DELVE Interview- Abby Subak from Arts Gowanus

Welcome to DELVE Interviews, a look into the unique paths of artistic and creative individuals. These conversations are a branch of our DELVE Workshops and Networking Events, where we celebrate and discover everyone's unique paths as artistic and creative forces. 

Today we're excited to be speaking with Abby Subak, an artist and the Executive Director of Arts Gowanus. Thanks, Abby, for sharing your path with us!

Abby Subak is the Executive Director of Arts Gowanus, a non-profit organization committed to nurturing and supporting artists and the arts in the neighborhoods surrounding the Gowanus Canal in Brooklyn, NY.  Before coming to Arts Gowanus, Abby's career wove together the many threads of community organizing, arts management, progressive advocacy, and making her own art.  She grew up outside of Pittsburgh, PA, graduated from Tulane University of New Orleans, loved her time in California and Massachusetts, and now lives happily with her family in Brooklyn, NY.

Abby Subak in her studio, photograph by Randy Duchaine

Abby Subak in her studio, photograph by Randy Duchaine

Can you describe your path in the creative industry – from where and when you began, until now?

I have always been a creative maker.  However, I was also very focused on my academic success.  I described art as my "sanity", yet I rejected it as a viable career path.  In a way, I wanted my art for myself and not to share it.  Or, I just didn't think it would lead to my "success."

After college, I no longer wanted to pursue my traditional paths of success, and I became an environmental organizer (and canvassed a lot!) and kept my art-making as a hobby.  For years, I continued to work with various progressive non-profit organizations (they each impacted me so deeply, I could talk/write about each for a long time), and I continued to keep art-making and crafting separate from each other and from my career.  

After I had my son and daughter, I needed a more flexible schedule, and I realized that if I was ever going to make art more central in my career, it was time to do it.  So I started my fine arts education and continued part-time for many years spanning from Boston to New York, from accredited colleges to community centers.

At the same time, I managed to land a dream job as the Executive Director of the Puppet Showplace Theater (PST) in Brookline, MA.  I spent one amazing year at PST, working with the Board of Directors to stabilize the organization and lay a plan for the future. And to work with some of the most amazing creatives in the world – puppeteers! I was heartbroken when my husband and I decided we had to move to NYC and I would leave PST.  But then, I was in NEW YORK CITY, cultural capital of the world.  So I made art, took classes, completed a few years of a BFA at Pratt Institute, set up my own studio, and sporadically got paid to work my previous advocacy and community organizing roles.  

My own art is primarily painting, in oil and in watercolor, and now even in gouache.  My subject-matter is most often about the roles of women in our society.  I also work with pen and ink in a series of chaos drawings (aka scribbles) that I think also relates to the role of women.  And I have begun to blur the line between my crafting and my art as I have worked on several pieces of embroidery and knitting.

In the Fall of 2012, I had the opportunity to become the Director of Gowanus Open Studios, organizing for the 2013 event.  I jumped at it.  I decided it was time to take that (volunteer) job, treat it like the full-time job it could be, and really make the most of the organization.  The past almost-two-years have been some of my most fun, invigorating, challenging, and creative times ever.  I have high hopes for the future of Arts Gowanus and we are making huge strides.  Yet, it is taking a lot of patience to remember to build Arts Gowanus one brick at a time, and to remind myself that those bricks are adding up, and we will get to our larger vision soon. "Rome wasn't built in a day" has suddenly come to mean something to me very personally.

Trust people and let them do what they love.
— Abby Subak

Can you describe a day, or week, in your professional life?

These days, my professional life is focused on organizing artists more than making my own art.  Sometimes I struggle with that and I keep a long list of ideas that I hope to someday paint, build, create, or turn into realities. Yet, I am energized by working with the artists and community of the Gowanus neighborhood and of NYC. It is very satisfying work and a place I can make a contribution. I have come to think of my organizing as a type of creativity and art-making.  I just don't have a finished product to hold in my hand at the end of the day.  But I do feel filled up by it.

So my typical day, right now, as we are leading up to Gowanus Open Studios (GOS) 2014 in October, is primarily communication via email or phone, guiding and coordinating the many volunteers who are moving pieces of this event forward. It is very exciting this year to have so many volunteers running with parts of the event. It is going to be a much stronger event because of it.  The number of community sponsors, the press outreach, the artists participating, and venues participating will all be greater this year because of the work of the volunteers. And that means I need to spend more time on email or in meetings and less time pounding the pavement myself. Email and meetings are actually more exciting and fun than they sound because I am working with such creative and committed people. And because I love to talk to people, learn about what they are doing, and start to understand what makes someone tick.  I do a lot of outreach to people that I would like to have participate in GOS or Arts Gowanus, particularly community leaders, creative venues, and arts and community organizations.  Directing Arts Gowanus has been a wonderful opportunity (and excuse) for me to meet so many wonderful and creative people working hard to create a world that supports the arts and art-making.  And it is so energizing when we find ways to work together.

I do try to meet my kids after school each day and get them into their homework and afterschool routines.  Perhaps even feed them a healthy dinner.  (Another whole topic is parenting and art making!)

Organizing also includes many evening meetings. There is something interesting and important happening just about every single evening – even if I just focused on Gowanus that would be true, and we are in New York!  I got through phases of trying to get to as many as I possibly can, and then retreating a bit and limiting myself to one evening per week (so that I can spend time with my family).  It is not an easy balance as I care so much about being present with both my work and my family.

What is your favorite project that you've worked on?

I love working on Gowanus Open Studios.  For me and my role, it is the perfect combination of community organizing and supporting the creative life.  And to do it in the most populist, non-elitist way.  I love that we are creating a direct connection between artists and their collectors. Both artists and art enthusiasts are often shy about meeting each other. It is so satisfying to see them have productive and fulfilling conversations with each other. I think both sides get so much out of this direct, open conversation that happens during Gowanus Open Studios.

I also love GOS because it is about all of us working together.  The core group of volunteers has started to say to each other often, "A rising tide lifts all boats." The work we are doing might not impact ourselves directly, but if it helps another artist, it helps us. And hopefully other artists come to see it that way too. I think our society (and our art world) is structured too much around a zero-sum game.  The pie is too limited. This is so demoralizing. I want to cry when I see artists keeping their ideas and resources to themselves.  The antidote is to all work together, to work on something that benefits not only ourselves individually, but everyone else. And see just what kind of tide we can create together and how much it can lift us. I believe it does benefit all of us.  And I love to be part of the community that is created by that.

What's the most valuable lesson you've learned from managing all of your projects?

Trust people and let them do what they love. Arts Gowanus is primarily volunteer-led. And volunteers have a gazillion great ideas.  Sometimes they aren't the ideas that were right on the top of my priority list, or sometimes they have similar results but won't be done exactly the way I would have done them, and sometimes I don't see at first how they will fit into what we are doing.  If I can allow someone to follow their ideas and enthusiasm, and support them along the way, amazing things can happen.

Now, I am a perfectionist, and I really have opinions about RIGHT ways and WRONG ways of doing things. However, there is also so much room for creative interpretation. If someone is enthusiastic about an idea and ready to run with it, I want to give them my full support.  If I can help motivate them to move forward, and then also be the guide rails to stop them from running off the road, they can create some pretty amazing projects within that, that are probably better than my own ideas, and certainly better than anything I would have created if I had done the entire project by myself.  And then, of course, the energy and enthusiasm of other people ends up feeding me and inspiring me and keeping me going.

And finally, where is one of your favorite places to go to be inspired?

A long walk alone in nature.  I need the quiet, the rhythm of walking, and to notice the trees and the birds.  To clear my mind.  And the inspiration comes to me.  And then everything seems obvious and do-able. So living in Brooklyn, my best bet is Prospect Park.  I often walk the drive around the park. But if I can veer off onto some of the less-traveled side trails, that is even better.  Of course, my truly favorite, most inspiring, but much less frequent, is a long low-tide walk on the beach on Cape Cod.

To read more DELVE Interviews, check them out here.
To learn about Gowanus Open Studios 2014, click here.

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