New York

Silent Barn Fights for Its Life

One of north Brooklyn’s last surviving DIY spaces turns to its community to stay afloat

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Silent Barn has been through a lot. The community arts space opened in 2006 as a charmingly scrappy, art-filled, all-ages venue in Ridgewood, where bands played in the kitchen and avant-garde video-game cabinets occupied the basement. That space was shut down by the city and subsequently vandalized in 2011. The trauma led Silent Barn to grow and adapt, as its operators sought to transform their grassroots ethos into something more sustainable. They successfully raised more than $40,000 via a Kickstarter campaign to acquire a huge space in Bushwick that they now occupy legally, running it with the help of a seventy-person collective of employees and volunteers.

In the five years it’s spent at its Bushwick home, Silent Barn has hosted a variety of projects: artist studios and residences, a synth shop, a recording studio, diverse nightly performances, and a hairdresser/record store. In 2015, it had another setback: a fire that damaged the upstairs apartments and performance space. But the collective survived that too, and crowdfunded more money to recover.

Silent Barn’s mere existence is a feat in a time when nearly all its DIY peers — from Shea Stadium to Palisades — have closed, pushed out by raids, regulations, or rent increases. The space’s survival is even more impressive given that it’s run by a collective that has never had institutional or corporate backing. But Silent Barn’s extraordinary story doesn’t mean the venue is not at risk. Worryingly, after five years, Silent Barn is now closer than ever to closing its doors.

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“It’s like we’re on a boat going down a river, and my job as the financial manager is to tell people, ‘Hey, there’s a waterfall coming up, we need to all get together and paddle,’ ” Silent Barn financial manager Jordan Michael Iannucci said over the phone last week. “This is the first time where it’s like, we can see the waterfall, we can hear the water, [and] we know there are rocks under it.” The Barn’s end-of-year fundraiser page currently states a goal of $25,000 to be reached by December 31. Three days from New Year’s Eve, that goal is only 44 percent funded. If the collective doesn’t raise at least $20,000, according to a public event on Facebook, “Silent Barn would have to begin planning to shut down this iteration of the project.”

“When we opened our place, we had basically about a month of cash on hand, maximum, at any given moment,” said Joe Ahearn, one of the original Silent Barn’s longtime residents and a founder of the new space, when the Voice spoke to him over the phone on Christmas Eve. “It’s basically just gotten harder every day since then.”

Unforeseen circumstances, like the fire and bureaucratic problems that delayed the venue’s new liquor license, ate into this already thin cash reserve. “We are [now] operating at less-than-zero-days-to-live margin,” Ahearn said. The collective expected a loss of $28,000 for 2017; at the end of the year, the actual figure is looking closer to $69,000.

This dire situation might seem inevitable for a grassroots arts space trying to survive in the increasingly insane rental economy of modern-day New York City. But it’s also the result of problems specific to Silent Barn’s community model and the obstacles it’s encountered along the way.

According to Iannucci, Silent Barn consists of three main business models. There’s the rental income from artist studios and the four apartments above the space; revenue from show tickets and the drinks people buy at performances; and the collective’s fundraising apparatus.

This model presents many problems for a space like Silent Barn, which is big enough to have a yearly budget of nearly $1 million, but small and young enough that it lacks an established base of large-scale donors. Instead, this year, the collective launched a membership system, where supporters can donate $300 a year for free access to all shows. Lower levels of monthly donation come with such swag as stickers or mixtapes. (Disclosure: This author is a monthly contributor.)

Silent Barn is currently registered as an LLC, but for fundraising purposes it functions as a 501(c)3 nonprofit, with Long Island City DIY art institution Flux Factory acting as the venue’s financial sponsor. Until Silent Barn’s own nonprofit status is approved sometime next year, it is difficult for the space to receive grants.

Show attendance also fell this year. Though the decline averaged out to only eight fewer people per show, those numbers add up in lost ticket and drink revenue. Even after the venue secured a full liquor license, four months late, its bar still needed to be remodeled to adhere to health codes for serving mixed drinks. That would have cost $10,000 up front — money that Silent Barn didn’t have on hand. Instead, the collective has chipped away at that number one item at a time. “When we had $2,000, we got an ice machine,” Iannucci said. “[Then] that’s sitting in our basement until we get another $2,000 to pay someone to install it.” In the meantime, he estimates that they are losing a potential $4 on every show attendee who can’t buy mixed drinks.

The amount Silent Barn charges for rent is also limited by its operators’ ethos, which is to provide an affordable space for a diverse group of artists to experiment and learn. “If we raised the rent to keep up with market rate, why the fuck would anyone donate money?” Iannucci asked.

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According to collective members, what Silent Barn needs to survive and thrive is not just the support of one-time big donors or grants. It’s daily, consistent community engagement.

“The recognition that running a space like ours is inherently unstable and needs constant support from everyone involved is something that is widely understood, [but also] very easy to take for granted,” Ahearn said. “What has gotten us to this point is $3 at a time from people coming to shows, donating, buying drinks, helping out. That’s the thing that’s so hard for people to believe. But it’s the reality. And that’s only going to be more true in 2018.”

Despite the precariousness of its situation, Silent Barn doesn’t want to resort to a threatening narrative to get people to donate. “I don’t want people’s investment in the space to be dependent on a time clock for when we’re closing,” Iannucci said. “I want people to appreciate what we do and give us what they think we are worth.”

He and Ahearn both believe that this idealistic goal is achievable, despite the long odds in a time when people are reluctant to pay for even their favorite albums or magazines. “I think it is possible, with the right level of transparency, rhetoric, and public narrative, to teach people that Silent Barn is a community space,” Iannucci said.

“If I wasn’t permanently optimistic about the future of the space, I could not do it,” he added. “I’m imagining a future where Silent Barn books shows [for] a broad range of people, and 25 percent of those people give $5 a month. And then there are maybe ten to fifteen artists or arts entrepreneurs that cut us a check of over $5,000 a year. I don’t think that’s a far-off future.”

It’s a gamble, but it’s one the space has no choice but to take. “Just like how everyone learned that you pay $10 a month for all the music in the world, they need to learn that you also pay $10 a month to support the place you go to see bands you like,” Iannucci said. One of the collective’s often repeated slogans is “Silent Barn is people.” That reality has never been more apparent.

UPDATE: After the publication of this article, Silent Barn hit its fundraising goal. The venue was able to raise more than $30,000 total.

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