“Living in New York is a multi-sensory experience to the nth degree,” says curator Zannah Mass outside the DUMBO Arts Center, with a classic view of the Manhattan Bridge in the background. A train roars past and a jackhammer splits the air, then a convoy of yellow school buses pulls up with a crowd heading for the nearby rehab centre. Mass yells over the noise, “This is DUMBO, right?”
Coined in 1978 by local residents to scare off potential developers, the acronym stands for ‘Down Under the Manhattan Bridge Overpass’. Enter Two Trees Management, the property company that now owns most of DUMBO. Fortunately, the firm was keenly involved in cultural philanthropy – a common practice in the US – and guided development of the low-rent industrial lofts into studios and galleries. Today, it’s known as the borough’s media and photography district.
After ten years of also sponsoring the local arts festival, Two Trees picked Mass, then artistic director for nearby performance space St Ann’s Warehouse, to run it. Rather than a straight visual arts event, “I wanted something that reflected DUMBO’s own cultural community,” says Mass. Four years later, it features artists from 40 countries, and runs the gamut from open studios, music and dance, to book launches, poetry slams and a digital summit. There’s a “sidewalk series” featuring a vast range of musicians, and local bars and restaurants chip in. Year-round there are monthly gallery walks, installations and donations of gallery space to non-profit groups. “We’ve made a real neighbourhood out of an industrial area,” says Mass. “DUMBO has a decent mix of grit and polish. It’s achieved a balance.”