A MoMA Trustee’s $40 Million Art Complex Shifts Focus to Brooklyn

Arts patron Lonti Ebers has announced that her sprawling 21,000-square-foot compound in Brooklyn, N.Y.’s East Williamsburg section will open as an arts destination and cultural hub on June 5. 

The Amant Foundation, which covers four buildings on Grand and Maujer streets, was designed by the architecture firm SO-IL, and includes art galleries, a bookstore and cafe, offices, art studios, and a performance space. It’s about a 20-minute subway ride on the L train from Manhattan’s Chelsea gallery district.

“It really started,” Ebers says, “from thinking it would be great to create a place and space where artists could come and work and be with their colleagues.”

And so Ebers, a trustee of the Museum of Modern Art and board member of the Center for Curatorial Studies (CCS) at Bard College, embarked on a seven-year effort to create an institution where artists can make art. She bought her first plot of land in 2014, and shortly thereafter the next three, which included “a former plumbing supply business, which I understand was a meeting point for the mafia for some time,” says Ebers. 

“We were able to segregate the functions that allowed us to have a separate studio space, exhibition space, performance space, and office” because the buildings aren’t fully connected, she says. “It allows for more domestically scaled [interiors] intertwined with walkways and some gardens.” The buildings with the bookstore, art galleries, and offices will open in June; the others are set to open in August.

The project cost “over $35 million, probably closer to $40 million,” says Ebers. “It was not inexpensive.” The architecture, she explains, “is not a conventional build. My husband, who’s in the real estate business, puts up a 40-story building, but every floor is the same; here, a lot had to be invented.” (Ebers’s husband is Bruce Flatt, the chief executive officer of Brookfield Asset Management Inc.)

Eber’s style of patronage is not the dominant model for private art philanthropy. There are other art foundations, certainly, including the FLAG Art Foundation in Chelsea, the Brant Foundation in the East Village, and the Faurschou Foundation in Greenpoint, Brooklyn, but Amant will be the first to put the artistic process on near-equal footing with exhibitions.

The opening comes at a time when the arts are still suffering across nearly every strata of New York’s cultural landscape. “I think it will serve a need,” Ebers says, “and certainly in Brooklyn, it will be something new. We want to create a place where artists feel welcome that hopefully the public becomes engaged with.”

Ebers’s Amant Foundation, which means “they love” in Latin and also happens to be her mother’s maiden name, will host four artists for three-month periods in the spring, fall, and winter. The summer residencies will take place at the foundation’s space in Siena, Italy, which opened in summer 2020.

Unlike other artist residencies, where artists have to “donate” some of the work they make at the end of their stay to their patrons, “there’s no obligation to produce anything,” Ebers says. “I actually purposefully did not want that sort of thing. And the reason was, we’re trying to cultivate intellectual and creative growth without having a hammer hanging over someone’s head.” 

While Ebers does collect, she continues, “I didn’t want someone to have the obligation to give me work. And listen, if there’s something wonderful an artist does, I might ask if I could acquire it. But I don’t expect anything.” 

The residency also comes with a $3,000 monthly stipend for housing and living expenses; throughout a residency there will be speakers, workshops, and other programs for the artists.

More than 1,500 people applied for the first year’s 12 spots, Ebers says. The winners were selected by a panel that consisted of Lauren Cornell, the director of CCS Bard; Elvira Dyangani Ose, director of the Showroom in London; and Reem Fadda, director of the Abu-Dhabi Cultural Center, Abu-Dhabi.

“It was very challenging,” Ebers says. “Ultimately, we decided based on what’s an interesting mix. It’s not just the individual artist, it’s trying to compose an interesting and dynamic group.”

An Unusual Art Foundation

The performance space will have regular programming and will also be used by the artists in residence as they see fit. Meanwhile, the foundation’s galleries will have a running exhibition schedule; the first show will be work by the artist Grada Kilomba. 

In contrast to many private foundations, Ebers says the Amant Foundation won’t showcase her own art collection, which ARTnews pegs at more than 700 pieces.

“There’s no plan to exhibit my collection,” she says. “I don’t want that, partly because it’s not really what I wanted to achieve. And secondly, I’m generous with loans to institutions. It’s just not, collectively, a group of artworks I want to show.”

Ebers says she has plans to grow the foundation’s activities and collaborate with other institutions. “At this point, we’re funding it entirely,” she says. “We will be looking to expand our support base, but we’re quite prepared to fund it ourselves.”

The entire undertaking, Ebers says, had “an element that’s a leap of faith—there are inevitably going to be uncertainties.” In her case, she says, it was cost overruns and construction delays.

But, she adds, “you’ll never do anything if you don’t take the initiative, so you just have to be strongly committed. Doing it is not for the faint of heart.”

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