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Silent Barn’s Demise Is a Cautionary Tale for DIY Spaces

Those in the DIY community can fall back into the nostalgia of delirious nights spent in packed, sweaty rooms, lost in a set by a favorite band. But within these fond memories it’s easy to forget the reality that DIY spaces close for the same reason that longtime Bushwick residents get pushed out of their homes — eventually, gentrification comes for everyone. To build a sustainable future for community art spaces, clearly defined activism should be part of the equation, say residents of some of these gentrifying neighborhoods.

For twelve years, Silent Barn in Bushwick — which relocated to Bushwick in 2012 after its original space in Ridgewood was shut down, and which was known for its mischievous, anarchic, and intimate atmosphere, with hidden microphones for a participatory art project and avant-garde arcade games lurking in the basement — provided transformative experiences for thousands of visitors. The collective made mistakes but grew from them and adapted. Yet it did so too late. This week, Silent Barn announced it will shut its doors on April 30. In its wake, Silent Barn’s fate leaves lessons for the DIY community.

“I don’t think that when Silent Barn first started they knew it was going to turn into this,” said Olithea Anglin, an assistant director of Educated Little Monsters (ELM), a Bushwick organization that hosts arts classes for native area kids in Silent Barn’s space. “I think it was like an experiment, which is what people in gentrified spaces do. They do incubators and think tanks. But you’re already in a community! Look at the community around you, get involved in the community. And they did it too little, too late. It’s a cautionary tale.”

Silent Barn’s history is fraught with chaos. It began in a converted warehouse in Ridgewood in 2006 as a freewheeling venue, arts space, and home to artists. When that space was shut down and vandalized in 2011, a new, more socially conscious and ambitious version of Silent Barn took shape. After relocating in 2012 to a huge, three-story building in Bushwick, the collective expanded their purview to include artist studios, apartments for residencies, and businesses such as a synth shop and recording studio. Shows could take the form of anything from standard sets by bands like Screaming Females to donation-based fundraisers for movements like the Dakota Access Pipeline protests. Not long after opening the space in Bushwick, the Barn experienced further setbacks, including a fire that damaged the building, in 2015, and trouble with their liquor license last year.

As a result, the collective launched a fundraising effort in December with a goal of $25,000. They succeeded in raising more than $30,000, according to the collective. But that only kept them afloat for a few months. This time, it appears Silent Barn did not believe that an ongoing fundraising effort was sustainable for long-term survival.  

“The leaseholders have decided that the most responsible option left is to end operations at 603 Bushwick as of April 30,” the collective said in a statement they indicated would be their only communication with the press on the subject.

They added: “Over the years, we’ve seen the role that DIY music venues play within the greater machine of gentrification, and how often the communities who would most benefit from these resources — the neighborhood’s native communities — are excluded from them entirely.”

The choice for the statement to steer away from discussing Silent Barn’s quest for survival and to instead focus on what impact they may be having on the wider community underscores a wider shift in perspective among Brooklyn’s progressive arts community.

Silent Barn’s closing is a huge loss for collective members and the Bushwick arts community, but also for New York as a whole. As strict enforcement of regulations and rising rent prices continue to push out formerly vital venues like Shea Stadium and Palisades, collectively run, community-oriented spaces are harder and harder to sustain. Only now are we starting to see how that impacts local residents, victims of a gentrification that the arrival of these spaces often portends.

Educated Little Monsters began using the Silent Barn space in 2013.

Jazo Brooklyn, a native Brooklynite and the founder of ELM, says that the psychological impact of gentrification on her community was what spurred her to start the program in 2013. “I started talking to [the kids] about what it is that makes them angry in their neighborhood, and when it came down to it, they were really mad about gentrification. Displacement. This new era of colonialism,” she said while sitting in ELM’s colorfully jumbled space in Silent Barn’s garage annex on the day of the announcement. “The kids couldn’t verbalize the changes that were happening in their community, they could only express it through anger. I was like, these kids are going to get in trouble.”

Brooklyn remembers feeling out of place when she first visited Silent Barn to suggest that her program use the space during the venue’s daytime dead hours. “I was the only Latina in the room and the only person in the collective from my class, from the struggle, from this community. It was the first time I’d been around so many white people,” she says.

Silent Barn’s non-hierarchical structure — decisions are made as a collective rather than by appointed leaders — was also challenging for Brooklyn, who says she didn’t have the same knowledge base or understanding of norms as the other collective members. Over time, she learned how to navigate the cultural divide. “I started to find my voice. I started kicking in the doors and saying you guys have a social responsibility to this community…. At the end of the day, whatever happens to this space, we need it the most.”

***

Spaces like Silent Barn, which have an explicitly progressive mission, often grapple with whether the art they present is enough to speak for those values. Even while booking experimental and diverse shows and running trainings on Narcan administration or bystander intervention, if your space is perpetuating gentrification in a surrounding community, can you really consider yourself progressive?

It’s a difficult question to answer, and places approach it in different ways. The owners of the venue Elsewhere, a gigantic, sleek new space off the Jefferson L stop, decided to get serious about their business in order to make it sustainable. As a result, the owners, the group behind the much-loved, defunct Williamsburg DIY venue Glasslands Gallery, took on funding from young investors and secured a loan from the city to raise $3 million to remodel a 24,000-square-foot warehouse space from the ground up.

While Elsewhere is better funded than most DIY spaces, it’s also one of the few venues in Brooklyn run entirely by people of color. Co-founder Jake Rosenthal says that the founders’ backgrounds inform the way they book the space. “[Co-founders] Rami [Haykal] and Dhruv [Chopra] are both immigrants, Dhruv from India, Rami from Lebanon by way of Italy, and I was born and raised in New York, but my mom was Jamaican and came to New York when she was 20,” he says. “On one level or another that influences the breadth of our music programming.”

With a massive space and budget, Elsewhere is able to give smaller parties and acts from marginalized groups a huge platform. For example, the party Papi Juice, an event that caters to queer people of color, will use their main space this weekend.

Rosenthal says there’s much more he’d like to do to reach out to the local community in the future, but he and his co-founders will need to test out what programming will be profitable enough for them to stay open.

***

Despite their good intentions, businesses like Elsewhere can’t help but contribute to the cycle of gentrification by merely existing as for-profit ventures. But there are options for those who want to maintain a community space that is truly for the community. Mayday Space, run by activists in a three-story building on St. Nicholas Avenue and Himrod Street in Bushwick, was created specifically to combat displacement in the surrounding community through political engagement. Mayday’s online bio describes their mission as “work[ing] with longtime community organizers to amplify neighborhood issues such as immigrant rights, food justice, tenants protections, gentrification, and displacement, as well as broader global issues.”

But there’s more than activism at Mayday, which also hosts concerts, discussions, and movie screenings. Recently, Mayday held a screening of the Lizzie Borden film Born in Flames by the North Brooklyn Democratic Socialists of America, and a fundraiser party thrown by the Brooklyn Community Bail Fund, which featured rappers, live acts, and DJs.

Nancy Torres, a native Bushwick resident and project coordinator at Mayday — one of only two paid staff members — says the organization is able to thrive while maintaining their integrity because of the foresight of its founders.

“When creating a space, the leadership has to be folks that are directly affected by gentrification and displacement,” she says. “Those people need to be part of the decision-making. If leadership is not as diverse as it should be, it’s really hard to insert that afterward. You’re already setting up a foundation for the project.”

Despite Silent Barn’s imminent demise, ELM are determined to use the knowledge they’ve gained working with the collective to open their own space — a permanent home for their movement. Brooklyn says she would be happy to work with Silent Barn collective members on that project. “People can say ‘Silent Barn has closed,’ but the best parts of Silent Barn are going to continue,” Brooklyn says. “It doesn’t end here.”

To support Educated Little Monsters’ search for a new home, donate to their fundraiser here.

This article has been updated to clarify that Silent Barn’s original location was in Ridgewood, and that the hidden microphones were part of an art project.

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Silent Barn Fights for Its Life

Silent Barn has been through a lot. The community arts space opened in 2006 as a charmingly scrappy, art-filled, all-ages venue in Ridgewood, where bands played in the kitchen and avant-garde video-game cabinets occupied the basement. That space was shut down by the city and subsequently vandalized in 2011. The trauma led Silent Barn to grow and adapt, as its operators sought to transform their grassroots ethos into something more sustainable. They successfully raised more than $40,000 via a Kickstarter campaign to acquire a huge space in Bushwick that they now occupy legally, running it with the help of a seventy-person collective of employees and volunteers.

In the five years it’s spent at its Bushwick home, Silent Barn has hosted a variety of projects: artist studios and residences, a synth shop, a recording studio, diverse nightly performances, and a hairdresser/record store. In 2015, it had another setback: a fire that damaged the upstairs apartments and performance space. But the collective survived that too, and crowdfunded more money to recover.

Silent Barn’s mere existence is a feat in a time when nearly all its DIY peers — from Shea Stadium to Palisades — have closed, pushed out by raids, regulations, or rent increases. The space’s survival is even more impressive given that it’s run by a collective that has never had institutional or corporate backing. But Silent Barn’s extraordinary story doesn’t mean the venue is not at risk. Worryingly, after five years, Silent Barn is now closer than ever to closing its doors.

***

“It’s like we’re on a boat going down a river, and my job as the financial manager is to tell people, ‘Hey, there’s a waterfall coming up, we need to all get together and paddle,’ ” Silent Barn financial manager Jordan Michael Iannucci said over the phone last week. “This is the first time where it’s like, we can see the waterfall, we can hear the water, [and] we know there are rocks under it.” The Barn’s end-of-year fundraiser page currently states a goal of $25,000 to be reached by December 31. Three days from New Year’s Eve, that goal is only 44 percent funded. If the collective doesn’t raise at least $20,000, according to a public event on Facebook, “Silent Barn would have to begin planning to shut down this iteration of the project.”

“When we opened our place, we had basically about a month of cash on hand, maximum, at any given moment,” said Joe Ahearn, one of the original Silent Barn’s longtime residents and a founder of the new space, when the Voice spoke to him over the phone on Christmas Eve. “It’s basically just gotten harder every day since then.”

Unforeseen circumstances, like the fire and bureaucratic problems that delayed the venue’s new liquor license, ate into this already thin cash reserve. “We are [now] operating at less-than-zero-days-to-live margin,” Ahearn said. The collective expected a loss of $28,000 for 2017; at the end of the year, the actual figure is looking closer to $69,000.

This dire situation might seem inevitable for a grassroots arts space trying to survive in the increasingly insane rental economy of modern-day New York City. But it’s also the result of problems specific to Silent Barn’s community model and the obstacles it’s encountered along the way.

According to Iannucci, Silent Barn consists of three main business models. There’s the rental income from artist studios and the four apartments above the space; revenue from show tickets and the drinks people buy at performances; and the collective’s fundraising apparatus.

This model presents many problems for a space like Silent Barn, which is big enough to have a yearly budget of nearly $1 million, but small and young enough that it lacks an established base of large-scale donors. Instead, this year, the collective launched a membership system, where supporters can donate $300 a year for free access to all shows. Lower levels of monthly donation come with such swag as stickers or mixtapes. (Disclosure: This author is a monthly contributor.)

Silent Barn is currently registered as an LLC, but for fundraising purposes it functions as a 501(c)3 nonprofit, with Long Island City DIY art institution Flux Factory acting as the venue’s financial sponsor. Until Silent Barn’s own nonprofit status is approved sometime next year, it is difficult for the space to receive grants.

Show attendance also fell this year. Though the decline averaged out to only eight fewer people per show, those numbers add up in lost ticket and drink revenue. Even after the venue secured a full liquor license, four months late, its bar still needed to be remodeled to adhere to health codes for serving mixed drinks. That would have cost $10,000 up front — money that Silent Barn didn’t have on hand. Instead, the collective has chipped away at that number one item at a time. “When we had $2,000, we got an ice machine,” Iannucci said. “[Then] that’s sitting in our basement until we get another $2,000 to pay someone to install it.” In the meantime, he estimates that they are losing a potential $4 on every show attendee who can’t buy mixed drinks.

The amount Silent Barn charges for rent is also limited by its operators’ ethos, which is to provide an affordable space for a diverse group of artists to experiment and learn. “If we raised the rent to keep up with market rate, why the fuck would anyone donate money?” Iannucci asked.

***

According to collective members, what Silent Barn needs to survive and thrive is not just the support of one-time big donors or grants. It’s daily, consistent community engagement.

“The recognition that running a space like ours is inherently unstable and needs constant support from everyone involved is something that is widely understood, [but also] very easy to take for granted,” Ahearn said. “What has gotten us to this point is $3 at a time from people coming to shows, donating, buying drinks, helping out. That’s the thing that’s so hard for people to believe. But it’s the reality. And that’s only going to be more true in 2018.”

Despite the precariousness of its situation, Silent Barn doesn’t want to resort to a threatening narrative to get people to donate. “I don’t want people’s investment in the space to be dependent on a time clock for when we’re closing,” Iannucci said. “I want people to appreciate what we do and give us what they think we are worth.”

He and Ahearn both believe that this idealistic goal is achievable, despite the long odds in a time when people are reluctant to pay for even their favorite albums or magazines. “I think it is possible, with the right level of transparency, rhetoric, and public narrative, to teach people that Silent Barn is a community space,” Iannucci said.

“If I wasn’t permanently optimistic about the future of the space, I could not do it,” he added. “I’m imagining a future where Silent Barn books shows [for] a broad range of people, and 25 percent of those people give $5 a month. And then there are maybe ten to fifteen artists or arts entrepreneurs that cut us a check of over $5,000 a year. I don’t think that’s a far-off future.”

It’s a gamble, but it’s one the space has no choice but to take. “Just like how everyone learned that you pay $10 a month for all the music in the world, they need to learn that you also pay $10 a month to support the place you go to see bands you like,” Iannucci said. One of the collective’s often repeated slogans is “Silent Barn is people.” That reality has never been more apparent.

UPDATE: After the publication of this article, Silent Barn hit its fundraising goal. The venue was able to raise more than $30,000 total.

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Best All-Ages Club

DIY venues haven’t had an easy year, but luckily we still have Silent Barn. While 285 Kent and Death By Audio have seen the end of their eras, Silent Barn has found solace in its new Bushwick home after the terrible end to its time in Ridgewood. The existence of places like Silent Barn is important; they offer a way for music fans to engage in the local scene no matter how old they are. For teens, twentysomethings, and olds alike, Silent Barn is a welcoming space for all, and it doesn’t put that pesky “+” after an arbitrary number. Not only is the venue a way to gauge what’s happening in the local music scene, it’s also a cool gallery for art exhibitions. This place is a one-stop shop for all things related to local culture, available to underage kiddos or otherwise.

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PANIC ATTACK

“Unnecessary Suspicions,” a collection of video art works by Hong Kong-based artist Seeman Ho within an installation by Bryan Zanisnik, borrows from the seemingly non-logical tropes of ancient Chinese mythology to examine our post-logical approach — otherwise known as our explain-away approach — to the increasingly common mental states of panic, anxiety, depression, and schizophrenia in contemporary society. Zanisnik’s installations convey what critic David Duncan describes as “inherited narrative that gets passed down in close-knit families.” Paired with the inherited narrative of ancient Chinese mythology and Seeman Ho’s painstaking attention to texture and patterns in her videos, the exhibit uses imagination — rather than urban physiology — to explore stubbornly incomprehensible mental states . Tonight’s opening night party features performances by Mandarin rock bands The Underground Channel and Torpid Mary, as well as folk songstress Reonda.

Fri., July 18, 6 p.m., 2014

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TAKING BACK SUNDAY

For the past few summers, Eamon Harkin and Justin Carter’s Mister Sunday has gone down at the Gowanus Grove, a once verdant patch of land that is now being developed into residential buildings. Last week, the pair’s main gig, Mister Saturday Night, happened at the Bell House while their usual home, 12-Turn-13, “worked out a few kinks.” Today, Mister Sunday comes to Bushwick’s Silent Barn, a suitable substitute until they can find a proper venue for the summer. 
Expect cheap drinks, great house music, and good company.

Sun., March 16, 3 p.m., 2014

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XXX-LARGE

Here’s something fun to try: Get your phone and dial 917-719-2166. What you’ll hear are readings that go with the stories in the latest issue of Gigantic, the spectacular, oversized literary magazine helmed by Lincoln Michel and James Yeh; contributors to this fifth issue include Lydia Davis, David Ohle, Marie-Helene Bertino, Thomas Pierce, Amie Barrodale, and Ottessa Moshfegh. Like what you hear on the “Gigantic Phone”? Head to tonight’s launch party, which includes readings from Bertino, Sparrow, and Anna Wiener, a performance by Atlanta-based rapper Bluntfang, and DJ sets from DJ Chipotle (Thu Tran of IFC’s Food Party and Syed Salahuddin of Baby-castles) and the editors themselves.

Sat., Nov. 2, 7 p.m., 2013

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OFF THE GRID

What does this year’s CMJ have in common with those of recent years? The best parties are the unofficial ones. Today, none are better than Exploding in Sound Records’s Unofficial Birthday Party Spectacular, the afternoon-into-late-night event featuring 11 bands, four of which we can confirm are really good. Headliners Speedy Ortiz, for instance, are riding on the much deserved acclaim that followed their recent album, Major Arcana (acclaim that their earlier “Sports” EP deserved as well). Pile and Porches will appeal to fans of local bands like Titus Andronicus and Parquet Courts, and Ovlov is best heard at a house show in suburban New England, but, here in New York, Silent Barn is close enough. The other seven are probably great, too, but there’s only one way to find out.

Sat., Oct. 19, 3 p.m., 2013

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NOSTALGIA, ULTRA

Behold, the first annual (in theory) Cassette Store Day! Considering the remarkable success of Record Store Day, this sort of event—a slightly (but only slightly tongue-in-cheek gathering with limited-edition compacts for sale from bands like Fucked Up, Animal Collective, and the Blow—might have been inevitable, but among those who traverse the BQE in old autos equipped with only a tape player, it should be greeted in all seriousness. Since there aren’t actually any cassette stores, you’ll have to do your shopping at Silent Barn’s evening Cassette Fair, then stick around for a show ($5 cover) featuring Lame Drivers, Imperial Topaz, Tabajo, and local favs Sleepies.

Sat., Sept. 7, 5 p.m., 2013

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SUMMER DAZE

If you’re like us, the best summer days are spent staring into the sky for hours while watching clouds morph slowly into Ulysses characters. We don’t want to be pummeled into submission by summer—or summer music—which is why Celestial Shore’s brisk and twinkling 10x (out September 3 on Hometapes) is our late-season fave rave. Performed by Greg Albert (bass), Max Almario (drums), and Sam Owens (guitar), 10x is a prog-pop gem of smart concision that Deerhoof and Dirty Projectors fans would do well to access while it’s still summer because, as they sing in “Valerie,” “The beach is no fun in New York when it’s fall/And I wish I never had met you at all.”

Thu., Aug. 22, 8 p.m., 2013

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RAW POWER

This weekend, the Brooklyn-based magazine 1.21 Gigawatts celebrates its first anniversary by throwing its own Gigawatts Festival, a two-day showcase of 20 of the magazine’s favorite up-and-coming artists. Its four homegrown headliners each show off their own subset of the quirky, art-saturated world the publication dwells in: Team Spirit espouses unique poppy garage rock; Total Slacker balance brittle guitars with lush vocals; Heaven’s Gate present a clearer-eyed vision of My Bloody Valentine’s noise swirls; and guitar-driven indie rockers Dead Stars claim all the warmth their spacey namesakes lack. Though the magazine’s name might be inspired by Back to the Future, hoverboards will not be required for entry.

Fri., July 5, 5 p.m., 2013