Carolina Peñafiel Talks Building Community at Local Project

Today I’m happy to bring you an interview with Carolina Peñafiel. Carolina runs Local Project, a non-profit art space in Long Island City, New York. Since it’s beginning in 2003, LP has served as a gallery for art exhibitions and programming primarily for emerging artists and curators, but also as a gathering place for the surrounding community.

I found LP when I moved to Queens four years ago and met Carolina when I proposed an exhibition for the space. It was amazing to have a show in such a supportive environment and much of that is thanks to the leadership of Carolina. I sat down with her to learn more about the origins of this unique space and how she has kept it running for sixteen(!) years.

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SF: Carolina, can you tell me a little bit about your background and how you got your start here in New York?

 CP: I can tell you right away I didn’t know I was going to end up in the art world. I graduated from high school, did a bunch of random jobs, and eventually I moved to America. My plan was to be here for six months and that’s it. My starting point in New York was kind of like the movies. I found a job as a live-in nanny for a rich family in Manhattan, but that only lasted about four months because I couldn’t stand it.

As I kept meeting people, I found some friends that lived in a loft space and through that space, met a lot of artists and creative people that led me to where I am today. It was all very organic - I never went to school for anything art related.

SF: How did Local Project (LP) get its start?

CP: There in that space. That was the incubator for it. We started here in Long Island City and we are now on the same road near where we started 16 years ago. There were about six of us and we just really wanted to put on shows and throw parties with our friends.

SF: Local Project has been in Long Island City now for 16 years and I'm curious to know more about what has kept it going.

Maria Liebana’s solo exhibition at Local Project, 2018

Maria Liebana’s solo exhibition at Local Project, 2018

CP: I literally grew up with it. I was super young - I didn't know anything about emails and things like that - so when I started it was like a blank canvas. One of the other founders, Sandro Darsin, he was older than me and taught me a lot. He didn’t own the building we were in, but he was renting it for his own personal construction business. So he was giving back the empty spaces in the building to us to throw shows and parties. He was essentially the leader at that time. He eventually proposed that we formalize the space and become a nonprofit.

That was how it happened. There wasn't like a strategy plan or anything. It just evolved very organically. Some people will say it’s me that keeps Local Project going, but I don’t know. For me, it’s something I just grew up with. I've always been very passionate about it and I've learned a lot throughout the years. It doesn't even have a lot of money but the people and the community are really why it’s still here.

I try to keep LP very real and down to earth. I work with people I trust. If a relationship didn’t go well, I try to not make the same mistake over and over. I try to stay open and receptive to ideas. I never really made Local Project my own personal thing - I’ve tried to keep the spirit of having it be driven by artists and the community.

At this point, Local Project does feel a little bit like a baby I’ve raised and I’m ready to send it off to college and see it grow. I’ll always be involved, but I don’t know what that will look like in the years to come.

SF: Can you talk a little bit about the decision at LP to focus mostly on emerging artists and curators?

CP: It was that way from the beginning and I think as we evolved into a nonprofit, it was rolled into our mission to give clarity to what the space was for and who it was for. I also think it's what is needed.  When Local Project was first getting started I interned in a commercial gallery in Chelsea to understand more about why our space needed to be different. It was my own personal research. Our core friends and people that showed up were younger and edgy and so when it came time to define who we served, it was mostly emerging artists. However, we do work with more established artists to provide mentorship and support the organization in different ways.

SF:  Let’s talk about money. How does an artist-run space like LP support itself financially?

CP: We occasionally get money for art sales through our shows - not a lot, but some. Mostly we fund LP through grants and individual donations. I’ve chosen to keep LP really grounded in terms of money because I need to keep it manageable for myself in terms of a budget. I keep it simple and fairly contained. I also keep it simple for tax purposes. If a non profit organization makes around $50,000 a year or less, your tax paperwork is very straightforward and much simpler. Right now, we are at that threshold and we are at a point where we will have to start making some bigger changes if we want to grow and take in more money.

Jamie McGann,  Love/Hate  at Local Project, 2019

Jamie McGann, Love/Hate at Local Project, 2019

SF: Can you talk about how you have managed to stay in Long Island City, which is an area that has faced enormous development and change in recent years and is becoming increasingly more expensive?

 CP: After starting in our loft space, we were in Five Pointz for about six years. Our rent there was around $500 a month. Once the building was sold, we got very lucky. The reason we have our current space is that our landlord at Five Pointz was also evicted when the building was bought. We had a good relationship with her and she asked if we would like to move with her back to 44th Rd. The rent went up when we moved, but having that relationship is what enabled us to have space and be able to continue.

 SF: That’s huge and it shows the power of maintaining positive relationships with anyone and everyone. Do you think it’s possible for an artist today to start a space in LIC?

 CP: Absolutely. I just started my own group of studios nearby!

 SF: How did that come to be?

CP: It was completely out of the blue. It felt like a gift from the universe. I wasn’t looking for anything, but the landlord was looking for someone to rent his building and not change the space too much. A friend of mine had put me in contact with him, so I thought “Sure, why not? I’ll meet him.” I’m always happy to meet the owner of a building in the area because it is a potential partnership for LP whether it’s through funding, space or just a friendly supporter in the community. He was super nice and we just clicked.

I didn’t have money to rent the space, but my partner is a property manager and he came to see the space with me. The landlord liked the fact that my partner had property management experience, so he decided to rent us the space and let us turn it into studios. It’s exciting to have this new business and to provide something artists need.

Carolina Peñafiel by Orestes Gonzalez, 2016

Carolina Peñafiel by Orestes Gonzalez, 2016

SF: For artists, too, it’s great to be able to rent a space directly from someone like you that has worked with artists, understands what they need and can stand up for them, instead of some faceless company. It says also something to staying put in an area, getting to know people, getting to know the business community and working with them, being open to who is around because you never know what opportunities may exist.

CP: It also feels like life giving back to you in some way. The landlord recognized the work I was doing, he’s visited the gallery and may become a potential funder. And I feel like it’s the result of the reputation I’ve created and the relationships I’ve built. I think it’s completely doable for somebody else - especially if you have a team of people and have clear visions, plans, or ideas.

One tip I would have to give people is to get everything in writing. I’ve had many things fall through before and I’ve learned many lessons from taking people at their word. Get things in writing!

SF: It’s great to hear that you think that it’s possible even with all of the enormous changes happening in the neighborhood that there is still space for artists to make things happen.

Carolina’s son, Santi

Carolina’s son, Santi

CP: You have to be a digger. It’s the New York way. If you want to make something or have a space, you have to go and ask. Find out who owns what, what they are looking for, etc. I do recognize that there are organizations being displaced, but it’s also an opportunity to re-assess, re-organize and grow.

SF: What hopes do you have for the future of LP and what does the future hold for you?

CP: I’m really happy with the board of LP and the things we are doing together. They are very active and it’s a great team.

 I do also want to do my own thing. I want to continue to run the new studio space, I’m also a new mom, and I want to work on my own creative projects. I think if we can get LP to be more robust financially - maybe bring someone in that has that experience - that would be a huge help.

I’ve never gotten paid through LP. I have always had other side jobs and the money LP makes goes right back into the organization. It would be nice for us to have enough money to pay a staff.

Further in the future, I would love to move back to Chile and open a space in the mountains. A residency, studios, retreat center, cultural center. Something big. That’s my goal.

SF: Is there any advice you would give other artists that are interested in starting something like LP?

CP: I really recommend that artists try to find studios together or create some kind of collaborative space. Use a wall or a room for shows and then open your doors to the public. You never know who you are going to meet and where it’s going to take you. You can start that anywhere.

Take your programs outside, bring the work into the community. At LP we use the street a lot. It has been instrumental in our programming. We throw openings outside or do video screenings outside. It’s how you attract the neighbors.

SF: That’s great advice. I spend a lot of time thinking in my own studio about the audience I want to serve and how to make my art more accessible to people. Being intentional about programming in public spaces or just outside in the street so you are visible to the neighbors seems like a great way to really build community.

Thank you for taking time out of your busy schedule to meet with me and share your journey at Local Project. I look forward to watching LP continue to grow and following your new adventures.

CP: Thank you!


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Carolina Peñafiel is an independent curator and the Executive Director of Local Project in Long Island City, NY. You can follow Local Project on Instagram @local_project and on Facebook.