Although it is still listed as one of the “amenities” on the Octagon website, the 10-year old art gallery in the historic landmark insane asylum turned luxury apartment building has quietly disappeared. Local artist and Roosevelt Island Visual Arts Association (RIVAA) member Laura Hussey believes the loss of the gallery negatively impacts the entire community.
A unique pocket of culture nestled in the architecturally inspired eight-sided residence, the gallery was a special, and valued destination for visitors and residents alike. Now, its white walls are stripped bare, and one lone bench sits in the center of the floor. It is slated to be converted into rental office space.
The Octagon gallery, until recently on the ground level of the Octagon building, has been a draw for many art lovers throughout the years. It now has bare walls in preparation for its conversion to office space.
The closure came abruptly, about a month ago, with no notice given. One artist set to install a show at the end of August was given the news just as they were preparing to bring their work into the space.
Hussey explains, “When I heard about it I was upset, because, this is a really beautiful gallery. When people walk into the space they always comment on the gallery. And someone got the brilliant idea that they thought it would be a better idea to turn the gallery into an office space. Now why an office space is better than a gallery I have no idea. I think it’s a terrible idea. You’re talking about a landmark.”
So Hussey turned her passion into action and wrote a letter which was signed by several RIVAA artists. She sent a copy of the letter to the Roosevelt Island Operating Corporation (RIOC) Public Information Officer Alonza Robertson. She shared the letter on local blogs and the story was also picked up by AM New York. “They were all very upset,” Hussey says. “There was not one person I spoke with who was indifferent.”
An excerpt from the letter reads as follows:
“While RIVAA has been given the opportunity over many years to curate and mount exhibitions at the Octagon Gallery we realize that ultimately our organization has no say in the decision. Nevertheless we wanted to express our collective opinion that this is very shortsighted.
Roosevelt Islanders have always been proud of their community. They especially value its diversity, creativity and quality of life. There are so many cultural activities on the Island that have always enhanced these attributes. The small yet beautiful space that is the Octagon Gallery is surely one of these."
In addition to the letter, Laura Hussey created a petition to save the gallery, which was signed by about 100 Octagon residents. She is currently circulating the petition among residents of other buildings. There had initially been some hope that a Land Use Agreement might exist between RIOC and the Octagon, which could have offered legal recourse to keep the gallery. But apparently, no such agreement exists.
The exterior of the Octagon building that originally served as the main entrance to the New York City Lunatic Asylum, which opened in 1841. In 1972, the building was added to the National Register of Historic Places. It was renovated and converted into an apartment complex in 2006.
Sitting down with her at RIVAA’s Main Street Gallery, Hussey elaborates. “It’s about the quality of life on the Island. You start taking away one little thing here, and one little thing there… and you might even feel sympathetic, if it was for a good reason. As an arts organization, that is our responsibility, to represent the Island, and to stand up for something that people genuinely care about.”
RIVAA member Jim Pignetti describes the experience of being at the gallery during an exhibit of his work last summer when a man came in taking photographs. Pignetti quipped that he wanted to get credit for his work. It turned out the man was photographing his artwork to market the real estate.
Pignetti also pointed out that RIVAA’s vision for Roosevelt Island is an "Island of art," and they have made good on this vision; the Blue Dragon sculpture was installed outside Southpoint Park in 2016, and another installed in Good Shepherd Plaza this spring. RIVAA President Tad Sudol has advocated for art installations spanning the Island from north to south. Pignetti agrees, and believes the art would “attract visitors, and invite them to explore the Island, maybe stop at local businesses. It would be a positive thing for the local economy as well as for the morale of the Island’s residents,” Pignetti says. The closure of the Octagon Gallery undermines that goal.
A short while later, the artists would given a proverbial eviction notice. Hussey states that RIVAA is currently in negotiations with the Octagon realty company, Bozzuto, to secure another space within the building. Emails to the managers at Bozzuto Realty were not returned.
RIVAA artists hold out hope that their treasured gallery of many years will not be put on the chopping block.