Bergen Street: Arts Mecca

On the block: Muriel Guépin Gallery, The Invisible Dog Art Space and Romantic Times Publishing

You might not know it when you exit the F or G train at Bergen Street, but just up those stairs is a veritable arts district. Sure, there's a Dominos Pizza on the corner, but further up the block are two venerable galleries and the offices of a longstanding romance novel book reviews magazine. 

Muriel Guépin Gallery, and are three different businesses, doing different things, but the motivation is the same: to serve and bring together the community through art.

In December, 2008, Lucien Zayan, a recent French immigrant with a background in theater, stumbled upon the Invisible Dog factory at 51 Bergen St.

Zayan saw the building's potential, and with the support of the building’s owners at the time, he decided to turn the space into an all-inclusive, large-scale art center. Swallowing up the neighboring art gallery Muriel Guépin (formerly known as Shop Art in 2008, and now owned by and named Muriel Guépin), and leaving all the raw space, as well as some found treasures, this former belt factory was revamped into a bustling, all-inclusive art, music and performance space.

Next door, the Romantic Times publishing building stands in contrast to the wide open and warehouse-like space of the Invisible Dog. The quiet offices are lit by florescent lamps, the sound of the tapping of computer keyboards fills the space and autographed posters of Fabio adorn the walls.

"If people come in off the street we always take the time to talk to them, if they're a writer we'll talk to them," said Carol Stacy, Romantic Times publisher. "We give readers a free copy of the magazine." 

Catherine Falk started Romantic Times in 1986, literally in a closet, during the romance novel boom. It was the first publication for romance genre book reviews, and has added to the rich history of the neighborhood. Besides romance novel and author reviews, Romantic Times also offers a selection of resources for aspiring authors on their website, as well as reader and writer workshops.

"We want to make sure we embrace the readers as well," said Stacy.

Romantic Times was born out of a former tire shop - when the offices first opened, the backyard was filled with tires and tire parts. In contrast with its neighbors, it came about during a turbulent time in the neighborhood. Although the Invisible Dog building had been in existence since the 1800s, Romantic Times, as an arts organization, shares a considerably different history.

Formerly an Invisible Dog factory (named after an accessory popularized in the 70s), the plan was to turn the space into condos (as was the plan for the former tire shop that would become the Romantic Times offices). In December 2008, Zayan discovered the building, which he says was "full of crap" (dirt, dust, sewing machines).

"It was my treasure," he said.

He bought the building and left the raw space intact, keeping much of the trove to incorporate into the new venture, including belts and buckles which now adorn the walls and ceilings through the work  of artists and Invisible Dog "luminaries" Steven and William Ladd. Now, there are three floors, two of which are rented as artists spaces.

Even the shaft of the industrial elevator has been used as an exhibit. Space is rented for artists as well as private events, photoshoots, dinners, movies and even residences.

Zayan said he wanted "a place that artists could really use, not a pristine renovation without personality." 

He sees himself and the services he offers on the same scale as the neighborhood butcher or grocer, and to that effect, it is an all inclusive business, where people of all ages can walk in and out any time they please - in stark contrast to the art culture in Manhattan or even much of Brooklyn, places that aren't generally family oriented.

"It is really important to work with people in the neighborhood. If you tell a kid 'careful, this is art, don't touch,' they will understand. Sometimes they understand better than adults," he said, with a laugh.

"New York is probably the best city for artists," he says. "But there are so many artists here."

Muriel Guepin, part of the space at 51 Bergen St., operates as a for-profit gallery on the principle that "art should not be exclusively reserved for the elite."

"Artists should be able to access an art market that is often unreachable," reads the website.

The Invisible Dog exhibits large pieces of art, installations and sculpture and offers family programming. 

As part of 51 Bergen St., Muriel Guepin also aims to serve the community, the artists, and bridge the two, especially by providing affordable and quality artwork.

Regardless of their histories, amount of square footage, or aesthetics, the three neighbors all agree on one thing; their doors are always open to all.

Hagit and Boaz, from Boerum Hill, visited the Muriel Guepin gallery during Juxtaposed, an exhibit on view through May 29, to see several paintings on display by good friend and artist Robert Szot.

"We've come a few times and their prices are reasonable and the art is accessible,"  says Hagit.

Boaz said it's a place where people don't feel out of place.

"It's a very inviting space to come and spend some time in," he said, looking down at the small children around him.


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