What It's Like To Turn Your Apartment Into An Art Gallery

by Stephanie Maida · November 1, 2017

Imagine opening your door and immediately confronting a $3500 sculpture. There is a performance artist in your closet, a virtual reality mannequin in your bathroom, and two daring art films on loop inside your television. The idea certainly gives new meaning to the term "interior design."

Such is life for Donna Cleary, the artist and curator behind 184 Project Space, a Bedford-Stuyvesant apartment turned live-in art gallery. According to the space's Facebook page, the goal is to "facilitate community amongst artists, curators, writers and collectors by staging exhibitions and events in a domestic setting. Through these exercises Donna explores Derrida's ideas surrounding Hospitality."

And hospitable she is. Walking into the brightly-lit, modern, but cozy home during an artists' dinner celebrating the latest exhibition, I'm immediately welcomed by creatives of all ages serving up potluck dishes, chattering and laughing around the kitchen island. Donna introduces herself and seems genuinely happy to have a stranger in her space, happy to share an experience and introduce me to the people behind the works. On her website, Donna describes herself as a healer, interested in the practice of herbalism and the ceremonies, rituals, and belief systems that surround medicinal vehicles. With her soft-spoken and easy ability to bring people together, Donna can definitely bring peace of mind and relaxation to a room.

For Donna, 184 began as a way to reconnect. "When I first graduated from my MFA program, I moved to Brooklyn and I didn’t know the area, I didn't know any of my neighbors, and I felt really disconnected from my classmates. So as a way to bring them back into my life, I decided to curate them into a show in my apartment. And then it occurred to me that I could do this more regularly, so it's evolved into a project that I do on average about three times a year."

Since 2014, she has been helping artists to connect "in a place outside of the white cube, where they can have these intimate conversations and people actually want to talk about art." Within an art scene as notoriously fickle as New York's, the project feels inclusive in a refreshing way. Homey. But that's not to say there isn't some criteria. 

"I need to be able to live with the art. So it can’t be something that has taken over the entire space. [There have been] really beautiful and unexpected responses. Like things in my shower, things hanging from the kitchen cabinets, I’ve had somebody performing in my closet. People in my bed as a performance," she says. 

It's also a way to push creators out of their comfort zones. "It creates a space for the artists to do something outside of what they would normally do. How do you make something that somebody wants to live with, not putting it in storage? That's the challenge, that’s the objective."

As romantic as that idea sounds, it's also extremely practical. After all, art is a business and in order to be lucrative, a work needs to be buyable. What better way to show collectors how a piece fits into their home?

Mis, the inaugural exhibition at 184's new location, happens to highlight works by femme artists, however inadvertently. Though it is an interesting facet when looking at art through the lens of domesticity.

This show, in particular, has Donna considering the pieces in new ways. "I've been to shows where the art is really big and takes over the whole space. I had a bodily reaction to it. The gestures here are a lot more subtle and it occurred to me that it was like the way I feel about old friends. They can exist in your peripheral thoughts, you think about them now and then, but they’re not screaming at you demanding your attention. Of course when turn your attention on them, you’re immediately engaged and reminded why you love them so much in the first place."

Mis runs through November 9th at 184 Project Space. Viewings can be made by appointment here and here.

[Cover photo by Julia Oldham, sculpture by Leah Dixon]

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