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Barbara Anderson — Committed to Giving Art to Soulless Empty Storefronts

Written by: Manhattan Sideways. Published: July 17, 2023.

Middle school teacher Barbara Anderson is the founder of Art on the Ave NYC — a community based non-profit organization that highlights local artistry through open venues and empty storefronts.

n Art on the Ave's gallery space
Barbara in Art on the Ave's gallery space. Photo supplied.

Where do you live in Manhattan?
W 86th St, Upper West Side

So, what’s your New York story? Born here, or just arrived?
Born in Rome, lived in many countries, and moved to NYC in September of 2019. When I arrived, I taught at an international school in FiDi. It was a wonderful school where the motto is "New York is our classroom." I got to know the city and its boroughs straight away through a documentary project I did with my middle schoolers. Each one chose a borough and an area of interest to focus on and we went to explore each one, taking notes, photos and shooting film. We interviewed New Yorkers and got their stories. The students then created documentary films. It was a wonderful way to be introduced to the city...seen through the eyes and hearts of the kids. When COVID happened, I realized that I could sit in my apartment and lament the situation, the empty streets, the closed restaurants and all the vacant stores, or I could try to do something useful. That is when I thought it would be great to create an opportunity for people to see art without going indoors and the way to do this was to put the art behind the windows of the vacant stores. Art on the Ave NYC was conceived during Covid and "birthed" on Columbus Avenue on the Upper West Side, but it is growing up all over the city. 

Barbara at Seaport with artist Fina Yeung where they hosted a children's workshop in Sept 2022.
Barbara at Seaport with artist Fina Yeung where they hosted a children's workshop in Sept 2022. Photo supplied.

What was your first job? What do you do now?
I was a teacher for 28 years. My first job was teaching 9th grade English in Montreal. Art on the Ave NYC has made me realize how being a teacher is much more than we all think. Teachers make plans and organize, they facilitate and coach, they market, they mediate, they do PR, and they take stock. The one thing that teaching never prepared me for was raising money. Ha!

What's your favorite New York minute (or moment) so far?
It is very hard to choose a favorite New York minute. I have had so many strange, wonderful, frightening, inspiring minutes. 
But one that stands out is when I left a group of neurodiverse teenagers with their teachers and a resident artists in our subway station studio because I wanted to buy them donuts. When I returned a few minutes later, they were surrounded by police officers and for a minute, my heart jumped. Then I realized that the officers had gathered around to see them painting and to chat with them about the art. An art studio in a subway station is not usual. Young people painting in it and a resident artist painting alongside them on the platform level of the station is not typical either. That these officers found it interesting enough to come and interact was very special to see. 

Share with us why you love Manhattan
I have lived in many countries. Manhattan is a combination of them all. Everything neighborhood has its own personality and spirit. I love that you can take a subway for 10 minutes and enter a different world. No two areas sound alike, look alike, or feel alike. Art on the Ave NYC is an organization that gets into the neighborhood, stays for a while, and makes connections.

What's your superpower or hidden talent?
Curiosity about people and a willingness to learn. I have embarked on a journey as an arts non-profit that is far from my comfort zone, but the people I have met along the way have helped me and inspired me. I still often feel that I am making my way in the dark and stumbling, but I enjoy those bumps. They are opportunities.

with Aleathea Sapp-Jimenez a Brooklyn based artist
Barbara with Aleathea Sapp-Jimenez, a Brooklyn based artist. Photo supplied.

If you could bring one place back to Manhattan that is no longer around (we call them Lost Gems), what would it be?
I haven't been in Manhattan long enough to know which gems have been lost, but my work consists of transforming vacant spaces into mini street-facing art galleries. It is not lost on me that each one of these spaces had another life, meant something to someone, and is now gone. 

What else should we know about you?
I think people should know that I don't know what I am doing most of the time but that I try. As a teacher and as a mother, the one thing I have always tried to instill is the idea that you have to try, to talk to people, to ask questions and to make mistakes. Make a plan and follow through. When people say no, ask why not. When there is a huge obstacle, don't stand in front of it wasting energy trying to climb over....find a work around, dig under, find someone to give you a boost!
I have found many many people in the city willing to give me a boost. From Nicole Paynter at the Columbus Avenue BID who first believed in me, to the Isidro Medina in Washington Heights who has taken a huge leap of faith, people in this city have been there to help us bring art to the street level for all to enjoy.

Barbara's Manhattan Gems

Pachute57 W 84th St, New York, NY 10024 (between W84/85th St)
It is a small clothing boutique around the corner from where I live. They have a wide range of clothing but not so much that it overwhelms you. The sales team is kind and knows when to help and when not to. Sometimes I like to just look and they give lots of time for that. The merchandise is different from what you find in other stores — European, American and Israeli designers — and there is always a range of prices. I love the sales rack and often feel like I have scored a win in those racks! 

Elea217 W 85th St, New York, NY 10024 (between Broadway and Amsterdam)
The staff is helpful. The ambiance is relaxed and the food is solid. I love fresh fish and it is prepared in a simple way with lemon and the best olive oil. There are a range of Greek specialties but the things I like most are the zucchini starter and the fish. 

Dashnor Tailoring 320 E 81st St, New York, NY 10028 (between 1/2nd Ave)
This is a small tailor shop on the Upper East Side. We actually displayed art in this space during an exhibition. Even though I don't have much tailoring work that I get done, Dashnor and his team work very hard. The pandemic and people's changing work habits have hit them hard. He was a specialist in men's suits but he has pivoted and does all kinds of things now. He is a kind person and a real gentleman. 

Lady Fleur236 E 80th St, New York, NY 10075 (between 2/3rd Ave)
Lady Fleur is a flower shop on the upper East Side. There are actually many flower shops in the area but Lady Fleur is different. It is a tiny space where flower magic happens. Going in there is refreshing and always guaranteed to brighten the day. If the owner is not around, she has lovely helpers who are welcoming and helpful. I have bought plants and flowers and they've always been a hit. They also do a lot of floral arrangements for different occasions.

Tiny Doll House314 E 78th St, New York, NY 10075 (between 1/2nd Ave)
There is nothing not to love about this store full of doll house miniatures. People are always coming in to browse and to ooh and ahhh. It is like a little time warp actually where you can relive a little of your childhood. The store is not large but they have managed to fit in houses from different places and eras and all the furnishings that go with them. They have created little vignettes for different styles, epochs and holidays. I love this place and I am not alone. A lot of TikTokers pop in too.

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