ABC No Rio is a cultural centre in New York, on the Lower East Side. It has now been in the same building on Rivington Street for over 30 years – starting with a temporary art exhibition in 1980 which aimed to raise issues around the city’s land use policies, then developing a wider cultural programme in the same building, first as temporary lease-holders, then as squatters, before finally acquiring the building for the sum of $1 in 2006. This case study tells the story of the development of ABC No Rio and looks at the model of an established cultural organisation – useful to help put the stories of younger organisations into perspective.
This case study is part of research into financial and business models for temporary use projects, which is funded by a grant from the Creative Industries Fund NL (Dutch).
Read the full case study on issuu here, or scroll down…
The business of temporary use – case study Practice Space by Killing Architects is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.
Steven Englander, Director, ABC No Rio
There have been several generations of people involved with No Rio over the thirty years we’ve been here. I wasn’t one of the founders, and I wasn’t here in the founding years. What the founders did, with the Real Estate show [an art exhibition in the newly squatted building, which opened 1 January 1980], I’m not sure they had a clear idea of what they wanted, outside of just raising the subject of the city’s land use policies. They didn’t actually know what the end result was going to be. I think that they were sort of surprised that things led to them getting a lease for this space about four months after that. [At the time] the horizon was no more than maybe the next month or the next few months. It existed at that degree of spontaneity.
The founders were only at it for maybe about three to four years. By 1984 they already started planning on turning it over to a new group of people that had come in and started doing projects there. Even then it was another four to five years before they got around to institutionalising the organisation: becoming legal, incorporating in New York state and getting the 501c3 declaration. That means that we can get tax deductions; the federal government’s bureau of taxation, the Internal Revenue, recognizes you so you don’t get taxed on your income, and people who donate money can deduct that amount from their taxes. They didn’t even begin that process until about nine years after founding the organisation.
Once they started getting some grants for projects, obviously, you’re starting to look a little further into the future, but the founders never had any desire to actually create a lasting institution. If they had, they would have institutionalised it sooner, rather than moving on without allowing that to happen. It lasted because of the continual activity that went on, and the numbers of people that passed through. Even at that point it was still just a tiny, little organisation. There were times when people were paid for doing administrative things and sometimes not, and it was all just volunteer. I don’t think that the budget ever exceeded maybe forty-thousand dollars until 2002 or 2003. It was always just a sort of scrappy, little, by-hook-or-by-crook way of doing the programming, getting the funds, and keep the thing going.
ABC No Rio is currently raising money for a new building – while this has been removed from the calculations as far as possible, it has not been possible to do it completely – hence the growing bank balance. Expenditure is fairly stable, reflecting the fact that the organisation has been in existence for a long time and has a stable, established programme.
Leasing the building
We did have a lease from the city for the store front space and basement. It wasn’t a five-year lease with terms where you pay this amount of money, and every year it escalates 3% or 5%. It was a month-to-month lease, which the city could cancel any time with thirty days notice. Which happened a few times. There were constant fights with the city about evictions and staying and stuff like that. There were a lot of on-and-off struggles where the city would try to evict, and No Rio would lobby political and public support on our behalf, and the city would back down, and it would start again a couple years later.
Like expenditure, income is very stable, reflecting an established programme of activities, an established audience, relationships with funding bodies and experience in applying for funding.
Squatting the apartments
The fourth generation of people that were involved in the project were these kids that were doing punk shows here at ABC No Rio. They were fighting with the city at the time, and in order to defend the building, they decided to invite people back in to occupy the upper floors. I was one of the people invited back in. One, because I’d taken over buildings before, so I knew what you have to do, in terms of getting the plumbing going, and getting help, etcetera. I had a background in No Rio itself. I was briefly a co-director with another individual in 1990 and ‘91. That’s how we ended up there and being more closely tied to the squatters. It was basically me – and I was in my early thirties at the time – with a bunch of teenagers and kids in their early twenties who were willing to do it.
Have you ever been in New York squats or anything? It’s a lot different than the ones in Europe. I mean, you’ve seen pictures of what the Lower East Side looked like in the seventies and eighties – it looks like Dresden, just vacant lots and buildings are just totally empty. They’re totally unoccupied. The buildings that European squatters had were luxurious compared to the buildings squatters in New York were holding. There really was a lot more work. There was no infrastructure at all. Like plumbing had to be put in. Ceilings had to be replaced. Floors had been rotted out. There was a lot of fire damage.
There was a psychological shift then. When you’re a squatter, [the mind set is] the property’s ours; it’s our responsibility. The idea of asking the city to fix the boiler was just like, ‘Well, we’ve got to fix the boiler ourselves. We want heat, we’ve got to do it ourselves.’ It was a a change that went on. Then in fighting with the city, you have to sort of run a campaign. You have to do all this public outreach and it actually was tied to programming.
ABC No Rio, New York, 2010, Robby Virus
Strengthening the organisation
It resulted in further solidifying the organisation and making it less ephemeral than it once was, because you’re presenting yourself as something that’s got to be saved, that’s a benefit to the people who are here. That actually, in a softer way, institutionalised it. It’s not the paperwork and its legal status; it’s an institution in people’s heads. It appears in people’s minds as something more than an ephemeral project. If it was [seen as a temporary project], people would be like, ‘Things come and go. Now it’s time for you to go,’ as opposed to being willing to fight to keep it.
It was seen differently [because it became] something that they needed to defend.
No Rio’s network in the city
When I first started coming by in the late eighties, sometimes I lived in the neighbourhood, sometimes not. Most of the people who came by and who did stuff here lived in the neighbourhood. Now it’s too expensive. Most of the people who do stuff at No Rio can’t afford to live in the neighbourhood. I’m over fifty. Some of the people that are my age will luck into situations where we can afford to be here, but most of the young people involved in No Rio can’t afford to live in this neighbourhood any more. They come from all over: Bronx, Queens, Brooklyn, Jersey, even Long Island. One of the print shop volunteers actually comes in from Long Island every week.
[When we were reaching out to the community to try to save No Rio] we structured a campaign in a way to involve the most people possible. There were all these people who are willing to scheme and strategise, and they became the people who worked with the lawyer on coming up with the legal defence strategy. Then there’s people who are good government types: write letters, call your representatives, do protests and stuff like that; and we had that stuff going on. Then there’s the group of people that want to do direct action, and we’d plan and organise things for people who wanted to do direct action. We tried to find a way to organise the campaign to defend No Rio so that there was a place for everybody regardless of what their comfort level was in terms of militancy. We needed to find a place for mainstream art-world people, and people who had been involved with No Rio who went on to some greater fame or success could actually participate in some way. They’re not going to go lock themselves down to something, but they can write a letter or make a call to an elected official, so the idea was we’ve got to find a way for everybody to plug in in some way to help make it happen.
Princess Tiny and the Meats performing at ABC No Rio, All-nite images
Last options for trying to save the building
This was the late nineties, so [gentrification] was slowly happening. It sort of hyper-gentrified after 9/11. 2002, 2003, is when you started seeing fancier restaurants and smart boutiques and things like that.
At this point we were fighting the city. We pretty much played out all our options because, legally speaking, we didn’t have a lot of rights. We could use the court to stall things, but eventually we were only winning on technicalities, technical issues related to the law. Every time we’d win on something, they’d come back at us and fix that problem. Eventually we knew there wouldn’t be a mistake that you could get it thrown out of court on. A group of the supporters managed to sneak into the commissioner’s office of the agency that owned the property – the Department of Housing Preservation and Development.
Now there’s no way you can get into government offices. In 1998 we were able to get twenty people with banners and lock down equipment to the 18th floor of this government building where they did a lock down in the commissioner’s office. I wasn’t with them; I was here waiting to do legal support and call the lawyers, because we just assumed they were all going to get arrested. Hours and hours went by (this was before cell phones) so I’m just sitting there waiting by the phone, and finally they all started trickling back in. The commissioner didn’t call the cops. She invited them all into a conference room to talk. She was somewhat sympathetic to them. She was actually a student in Mexico City in 1968 and was part of that generation of student activists. There was a massacre in Tlatelolco, at the University of Mexico, when the ‘68 Olympics were going on. That was our Kent State times 25 or 30.
As above, both income and expenditure are stable. This graph also shows that sales income only covers part of the organisation’s expenditure – even an established organisation like ABC No Rio still relies on grants and donations, including volunteer time.
The deal to acquire the property
She was part of that generation of students and it had some nostalgic resonance with her or something. It led to a series of meetings that resulted in us getting the opportunity to acquire the property. We were stunned at the meeting, because we thought that they were just going to offer us a rental space elsewhere. When they offered this, everybody was sort of flabbergasted, because we didn’t actually expect that to happen. There wasn’t a lot of negotiating. They were like, ‘This is the opportunity we’re going to give you. Develop your projects and programmes. Raise the money and renovate the building. Vacate the building of squatters, and use the whole building for your projects and programmes for the benefit of the community.’ That was really the deal. There weren’t lawyers; it was presented to us to either take it or leave it.
The whole property had to be used for ABC No Rio. That was the compromise that we had to make – that the squatters would have to leave. They would give the building and the property to No Rio to expand its projects and programmes, but we had to solve the squatter problems ourselves. They weren’t going to do it, because they had a long-standing policy of not negotiating with squatters. For the most part, we understood that we were initially invited into the building to defend ABC No Rio. That was the purpose of inviting the squatters in. It was difficult, but most people understood that usually with squatters, you don’t get to win. It just doesn’t work out that way.
The city requirements for acquiring the building
[AK: Why did it take seven years?]
Because initially they said, ‘you need to raise the money to renovate the building.’ Their first thing was, ‘Show us in good faith you can raise money.’ So we raised a hundred thousand dollars. Then they upped that to five-hundred. It was getting a little bit more difficult to get half a million dollars when you don’t own the building. That was the hardest part, because nobody will give you money to do a capital improvement on property you don’t own, so how do you then get the money? The requirement is catch-22. We finally got an assistant commissioner who was willing to break this catch-22 we were stuck in. He was like, ‘Just come up with a couple of hundred thousand dollars more, and we’ll do it.’ He understood that nobody’s going to give you money to do something on property that you don’t own. Then he was like, ‘All right. Let’s go through the review process.’
There’s a governmental process that was required for turning it over to us. It was called a ULURP: Uniform Land Use Review Process. Every land use thing that happens involving government property involves a ULURP. If they’re going to give away even a small parcel like ours, they have to do one. The community board weighs in, the New York City Council weighs in, the borough president weighs in, the Department of City Planning weighs in, and finally, the mayor signs off. Even once you decide to get started, that takes 18 months.
[AK: Where does the number, ($100,000) come from that they were asking you to raise?]
I think that first time they thought we wouldn’t be able to do it, so they just pulled that hundred thousand dollar number out. They realised, though, that you actually can’t do anything with a hundred thousand dollars. Then they were like, ‘All right. Five hundred.’
The backyard at ABC No Rio, New York, 2009, Pink Iguana
From renovation to rebuild
Then we on our own realised that we’ve got to re-build this building. It can’t be renovated. We need to have an elevator. You can’t have a community facility if it’s not accessible for disabled people. This building is so old and crummy, it’s just impossible. It jumped to being over a six and a half million dollar project, and we raised about five million dollars.
Raising the money
The first hundred thousand was literally just our people doing some benefits. It wasn’t that difficult. It wasn’t until later on that it started adding up faster, when we were doing amounts of twenty thousand, thirty thousand dollars in grants and things like that. Finally we did get one million dollar donation. I actually opened up a check. We saw an envelope, and inside was a check for a million dollars. We still don’t know who gave it to us. It was anonymous. That was pretty weird. I actually had to ask somebody, my accountant, ‘Is this right? Is this really six zeros?’ Even if it was a hundred thousand, I would have been stunned.
Then we managed to convince the elected officials to support the project. Out of what we raised, we got around four million from the City of New York, from the elected officials. We raised about one million and six hundred thousand from private funds. We got about two hundred and seventy thousand from some of the 9/11 money, from the federal government for development in lower Manhattan. Then we got another couple hundred thousand that’s actually coming to us by way of the architect, from the New York State Energy Research Development Agency, because we’re doing this high-tech passive house design for the building, and they want to see if it works.
Testing passive house technology
Our architect’s a total evangelist for passive house. We’re into it and we’re enthusiastic about having them design it and build it in that way. The city wants to see how it works, and the state wants to also. The funding we got, some of it’s for the cost of designing and building the passive house, then a lot of it, another thirty thousand or forty thousand dollars, is to monitor [the building once it’s built and occupied], to do the reporting, because they want the metrics.
Right now there actually isn’t a commercial passive house building in New York. Somebody else is building one in Brooklyn, and we’re building one here. The one in Brooklyn will probably get done first. There’s a couple residential buildings. I think they’re buying into the idea that it works for residential. They want to see under what circumstances would it work for other government buildings, and is the added expense worth it?
Volunteer time comprises a huge amount of ABC No Rio’s ‘expenditure’.
Managing the building project with the city
[The current building will be demolished and the new building erected on the same site.] We initially were going to do the project in phases. We didn’t think we’d be able to get the money to do it all at once. We figured out a way to do it in two phases where we could build a whole envelope in the first phase. We designed the project, and the architect and the engineers created the construction documents.
Because we got so much money from the city, the city’s design and development agency is going to be managing construction for the project. There’s two ways of doing it when you get city funding: you can either outlay the money, and you get reimbursed; or they take it over and manage it.
It’s weird, because if you look at the two scales that we operate on…if we get around to talking about No Rio’s operating budget, we’re talking tens of thousands of dollars, and meanwhile this organisation that operates in tens of thousands of dollars is doing a several million dollar capital project. We can’t solve a four million dollar cash flow where we outlay the money and get reimbursed. We have to have them manage construction, and that means we have to follow the city’s requirements for contracting, bidding, procurement, everything, which is a lot more complicated than if you and I were going to be partners and develop a little building out in Brooklyn, and hire a contractor to do it.
In early 2012, on paper it looked like we had enough money in place to bid it out as one project. The architect then consolidated everything. Then it went out to bid, and the bids came in thirty percent higher than the money we have. Now if you and I were just working on a project, and the bids came in too high, we would go and sit down with the contractor and be like, ‘What have we got to do to make this happen?’ The city can’t do that, because then all the other contractors who didn’t get the job would be like, ‘Well, if I knew you were going to take that out of the project, my bid would have been totally different.’
We have to re-bid it all and revise everything. We were actually stunned that the cost estimate was too low, because the city reviewed the cost estimate. What we know now is that basically if you get a city dollar, it’s really worth sixty cents, because everybody bids thirty percent higher than they would if it was a private job. That was a difficult time when the bids came in too high. We’re now going back to the original phased approach, where we would build the whole envelope of the building, finish the dry floor in the basement, and leave the second, third, and fourth floors unfinished; but we’d be able to start doing public events again. In the second phase we would finish the upstairs units.
The fixed assets were relatively small investments in the building, or were donated equipment, which depreciated completely by the end of 2012. On the total net assets and the cash in the bank, see the annotation to the ‘Cash in bank vs cash expenditure’ diagram above.
Funding and the phased plan
We’ve got to get as much done as we can with the city funding. Then we’ll finish it; but the bulk of it, all the steel work, the concrete pouring, the concrete blocks, that’ll all be done in phase 1. Phase 2 is mostly finishes. Electrical distribution won’t be complete, and there won’t be plumbing fixtures in the places. They’ll be capped off. The risers will be there, but the fixtures won’t. The walls and the floor won’t be finished. There’ll be enough that we could use it for meeting space, a little bit of studio space, storage; but it won’t be fully operational. That is stuff we can do by hook or by crook. If we’re able to raise the money, and some of the stuff is more complicated, we will probably contract out for it. Some of the stuff we might just hire guys that we know to work with volunteers.
The second phase, some of the stuff will still be somewhat expensive, so it would still probably be about a million dollars. Anywhere from eight hundred thousand to one point two million dollars.
The time line for construction
We expect the first phase to take sixteen months. If the bidding were to go on, and we were able to use a bidder, we would vacate the building and prepare for demolition in early 2014, and hopefully start the project shortly thereafter. It would be by March or something. Then we expect it to be a year and a half for phase 1. Ideally, during that period we’re raising the money so we’ll be able to come back in and do public events downstairs, we’ll seamlessly continue working upstairs and there won’t be a stop in the work. If we’re not able to come up with the money, then we’ll have a finished place where we can do at least a public events programme.
Earth Day rummage sale at ABC No Rio, New York, Ari Moore
The programming during the build
At this point everything’s going on, although some things are slowly falling by the wayside. The poetry readings decided to stop. There was a regular comedy thing, and they decided to wind it down at the end of last month. Right now we’ll do the public events until the very last minute. When we know that the thing is going out to bid, and we find out that the bids come in on target, we’ll start planning to vacate.
Because we went through this once before, it doesn’t make sense to start that process until we know that there’s a qualified bidder that comes in on target. Then during the construction period, we’re doing what we call ABC No Rio in Exile, where the exhibitions, the performances, and mostly public events stuff happens at other venues and in collaboration with other organisations. Then if we’re able to find small pop-up places, we might do what we’re calling ABC No Rio in Miniature. Some things will be part of that, and some not. We probably won’t be able to do a temporary darkroom because of the amount of plumbing infrastructure a darkroom needs.
The current programme
During the day I’m usually the only person here during the week, doing administrative stuff. For the most part, it’s evenings. Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, sometimes Friday evenings, and Saturdays and Sundays. It really depends on when the projects and programmes are going on.
They’re all collectively run. I’m the staff person here that gets paid. There are no programme directors. Instead of a programme director, it’s a collective that runs every project or programme. They vary in size. Right now the print shop is just two people. The darkroom is four. The facilities are fewer people. The zine library, I think, is now four. The punk show is about a dozen regular kids who do the punk show. The exhibitions is a curatorial committee; that’s about eight. The improv music is just two: it’s Blaise Siwula and his wife, Barbara, do the thing. Every project or programme, they are all sort of autonomous and decentralised, providing they’re not doing stuff that screws up other people. If anybody wants to do ad hoc events they just contact me, whether it’s performance or other things: meetings, workshops, and other presentations, to schedule them.
That’s the structure of the place, so it’s a collective of collectives. There is a board of directors because we’re a legal organisation, and they don’t get involved in the day-to-day running of the space. They approve the budget. They don’t set policy for what happens programmatically. They can if they want, and the way you do that is to get involved in the collectives that run the projects or programmes. At times they have. There’s one board member who’s on the visual arts collective. The other board members are not actively involved in any project or programme. I tend to think it’s actually somewhat beneficial to at least have one or two board members that are actively involved in the day-to-day.
ABC No Rio runs overwhelmingly on volunteer time. Again, the relatively flat lines in the graph reflect the fact that the programmes are well established, with stable numbers of volunteers who stay involved for relatively long periods.
How much does everyone work?
It varies depending on the project or programme. Probably, four hours a week – I think that’s probably the number I use when I’ve got to calculate volunteer hours.
That’s for the darkroom, almost all the facilities. The zine library it’s three [hours]. Sometimes they’ll stay later. The zine library is purely social. You’re there, you do a little bit of cataloging, but it’s more to keep it open to the public. Some zine librarians are harder working than others. At the very least, though, the point is to keep the place open so that people who want to check out the zines will come by. The darkroom is usually four hours. So if somebody wants to volunteer with one of the facilities, the commitment they’re asked for is three to four hours, one day a week, for at least three months. It doesn’t make sense to bring them on if they think, ‘I’m only going to do it for a month.’ We’re going to add a day of hours and then change all the publicity…it doesn’t really make sense.
Actually the hardest volunteer job is the print shop, because sometimes it gets really busy. It’s like a store: sometimes it’s quiet, and there will be no-shows, and there’ll be nobody there and you leave early, but sometimes it gets busy. That one’s the hardest, because you’ve got a bunch of people, and somebody wants to burn the screen, other people are trying to learn how to print, and you’ve got to deal with the public during the skill share hours. So you might be helping one person while you’re talking to somebody else about their project. You’ve got to multi-task pretty well.
The public events, the punk show is sort of easy-going. There’s a core group of maybe half a dozen, then maybe another half a dozen that help, but not every week. Then ultimately there’s two at any given time who are the main people who book the shows. Other people can ask for dates or propose bands, but there are two people that are the bookers, that sort of arrange the schedule and make sure that stuff’s filling up. Obviously they’ve got to do a lot of emailing and telephone calls and whatever, so they’re busier than somebody who’s just coming on a Saturday to help collect the money or set up the equipment or clean up afterwards. The bookers, you’re in for a two-year term. They change it up over time.
Volunteers or paid staff?
[AK -Did you consider trying to work out a way to pay volunteers?]
Nobody wanted to do it. Well, then they’re not volunteers. We’ll probably bring it up again as we’re trying to move back in, but the volunteers should decide if that’s the case. The last time it came up was the volunteers wanted to be volunteer collectives.
[AK – Why do people feel so strongly about it being voluntary?]
I think it’s really the culture of the place that it be volunteer and they want it to be something that they’re doing for the love of doing it.
Right now the way it’s structured, nobody’s working for me. I’m able to navigate things pretty well, so that I’m not overbearing on the volunteers that I want it to go in a certain direction, I can make my recommendations…If I was a total jerk then people would just not volunteer, the place would fall apart. I think for the most part people know that I’m here making it possible for them to do the project or the programme and ultimately I’m working for them.
Sources of income
It’s pretty much split. The punk shows, they pay. Public events, people pay to come, except for exhibitions. Right now we get grant funding for exhibitions from the New York City Council of the Arts and the Department of Cultural Affairs. The darkroom people pay really modest fees to use it. The darkroom is six dollars an hour. Bring your own paper and the chemistry is here. The darkroom pretty much just breaks even. The screen printing shop brings in a little bit more than we spend, but it’s also really cheap. Depending how big your screen is, it’ll be seven to twenty dollars to burn a screen. Or we’ll sell people some of our leftover stuff. If they come during public hours, it’s just three dollars an hour to work in the space. If you know what you’re doing, and you want to rent the space just to have it privately to use, it’s ten dollars an hour.
Generally we try to go for a tripartite split between grant funding, earned income, which is admission from events and use fees, and benefits and individual support. The goal is to roughly have them each be a third of the total support that we get.
Right now we’re actually getting less grants. We’re getting the government grants because we’ve got a long enough relationship with them where they’re willing to deal with the uncertainty about what we’re doing at any given time. The private foundations, it’s a little bit harder, and we don’t know when we’re going to be vacating the buildings, so it’s hard to ask them to fund the projects that will happen in exile versus what’s going on here. We’ve actually fallen off a little on the foundations because we don’t know how to write the grants. We don’t know what activities are going to go on within the next year.
We’re sort of hostage to the capriciousness of the bureaucrats that are pushing the review process. If it were to go faster, we could get through it quicker and be able to tell the other potential funders that we’ll be moving on to exile at this point. I was already in a situation where I raised money for exiled programming, and the bids came in too high, and I had to say [to the funders], ‘I can’t spend your money on what you gave it to me for. Can I spend it on this instead?’ They were all right with it, but it’s awkward. You’re not supposed to do it.
The city, however, knows the circumstances, so they’re willing to let me write a grant. They know what the deal is, because they work in government. They’re actually easier than the private ones who don’t understand; you can give [the private funds] an explanation, but they’re like, ‘Well, if you weren’t sure it was happening, why did you ask for the money?’ Right now we’re in this limbo where we’re not even raising money for phase 2, because we want to be able to provide good news when we start fund-raising again. For example, that a contract has been selected, and the project’s moving forward, because we keep having to say, ‘Oh, we raised this money, but then this unfortunate thing happened. Then we got this money…’ but then there’s like, well, when’s the project starting? We’re going to wait until we know that the thing is going to move forward, and then we’ll kick into gear again with the fund-raising.
ABC No Rio street front, New York, 2009, Mackenzie Mollo
Expanding in the new building?
The programmes are going to be structured the same. We actually do anticipate that when it’s a more comfortable place for people to be, even if things are going to cost more, which they will, there’ll be a greater use by the public of the different facilities. Then we’re also anticipating more people wanting to get involved. The plan doesn’t call for adding projects or programmes, but it does anticipate them scaling up.