By Maria Rocha-Buschel
Since it opened about a year ago, bodega-turned-art-space Specials on C has played host to graffiti art shows, secret concerts, educational workshops, painting exhibitions and a pop-up holiday shop. And co-founders Jim Chu and Peter Knocke don’t want to limit it to just that handful of uses; they want the space to be open to whatever anyone else wants to use it for.
“We work with artists, entrepreneurs and creators to help them get around the prohibitive challenges of putting out their work,” Chu said.
Knocke also made a point to say that he and Chu don’t consider themselves the curators of the space.
“We try not to curate anything,” he said. “We want the community to curate it.”
The building, which is located at East 12th Street and Avenue C, is a city-owned property, which makes the rent more affordable than most retail spaces in the area. Knocke and Chu worked this aspect of the building into Specials, and the space gets rented out per event at $300 a day with a minimum of three days.
Knocke explained that they wanted to build a working relationship with the city and show that the space is beneficial to the community.
“If we can prove this is a viable spot for an open community and expression, we can go back to the city and say, hey, you’re going to be unable to sign long-term lease on this space but we can use it to put on events to make sure the city is a vibrant place to live,” he said.
Chu and Knocke met a few years ago at Chu’s restaurant on Houston, a now-closed spot called Jo’s that Knocke referred to as “our own Cheers.”
“Not to be cheesy,” he added, laughing, “but it really had this friendly, regular vibe from the people who were there often, the people who lived and those who worked there on a day by day basis.”
Knocke and his friends used to spend their Sundays at Jo’s, and it was on one of those Sundays that Chu off-handedly mentioned finding out about an empty retail space that might be available and Knocke said that the number of seemingly endless possibilities for such a space was invigorating.
“That’s kind of how it all started: we just thought, we can do whatever we want in this space, so what should we do with it?” he said. “But then it was like, why are we deciding what to do with the space? What if we let the community decide what to do with the space?”
Knocke is a user-experience designer by trade and spends a lot of his time online, so he said part of the appeal of Specials on C for him was the idea of getting back to tangible art. GothamSmith, his 3D-printed jewelry company which also helped financially back Specials on C, was also borne from that idea.
“We like digital things but we also miss physical things so it grew from that,” he said.
Film producer Amy Collado made her debut at the gallery last Thursday with “Born Too Late: A Tribute to NYC’s New Golden Era.” She had the idea for her show bouncing around in her head for the past couple years but she said that once she found out about Specials on C from a friend, she felt like it was the ideal space for what she had in mind.
“It’s easy to have a white-walled space but it was Specials that got me excited,” she said. “The whole white-walled gallery idea was too dry for me. I felt like my work would get lost. But there are certain elements that Specials is set up for and (Knocke and Chu) just said, use the space how you want. Do whatever you want. I was allowed to have fun with it.”
The show consisted of a photo essay comprised of old photographs taken in the 1970s and 80s that Collado collected from family members who were living in New York. She said she was drawn to the era, but to her the show is more about people.
“What really drives me is what connects people to one another,” she said. “It was a really great experience just watching (my aunts) go through the photos and watching them reminisce. This is what they saw and experienced.”
Chu noted that they can’t necessarily help artists cultivate their ideas but they are willing to back artists who already have the projects they’d like to do but might be lacking in resources.
“This is like an improvisation and it doesn’t work if you say no,” he said. “We’re going to say yes even if it’s conditional. You’ve got no money but an incredible idea; it’s 95 percent there so we’ll trust that you can figure it out.”
Chu said that the space might be putting on their final shows this November, but he doesn’t think of its possible closure as a waste.
“We think of our space as a very evolutionary process,” he said. “Like actually succeeding is the smallest part of it. There will be 99,000 failures and it will evolve from the failures.”
“Even saying we might shut down isn’t so much an obstacle,” he said. “We’d still have access to the building and could restart the process, just take a step back and look at what worked and didn’t, see if there’s another way to do this and better way to do this.”
Specials on C is located at 195 Avenue C and the next exhibition will be “You Are Here,” a showcase dedicated to people who live in or enjoy the Lower East Side and will be open for one weekend, beginning November 13.