In February, artist Brian Whiteley signed a lease on a former tax office in Brooklyn with the plan to realize a long-held dream of opening a permanent art space that would be part bar, part gallery, part performance venue.
The community would be centered around the artists he’d met at the Satellite Art Show, the scrappy art fair he founded in 2015 and brought to Miami, Austin, and New York.
“It’s a bad time, but also I think it’s a much-needed project,” Whiteley told Artnet News of the space, which opened in the Clinton Hill section of Brooklyn in mid-October.
Together with cofounders and artists Jen Catron and Paul Outlaw, as well as Joseph Latimore—the former manager of Passerby, the popular New York art bar run by Gavin Brown’s Enterprise in the early 2000s—Whiteley hopes the space, titled Satellite Art Bar, will become a haven for artists and other creative types who have been hard-hit this year.
“When galleries start struggling,” said Outlaw, it’s the less-established, less-saleable artists who suffer the most. “Dealers have to focus on the sales.”
Satellite Art Bar aims to give back to the artistic community, and help them get through a difficult time. There will be new shows with work for sale every month or two, and participating artists can sign up to work guest bartending shifts.
“They can take the tips and some of the proceeds back with them,” said Catron. “It’s not gonna be a ton of money, but you know, every little bit helps right now.”
With the vast majority of the year’s art events cancelled, the founders—buoyed by a federal small business loan—were able to focus this summer on a gut renovation of the space, raising the dropped ceiling to 10 feet and transforming a nondescript storefront into a neon-lit creative hub.
“We’re lucky to have this opening as a place to direct all of our energies at a time when you can feel really helpless as an artist,” Outlaw said.
While much of the art world has gone virtual in 2020, Satellite opened to the public this fall with a menu of punches, cocktails, beer, and wine—plus chips and hot dogs, in keeping with new state regulations requiring the purchase of food with all drink orders.
But the bar’s main focus is on the art, with an inaugural exhibition, “Wet Dreams,” featuring work by artists including Roxanne Jackson, Alexandra Rubinstein, Mike Simi, Irena Jurek, Robert Kenney, Lounge Corp, Colleen Comer, and Hayley Youngs.
“This isn’t like an atelier from the 1950s where Jackson Pollock is hanging out,” Outlaw warned. “There’s drag queens, performance artists, tattoo artists—it’s a nice mix!”
The ceiling is covered in a quirky wallpaper designed by Catron and Outlaw, and if you pick up the phone on the wall, you’ll be treated to a sound piece by Kalup Linzy. Other decor includes a fish tank, a vintage David Hasselhoff poster—the bar’s unofficial mascot—and Whiteley’s infamous Donald Trump tombstone, rendered more timely than ever by the impending end of his presidency.
Even one of the drinks on the menu is an artwork: Jonathan Schiffer’s leaky pipe on the ceiling that can rain down a Leaky Pipe Shot (currently, it’s whiskey).
“It’s a raucous, art-forward place to meet and have drinks and generate ideas and present really different art,” Catron said.
There are regular performances as well, some of which relate to the work on view, such as appearances from drag queens featured in Rachel Rampleman’s video art, as well as nude figure drawing sessions. The bar follows social distancing guidelines, health precautions, and conducts temperature checks. (If the state puts an end to indoor dining, Satellite will remain open as an art gallery.)
As both a nod and an antidote to the elitism of private arts clubs like NeueHouse and Soho House, Satellite has launched as a members-only space—which, refreshingly, costs just $25 a year.
“Those places were created to make money and show your level of status in society,” Outlaw said. “Our objective is to provide a safe space for people who are missing interactions with art and the intellectual.”
“It’s priced for working artists and people of different means,” Catron added. “We want to revitalize that crazy artistic community that we all love.”
Membership buys you access to limited nightly reservations at the bar, which is currently capped at 25 percent capacity, or 11 guests, under state law. The founders have accepted about 100 memberships so far, and are intentionally keeping the community small. (Applications are accepted here.)
While New York City has a long and illustrious history of art bars, such as the Cedar Tavern, Studio 54, and Max’s Kansas City, Satellite Art Bar is actually inspired in large part by Miami’s Club Deuce, a beloved South Beach dive that the founders regularly patronize during Art Basel Miami Beach.
“You would do the fair all day, and then you would wind up at Club Deuce with a bunch of artists and art handlers—none of the big gallerists or dealers or collectors,” said Whiteley, who based the black-and-white faux-marble bar on the setup there.
At the same time, it plays to a particular New York vibe as well. “There’s something about the best bars in New York, where you walk in and you just have like this feel of like, anything can happen here,” said Catron. “We want to capture that feel, but centered on performance and artistic expression.”