Q&A: Art Curator Olympia Lambert Explains Why We Should Ditch Manhattan's Art Scene and Head to New Jersey (for Now, Anyway)

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Julie Lohnes
Tug of War, 2009, video still
Art blogger-turned-curator Olympia Lambert is getting the hell out of New York and taking a bunch of artists with her. Escape From New York, her latest art show, which opens May 15, is just that -- a massive pilgrimage through the sticky streets of Chelsea and across the Hudson, where she's set up fort in New Jersey. When we talked to Lambert recently about her huge venture in a vacant three-story silk factory in Paterson -- where she invited a slew of both up-and-coming and established artists -- we wondered, Who's going to show up to this art show in New Jersey? No, really, Who's going to show up to this art show in New Jersey? But Lambert convinced us that a 40-minute trek from Manhattan (shuttles to and from will be provided) to experience new works of art in a setting unlike we've ever seen before is really worth it.
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Artist Nicholas Fraser doing his installation.

Why do you think people are cautious of starting new ventures outside of New York?

I think people are afraid, and people buy into stereotypes. Everyone thinks New Jersey is Tony Soprano, everyone thinks New Jersey is, you know, Jersey Shore, and it's actually a cast of all New Yorkers, which is what's hilarious about the whole thing.

It's a clusterfuck mentality. You have to have a new group of sheep, of a different thinking. And once you have a bunch of people, there's strength in numbers. So there are 45 people who are convinced, and are really good people on top of it, to take part, and that's the thing, once you start a movement, you just have the progression and the movement to keep going.

How do you feel about the art industry in New York right now as related to the economic state?

I think it's a lot of smoke and mirrors personally. It really depends on the individual gallery. It also depends on how much inventory you have, because the galleries have to depend on other means of survival in tough times.

I think that's certainly a way galleries are surviving, with special events, marketing to new collectors, expanding from the usual collector. ... You know, when Pace laid off some of its staff, that was like a huge moment in the art world.

Is that part of the reason for the move to New Jersey, to break away from that New York art scene?

It's a major opportunity for me, and when you see the space itself, you fall in love with it. When I looked at that building, the first thing I said was it needs a tenant, and it needs to have some sort of revitalization through the arts.

Really it comes down to what I can do for them as opposed to what they can do for me, because I love historic preservation. I love abandoned buildings. I've loved old brick warehouses my whole life. So when I got the space I was like, This needs to have art in it to bring it back alive. I've been given this opportunity and I'm kind of running with it.

Do you think because this show is in New Jersey the reception won't be on the same scale as it could have been in New York?

The goal for the show is to expand people's horizons and get them out of that mentality of "We will go as far into Bushwick as humanly possible and we will spend an hour and 15 minutes getting there, but we will not go on a 42-minute train ride in the opposite direction." It's kind of a ridiculous concept, but it's just this outmoded thinking -- as are a lot of things in our world right now.

I'm hoping for a large reception in terms of what people will get out of it. Maybe 10 people will show up, maybe a thousand -- it remains to be seen how people will react to it.

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The space.
How did you first find out about this building?

I actually used to work in the mortgage industry and in those days I had a wonderful intern. She contacted me and was like, "Hey, my dad is in this group show of artists in New Jersey, would you like to come with me?" So I checked it out, this old abandoned factory building, and it was just unbelievable. That building was in very, very bad condition but still was an Architectural Digest's dream, just a massive structure.

I ended up meeting the historic preservation director of the city of Paterson and their arts council director, and they asked if I wanted a tour of the city. They showed me my building, said they were thinking of doing some art projects here, and asked if I'd ever be interested in putting together a show.

Would you say the city of Paterson wants to enhance their involvement in the arts community?

They are doing other area stuff. I'm one of the few New Yorkers doing anything. There are people from New Jersey who are doing things and there is a group of Hoboken artists, and also local Paterson people who are involved in their arts walk, which will be held June 12. Definitely the city is making huge strides in expanding their involvement in the arts, which is always something that I like to see.

With such a large space, did you feel like this project might be too big for you or was too overwhelming at any point?

Of course, it's ridiculously massive, and you have to be a little crazy to do something like this, which I think I am. But I hope I'm the proper crazy, in terms of getting things done and assigning people to help get things done. I think we're pretty under control on that end.

How did you go about choosing the artists for this show?

Over the past four years of my life I was an art blogger, and I got to review a lot of shows and a lot of artists. I got interviews with a good portion of these through my reviews, and they are all people I've always believed in.

Some of them have gallery representation, some of them don't, some of them are in the Whitney Biennial, and some of them are completely emerging. It's really a unique mix.

One artist -- her name is Vicki DaSilva -- she actually went into the building and did some time-lapse exposure photography. She's utilizing the building now in the photograph, and it's a way to combine the temporary art movement with what I'm doing with the building itself.

Escape From New York opens Saturday, May 15, and runs each weekend from 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. through June 19 at 24 1/2 Van Houten Street, Paterson, New Jersey. Visit Olympia Lambert's Tumblr for more information.

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