A Shore Thing

Queens, New York

Left: Queens Museum of Art director Tom Finkerpearl and Rockaway Waterfront Alliance director Jeanne DuPont. Right: Artist Duke Riley (left). (All photos: Lauren O'Neill-Butler)

THESE DAYS IN NEW YORK, coincidences can feel like signals, or even symptoms. At least it seemed that way on Sunday afternoon at the Queens Museum of Art—a long-standing bastion of community building in the most ethnically diverse urban area in the world—where a few hundred people showed up for an uplifting benefit for Rockaway. Framing the event was a show: “Caribbean: Crossroads of the World,” an impressive congregation of works by artists hailing from countries that were also hit hard by Sandy, lest we forget. “This is where all the big storms begin,” observed QMA curator Larissa Harris as we took in the tranquil and frenetic visions of the Caribbean Sea and the Gulf of Mexico in a section titled “Fluid Motions.”

In the famed Panorama, the museum had just installed “Washed Ashore,” an exhibition of student work made with Rockaway beach garbage that was organized pre-Sandy, and which for now features only one mosaic-like piece. This lone survivor from the project, spearheaded by the Rockaway Beach Surf Club and the Rockaway Waterfront Alliance, was a good enough symbol of hope. The RWA, a community partnership that promotes the long-term vitality of Rockaway through conservation and education programs, has been working nonstop to help local residents, and today it was receiving 100 percent of the benefit’s proceeds.

Upstairs, in the museum’s theater, artist Janine Antoni was holding a “meditation on compassion and the nature of seeing.” “I’ve been refining this for a few years,” she told the audience. She divided us into pairs and led a fifteen-minute guided exercise that involved staring directly into each other’s eyes. Based on a text developed by Buddhist Jack Kornfield, Antoni wove in her own remarks, at one point actually reciting a Barbara Kruger photograph: YOUR GAZE HITS THE SIDE OF MY FACE. By then it seemed like I had known my partner, elegant Brooklyn Museum curator Eugenie Tsai, for ages. As if to mock our attunement, a blaring saxophone from a nearby jazz band wafted into the room right at the end of the sit.

Left: Carmelle Safdie and QMA curator Larissa Harris. Right: Artist Ellen Harvey makes a portrait.

“That saxophonist has never had such a rapt audience,” a friend drily remarked later downstairs, while we were waiting for a tarot card reading from recent QMA collaborator Tania Bruguera. (The line was way too long for a portrait by Ellen Harvey.) Cue Bruguera: “I’m donating the future to the Rockaways!”

Around 3 PM, everyone finished up their drinks at the open bar (tended by Duke Riley, of course) or the espressos provided at the other end of the museum (courtesy of Paul Ramírez Jonas) and moved into the Panorama for speeches by QMA director Tom Finkelpearl, RWA director Jeanne DuPont, and Jennifer Bolstand and Walter Meyer from Local Office, a landscape architecture and urban design firm. We stood over the city’s scale model, built by Robert Moses for the 1964 World’s Fair. “To know Rockaway is to love it,” began Finkelpearl, who lives both in South Street Seaport and Rockaway. He added that it was important for the museum to work with a grassroots community group that will stay on the peninsula for the long haul. DuPont affirmed RWA’s commitment to the area, to “picturing what Rockaway will look like years from now, with or without the boardwalk.” Meyer showed harrowing images of the three-story waves that rolled in around sunset on October 30.

I kept thinking about how dead flat the ocean was for much of the summer. “Welcome to Lake Rockaway,” a friend texted one early summer morning. It became a routine. That feels like a long time ago.

Lauren O’Neill-Butler

Left: Artist Tania Bruguera (left). Right: The band at the QMA with a backdrop by artist Matt Volz.