Q+A: Kathleen Gilrain, Smack Mellon

At Plymouth Street and Brooklyn Bridge Park, there's an art gallery known as Smack Mellon. Smack Mellon, founded in 1995, has been a native DUMBO gallery for quite some time now, offering an ongoing series of fantastic exhibits. Additionally, their sought after fellowship program offers under-the-radar artists exhibition opportunities, studio space, and even tech assistance! We sat down with Executive Director Kathleen Gilrain to learn more about this unique space.

How was Smack Mellon formed?

It was founded by an artist, Andrea Reynosa and her husband at the time, Kevin Vertrees, a composer who still lives in DUMBO. They lived on Plymouth Street and founded the Smack Mellon organization in 1995. Originally, they were holding exhibitions in their loft. Then in 1998, Two Trees donated space to them for a one-off exhibition. That's where the relationship between Two Trees and Smack Mellon began: Two Trees then allowed them to hold a second exhibition in that space which was on Washington Street. Two Trees eventually gave us the space on Water Street where we were from 2000 to 2005. We did exhibitions there and we had our studio program on Washington Street and a different space. In 2005, we moved to the building we are in now where we could host the artist studio program and the exhibition program in the same building. Smack Mellon has always been always located in DUMBO.

We usually do six solos and two groups shows each year​. We have opportunities for guest curators and artists to apply to be a part of our exhibitions as well.

Kathleen Gilrain, Executive Director of Smack Mellon

Can you tell us a little more about the programs you created?

Well, first we have the exhibition program on the street level access to the gallery. We have a really large space, so we do solo exhibitions and group exhibitions. We usually do six solos and two groups shows each year. We have opportunities for guest curators and artists to apply to be a part of our exhibitions as well. We don't always choose from the applications sent in, but we do check all of them! One way emerging artists can potentially be selected to be a part of our program is through our emerging artist exhibition, which is curated by an emerging curator. Emerging artists can submit through our submittable program. Everyone's work gets reviewed by the guest curator who selects 50% of the work for the show through submissions. The group shows are curated by guest curators whereas the solo exhibitions are curated by us.

The Artist Studio Program is a program where we select artists to use our available six studios. Annually, we receive about 700 applicants. We convene a panel of professionals that change every year to help narrow the applicant pool down to six artists. These six artists get a free studio, fellowship, access to our fabrication shop and media lab which has an editing suite, as well as visits from curators. We present the artists through open studio twice a year.

Art Ready is a free annual program for students that I created in 2007. Generally, we promote this program in public schools that don't offer a lot of art programming. We are looking for students who are interested in possibly having a career in the arts. Specifically, we are looking for students who might want to apply to college for art but aren't necessarily going to an art high school and already know what they want. This program is to introduce students to the possibilities of an art career. The program starts in the fall where we go on a series of studio visits with artists who will then become their mentors. We have film makers, architects, jewelry designers, and painters among other artists that work with the program. Then in January, the students pick one of those artists to work with for the rest of the school year. It is a mentorship formed with two or three students going to one of the studios. The artist tutors and provides instruction to the children. It is once a week after school on Wednesdays.

Is there anything coming up that you're really excited about?

We have a benefit in May called the Kentucky Derby party which is really fun— the best benefit in New York. You pay $300 for a ticket, but two people get to come and you get a work of art. It's a great deal. We also have the Emerging Artist Show which is a summer exhibition that is about the upcoming election. The show will be up in June and July during the convention of both parties.

What was your most memorable exhibition?

We did an exhibition last January called called Respond. It was an open call exhibition where we publicized the opportunity for artists to respond to the non-indictment of the officer who killed Eric Garner and the whole Black Lives Matter movement that had started before that. We planned this exhibition the day after the non-indictment was announced and the huge protest. We postponed our planned exhibition to hold this exhibition. We received 600 submission, so we couldn't show everything, but we did show 200 works of art from all over different countries and across America. We had a lot of interest in this show, and many people came to see it.

Last but not least, what are your favorite spots in DUMBO?

I always go to Almondine in the morning to get my coffee and croissant. I take the ferry to work so if I have time I take a little walk down to the park. Superfine is also great; we always go to Superfine after our openings.

Mentioned in this article

Two Trees Management Company Almondine Brooklyn Bridge Park - Pier 1 Superfine