 1980s. Whereas 57th St. was the city’s first and main art center for decades, it has shifted multiple times since, most notably to Chelsea beginning in the 1990s. However, due to major developments East and West of the High Line, real estate prices keep soaring, forcing out many galleries who rely on renting their premises. The flood following Hurricane Sandy in 2012 has not helped to encourage art dealers’ trust in the area, remembering how much of their stored inventory was permanently destroyed during those events.

Despite the promising opening of the Whitney Museum’s new building in the nearby Meatpacking District this May, several galleries continue to move away from this tourist-laden district, putting down roots in the Lower East Side, Soho, Uptown or even the Hudson River Valley. As a result, Manhattan’s formerly exclusive focus on one major art district is becoming increasingly diversified.

This trend also applies to Tribeca — which although home to many local artists and their studios, especially since the late 1960s, has never been rich in exhibition venues. In recent years however, smaller newly founded galleries, such as the formidable KANSAS, have sprung up in this neighborhood and more established outfits, such as Postmasters, have moved there from Chelsea.

It seems that although residential developments are in full swing here, some commercial spaces are still affordable enough. In addition, public and semi-public artworks by some of the most prominent contemporary artists add enticing context. Julie Mehretu’s mural at Goldman Sachs (200 West St.), Jenny Holzer’s wall of words in the lobby of 7 World Trade Center, or Jeff Koons’ Balloon Flower (Red) sculpture in the adjacent fountain park are only three examples of several discovery-worthy surprises in the area. In addition, Santiago Calatrava’s incredible World Trade Center PATH station, which is finally coming to life fast, will mark a major new destination — not only for local commuters but also for lovers of architecture and art worldwide.

Photo by Louis Chan  Cater Hodgkin’s “Vortex 2” (2012 | Gouache, Watercolor, inkjet on paper | 44" x 44"). From the “Paper Reveries” exhibit, which closed in Feb. 2015.
Photo by Louis Chan
Cater Hodgkin’s “Vortex 2” (2012 | Gouache, Watercolor, inkjet on paper | 44″ x 44″). From the “Paper Reveries” exhibit, which closed in Feb. 2015.

In close proximity to Calatrava, Holzer and Koons, a promising art venue is beginning to take shape. Located at 81 Barclay St. (at W. Broadway), the Shirley Fiterman Art Center (which belongs to the Borough of Manhattan Community College) has become a destination for interesting group exhibitions and art performances since last fall, although its history reaches back a bit further.

The Art Center was created in honor of Shirley and Miles Fiterman, who donated the original Fiterman Hall in 1993, which was damaged in the 9/11 attacks. The rebuilt Fiterman Hall, which was designed by the architectural firm of Pei Cobb & Partners, officially re-opened on Aug. 27, 2012 — adding a state-of-the-art, 4,000-square foot exhibition space to the area.

Surrounded by the large and small businesses of the Financial District, it is refreshing to find an art venue free to the public, whose main focus is education. In fact, the Art Center was conceived as a link between art and the diverse student body enrolled at BMCC. However, in addition to being a free public platform for contemporary art, it also offers a means to raise funds for student scholarships: 40 percent of the proceeds from works that are sold here will benefit the BMCC Foundation Scholarship Fund, whereas the remaining 60 percent goes directly to the artist.

While working on spreading the word on its exhibition program to a wider public, BMCC also encourages both students and faculty to get involved. Recently, faculty of the English and Art departments have been sending students in for writing assignments and to teach those unfamiliar with art about the unique language it has to offer. Programmatically, contemporary art is the main focus of the Center and it is consciously aiming to present works of various mediums and styles. To assure the quality of its exhibitions, the Art Center hired the New York-based artist Kathleen Kucka as its curator last year.

In addition to putting together thematic group exhibitions, Kucka is also inviting guest curators to realize their own projects. Concepts for the latter are presented to BMCC’s President Antonio Pérez and Elizabeth Butson, who oversee the Art Center’s overall program. “Bringing energy and art to a large gallery space is a challenge,” explains Kucka. “I look for work that will engage BMCC students and which will start a conversation in the art world of New York City.”

Photo by Louis Chan  Curator Kathleen Kucka, speaking at the Art Center.
Photo by Louis Chan
Curator Kathleen Kucka, speaking at the Art Center.

As the Art Center is evolving, both the art community and more of BMCC’s students are taking note. “We are fortunate to have students working in the gallery, explains Kucka, adding, “They help to spread the word and communicate about shows and events.” In this regard it is important to keep the program open to art that reflects a wide variety of interests, tastes and media.

Kucka’s curatorial debut at the gallery came with “Material Way” (Sept. 30–Nov. 26, 2014) an exhibition that took artists’ materials and processes as its main source of inspiration. Fourteen artists were featured, whose practices embraced traditional paint and canvas, but also tables, coffee cups, thread and plastic. In contrast, “Paper Reveries” (Dec.10, 2014–Feb. 9, 2015) focused on no less than 21 eclectic artists who work extensively with paper, albeit in very different ways.

In addition to this exhibition, the Art Center hosted its first art performance piece last month. It was local artist Elena Berriolo who performed, integrating music into visual art. As the gallery was activated by the music of Edith Hirshtal and Rosie Hertlein, a video camera recorded Berriolo sewing on the sewing machine, projecting her actions onto a screen nearby.

When asked what her hopes for the Shirley Fiterman Art Center going forward might be, Kucka noted: “I am excited and encouraged by all the support the gallery has received thus far. I would like to see this momentum continue. We have a roster of engaging shows coming up in the near future. The more diversity in terms of shows, artists and subject matter, the better. Four curated shows a year along with the faculty and student art shows would fill out the schedule nicely.”

The Shirley Fiterman Art Center at BMCC is located at 81 Barclay St. (btw. Broadway & Greenwich St.). Hours: 12–6 p.m. Tues.–Sat. For more info, visit bmcc.cuny.edu.sfac.