Award-winning contemporary art space Franklin Street Works permanently closing due to COVID-19

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Award-winning contemporary art space Franklin Street Works permanently closing due to COVID-19
Nancy Shaver, To Richie Rich #2, 2014. Found metal, wooden blocks, dress fabric, Japanese fabric, Flashe acrylic, house paint. Courtesy of the artist.

STAMFORD, CONN.- Franklin Street Works—a nationally recognized nonprofit contemporary art space focused on bringing forward-thinking art practices and exhibitions to suburban Connecticut—closes permanently due to financial pressures brought on by the COVID-19 health crisis.

After almost 10 years of building community, mounting critically acclaimed exhibitions, and raising awareness of crucial social justice issues through those exhibitions and 130 educational programs, the two-time Andy Warhol grant recipient shut its doors to the public for good on May 17, 2020.

“For the last decade, Franklin Street Works created museum quality exhibitions and programming that were free to the public, fostering a thriving community of artists and art appreciators that was unparalleled in Southwestern Connecticut,” says Franklin Street Works Board President Sharon Chrust. “It is with a heavy heart that I acknowledge the closing of this beloved institution. The COVID-19 pandemic took too large a toll on our financial structure and the loss of this art institution will be sorely felt by our community. I am thankful to Kathryn Emmett for her commitment in bringing a new type of art institution to our area.”

“Alternative art spaces like Franklin Street Works provide a place for art and artists to operate outside the pressures of the market,” Franklin Street Works board member Tom O’Connor wrote in 2017. “One of the challenges of making art in the modern world is that it so quickly becomes a commodity, and the idea is overtaken by the object. Places like Franklin Street Works help return our attention to the idea.”

Founded by Stamford lawyer and community advocate Kathryn Emmett in 2011, Franklin Street Works grew to be an inclusive community hub and prominent experimental art space, which for several years also included a bustling cafe. Under the dynamic leadership of founding creative director Terri C Smith—a curator of 25 years who previously vitalized offerings at the Housatonic Museum of Art (Conn.) and Cheekwood Museum of Art (Tenn.)—the organization originated 34 exhibitions, developed 130 educational programs, and worked with 415 artists and more than 25 guest curators in nine years. The organization grew exponentially when Executive Director Bonnie Wattles came on board from 2014 to 2018. Under Wattle’s leadership, Franklin Street Works developed its membership program and funding sources, reimagined the cafe with chef Erin Emmett, and engaged new community partners, among other accomplishments.

“It was an honor to be a part of the Franklin Street Works leadership during the organization’s time of significant growth,” Wattles says. “Terri C Smith’s vision to bring emerging artists, museum quality exhibitions and innovative ideas to Stamford helped position the city as a cultural destination. The dedication of founder, Kathryn Emmett, and the passionate Board of Trustees helped to solidify the organization’s place as a cultural highlight in the region.”

Franklin Street Works thematic, original group exhibitions examined social justice issues such as environmentalism, LGBTQ+, the African diaspora, immigration, labor rights, fake news, and punk rock. In addition to showing existing work, Franklin Street Works funded 50 commissioned projects, supporting artists in the creation of new work that included installations, performances, sculptures, and sound art. The organization’s educational programs also were valued by many in Southwestern Connecticut and beyond for creating connections between the public and notable artists, all in the gallery’s intimate space—a domestic-scale, repurposed Victorian row house.

Ranging from emerging artists to those in the art history canon, Franklin Street Works’ artists and the content they explored put Stamford on the national map as a groundbreaking contemporary art program. The organization showed many emerging artists early in their trajectories. After participating in exhibitions at Franklin Street Works, artists like Trisha Baga, David Horvitz, Juliana Huxtable, Carolyn Lazard, Virginia Lee Montgomery, Aki Sasamoto, Cauleen Smith, Christopher Udemezue, and Constantina Zavitsanos went on to show at more visible, established venues such as the High Line, the Museum of Modern Art, SculptureCenter, the New Museum, and the Whitney Museum of American Art.

“Terri C Smith created a vibrant heart for contemporary art in the center of a Connecticut city that needed this sort of anchor,” says Aldrich Contemporary Art Museum Exhibitions Director Richard Klein. “Franklin Street Works provided a platform for some of the most relevant and progressive artists of our time, bringing both regional and national voices to southwestern Connecticut.”

Exhibitions were positively reviewed in international arts publications such as Artforum, Art in America, The Brooklyn Rail, Degree Critical, the Huffington Post, Hyperallergic, Two Coats of Paint, and more. Praising Franklin Street Works’ mix of grassroots community building and museum quality exhibitions, the Huffington Post called the space an “oasis of humanity,” while, in Two Coats of Paint, art critic Noah Dillon described the organization as “a non-profit art space with the curatorial vision of a marquis contemporary museum.”

Kathy Emmett says she launched the space to bring creative conversations to Stamford, “Growing up in Greenwich Village in a theater family, I developed a great appreciation for the value that the arts and social gathering places bring to a community. When I first saw the Victorian row houses on Franklin Street in 1976, I imagined the possibility of a space like ours being there. It was a dream come true when Franklin Street Works became a reality. I'm incredibly thankful to everyone who gave FSW life—Terri, our staff, our dedicated board, the artists, and the community. They made it possible for such a unique and welcoming place to exist in Stamford.”

Franklin Street Works also collaborated on projects with more than 30 community partners from New York City to New Haven, including Artspace New Haven, the Avon Theatre, the Center for Contemporary Printmaking, Connecticut Students for a Dream, the Ferguson Library, Purchase College, Social Practice Queens, Stamford Parks, Triangle Community Center, UConn-Stamford, and WPKN. Through its exhibitions and educational programs, Franklin Street Works created critical connections and dialogue between innovative artists and diverse regional audiences, highlighting the ways contemporary art is relevant to everyday life.

“It was important to me to create innovative, museum-quality exhibitions, but also to cultivate a caring, inclusive space, one that was feminist in the broadest sense,” Smith says. “This idea led to an increased focus on social justice themes and on work by artists who self-identified as marginalized. Artists, curators, and community collaborators are the lifeblood of any arts organization. FSW became a mix of grassroots and status quo-busting contemporary art thanks to an open feedback loop that included countless creative and committed people. I am eternally grateful to Franklin Street Works’ artists, curators, supporters, board members, interns, community members, and staff over the years for sharing their talent, intellect, honesty, and generosity of spirit as part of the Franklin Street Works project.”

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