When Carmen screamed and her petite figure collapsed with a thud onto the stage of the Roy Arias Theater, a member of the audience, 61-year old Ana Cruz, later said the drama gave her flashbacks to her own experiences as a victim of domestic violence.
The drama, The Death of a Dream, was written by Nancy Génova, who said she was seeking to use it as an educational tool to portray the complexity of domestic violence against women, through the lens of all involved.
According to the National Network to End Domestic Violence, a membership and advocacy organization, one in four women are raped or beaten by a partner during their adult life, and approximately 15. 5 million children are exposed to domestic violence each year. One in six women and one in 33 men have been subjected to attempted rape or rape.
Génova said she first began thinking about writing the play in 2001, because of her experience as a social worker and as a victim, for more than 20-years, of domestic abuse. She said she had intended it to be an education tool that would capture the complexity of domestic violence, and show that it is necessary to understand all the variables involved in domestic violence when trying to solve it.
So, she attempted to write for the audience a passageway into the minds of the victim, the witnesses and the perpetrator.
“You can’t grow up to become so aggressive and violent without having had severe childhood trauma,” Génova said of perpetrators, adding that often times abusers replay the emotions they felt while being traumatized and act on them.
And victims often remain in these unhealthy and dangerous situations, to the frustration of social workers who must make an average of eight intervention referrals before a woman usually abandons an abusive relationship. The playwright said she sought to explain such behavior,
“This is about co-dependency as a kind of drug. It’s so difficult to disengage, you become addicted to each other,” she said.
Though the play has now found a home on the main stage, Génova still wants to see the play used as a teaching tool. She hopes to begin taking it to colleges soon. She said she wishes domestic violence education, like HIV-education, would start in grade school.
“When they’re little, they think that’s how it is,” she said, about those children witnessing abusive behavior in their own homes. “They need to recognize that even if they are witnessing it, it is not correct.”
In the play, Carmen is portrayed by April Hernández-Castillo, one of three members of the all-female cast with Caridad De La Luz as Margie and Rhina Valentín as Martha.
For Valentín, learned behavior is one of many thematic threads in this intricate drama, and it is one that she says makes the work more about humanity than about domestic violence.
“If you are familiar with a certain behavior, it becomes normal,” she said matter-of-factly.
That’s what Cruz’s flashbacks brought to mind: that she thought it was a normal part of her duty as a wife when her husband would tie her up and penetrate her anus.
“I used to scrub myself [after the act]. I did not know I was being raped. Three times I tried to kill myself,” she said. “When April fell on the floor and started screaming, I thought I was gonna scream with her.”
She paused and added, “I forgive him, I am a Christian now. I’m a survivor. That’s what matters.”
De La Luz hopes that this work will help more women recognize negativity, even when it is disguised as love, and that it teaches the public that even though abuse is commonplace, it is unacceptable. She is the only cast member who has not been a direct victim of domestic violence, though she has seen family members struggle with the problem. She explained that she found it particularly challenging to lose herself to Margie, a character who is “so far” from who she really is. Yet Margie now lives through her, because “women are dying out there.” She added that though the process and the tears are grueling for her, it is not nearly as grueling as what a woman’s life is like under conditions of domestic violence.
“If I could change one woman’s mind about how beautiful she is, and important she is, then it’s worth it,” she said.
The high quality of the acting received particular praise from the audience. Vanessa Ortiz, 22, said it took her from being on the outside to seeing the inside of the situation. A bishop from a Bronx-based church, Ángelo Rosario, described it as a very realistic piece about an everyday real-life occurrence.
Responding to queries about the unbelievably believable scene where Carmen screams and crashes into the ground, Valentín said
“It’s real. That’s not faking it.”
For Hernández-Castillo, it is her most rewarding moment as Carmen.
“I know I am screaming for all the women who can’t,” she said, having composed herself from her performance.
“It’s like that Ike and Tina moment when she punches him back. That’s it! You can’t do this to me no more! I am free,” she said.
Hernández-Castillo hopes that until the play closes on November 8, women leave the theater knowing that they don’t have to tolerate abuse, because there is a way out.
“God created us and we’re beautiful women. There’s a way out all day every day,” she said.
Valentín said she hopes that the play will inspire people to go a step beyond being a victim, or even a survivor to asking themselves
“What are you going to do, today, about it?”
Two decades ago, when Jersey City was nicknamed “Kill City,” crime was high and rents were low. Struggling artists, willing to settle in declining neighborhoods for ample space at affordable prices, moved into vacant factories and turned empty floors into working studios.
The gentrification cycle of Downtown Jersey City had begun. Galleries soon opened. Then real estate developers followed with plans for gleaming condominium towers and ambitious rehabilitation projects.
Now, almost 19 years since local artists first began the Jersey City Artists Studio tour, some artists and curators said they are feeling squeezed out by rising rents and the growing demand of expensive real estate development. They complain that city officials are not offering much support, taking control of (and credit for) many of the art scene’s most impressive achievements.
Orlando Reyes, 40, director of Gallery 58, cited the recent tour – a weekend-long city-wide event involving almost 100 locations- as an example. He said it is no longer run by artists or for local artists.
“It’s a real estate scam,” Reyes said, pointing out that over time the city has taken control of the tour and shifted the focus away from the art community to promote overall economic development and real estate development. He noted the tour is now sponsored by financial institutions, including Goldman Sachs, Bank of America and Capital One.
Reyes, who has run his gallery for seven years, said that there have been fewer visits to working studios in recent years, in part because real estate companies now organize art shows inside their latest condo developments – shows in which the visitor is directed to walk through a model apartment for sale first before entering the gallery.
He sees independent venues like his being sidelined, deliberately ignored, and, at times, even harassed.
Comedian Melissa Surach, 28, said local police insisted on ending one of her performances at Gallery 58 at 4 p.m. on a Saturday because the gallery didn’t have an entertainment license. The event, organized with Grace Van Vorst Church, was a fundraiser to help feed the city’s homeless.
John Fathom, 33, artist and building manager at Rock Soup Studios, says that the city’s policy has been to “let the artists do all the work and then take all the credit.”
Not all artists are critical of the city. Director of Art House Productions Christine Goodman defends the City Cultural Affairs Department.
“Our experience is that the city absolutely supports the arts,” said Goodman. The problem, she insists, is the lack of resources: space, material, and funds.
The city continues to promote its commitment to the arts with posters in PATH train stations advertising city-led development initiatives with a purportedly cultural focus. The biggest such project centers around The Powerhouse, a historical landmark building which is being restored after a $3.2 million contribution from the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey. The building is meant to be the center of an arts district several years in the making, but the area’s history is already a sore spot with many local artists.
The moment many people recall as the turning point in the city’s relationship to its art community came in 2004 when the decision was made to demolish a massive artist loft downtown that had housed galleries, studios and learning space.
It was called the 111 Building, and it looms large in the memories of most long-term resident artists in Jersey City. It was one of the only cultural centers in the area while the city went through its rough period in the ’90s. Many trace their beginnings in the art scene to it.
In 1995, the city established WALDO, the Work and Live Overlay District. Part of the charter was that 10 percent of work/live units be reserved for artists at a discount. In 2002 the city expanded the initiative, designating the area surrounding the 111 Building the “Powerhouse Arts District.”
But the owners of Building 111 wanted to demolish the building and build high-rise apartments on the site. They took the city to court, challenging the neighborhood’s historic designation. The owners won the case, the artists were given a year to move out, and the building was leveled without a historic designation to protect it. Without historic status, several other properties in the area became condos, notably the Waldo Lofts, which lists several galleries on its website (including Gallery 58,) as local attractions. None of the galleries listed are, however, within the designated Arts District.
In 2007 internationally renowned architect Rem Koolhaas unveiled his design for a multi-use high-rise building on the former site of the 111 Building. There was some controversy over building such a large structure in what was supposed to be an area focused on street-level development. However, the site is still vacant, and according to the Jersey City Economic Development Corporation’s development listings, its status is listed as “Planned,” and there is no definitive date for ground-breaking at this time.
In 2007, WALDO was removed from the zoning ordinance. Some people in the art community see this as a result of keeping rent prohibitively expensive for smaller artists.
Sandra Sung, assistant planner at the Division of City Planning, said the regulations are fair and that artists just need to prove their financial solvency like a non-artist would before being approved.
Reyes said he is more cynical about the relationship between the city and the arts. He sees a repeating pattern of artists moving and paving the way for real-estate developers.
“It’s all commerce to them,” says Reyes. “We take our creativity with us.”
CLOSED DOWN: An art gallery in Chelsea is shuttered. Photo: Radhika Gupta
Charles Darwin is visiting Chelsea these days .
Once the epicenter of the New York art scene, West Chelsea galleries can now be compared to a Petri dish of evolution – survival of the fittest. In this case, it seems to be survival of the smartest.
Since last September, when the U.S. economy officially went into a recession, more than two dozen art galleries in West Chelsea have closed shop. The art market has been an easy casualty of the economy as people cut back on the most impulsive of purchases.
“I’m surprised more galleries haven’t closed”, said Prajoll Dutta, owner of Aicon Gallery.
With the boom over, the galleries that remain have had to come up with innovative ways to keep afloat. For some this has meant redefining their business models while others are banding together to create group shows that spread costs across many galleries, and, in some cases, continents.
Sarah Hasted, partner at the Hasted Hunt Kraeutler gallery on West 24th Street, recently brought together 13 photography galleries for a group show featuring photographs of New York City.
“We benefited from 30% discount on framing costs and insurance costs as a result of banding together,” said Hasted.
Other gallery owners are looking for clients in markets far from the shores of New York, courting buyers from China, India and the Middle East. Sundaram Tagore, owner of the gallery that bears his name, said that galleries are determinedly exploring emerging markets.
“They are a new source of revenue for us,” said Tagore.
Banking on the strength of the Chinese market, established West Chelsea galleries like Pace Wildenstein, James Cohan and Gagosian have opened spaces in China in the last year.
But not everyone has deep pockets like the top tier. A cheaper alternative is to develop partnerships with the domestic galleries in those countries, by holding private, invitation-only exhibitions. These exhibitions, involving a fairly minimal cost of a plane ticket, are becoming sources of steady revenue for the western galleries. Savvy New York art dealers, who choose easily transportable small pieces as well as digital images of larger pieces, travel to these exhibitions to cultivate wealthy individuals who are interested in the arts but don’t travel to New York often. These art trunk shows have become increasingly popular in India and China, where the members-only sale adds to the cachet of the exhibition. Several gallery owners confirmed the trunk show practice but were reluctant to speak on the record about it because the negotiations sometimes imply a certain amount of back room dealing, which includes tax avoidance.
The other more expensive and mainstream option is to participate in an art fair. In March, 10 out of the 70 galleries exhibiting at Art Dubai, the foremost art fair in the Middle East, were from Chelsea. Similarly, two galleries from West Chelsea attended the Indian Art Summit held in August in New Delhi. Arario and Aicon, known for their interest in Chinese, Indian and Pakistani art, devoted entire exhibits to high-end Indian artists while also offering affordable editions to cater to walk through buyers.
With the economy officially in a recession since April 2007, gallery owners have become more realistic about pricing. They seem to have returned to a time when quality, rather than the dictates of the market, drove their work.
As collectors look for more value in their purchases, galleries are beginning to pull out their treasured pieces instead of hoarding them, as they used to, keeping them for established collectors.
“Everything is 40 percent off, just like at Barney’s,” a collector was heard to remark at a recent art opening.
Some gallery owners also view this period as an opportunity to discover young, emerging – and cheaper – artists.
The Magnan gallery undertook an exchange program in March this year whereby works from 50 Chelsea galleries were taken to Cuba to be part of the 10th Havana Biennale. Some artists, such as Doug Young, whose work was being shown outside the United States for the first time, installed a Cold War era-style sculpture of a desk designed by the U.S. military decades ago to launch Titan II nuclear missiles.
“This has been a great chance to visit Havana, which is like the South Bronx and Disneyland all wrapped up into one,” said the 35-year-old artist. Cuban artists benefited too, since they have been isolated by visa restrictions enacted by the Bush administration.
“This was a way to show them a snapshot of the American artscape,” said Dara Metz, the owner of Magnan. Metz said she didn’t sell anything in Cuba. However, upon her return New York art lovers greeted her with a great demand for the works that she had taken to the island, which translated into numerous sales.
The gloomy economy has even provided inspiration for some artists. At the opening of her exhibit, “Are times of recession good for art?” Jennifer Dalton was asked the answer to the question in the title.
“It’s bad for artists,” she said, “but it could be good for art with a capital A.”