Pioneer Works began a decade ago as an artist’s wild dream from sculptor Dustin Yellin’s head. He transformed a dilapidated 1866 red brick industrial building, originally an ironworks, across the street from his studio in Red Hook, Brooklyn, into a multidisciplinary cultural center with an initial budget of $200,000, which was largely funded by his own art and renovated by himself and his studio team.
“There were no open windows, no utilities, no stairs — it was full of pigeons,” Yellin, founder and president of Pioneer Works, said recently ARTnews. Self-described as self-taught, he envisioned this vast space where art, science, music, and technology live and pollinate under one roof in the spirit of legendary models like Black Mountain College, the MIT Media Lab, and the Bauhaus.
From the beginning, “making science part of the culture has been an important part of the mission,” Yellin said. “This nonprofit came about very organically and massively, like flying an airplane while you’re building it.”
Celebrating its 10th anniversary this month with the Village Fête gala on November 11, Pioneer Works has become a stable and distinct organization in the ecosystem of New York’s cultural institutions. With an $8.5 million annual operating budget, it has more than 300 alumni in residence in visual arts, music, and technology, and at any given time about 10 people working in glass-fronted public studios selected by a jury of about 2,000 – plus applications per year. Artists such as Derek Adams, Abigail DeVille and Jacoby Satterwhite have had career-defining early exhibitions here, and contributors to the Scientific Controversy series including Richard Dawkins, George Church and Siddhartha Mukherjee have packed the spacious house. Annual visitors were approaching 150,000 before the pandemic and are now around 100,000.
However, there is no longer any overlap between Yellin’s studio and Pioneer Works, other than Yellin himself. “Now there’s a complete separation, like church and state,” said executive director Maxine Petrie, who helped professionalize the organization, which now has its own staff of 45. When she took the helm four years ago, the single list of donors that had run the organization for six years was stuck in Yellin’s brain. Petrie has built finance, fundraising, operations and human resources staff and is currently leading a $35 million capital campaign, part of a long-term strategic plan that includes the launch of an endowment and was developed with the board in 2018. The plan’s first priority was to purchase the building, which then made the nonprofit eligible to receive about $5 million in city and state funding. To date, $23 million has been raised.
Pioneer Works reopened in September after a nine-month renovation to help bring the infrastructure up to code. This includes climate control, the construction of an elevator shaft that runs through the building to the roof, and two new accessible mezzanines overlooking the vast three-story main exhibition and performance hall. “We just received our temporary certificate of occupancy,” said Gabriel Florenz, founder and artistic director. “We pride ourselves on being very accessible as a cultural institution, but you can’t go upstairs [by elevator]we didn’t have air conditioning in the summer,” he says, noting that before the TCO, they had to pull special permits for every single event with more than 75 people.
The final phase of renovations is planned for 2024. These will include wheelchair-accessible paths in the garden, the actual elevator for this shaft, and a 4,000-square-foot roof terrace with an observatory that will be open and free to the public. This new amenity will help Pioneer Works expand its STEAM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts and Music) education program, largely taught by artists-in-residence and alumni and currently serving all of Red Hook’s public and charter schools. Over the next decade, Yellin aims to build the campus to its full potential with a courtyard surrounding the garden and expand the music department, classrooms and residence halls outside.
The truly transdisciplinary and amorphous nature of Pioneer Works is both its biggest advantage and challenge, according to Florenz. In the early years, “it was frustrating trying to explain,” he said. “What is the elevator pitch? We slowly institutionalized ourselves in a way that embraced who we were.”
Petri has tried to navigate growth responsibly while not losing the soul and spirit of an artist-founded organization. “We now have the resources, staff, board and track experience to make thoughtful decisions and work with artists and scholars in a thoughtful way that didn’t exist before because it was a young organization,” she said.
Yellin likes that people come to Pioneer Works for one thing, but then, if they’re curious, they discover a host of other things going on. “We are a learning center,” he says. “We are not an art museum.”
He continues to approach the whole endeavor as a social practice, much like making a sculpture. “But the success for me is that Pioneer Works runs completely without me – that’s how I metered it,” he said. “If I’m dead by a car tomorrow, this thing is still thriving.”