DUMBO: Art or Advertisement?

Every fall for the past eighteen years, Brooklyn has hosted a free, public, three day art festival in the DUMBO neighborhood of Brooklyn, or “Down Under the Manhattan Bridge Overpass.” The neighborhood, which changed its name from Fulton Landing to DUMBO in 1978, is known for its impressive waterfront view, overlooking the Manhattan skyline and the Statue of Liberty. It is also known for its newly renovated parks, lawns, basketball courts, and walkways – collectively known as Pier 2. This area is known to welcome tourists, young children, and pets due to its beautiful scenery and grassy areas (dumbonyc.com). This year’s festival took place from Friday, September 26th to Sunday, September 28th.

The art festival is conveniently located a few blocks away from the Pier 2, and “seeks to highlight Brooklyn’s commitment to and presence in the arts community by presenting the best in local, national, and international art amid the breathtaking backdrop of the Brooklyn Bridge and the Manhattan skyline” (dumbonyc.com). Exhibits are set up both inside and outside, allowing the beautiful background scenery to be incorporated into the festival. The indoor exhibitions are either open galleries from independent artists or open spaces that are sectioned off by each artist and their work. The outdoor exhibitions usually consist of either special interest tents or art that uses the street and sidewalk as a part of the display.

“Assumptions” by Jayanthi Moorthy; Picture by Evelyn No

This event is unique because it incorporates audience participation and involvement into the work itself. For example, an indoor exhibition entitled “Assumptions”, created by artist Jayanthi Moorthy, allowed the viewers to write phrases that would be incorporated into the work. Sentences are projected onto the floor, which is covered in red and white colored sand, rice flour, salt, and other fine grains. In front of the exhibit, pen and paper is provided, where the audience members are asked to write down any assumptions they have, on any topic, and place it in the box provided. These words are then used in the projection for the following day. Although there is no direct incentive to participate, this type of installation allows for a greater connection with the piece. An individual’s subjective implications can impact them more, since they were directly incorporated into the artwork. Moorthy also says that through audience participation within the topic of an individual’s assumptions, this allowed for “multiple perspectives for self reflection” (Jaymoorthy.com).  This type of interaction and involvement sets these exhibits apart from other, more traditional art presentations. Art can serve to entertain, but can also encourage contemplation and conversation – giving it a direct purpose.

These experimental exhibits have attracted a wide audience, where the festival boasts to have attracted over “200,000 visitors over 3 days” (dumbonyc.com). However, this fair may have another motive besides displaying art – it serves as free advertising for the real estate and general improvement of this area. According to the DUMBO Arts Festival website, Two Trees, a real estate management company, is a sponsor. This organization owns over $3 billion in real estate in this neighborhood, including the under-construction, water-front homes that are priced $6,018 a month and up (Two Trees). Furthermore, two neighborhood improvement organizations, DUMBO Heights and The DUMBO Improvement District, are involved, with mission statements that include trying “to become [Brooklyn’s] most sought after destination” (DumboHeights). Collectively, these institutions bring about reminders of gentrification, while showing festival-goers that DUMBO is a family-friendly neighborhood through its outdoor exhibits geared towards children. Tents entitled “Kid Zone” were set up in the streets, emphasizing this family-oriented mission. Within these tents were various arts and craft activities to engage children. One tent had a “robot and bug assemblages” station, where random materials, including toilet paper rolls, shoe boxes, pom-poms, popsicle sticks, and glitter glue, could be utilized to create “robots” or “bugs”. This tied in the arts background that DUMBO is known for, while acting as a commercial to show off the resources this neighborhood has.

This notion of having child-centered activities at this festival reflects Lee Edelman’s theory of “futurity”, presented in No Future: Queer Theory and the Death Drive, Edelman’s work focuses on a critique of values centered on the family and children. Edelman argues that “the future” and “the future generations” are overemphasized; everything is given a purpose and direction – even art. These notions are also echoed in the general demographic that resides in the DUMBO area, where gentrified families and individuals live in multi-million dollar homes. This was also seen within the audience of this festival, where most members were seemingly heteronormative families that have two children, a mother, and a father, all happily partaking in the events.

As a whole, the DUMBO Art Festival provides a positive open space where experimental and innovative displays can be shown. At the same time, the audiences’ participation allows the artists to receive a direct and immediate reaction from the audience that a traditional art exhibition could not support. However, the festival is blatantly geared toward gentrification efforts and families with children, fostering a potentially uncomfortable setting and detracting from the artwork itself. Overall, the projects themselves provide incentive for audiences to return yearly, but there should be an extra awareness around the subliminal messages that these corporate sponsors are portraying through this festival.

For additional resources, read Brooklyn’s Bushwick – Urban Renewal in New York, USA: Community, Planning and Sustainable Environments by Raymond Charles Rauscher, 2 Downtown Brooklyn – Brooklyn Heights, Downtown-City Center, DUMBO, Fulton Ferry, Vinegar Hill by Leonard Benardo, and “Development goes DUMBO: two projects will revive derelict, old Civil War-era warehouses and reconnect a neighborhood to its waterfront – and Brooklyn Bridge Park” by Claire Wilson.

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