Last week, I spent a rainy Friday evening inside of a Dunkin’ Donuts. That in itself was not so abnormal. I love Dunkin’ Donuts. Their watery, too sweet coffee holds a pathetic place in my heart. I’m drinking it right now.
This Dunkin’, though? This Dunkin’ was different. It was fully gutted and filled with art.
I was at the “soft opening” of Dunkunsthalle, a new space created by the artists Rachel Rossin, Kyle Clairmont Jacques, and Moira Spahić, located at 64 Fulton Street in the Financial District, the former site of a Dunkin’. (The space’s name is a portmanteau whose second half is a play on the German word for a non-collecting contemporary art institution.) For the debut exhibition there, the artists mounted a three-person show of their own work, spread somewhat sparsely throughout a space whose back room was dark and whose front room was bathed in the kind of warm glow that I associate with coffee that has both too much cream and sugar. Two strips of orange neon were all that remained in the window.
“My studio is in the building—it’s been empty since 2019—so my landlord and I worked out a deal to start an art center here,” Rossin told me earlier that afternoon when I popped in during the install, of Dunkunsthalle’s origins. The space secured a three-year lease and plans to operate under what Rossin calls a “really strange and novel funding structure” wherein they will rely on donors, both from the local FiDi community and the larger art world.
The donor’s logos will then be displayed on a wall in the front room, “more like Nascar stickers, like that presentation of a donor wall. So, Nascar sponsorship stickers-cum-donor wall,” said the multimedia artist, whom when at a non-vacant Dunkin’, likes to order a small black coffee. “Charmin paper towels next to Rhizome, for instance.”
So far, reactions have been positive. Rossin told me there has been interest from sponsors, even before the space’s first show. “It’s so funny, and really unexpected,” she said.
For her part in the exhibition, Rossin had on display a floor mat and a hanging, circular LED video screen whose blobby output glowed in the space. “I think it’s that it’s such a high traffic area, and it’s such a strange thing to happen in the Financial District,” she continued. “People walking by are really excited, because there’s nothing like this here.”
The gallery is an anomaly within an area that contained four other Dunkin’s, all a few blocks from each other. I went to two of those, on 58B Fulton and 122 Fulton, respectively, to see if any of their employees were aware of the space’s existence. They weren’t.
“I feel like we need to do some cross-Dunkin’ programming, to pull the neighborhood together. The ‘Fulton Five,’ if you will,” Jacques remarked when we spoke at the well-attended opening later that night. His usual Dunkin’ order is two Wake-Up Wraps and a medium coffee with cream, no sugar.
Rossin first brought the artist, who used to run the Bushwick gallery Signal, into the space last April. “The thing I was most freaked out by was the fact that there were seven or eight spouts and four drains in the floor. And not to mention pretty heavy-duty power,” he said. “I was like, Oh, the possibilities are kind of endless here, in terms of what we’re allowed to do.”
That sense of possibility sparked the artist’s desire to “simply flood” the space with four or five inches of standing water. “For innumerable reasons, people were like, I really don’t know if that’s the move,” Jacques said.
When it was confirmed that the soft opening would be a group show, though, the artist decided he would attempt to “fulfill this fantasy” of flooding, “or at least allude to it.” The end result is a recirculating water sculpture created in Dunkin’s preexisting sinks wherein Jacques “basically ripped out all of the existing plumbing, plugged it up, and then created a fountain.”
Combined with the barebones feel of the space, the sculpture suggested the appearance of a meth lab. The only real renovation the artists did was removing the ceiling, painting the walls, and cleaning the floor. “It was pretty severe and very scary, what the walls looked like before. It was a decade of stains and grease,” he said. “So, not as meth-y as it once was.”
Across the room from the sculpture was a text-based projection by Spahić, whose two paragraphs were bisected by a pipe that was already in the space. “That is a very intentional choice,” Spahić told me that night (her typical Dunkin’ order: iced coffee and a Boston Creme). Of Spahić’s typographical choices, which seemed to evoke a horror movie or maybe an early PlayStation game, the type Jesse Pinkman might play between cooks, the artist pointed to “the capitalization, the serifs, the bold nature of [the work], it’s something that feels like its demonizing but something that you can also shout, and scream, about.”
Though she admitted the work was informed by horror, Spahić said she herself wasn’t a fan of the genre. “I don’t watch a lot of horror movies,” the artist said. “It feels too visceral for me, to be honest. So it comes through here. And this isn’t by any means horror.”
It was at around this point in the opening that I asked the filmmaker Danny Garfield if he would be able to tell that this was a former Dunkin’ with no context. We were standing in the space’s back room, where there happened to be a few stacks of coffee cups quietly resting in one corner. “I mean, the wall, there’s some orange elements on the tile, I think,” he said. “I was also in a Dunkin’ Donuts like two minutes before I came here, so I’m sort of primed to feel like it’s the same.” Garfield goes to Dunkin’ once a week, when he tutors his friend’s daughter for her ACT math tests. He often gets black coffee and a cinnamon roll.
“I love Rachel’s work, so that’s why I came out,” the painter Austin Lee told me later that night. How often does he go to Dunkin’? “Pretty often,” he said with a laugh. “Almost every day. I have one on the corner of where my house is, so, yeah.” His order: coffee with a lot of cream and sugar, or simply “regular style,” as they say in New England. “I don’t have to tell them—they just know what I get.”
Though the gallery did have on offer a bowl of Dunkin’s signature Munchkins, those who wanted to caffeinate had to bring their own joe. The gallerist Alison Sirico came holding an iced coffee with oat milk. “I’m a real fan,” she said. Sirico is the cofounder of Public Works, a digital art gallery that itself rests in a fairly unorthodox location. It’s in the 50th Street subway station in Times Square. At one point, it was the legendary dive bar Siberia, which was a stop for touring punk bands and a favorite of the late Anthony Bourdain. Of the former Dunkin’ location, she said, “I’m a little bit jealous, but I think that’s what you gotta do now. The whole place has got to have a story.”
As for her own impetus to start a gallery in Midtown and not, say, Tribeca, which in the past few years has once again emerged as a blue-chip art district, economics played a major factor. “The rent is more manageable,” Sirico said. “We were surprised, we were going to do a pop-up, but we decided to lease the space.”
Indeed, in a post-Covid New York, there seems to be the opportunity for gallerists to explore, at least fleetingly, certain pockets of the city less saturated with contemporary art. “The reason that the landlord struck such a good deal with us is because everything is hollowed out,” Rossin said, talking about the vacancies in the neighborhood. The artist has plans to expand the space’s programming to other parts of the building: one vacant floor could be retrofitted to house an artist residency, for example. “Even just from my studio, the amount that it is just cartoonishly the Financial District is so charming,” she said, of her view when working. “Seeing these canyons of buildings, it’s very—it’s a good place to make art.”