Artists Condemn Development of New Queens “The Masquerade as a Cultural Advantage”
Anti-gentrification group Art Against Displacement (AAD) is calling on New York art institutions to reject a luxury development and rezoning plan in the Queens neighborhood of Astoria. An open letter, published Saturday, July 16 and signed by hundreds of art workers, organizers and community members, accuses the Museum of the Moving Image (MoMI) and Brooklyn art center Pioneer Works of “art wash” of the $2 billion QNS Innovation project, which aims to establish a “mixed-use creative district” in what they call a “sleeping corner” of the neighborhood.
Developed by Kaufman Astoria Studios in partnership with Silverstein Properties, Bedrock Real Estate and architectural firm ODA, Innovation QNS would redevelop the area immediately surrounding the historic Kaufman film studio and MoMI. AAD’s letter condemns MoMI’s cultural partnership and Pioneer Works’ alleged support of the project, which AAD says would gentrify a neighborhood of immigrant and working-class families in a “real estate transaction masquerading as a cultural advantage”.
Although MoMI’s affiliation with QNS innovation is public, Hyperallergic was unable to independently verify the current status of Pioneer Works’ connection to the project, and the institution did not respond to multiple requests for comment.
In their proposal, QNS Innovation developers presented plans for 12 new buildings in five blocks around the intersection of Steinway Street and 35th Avenue, with eight buildings over 15 stories and two over 27 stories. While 2,120 apartments will be set at market prices, only 725 will be permanently affordable. Additionally, 10,000 square feet of retail space will flank commercial green space for public use, plus 250,000 square feet for small businesses, startups, and nonprofits.
“Their proposal is to add more than a dozen new buildings with thousands of apartments – mostly studios and two-bedrooms for over $3,000 a month,” AAD’s letter read. “The handful of ‘affordable’ units included are still more expensive than the average person can afford, but the billionaires behind this project are getting a windfall of profit because the zoning means they can build a lot higher on the same ground: they suddenly get thousands of paying tenants, rather than tens.
Early architectural renderings show the entrance to MoMI surrounded by storefronts and foot traffic. In a statement on the project’s website, the MoMI Executive Director Carl Goodman describes the partnership as the “driving force” behind the “community-informed evolution of Astoria”.
“Astoria is known around the world as a community that nurtures creativity and culture, especially related to film and media production, and educational programs related to media arts,” said Goodman. “We are thrilled to see a neighbor-led initiative that will affirm Astoria’s identity and create opportunity for New Yorkers.”
MoMI did not respond to Hyperallergic’s request for comment.
Attempts to reach Pioneer Works management for comment went unanswered. A Queen’s Gazette A June article cited Pioneer Works as one of many cultural entities that have “joined the plan,” and an April 20 town hall presentation shows the Pioneer Works logo on page 11, which details the community partnerships of ‘QNS innovation. But this logo is no longer visible on any other document, and it is unclear whether the institution is still involved.
Two artists planning an upcoming show at the Brooklyn Cultural Center, Liz Magic Laser and Ariana Reines, signed AAD’s missive, along with former exhibiting artist Xaviera Simmons.
A current Pioneer Works employee who asked to remain anonymous told Hyperallergic that the Brooklyn The institution may soon withdraw from the project following the open letter, alleging that the developers added an outdated Pioneer Works logo from 2010 to the project’s website.
“It was a commitment made by a former operations manager who no longer works with us,” the employee said. “As far as I know, Pioneer Works has no intention of moving forward, and any appearance of our name and branding has been made without board approval.”
Jackson Heights-based artist and open letter co-author Jenny Dubnau recalls being fired from her former Long Island City studio in 2018 after a 40% rent increase, which she attributes to commercial zoning . She also points to the whitewashing of the 5 Pointz monument that covered the work of hundreds of local graffiti artists, then replaced the original structure with a luxury tower of the same name. She laments that concrete evidence of artistic enrichment seems to be is sorely lacking in QNS Innovation plans, apart from its commissioning of Queens-based artist Zeehan Wazed will paint a mural along Steinway Street. (Wazed did not respond to Hyperallergic’s request for comment.)
“Whenever I dig into their claims about free arts programs and residencies, I find there’s nothing to back them up,” Dubnau continued. “Meanwhile, Queens is becoming less and less hospitable due to rising rents for residential and work space.” Hyperallergic inquired about QNS Innovation’s plans for arts programming; the developer did not provide additional comment.
Dubnau and fellow artist and co-author Vanessa Thill argue that New York’s cultural sector should be held accountable for what they see as encouraging gentrification, especially arts institutions like MoMI that receive city and federal funding.
“We see that same dynamic over and over again,” Thill told Hyperallergic. “Cultural institutions and their boards really don’t have the interests of artists in their way of governing. We want to give people the opportunity to voice their opposition, including affiliates, from staff members to exhibiting artists and former colleagues.
“Developers claim they’re going to create an arts district, as if there wasn’t already a natural arts district wherever people and culture exist,” Dubnau said. “For this to be an arts district, they should provide the existing community with free, low-cost cultural events and real benefits for working artists.”
The QNS innovation has also drawn the ire of tenant unions and political organizations since its certification in April. Grassroots groups Astoria Not For Sale and CAAAV Organizing Asian Communities staged protests with elected officials, including 36th Assembly District Representative Zohran Kwame Mamdani, to rally nonprofits and politicians to oppose the project. Queens Community Board 1, which covers the area allocated for development, also voted to reject the merger proposal public and commercial green spaces, with member Gerald Caliendo saying it failed to respect the “character of the two adjacent residential blocks”.
Despite these interventions, Kaufman vice president Tracy Capune says its status as a landmark movie studio speaks for itself.
“Kaufman Astoria Studios and its partners have been supporting arts and culture and building communities for decades,” Capune said in a statement to Hyperallergic. “QNS Innovation expands the Kaufman Arts District – founded by the Studio and the Museum of the Moving Image – and creates new opportunities for people to discover, learn and create art in our community.”
MoMI’s $67 million building is one of 13 that made up the original Astoria Studios complex, which was purchased by Kaufman in the 1980s. Since then, the developer has intertwined the museum and the film production company with commercial real estate, including buying and privatizing a former public laneway in 2013. Then in 2021, venture capital firms Hackman Capital Pictures and Square Mile Capital Management purchased the complex.
For Jake Davidson, an artist who has worked on displacement and former MoMI educator, QNS Innovation echoes other similar examples of upzoning in Manhattan, such as Cooper Union and Hudson Yards. He argues that organizational efforts like AAD have great potential to unite artists, workers and activists against the encroachment of luxury development on public cultural institutions.
“Not following suit is what drives us to stand up and fight back,” he said. “Instead of cornering MoMI, which makes the institution even more inclined to side with commercial real estate, we should be working on establishing an exit ramp that gives the museum an alternative to the grip of predatory developers.”