People Who Make NY Special

Curating Queens’s Cultural Landscape With Tina Stipanovic

Sculptor, restaurant owner, performance booker, curator: Tina Stipanovic has been cultivating the tight-knit art community in Queens for the past decade.

The third time calling Tina Stipanovic is the charm. “I’m sorry, I swear I’m not dodging you,” she tells me, “I’m just a little swamped lately.”

That’s an understatement. Stipanovic splits her in-demand schedule between being a mother; a live performance booker at her Astoria bar and eatery, Rest-au-Rant (colloquially known as RaR Bar); and the owner of adjacent art studio Alterwork, which offers classes and fully stocked spaces for artists in the fields of textiles, ceramics, painting, sculpture, and design to ply their trade.

In 2018, Stipanovic also acted as the curator for the Backlot Art Festival and hopes to return to that gig in 2019. ”I love doing it; it’s a real opportunity to see everything that goes on in this neighborhood—Flux Factory, Chocolate Factory Theater, Museum of the Moving Image—in one concentrated space. That’s really inspiring to me.” What does a woman who juggles two businesses, parenthood, a cross-cultural curatorial eye, and her own work as a sculptor want out of life? “More time!”

What Should We Do?!: With so many major projects running at once, how do you make time to do your own artwork?
Tina Stipanovic: My creative work has kind of been in limbo because of everything I’ve taken on. I’m a mom to two boys, ages 9 and 6, so they eat up any spare time I have. It’s hard to have personal space to think about making my own work, so it’s mostly been contemplation more than actuation. Right now, getting into a proper studio and focusing on sculpture is more of a dream…not too far off, but I’m not there yet!

One benefit of that perspective is that it informs what I think artists need at Alterwork. The space is designed to foster growth by offering an escape from New York issues. Yeah, the rent is high, but what’s the bare minimum you need to polish your own creativity? Open space that’s only yours. That’s really the idea behind the studio, finding ways to set the table for people to tackle their projects no matter what kind of art they’re working on.

WSWD: You provide a diverse selection of media for artists to choose from.
Stipanovic: My nature as a conceptual artist was always multimedia. I’m a sculptor, but not in any particular set medium; I was never loyal to any one texture or form. At Alterwork, even if you’re there as a painter and only a painter you can still have these options accessible to you. And, not incidentally, you can be near people who are creating in different mediums, which can be inspirational, as well. If you want to try your hand at pottery or photography or screen printing, it’s there.

WSWD: What else makes Alterwork special?
Stipanovic: It’s a brand-new baby, less than half a year old, so it’s very much a place in progress. But one of the things I offer that I believe other places do not is rental for short-term projects. During the Armory show, we had a number of professional artists spill over into Alterwork. If you’re in town from Brazil or California and you have a show in New York, you’re not bringing a chisel or oil paints with you, but you may well want to do some touch-ups or finish work on your piece prior to exhibiting. Alterwork comes furnished with tools so you can walk in and get started immediately.

WSWD: When you work as an art curator, what’s your process for assessing work to determine if you want to show it?
Stipanovic: The quality of the work always prevails; that’s the watchword. I’m very much drawn to people who are learning to find their voice. There’s a lot of great artwork out there that isn’t in a Manhattan gallery. I try to seek out artists in process more than chase whatever is hot at the moment.

Equally important, I feel art needs to be immediately relevant to be worthwhile. That means it should be relevant to the issues that we deal with and the time that we’re living in, yet still a few steps ahead. People who have vision, that’s who I’m looking for. And it’s not just in Long Island City; I make a point of working with artists outside my immediate space. What I try to offer my community isn’t just to find art being made there, it’s also to bring new art to that world.

WSWD: Astoria and LIC are very hot spaces for artists.
Stipanovic: I came to New York 27 years ago. At that time, Long Island City was just artist lofts and industrial buildings. If you didn’t bring a cup of coffee to your studio, there wasn’t a bodega anywhere near where you could buy one. But it was affordable! Now not so much. I would imagine that it’s a more vocal arts community than most; we’ve been here for a while. But lots of artists who don’t own their homes are struggling to stay in Astoria. It’s not as manageable as it used to be.

WSWD: You’ve made it work by balancing your art and your business.
Stipanovic: We all have to work. Everyone is an artist-slash-something. I had an opportunity to start something meaningful, so I’m glad I ended up here, where I can maybe help someone else. I’m able to be around other artists and create a platform for them. That matters. Business, for me, is not so much about money…that may tell you just how good of a businessperson I am! But I enjoy what I do because I’m surrounded by art; that’s what makes me happy. I think most business owners would not be very impressed with my take-home pay. But I’m happy with it. It satisfies my soul.

WSWD: What trends in modern art do you find promising?
Stipanovic: I’m seeing more and more collage art; that appeals to me personally. Not so much the two-dimensional collage, but large-scale collage with depth. Those patched-up worlds speak to me.

WSWD: It seems as if we’re in a moment where people are looking to recontextualize things to find answers.
Stipanovic: I believe you’re right. We’re in a moment where lots of people are trying to see what they’re capable of doing. Dialogue is fine, but what I enjoy seeing is an artist engaged in political activism who doesn’t just complain, but has something to say. It’s always refreshing to see young minds developing the future.

Rapid Round!
Tina Stipanovic’s Faves…in a NY Minute

Date-night spot?
A long walk on the Gantry Plaza waterfront

Place to take out-of-town guests?
Katz’s Deli

Historical sight? 
Dead Horse Bay

Live-music venue? 
RaR Bar, of course!

Street art?
5Pointz (RIP)

Day trip?
Brimfield Antique Flea Market

Find more great spots in Queens. Try our app for plenty of expert tips and recommendations in NYC. And read about other inspiring New Yorkers in our People Who Make NY Special column.