Their House: How the Still House Group Turned a Red Hook Studio Into an Art World Success Story

Still House Group's studio in Red Hook.

Still House Group’s studio in Red Hook.

Walking down Van Brunt Street in Red Hook on a bright February afternoon, one is treated to the city’s finest view of the Statue of Liberty. The squeal of trucks unloading produce at the bustling Fairway Market (the neighborhood’s de facto town square) and the grunts of men hauling crates into warehouses make for a loud entrance. The bone-chill of New York Harbor is made all the more menacing by the eerily incandescent glow of Ikea. One feels far from Manhattan here. One feels far even from other parts of Brooklyn, which has made Red Hook an obvious settlement for artists.

Tucked away on the fourth floor of 481 Van Brunt, in a space that can only be reached through a service entrance in the back alley next to a loading dock, is the Still House Group. Nominally an organization of eight artists, they are young—none of the permanent members have reached the age of 30—and began with humble enough roots. What started as a website in 2007 for a few New York college students who didn’t have a way of showing their art to the public has since become a multimillion-dollar institution more profitable than many New York galleries.

When I visited last month, the Still House had the feel of an assembly line. The artists work in 17-by-20-foot cubbies, more or less exposed to one another. A ninth cubby is reserved for a rotating three-month resident, who makes work for a show in the group’s “gallery,” which is really just a separate corner in the space. Recently, two permanent members, Isaac Brest and Zachary Susskind, gave over the cubby that they shared to another guest artist; currently, it’s occupied by Brad Troemel, who will also have a show at Still House in the spring.

The artists worked away, occasionally shouting someone’s name when he was needed (all eight members are male). Dominic Samsworth, the resident, studied one of his paintings laid out on the floor intently. His show at the gallery was a week away. Louis Eisner, a member and lifelong friend of Mr. Brest, and Haley Mellin, another resident and one of the few women in this environment, were talking about painting by hand versus printing. Nick Darmstaedter had removed his shirt and was crouched over a work. Several staffers—the group employs a cast of interns, assistants and administrative staff, including a studio manager—were hammering crates for shipping. Dylan Lynch, another Still House member, was out in Montauk (“sourcing some stones from the beach” for a piece), so Mr. Brest and I talked in Mr. Lynch’s studio.

“When we started, it was just a way to exhibit work online,” said Mr. Brest. “We started as an online viewing platform for a bunch of artists that were 18, 19, 20 who were working in New York, many of whom didn’t go to art school. It was a void, we filled it. As time went on, you wanted to do pop-up shows, you wanted a space to work. That was a void, we filled it. Now as artists’ careers start to happen and they need proper management, proper sales, proper funding, that’s a void—we’ll fill it. That will happen indefinitely till there are no more voids to be filled.”

Mr. Brest talks fast, with a confidence that is betrayed only slightly by his casual appearance and his occasional tendency to slip into the second person when referring to himself in an interview. The official reason he gave for offering his studio up to another artist to use is that he doesn’t need it for his practice. A more adequate reason, even though he still works on his own art everyday, is that he’s sufficiently transformed himself into Still House’s resident businessman and sales manager. From a numbers standpoint, he is more competent than most dealers with storefront galleries, and he presides over everything.

Mr. Brest founded Still House with Alex Perweiler in 2007. By 2008, while most of its members were still in school, they had their first exhibition in a building that was soon to be demolished. This set the blueprint for how they work today, machine-like and highly focused. They built out the space while making work for the show over the course of a week. In 2009, they had an exhibition at the Lower East Side gallery Rental, which introduced them to the mainstream art world. Mr. Brest’s father, the film director and producer Martin Brest, collected work from Rental in its previous incarnation in Los Angeles.

Several Still House members come from families that have a history in the art world—Louis Eisner’s father is Eric Eisner, who used to run Geffen Records, and his mother, Lisa, is a fashion photographer and artist. Naturally, they like to downplay these connections (Mr. Eisner says he did “not really grow up around art so much,” and Mr. Brest’s father “has a couple friends who are artists”), but they’re there.

They have strong allies, like Tobias Meyer, the former head of contemporary art at Sotheby’s, an old family friend of the Eisners, who had gotten Louis an internship at the auction house and wrote him a recommendation for his application to Columbia, according to Mark Fletcher, Mr. Meyer’s partner (he referred to their relationship to the artist as “a little bit of a modern-day Auntie Mame”). Privilege doesn’t hurt, but Still House is made up of largely self-made men. According to Mr. Brest, the organization has never borrowed money and has been funded solely by collectors in exchange for work.

In 2010, they moved into a disused floor in a Tribeca office building, a prototype for their setup in Red Hook. They were given the Tribeca space essentially rent-free. They paid only insurance and a $1,200-dollar-a-month utility fee, which Mr. Brest believes to this day “was a way to legally be there without being able to legal take action against [the landlord] when I get cancer in 10 years from asbestos.” At first, they mostly skated and goofed around, but they focused over the course of their time there and by the end were selling art out of the building. In 2011, they had enough money to rent the Civil War-era warehouse they now occupy in Red Hook. By 2012, they had fully matured into a business, and Mr. Fletcher gave them an exhibition in his space off Washington Square.

“I was just sort of expecting that they would drink a bunch of beers and throw some stuff on the wall and call it a day,” Mr. Fletcher told me. “And they were there every day for weeks, hanging things and discussing how things looked in place to one another and with the architecture. I gave the keys to these kids, and I was dumbfounded by their professionalism, their acumen, their intensity.”

He purchased the entire installation for “somewhere in the mid five figures,” he said, “as a gesture of support, but also so this whole thing could stay together.”

At the end of last February, most of the group was touring Europe for exhibitions. They’ve also thoroughly graduated to the Upper East Side, where the February opening of their exhibition at Nahmad Contemporary had Leonardo DiCaprio hugging members of the Nahmad clan in between visits to the gallery’s backroom to look at inventory, sucking on his ever-present e-cigarette.

Still House is far from the first group of artists in their twenties to band together, but their business savvy is novel. The group insists on the individuality of the members—they do not make collaborative work—and Mr. Brest asked me in an email not to refer to Still House as a “collective.” That’s an admittedly overused term, but every generation gets the collective it deserves. At a time when the art world is as obsessed with money as it is with art, Mr. Brest called Still House’s business apparatus a kind of conceptual work in itself, albeit a practical one for the people involved. “I find the art of organizing this company to be much more interesting and challenging than putting a painting on a wall. It’s just as creative as anything else,” he said.

Most commercial galleries in New York operate on a 50/50 model. An artist consigns a work to a dealer, and they split the proceeds down the middle. This dealer often offers the artist representation in return, which basically constitutes institutional support. There is the promise of a regular platform in which to exhibit work, and sometimes there is money for materials, assistants and studio space. This model is powerful only in that it is the generally accepted path to success in the art world: An artist needs the representation of a gallery to be successful because galleries represent successful artists.

There are cracks in this system. If an artist becomes too successful, he leaves for a larger gallery that can provide better support. This maintains the rigid class structure of the art world. Still, an emerging artist’s market can balloon overnight. Consider one former Still House member, the 24-year-old Lucien Smith, who left the group for the more conventional route of gallery representation in 2011; one of his so-called “rain” paintings just sold at auction at Phillips in London for around $320,000 when paintings in that same series reportedly sold for between $3,000 and $12,000 at the artist’s Los Angeles gallery OHWOW less than two years ago. But breaking into this world at all as an artist is as difficult as a gallery advancing from one class to another. It just doesn’t happen that often.

It’s impossible to say whether the career of Mr. Smith, who from a financial standpoint is the most successful of the artists to pass through Still House, took off because he left the group or if it would have happened anyway. What is certain, though, is that since all of the artists in Still House have a stake in the business, they can better control their markets.

When Mr. Brest sells a Still House artist’s work out of 481 Van Brunt, he said, the artist gets 60 percent of the cut. The rest of the 40 percent breaks down like this: 10 percent goes to whoever helped sell the work, whether it’s Mr. Brest or outside help. (“You,” Mr. Brest said, referring to me specifically, “could literally say I have this guy and he really wants to buy some work, and if it’s something that I need help selling, 10 percent is extended to any human being theoretically, period.”) The remaining 30 percent gets kicked back into Still House’s communal pot, which pays for their overhead and production costs. Mr. Brest wouldn’t say how much money the group grosses in a year—“All I can say is people can survive off being an artist,” he told me—but two separate sources with knowledge of the group quoted the number as being between $3 million and $5 million. This is essentially what a mid- to lower-level gallery needs to make in order to keep its doors open.

Still House, Mr. Brest told me, operates “purely from an intuitive standpoint. I don’t know how galleries work. I find them often to be very financially irresponsible. They seem to put all their money into selling the work, whereas we put all of the money into producing the work with the understanding that good work sells itself.”

A week after my visit to Red Hook, I met Louis Eisner in Chinatown, where most of Still House lives. (Mr. Brest, not entirely unconvincingly, referred to his own apartment as “a fucking box,” adding that he lived with roommates. That Mr. Eisner is a burgeoning collector of cars has only made getting to Red Hook easier.) We were going to look at +1, Still House’s foray into a storefront exhibition space. I mean storefront in the most primal sense—a tiny kiosk underneath the Manhattan Bridge that is 10 feet square, shielded by a large window. There’s no getting inside unless you’re helping install. A vestibule covers the glass, with a bench and a heat lamp. The project, which opened this past September, was commissioned by New York nonprofit Art in General. The location right in front of several privately owned bus services has drawn a clientele different from the one you would find in, say, Chelsea. “The community has really responded to it,” Mr. Eisner said.

Mr. Brest had related a story about going by +1 around 12:30 a.m. one night after an opening, swinging wide the door to the vestibule and walking in on “two Mexican guys on the bench.” They were smoking a joint.

“I could not ask for anything more,” Mr. Brest said. “You could put the most powerful collector in there or curator or museum head, and I would have preferred those guys, sitting at the end of their probably 18-hour shifts for minimum wage, smoking a joint, looking at an installation. I opened up the door, and they were like, ‘Whoa!’ They thought I was a cop or something. Those are guys that will never go to a gallery. They don’t have the time, they don’t have the information, the context has not accepted them as an attendee.”

When Mr. Eisner and I were there, the show on view featured Miles Huston and Dylan Lynch. The rocks Mr. Lynch had been gathering in Montauk the day I visited Red Hook were arranged in a swirl on the floor. We sat on the bench in silence for a moment, which I broke pretty ungracefully by asking, “So is any of this for sale?”

“It’s funny,” Mr. Eisner said. “Everyone always asks if things are for sale. No. This is just for the people.”