|Should you go?|
|Time spent||32 minutes|
|Best thing I saw or learned||Terrance Lindall’s “Carried Away by Night” typifies his fantastical, surreal, Bosch-ish work.|
Close to the Brooklyn side of the Williamsburg Bridge, though somewhat far from the trendier parts of Williamsburg, stands the impressive, imposing Kings County Savings Bank building, which dates to 1867.Since 1996, the building, in a charmingly shabby state today, has served as the home of the Williamsburg Art and Historical Center (or “WAH Center”), a moderately sized gallery space on its second floor.
Yuko Nii is a Japanese artist who has lived in the U.S. since the early 1960s. As she tells the story on the WAH Center website, she dreamed of creating an arts institution that could serve as a metaphorical bridge between people, between artists and the community, and between Brooklyn and the world.
Fortuitously, she discovered that the Kings County Savings Bank building was for sale (at a time when Williamsburg real estate was, I imagine, still fairly cheap). And so Nii’s Williamsburg Arts and Historical Center ended up just a stone’s throw from the Williamsburg Bridge — a metaphor realized in steel.
Although it’s now over 20 years old, the Williamsburg Art and Historical Center still feels like a very young institution. Only a single floor of the building is open to the public, so there’s the potential for it to be far larger and more ambitious than it is.
That said, it has managed to endure and even thrive in a low-key way, holding regular art exhibits and events. It put on something like nine shows in 2017, including a mix of local and international artists.
WAHt’s Going On?
You don’t enter the WAH Center through the front door, but rather the side entrance, ascending a flight of industrial, unimpressive stairs. Past a defunct Macintosh and the box that its replacement came in, along with assorted other WAH discardables, you reach the door of the gallery. It’s classic New York art space, with super-high ceilings, elegant columns, large windows, and a time-darkened, probably original, hardwood floor.
I visited to see the 19th Annual WAH Salon Show, jam-packed with the work of about 70 artists, mainly based in Brooklyn/Williamsburg. The show combined painting, photography, sculpture, and a couple of video pieces as well. Artists included spanned a wide array of skill and interestingness.
I appreciated the exuberance and eclectic-ness. Including, even, a 30-minute abstract video piece in 3D, complete with cardboard glasses. 3D abstract video is an art medium whose time has not, and may never, come.
There was also a small show of the work of Terrance Lindall, whom WAH Center will feature in a larger exhibition later in 2018. Although at best Bosch-lite, I still liked his strange, surreal takes on fabulous and fairy tale iconography.
Should you WAHnder to the Williamsburg Art & Historical Center?
WAH Center has an odd location; the center of hipster Williamsburg is about 15 minutes’ walk north on Bedford Boulevard. That said, it you happen to be crossing the Williamsburg Bridge on foot, bike or by car, it’s right there. It’s also convenient to the J, M, and Z trains.
My larger qualm about the WAH Center is that it feels like a vanity project. It’s less a serious museum/gallery than a venue for Yuko Nii, the founder, and Terrance Lindall, the co-director and chief administrator, to show off their work. Isamu Noguchi deserves a museum. Nicholas Roerich deserves a museum. Yuko Nii, I’m not so sure about. The Salon show featured artist members of the WAH Center, which explains both the quantity and the breadth of quality of the work. It’s a pay-to-play exhibition.
Granted, Salon membership is only $50-65 per year from what I can tell online. So it’s not a high barrier to entry for most artists. I talked with Jeff Watts, who was minding the place and whose photography is in the Salon show. He seemed to genuinely like the community of fellow artists at WAH Center, and enjoyed talking with me about his and his friends’ work. Still, it undermines the institution’s objectivity and authority.
To sum up, the WAH Center has a ton of unrealized potential. Fully restored and opened up, its landmark building could be one of Brooklyn’s premiere art venues. But realizing it probably requires someone else running the place. It’s worth dropping by if you’re in Williamsburg, but it doesn’t justify a special trip.
|Address||135 Broadway (at Bedford Avenue), Williamsburg, Brooklyn|
|Cost||General Admission: Free ($7 donation optional)|
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