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Artists Open Gallery Space to Help Revitalize Empty Rockaway Storefront

By Katie Honan | June 23, 2014 3:33pm
 Topless opened in a former eye doctor's office, which had been empty since the hurricane.
Topless Rockaway
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ROCKAWAY BEACH — A temporary art gallery has opened in a storefront that's remained empty since Hurricane Sandy — and the curators hope the revitalized space will continue to support the community's recovery from the 2012 storm.

Topless Rockaway is a seasonal project from artists Brent Birnbaum, 36, and Jenni Crain, 23, who have both worked in various mediums and showcased art locally and abroad. 

And the gallery's name — which Crain said is "playful, provocative and obviously catchy" — has a dual meaning tied into the growth of Rockaway, because recovery and expansion has "no roof," she said. 

"Art is supposed to push people's buttons and boundaries and challenge people and make you think in different ways," Birnbaum said.

Birnbaum moved to the peninsula more than a year ago and thought an art gallery would be perfect for one of the empty stores that lingered after the hurricane.

The two began looking for a gallery space to showcase some of their favorite artists and give back to the community.

"The idea is that I love what art is being made from my peers, and I wanted to do something for a community that I love," Birnbaum said.

Birnbaum said he had "no interest in opening up a space in the current gallery district" or giving off the feel of gallery-heavy neighborhoods like Chelsea and Bushwick.

"It's more about the community down here and actually doing the opposite of those neighborhoods," he said.

Topless isn't the typical white box you'd expect from most galleries, and that was the artists' intention, they said.

The brick building they're in had been an eye doctor's office before the storm, and they worked with the landlord to clean up and renovate the ground-floor space.

Down went the decades-old drop ceiling, allowing for large exposed windows. They kept old wallpaper up and have art displayed on the exposed brick.

Their first exhibit, "The Party's Over," opened June 14 and will be on display until early July, showing work by artists Andy Cross, Caroline Wells Chandler and Cindy Ji Hye Kim.

The plan is to host four shows this summer before packing it up, the curators said.

"We wanted to show the work we're most excited about, and we wanted them to be small," Birnbaum said. They plan to return next summer somewhere else on the peninsula, they said.

Both said the peninsula's established art scene, spearheaded by the Rockaway Artists Alliance, and new projects from MoMA P.S. 1 are encouraging for their own growth.

"Topless means that we can just keep pushing ourselves, and there's so much potential with us and the community," Crain said.

Topless, 90-20 Rockaway Beach Boulevard is open Saturdays and Sundays, noon to 8 p.m., and by appointment. Admission is free.