It's a Friday in January, rainy and cold, and I'm on my way to meet Peter Knocke and Jim Chu, the faces of an organized committee financially backed by GothamSmith and friends, whose latest venture, Specials on C, an empty bodega turned art space, begs the question: What does the store front of artistic expression in New York look like these days?
The goal of Specials on C is to open the doors to artists, educators, creators and the like and give them a space to do, essentially, whatever they want that will spark community engagement and social value. Teach a class for a night, have an art show for a month -- the possibilities are endless and the cost is modest.
Knocke and Chu met in 2009 at Jo's restaurant in Nolita, where Chu was a co-owner and Knock was a Sunday evening regular. Sunday's at the restaurant were filled with a collection of people exchanging conversation about inspired ideas and stories. Jo's has since closed but Knocke and Chu have remained great friends, continuing that discussion of inspired ideas and stories.
The bodega charms the corner of 12th Street and Avenue C. It's 700 sq. feet, empty except for a wooden table, a few silver chairs and a box of red wine. One wall has been artfully updated with handcrafted woodwork, the other shows off the original shelving from the store. The string of ceiling lights dazzles in that modern, simplistic way that keeps your eyes interested far longer than you'd expect. The structure of the bodega remains in place, deli counter and all.
We sit down and toast: To connecting people and things and ideas, to saying Yes to an invitation to inspire.
"Insert this night with me and my friends grabbing drinks," says Knocke, "and Jim just shows up and says, 'I got this space. I got an in on a deli.' And we're like you have an in? The idea of physical space in this city is absolutely impossible and unheard of."
New Yorkers know available space is invaluable, and that's exactly what Knocke and Chu hope to capitalize on.
"New York is a lesson in scarcity: jobs, cabs, apartments, you battle for each, you battle for everything but people. People are abundant, everywhere and people become your resource and those other scarcities then become shared," says Knocke.
In this case, Knocke and Chu are your resources. Bring your ideas to their space, whether it be a day, a night, a week or a month -- they're inviting anyone who is willing to be a voice for creativity, for testing ideas and opening up a world that encourages more doing and less talking.
"We're in the business of giving permission," says Chu. "You have an idea, we say Yes! but the rest is on you. You have art and you want to show it, you have an installation and you want to make it, do it."
The metrics for success for Specials on C are based more on social and cultural capital than they are on money. What value can this space bring to the community, and how, and who are the people willing to dive-in and push the boundaries with a free-form structure. This is a space where creativity can be experimented, tested, shown-off and there are few rules.
"This place allows for entrepreneurs who have a comfort with ambiguity. The people who we're looking for, the artists, the designers, the educators, are the people who are cool with the whole, 'yeah we don't know what it is or what it can be, but let's figure it out, and let's dive into it,'" Knocke says.
This is a very unique environment.
"Because it's so open and improvisational, a lot of people can't grasp it. We're not a gallery and we don't have what gallery's do, which is create markets around specific artists, control the flow as to what's available, conspire to contribute value to things...our value is in that it gets done, and it's expedient in a lot of ways and that throws people off," Chu adds.
They're looking for people who won't struggle with the lack of a traditional format but instead will embrace an opportunity to bring an idea to life, someone who will allow the community to get involved in seeing, touching, hearing, who will illicit a relentless desire to engage. People who are going to turn an invite into action.
"As soon as these creative plans get put into action it becomes contagion. The inertia rolls the other way, and you get more people thinking about what they want to do or can do," says Chu.
Hours have passed and I'm excited. Their passion and energy are contagious in itself. And I'm left not only wondering what the store front of creativity looks like, but who's brave enough to show us their version.
Specials on C is located at 195 Avenue C at 12th Street, New York, NY.
Peter Knocke and Jim Chu can be reached via the Specials on C website regarding pricing and available event time.