After a decade in Long Island City, Local Project searches for a new home


| aaltman@queenscourier.com |

Carolina Penafiel-16

PHOTO BY ORESTES GONZALEZ

At the edge of Long Island City, where warehouses haunt like rusty fossils of an industrial past, obscured by the elevated subway tracks, street art fights for survival.

Encircled in graffiti-wrapped sarcophagi, the low brow legacy of Local Project and 5Pointz await doomsday, untouched by the sterile glass high-rises that erupt from the ground almost monthly — for now, at least.

It’s only a matter of time before the building they share becomes nothing more than piles of scrap metal and drywall dust. Several months ago, the space’s owner announced plans to sell the warehouse to a builder who would turn the space into luxury condominiums – “yuppie projects,” scoff the locals. Local Project, a space for emerging artists to nurture their craft and connect with the public, that shares a building with graffiti holy land 5Pointz, must depart their home in search of new prospects.

Carolina Penafiel, a part-time food stylist and Local Project’s founder, moved to New York from Chile 13 years ago in pursuit of her American Dream.

“I wanted to live like in the movies,” she said.

Penafiel began her career as an artist, but a bad experience during a group show changed her mind. It took too much to be an artist, to open her work to the masses, resting on talent and believing in the message behind her art. Even the title “artist” felt wrong.

“I’ve always done exactly what I’ve set myself to do,” said Penafiel. “Thankfully, I’ve always gotten where I’ve wanted to go.”

Instead, she focused on her administrative skills, training as an independent curator. She fell in love with the process of putting together a show, nurturing artists and watching them develop. One show called “Hot in Hell’s Kitchen,” held at the Fountain Gallery – a center for those struggling with mental illness. The exhibit told stories from the iconic Manhattan neighborhood. Visitors stuck notes to the wall, scribbled with memories from Hell’s Kitchen – “I got drunk,” “I met my ex,” “I kissed somebody.”

Penafiel’s shows center around creating community rather than bringing culture to high society. Local Project’s doctrine of art for the people allows her to build bridges – the most rewarding part of her job. Instead of judging artists based on reputation, Local Project celebrates unknown entities on the rise. Each resident artist is required to spend 40 hours in the building during their two week stint, creating a setting where visitors can dip into the work organically.

Local Project draws tourists from around the world. One artist, keeping tabs on the gallery’s visitors, had a person from every livable continent come see his show in a single day.

“That’s what makes us different from other spaces,” Penafiel said. “You get to come in and talk to the artists. How cool is that?”

Artists of all mediums present in the space. Every Saturday, a DJ spins for a crowd who dance and chat, huddled together in the chilly space. They host video festivals, including one of exclusively horror films before Halloween where the audience dresses as zombies and four times a year, emerging musicians play acoustic sets in a series called “Music under the 7.” Penafiel said they do as much as they can – as much as everyone wants to do.

But now, everything needs to go somewhere else.

They have begun searching for a new space – a topic not easily broached among the staff, unhappy about the move. For years, rumors of the demise of the building on Davis Street swirled. Now they are coming true.

It’s happening all too much in New York City – art institutions knocked down in favor of bourgeoisie-friendly entities. Penafiel mentioned DUMBO, formerly raw, now spotless and new like a suburban art fair.

“Unfortunately, we, the ones who helped bring [LIC] to that level are not the ones that live there or have stores there,” said Penafiel. “That’s just life I guess. I don’t know what’s going to happen in Long Island City.”