Pioneer Works began a decade ago as an artist’s wild dream, sprung from the head of the sculptor Dustin Yellin. He transformed a dilapidated 1866 red-brick industrial building, originally an iron works, across the street from his studio in Red Hook, Brooklyn, into multidisciplinary cultural center, with an initial budget of $200,000 that was largely funded by his own art and renovated by himself and his studio crew.
“There were no windows open, no utilities, no stairs—it was filled with pigeons,” Yellin, the founder and president of Pioneer Works, recently told ARTnews. A self-described autodidact, he conceived this mammoth space where art, science, music, and technology live and cross-pollinate under one roof in the spirit of legendary models such as Black Mountain College, the MIT Media Lab, and the Bauhaus.
Since the beginning, “making science part of culture is an important part of the mission,” Yellin said. “Very organically and grassroots, like flying the airplane while you’re building it, this nonprofit came into being.”
Celebrating its 10-year anniversary this month with a Village Fête gala on November 11, Pioneer Works has matured into a stable and distinct organization within the ecosystem of New York cultural institutions. With an $8.5 million annual operating budget, it has more than 300 alumnae of its visual arts, music, and technology residencies, and at any given time about 10 people working in public-interfacing, glass-fronted studios selected by juries from some 2,000-plus applications a year. Artists such as Derek Adams, Abigail DeVille, and Jacolby Satterwhite have had career-defining early exhibitions here and participants of the “Scientific Controversies” series including Richard Dawkins, George Church, and Siddhartha Mukherjee have packed the spacious house. Annual visitorship was approaching 150,000 pre-pandemic and is now at about 100,000.
There is, however, no longer overlap between Yellin’s studio and Pioneer Works, save Yellin himself. “Now there’s full separation, like church and state,” said the executive director Maxine Petry, who has helped professionalize the organization, which now boasts its own staff of 45. When she took the helm four years ago, the only list of donors that had floated the organization for six years was lodged in Yellin’s brain. Petry has built finance, fundraising, operations, and HR personnel and is currently leading a $35 million capital campaign, part of a long-term strategic plan that includes the start of an endowment and was devised 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 included climate control, building an elevator shaft that goes through the building up to the roof, and two new accessible mezzanines overlooking the vast three-story-high main hall for exhibitions and performances. “We just got our temporary certificate of occupancy,” said Gabriel Florenz, founding artistic director. “We pride ourselves on being very accessible as a cultural institution, but you can’t go upstairs [by elevator], we haven’t had AC 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 last phase of renovations is planned for 2024. Those will include wheelchair accessible paths in the garden, the actual elevator for that shaft, and a 4,000-square-foot roof deck with an observatory that will be open and free to the public. This new amenity will help Pioneer Works scale up its STEAM (science, technology, engineering, arts, and music) education program, largely taught by artists in the residencies and alumnae and currently serving all of Red Hook’s public and charter schools. Over the next decade, Yellin aims to build out the campus to its fullest potential with a courtyard around the garden and expand the music department, classrooms, and residencies outside.
The truly trans-disciplinary and amorphous nature of Pioneer Works has been both its greatest asset and challenge, according to Florenz. In the early years, “it was frustrating to try to explain,” he said. “What’s the elevator pitch? Slowly we institutionalized in a way that embraced what we were.”
Petry has tried to navigate growing responsibly while not losing the soul and ethos of an artist-founded organization. “We now have the resources, the staff, the expertise of the board, and runway to make thoughtful decisions and work with artists and scientists in a thoughtful way that didn’t exist before because it was a young organization,” she said.
Yellin loves that the people may come to Pioneer Works for one thing but then, if they’re curious, discover a multitude of other things going on. “We’re a learning center,” he says. “We’re not an art museum.”
He continues to approach the whole enterprise as a social practice, much like making a sculpture. “But the success for me is that Pioneer Works works completely without me—that’s how I metricized it,” he said. “If I’m dead by car tomorrow, this thing still flourishes.”