On Broadway in Williamsburg, where the luxury condominiums and boutiques begin to give way to low-rise buildings and 99-cent stores, the newly restored Williamsburg Art and Historical Center is attempting to establish itself as an anchor of the community.
Sitting in the shadow of the Williamsburg Bridge, the building — built in 1867 as the Kings County Savings Bank — has the look of a haunted mansion. With its recent $200,000-plus renovation and the Sept. 29 opening of “Sun Pictures to Megapixels,” its first exhibition in four years, locals should find the spot more welcoming.
“It’s spectacular,” said Craig Morrison, an architectural historian who worked on the building’s restoration. “The rooms have very high ceilings and can accommodate big works and it’s flooded with light; it’s a jaw-dropper and is one of the most spectacular spaces in the city.”
The Center was founded in 1996 by artist Yuko Nii, who had the foresight to purchase the building at the same time. So, even while the fledgling center grew in fits and starts — thanks to the building’s landmark status, even installing a fire escape took years of maneuvering through red tape — it still had a headquarters.
A roof overhead didn’t guarantee that all would be well inside. “Because I was able to purchase this building, artists always assumed I had deep pockets,” said Nii. “In reality, when we opened, I had $50 in the bank. Because we were operating on a shoestring, many artists were unhappy with the fact that, beyond the space itself, I had little to offer them, and word got around.”
Nii declined to say how much the building cost to begin with, but Center President Terry Lindall said, “It was a steal at the time because the neighborhood was really rundown. There was none of what you see today.”
Despite its initial troubles, the Center amassed impressive successes. Over the decade, the three floors of open space have hosted more than 170 fine art exhibitions and 140 performing arts events. Artists whose work has been presented there ranges from the respected sculptor Isamu Noguchi to the notorious fetish photographer Charles Gatewood, and the atmospheric old structure has been used for film locations by Robert DeNiro and Chris Rock.
“It looks like what moviemakers would call a Soho artist’s loft,” said Morrison. “The interior was remarkably untouched so it has gas chandeliers hanging in place, and the ambience; it’s like walking into a time capsule.”
With the upcoming exhibition, the same old world charm is in effect. The work of 117 photographers is included, some using the archaic techniques of early photography and others working with cutting edge digital methods.
“[We’re showing] the bookends of Modernism,” said curator Joel Simpson. “I first proposed this show three years ago and it got put on hold because of the construction, but it was worth waiting for. This space is tremendous, a perfect setting for these photos.”
The space is surely impressive, but in a finicky corner of the neighborhood, where million-dollar lofts abut crumbling tenaments, the Center might struggle to draw a crowd. Unlike Williamsburg’s artsy North side, the Center straddles a crossroads of cultures that are still learning to accept one another.
“[The Center] is at that critical point where all of the communities come together,” said Morrison. “They’re fully aware of it and want to speak to all of the communities at once.”
Nii is convinced that the hipsters, Hasidim and Hispanics will all be drawn to the center
“Our symbol is a bridge,” she said. “Not only are we located at the base of the Williamsburg Bridge, but we want to be a bridge; between cultures, between artists, between human beings and between the past and the future.”
“Sun Pictures to Mega-Pixels: Archaic Process to Digital Process Photography” will open on Sept. 29 at the Williamsburg Art and Historical Center (135 Broadway, at Bedford Avenue in Williamsburg). The Center opens at noon, and a reception will be held from 4-6 pm. For information, call (718) 486-7372 or visit www.wahcenter.net.