Volume 21, Number 9 | THE NEWSPAPER OF LOWER MANHATTAN | July 11 - 17, 2008

Smelling something funny, arts group forced to close

By James S. Woodman

A few months ago, volunteers at Collective: Unconscious — a non-profit organization dedicated to providing space for emerging artists of almost every kind —began noticing a subtle yet unsavory scent filling their Tribeca space.

Suspecting that the odor was emanating from a molding wall in the basement at 279 Church St., they hired a renovation crew to demolish the drywall partition. Just as the last pieces of the contaminated wall were removed, though, the stench intensified to levels almost unbearable. A hole in the basement floor had been unplugged by the wall’s removal. The volunteers then discovered the actual origin of the smell — which has now rendered their basement unusable and will force the organization out of the entire space later this month.

Peering into the new hole, the volunteers could see that there was standing water just beneath the basement’s floorboards. After hiring a variety of plumbers and construction experts, the volunteers learned that the flood consisted purely of raw sewage. The building’s main sewer pipe, leading to the street, had clogged, burst, and was now flowing exclusively into their basement. Before long, the area’s hardwood floors, once uniformly laid, became badly warped, and even the building’s tenants on higher floors began to detect the smell.

At first, their landlord, Madeleine D’Anthony — who has owned several strip and burlesque clubs in Manhattan, including one in the space that Collective: Unconscious now occupies — told the arts group that the flood was their mess to fix, founding member, Caterina Bartha, said. But after a protracted and exasperating back and forth, D’Anthony decided to simply cancel the lease on Collective: Unconscious’s location at 279 Church St. This decision will make the non-profit, as Bartha put it, “homeless.”

Founded in 1995 with its first location on Ludlow St., Collective: Unconscious describes itself as a “confederation of artists working in the visual and performing arts.” The first clause of the group’s mission statement underscores the central role of its having a space in which to operate: “to administrate a theater, rehearsal, and gallery space …that is open to the artistic community at large for low rental rates.”

“We are a place to go to get off-off-Broadway craziness,” said manager and curator of the space’s latest show, Paul Bargetto.

When it was on the Lower East Side, Collective: Unconscious paid their expenses mostly through ticket sales and had several small theater neighbors on Ludlow St. who did the same. But faced with the area’s rapid gentrification, Collective: Unconscious relocated to Church St. in 2004. Their space on Church St. houses two performing stages: a larger one upstairs and a secondary stage in the basement.

Though the downstairs stage has been out of commission for over a month now, the main, upstairs stage will host its last show on July 11. Bartha is working with pro bono lawyers to negotiate with the landlord the terms of the lease’s ending. D’Anthony did not return calls for comment.

Having settled comfortably into their new location, the recent news of eviction has been hard on those closest to the venue.

“I think it’s a sad moment,” Bargetto said. “I have been involved with Collective: Unconscious my whole career. And the Collective has always had a space. But on the other hand, this isn’t the end of Collective: Unconscious; the organization will continue on.”

The organization will not seek a new space in the near future, Bartha said. Collective: Unconscious will, however, maintain its presence in Manhattan by putting on events at different venues.

As a testament to this is that Underground Zero — an annual experimental arts festival held by Collective: Unconscious — will continue through July and into August despite the venue’s closing. The bulk of Underground Zero’s shows will be held at the Manhattan Children’s Theater, close by on White St. and several shows will be held at two other Tribeca venues — Flea Theater and Grace Bar.

Since 2006, Collective: Unconscious has shared its space with another organization that also promotes emerging artists, The Tank, founded in 2003. When the tank moved from Midtown to Church St., they thought they had found a permanent residence. “We were really disappointed,” said Mike Rosenthal, a director of The Tank. Yet unlike their host organization, The Tank is searching for a new space in Manhattan.

“We’re definitely going to have to find another venue quickly — we have tons of shows booked for August, September and October,” Rosenthal said. The Tank would preferably find a space in Lower Manhattan, but may have to settle for a temporary space somewhere else in the short term until they can find something more fitting, he added.

“There is a dearth of affordable art space in Manhattan,” Rosenthal said. “Its essential to keep some place in Manhattan where people can get started and where you can see weird stuff without paying too much.”




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