Despite the Threat of Developers, the Ridgewood Art Scene Thrives

“What drew you to Ridgewood?” I asked 42-year-old painter Zach Ziemann. 

“Rents,” he said, flatly. 

Ridgewood Open Studios (ROS), back for its second edition this weekend, sent me to corners of the neighborhood I hadn’t seen since I was a census worker in 2020, with a step count to match — and about as much hit-and-miss. Start on the graveyard side near the Halsey train stop, and you’ll find yourself in yawning, near-deserted streets fringed by garages and industrial warehouses. The same building numbers are liable to be plastered across four doors in a row, or else skipped entirely.

Begun in 2019 and suspended during the height of COVID-19, the annual event kicked off last Friday with around 150 artists’ studios and gallery exhibitions. “We are putting this together because it’s about time,” reads ROS’s website. “Free and simple just like the old days.​” Free and simple, indeed: A Google form that takes about 10 seconds to fill out lands you on the list. In 2019, founder Nao Matsumoto hosted the bulk of the work — nearly 200 works — at their gallery, Lorimoto. This year, 60 paintings by local artists are scattered around its tiled white walls; the rest are dispersed throughout the neighborhood. 

Case in point: The “Participating Artist” sign Matsumoto distributes on the ROS website was pasted to the heavily graffitied door of Ziemann’s studio at 1546 Decatur, annotated with his phone number and the directive to call to be let in. The labyrinthine complex, which holds around a dozen solo studios set at sharp corners, houses Ziemann’s abstract acrylic paintings and material in Studio 4. Down the hall, Iris Ward Loughran showed installation works including a piece that recalled metal detectors, with inset tubes of cold, white fluorescent light that lent an ominous undertone to the cozy building.

It’ll come as no surprise if you’ve ever met an artist, but some of the stops listed on ROS’s maps were either impossible to find or not open when I visited. 1535 Decatur was a dud for me, as was 1080 Wyckoff — “Studios?” a resident said, blankly — as was 1651 Cody. But this is most certainly an art neighborhood: Though there was no studio at any of the 1656 Summerfield addresses, I found 22-year-old Maya and 25-year-old Sam, two students at the nearby Grand Central Art School, picking up plywood from the woodshop there. Scraps from shops, coffee shop burlap sacks, even metal blades that fly off street sweepers, amazingly, wind up in the hands of these talented and resourceful students, who build easels, display shelves, and tools out of them. 

At Stephen Street Gallery, 28-year-old artist Alexander Zev collects wooden scraps from furniture makers in the area before stacking, gluing, and sanding them down to organic forms that recall dead trees, reconstituting post-industrial material into its core matter. The gallery, which Zev co-runs with their fiancée, Tyler Townsend, 31, is funded by studio spaces in the back, which rent for $250 a month for a shared space and $400 per month for a solo space.

I could feel a sense of precarity among even the luckier of Ridgewood’s artists.

“It’s tenuous,” Zev said. Being forced to move is a phenomenon that drove many of these artists here in the first place, and will likely force them out, too. Ziemann, for instance, previously rented a studio at the complex at 17-17 Troutman in Bushwick, they said, but “the landlord got sick of all the beer cans” and “kicked the galleries out.” 

Matsumoto and his wife, artist Lori Kirkbride, arrived at their current studios (hidden behind a swinging wall at Lorimoto Gallery) after long respective odysseys. The pair landed in Ridgewood around a decade ago after stints in Williamsburg, Greenpoint, and Prospect Heights for Matsumoto and Clinton Hill and Bushwick for Kirkbride. In Matsumoto’s space, artworks, fabrication material, and tools share the approximately 2,000-square-foot space with his son’s (quite advanced) drawings of Kiss (of whom he’s a big fan), a ’60s-era drill press, and a pair of vintage motorcycles he’s restoring. A door away, the various stages of Kirkbride’s involved process of drying, hand-slicing, braiding, and affixing acrylic are on view. The artist previously partook in Bushwick Open Studios (BOS), an annual event that inspired its Ridgewood counterpart. 

“It got too big,” she said. “The organization all changed. It became, like: ‘Where’s your beer? Where’s your wine?’ I was like — I’m not your bar.”

Ridgewood Open Studios, on the other hand, is intimate — there might be beer on offer, but you’ll sip it in a small room with an artist and their friends. Bookmark this moment, because as history and these artists tell us, it’s only a matter of time until that changes. “Up until a couple years ago, I would’ve said yes, ‘This is a good place for artists,’” Zev told me. Both he and Matsumoto mentioned, with anxiety, a 2022 TimeOut article deeming Ridgewood the fourth coolest neighborhood in the world. “Which is so dumb,” Zev told me. Now, “there’s people here who have plans,” he said in reference to developers, visibly resigned. Though the art community in Ridgewood is in some ways still growing, resident artists are moving out to neighborhoods like Glendale, Cypress Hills, and East New York.

“Unless I land a rent-controlled place in this neighborhood,” Ziemann told me, “that’s probably my next stop.”

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