The artist Dustin Yellin likes big things. The jawbone of a sperm whale hangs in his studio. His most recent sculpture weighs more than 12 tons. And in June, he became the owner of the former Time Moving and Storage building, a 24,000-square-foot Civil War-era warehouse in Red Hook, Brooklyn, for which he paid $3.7 million.
Mr. Yellin’s plans for the space are bigger still.“My crazy dream is to create a kind of utopian art center here,” he said last month while standing in the building’s courtyard, where a glittering Airstream trailer sat amid newly planted fig and crabapple trees. Mr. Yellin’s vision includes a large-scale exhibition hall, an artists’ residency program, a sculpture garden and hosts of visitors for symposiums and public programs.
In the scale of its ambition, Pioneer and King — as Mr. Yellin, 36, calls the building, for its location between Pioneer and King Streets — brings to mind P.S. 1, the contemporary art center in Long Island City, Queens. Alanna Heiss, its founder, had similarly idealistic aims when she acquired that site, an abandoned school building, in 1976. But Ms. Heiss was not an amateur impresario: she had founded and run the Institute for Art and Urban Resources for five years, transforming other derelict buildings into studios and exhibition spaces. Moreover, Ms. Heiss never worked as an artist.
“I’ve always been a show-maker,” she said. “And I’ve found that artist-run spaces aren’t as long-lasting, if only because artists always want to return to their work.”
Papo Colo, who co-founded Exit Art, one of the city’s oldest alternative spaces, in 1982, said: “To sustain an art space in New York, especially a nonprofit one, is a sort of miracle, because the art world is a for-profit culture.”
Indeed, even the best-received art centers can struggle to survive in New York City. The Chelsea Art Museum, a three-story space for contemporary art on West 22nd Street, closed its doors on Jan. 1, its building bought by a real estate developer last year. In 2009, the Knitting Factory, an edgy downtown performance space founded in 1987, was forced to move to a smaller and less expensive space in Williamsburg, Brooklyn. And Exit Art itself, now in Hell’s Kitchen, is set to close in June, after the death of Mr. Colo’s wife and collaborator, Jeanette Ingberman, in August.
Though the odds of long-term success may be against him, Mr. Yellin radiates an almost giddy sense of optimism. For one thing, he sees Red Hook as a kind of anti-Chelsea, its relatively cheap rents and remoteness from Manhattan making it a prime setting for a grass-roots cultural operation. His enthusiasm also stems from his substantial network of artist friends.
“Dustin is a natural-born organizer and extremely generous to other artists,” said Bob Colacello, the former editor of Interview magazine and a correspondent for Vanity Fair, who has spent time at Kidd Yellin, a studio and gallery Mr. Yellin owns with the artist Charlotte Kidd. “It’s as if he’s both an artist and a Renaissance patron.”
Mr. Yellin grew up wealthy in Aspen, Colo., and was raised by his mother, a real estate developer and entrepreneur. He dropped out of high school before his senior year, he said, because “I wasn’t learning about what I wanted to do,” and moved to Manhattan in 1996 to be an artist. He and a friend rented a raw loft in an old horse stable at 10th Avenue and 18th Street and turned it into a kind of 24-hour event space where an eclectic array of visitors — including artists, celebrities, scientists and local auto mechanics — were forever stopping by.
In those early years, Mr. Yellin worked primarily in painting and collage, but he eventually gravitated toward sculpture. In 2006 his experiments with resin and larger-scale work led him to buy a grungy 2,500-square-foot warehouse on Van Brunt Street in Red Hook, which he now leases to Stumptown Coffee Roasters. Enamored of what he calls the neighborhood’s “one-lane fishing village vibe,” he soon found an apartment nearby.
By 2009, Mr. Yellin had relocated to Kidd Yellin. There he works with 15 assistants on his sizable glass sculptures, which at first glance resemble objects encased in blocks of ice. To create them, he paints on or affixes images to thick sheets of high-transparency glass, then glues those sheets together to create often-fantastical three-dimensional tableaus.
Despite a mixed response from critics — Roberta Smith called his resin sculptures “highbrow kitsch” in a 2007 review for The New York Times — his work has attracted the attention of buyers, including celebrities like Lance Armstrong and Ben Stiller. The glass sculptures typically sell for $25,000 to $100,000, Mr. Yellin said, and have brought in as much as $250,000, sums that made the down payment on Pioneer and King possible.
In 2010, he left the Robert Miller Gallery in Chelsea to work with the young art dealer Vito Schnabel, son of the artist Julian Schnabel. “Vito is an old friend,” Mr. Yellin said, “and I wanted to be with someone who represented a smaller group of younger artists.” Mr. Schnabel’s roster includes the Bruce High Quality Foundation, an art collective also based in Red Hook, whose mission, according to its Web site, is to “foster an alternative to everything.”
Mr. Yellin “definitely exists outside the Chelsea art world box,” said Eugenie Tsai, the curator of contemporary art for the Brooklyn Museum, who selected his work for the Brooklyn Artists Ball, a museum gala, last year. “But if I call him an outsider artist, I mean that in the best sense of the word. He’s self-taught, and he has a distinct and original vision.”
But can that vision apply to creating a functional center for the borough’s artists? Taking root in steadily gentrifying Red Hook will not come cheap: Mr. Yellin expects the renovations to cost around $2 million and his monthly expenses to average at least $50,000. Already concerned about balancing his career with his new undertaking, he said he did not intend to finance the space indefinitely. “Ultimately I want to find an investor to buy the building from me and turn it into a nonprofit,” he said. He also plans to relinquish directorial control. “But only after I form an advisory board and help put the vision in place,” he added.
At the moment, Mr. Yellin is moving his studio and office into the new building, after which other artists will begin to arrive. His friend David Brooks plans to build an installation in the courtyard using flame and large-scale shrink-wrap. Gibby Haynes, an artist and the lead singer of the band Butthole Surfers, will use space on the second floor to make a series of paintings for an upcoming show. Mr. Yellin, meanwhile, is working with Allison Weisberg, the founder and executive director of the SoHo arts nonprofit Recess Activities, to apply for grants and donations to pay for a residency program.
And just to make things more challenging, this month also marks the debut of two more of Mr. Yellin’s projects: Intercourse, a quarterly magazine of artist interviews he is editing; and “Little Grandfather,” a documentary film about a remote Amazonian tribe, which he directed with four friends. Both, along with Mr. Yellin’s 12-ton “triptych” depicting an apocalyptic scenario inspired by the painter Hieronymus Bosch, will be displayed during Pioneer and King’s “soft opening” on Jan. 28.
On a Saturday afternoon in December, Mr. Yellin and Ms. Weisberg were overseeing renovations to the ground-floor exhibition hall. Light poured through the red brick facade’s exactly 100 windows, illuminating the cathedral-like interior, whose vaulted timber ceiling rises 40 feet. The lead architect, Sam Trimble, was debating the hue of the polished concrete floor to be poured later that week.
“When we first came in here, this place was pitch dark and stacked from floor to ceiling with file boxes,” Mr. Yellin said. “We were like, ‘How is this going to be possible?’ ”
Ms. Weisberg laughed. “No, I was like that,” she corrected him. “You said, ‘This place is going to be amazing.’ ”