Abrons does have a great history which a lot of people don't know about, but it also has a history for me, Scott said. When I was a child I performed in West Side Story there. That place has always been around for me.
Scott has been involved again in the Settlement's Abrons Arts Center on Grand Street, a half-dozen blocks from Tonic and near her childhood home. Even before Tonic closed in April 2007, she was booking performances there, beginning with a rare concert by the reclusive songwriter Jandek. And with her bookings and the center's own Underground at the Abrons series, jazz and improvised music have been slowly reclaiming the Lower East Side.
The Henry Street Settlement was founded in 1893 as an organization to help acclimate new immigrants, offering arts and hygiene classes to the neighborhood's new residents. In 1915, they built the Neighborhood Playhouse, where Orson Welles directed the premiere of Aaron Copland's opera The Second Hurricane in 1936 and where John Cage taught musical composition to dance students in the '50s. 60 years later, the organization built the current arts facility next door to the old playhouse, bringing music, dance, theater, performance and visual arts together under one roof. The school now has more than 300 students ranging from 10 months to 93 years and counts drummer Nathan Davis and guitarist Eyal Moaz among its instructors.
But performances at Abrons had primarily been by students and faculty until 2006, when Jay Wegman was hired as the new Artistic Director. Wegman, who had previously worked in arts programming at the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington, DC and the Cathedral of St. John the Divine in New York, had a bigger vision for Abrons' stages.
I see Abrons as a home for the avant garde, he said. Especially with the closing of Tonic, this neighborhood really needs a place for avant garde performance. This neighborhood has changed so much. We still have the projects, but the condos across the street are going for $700,000 to 800,000.
The partnership with Tonic began under Wegman's tenure and he was also responsible for initiating the Underground at the Abrons series, which has presented Paul Lytton, Loren Connors, Min Xiao-Fen and Paul Shapiro, among others. He has overseen dance concerts and what he termed performances you can't really classify. This fall, for example, guitarist, composer and former Tonic booker Alan Licht will curate a headphone show of sound art and an earplug show featuring the loudest bands in New York. Tonic at the Abrons, meanwhile, has presented shows including John Zorn, Sylvie Courvoisier, Yuka Honda and Susie Ibarra over the last two years and this month will host Misha Mengelberg's ICP Orchestra, Steve Bernstein's Sexotica with DJ Olive and Amir Ziv's KOTKOT, featuring Marc Ribot, Cyro Baptista and Shahzad Ismaily.
The Abrons Arts Center works under a $38 million annual budget, about 20% of Henry Street Settlement's overall budget, Wegman said, with most of the overall budget going to education and social services. Tuition subsidies are also offered under the social services budget. And while escalating rents in the neighborhood aren't the same threat to the center as they were to the late Tonic--the Settlement owns the 466 Grand Street building, which includes four theaters, two art galleries, studios, classrooms, rehearsal spaces and an outdoor sculpture garden--they do have a bottom line to meet. As Wegman put it, We have to break even so we can present the underground artists.
That hurdle is cleared in part by renting out the theater (the Tonic series works as a co-presentation, but some shows are outside-produced) and Wegman has ambitious hopes for building the budget and expanding programming in the future.
We have not been able to outright commission yet, he said. I'd love to do that, but we don't have the funding or the wherewithal. We'd also like to have festivals. I'd like to do what all the other arts organizations do.
Abrons also has to deal with the classic hurdle of location, location, location. While it's a short walk from the Delancey Street subway stop, it's a lonely stretch along Grand Street to the corner of Pitt. But Wegman noted that Abrons is already on the map. People follow the artist, he said. We don't have any nightlife around us and we're five blocks from the subway. We're just really lucky. I thought it would take us longer. And for Scott, who has also been doing PR for bands and doing occasional other bookings, Abrons has provided a break from managing in a nightclub setting.
The reason I really fell in love with booking there is because it was such a nice change, she said. It's all seats, there's no bar and you don't have to think about the fact that not one person bought a drink. There's some music that takes more careful listening.
~ Kurt Gottschalk