Ed Kim opened Sunnyside Arts, in the eponymous section of western Queens on Skillman Avenue near 46th Street, in September 2022. In less than six months, it has vaulted from upstart art supply store to local cultural hub. Much of this remarkably quick success is down to Kim’s conception of art as a collective asset and his quiet determination to craft a place for it to flourish. Two Coats of Paint asked him about the underpinnings of his initiative and enterprise, and the details of his vision.
Two Coats of Paint: You opened Sunnyside Arts about six months ago on Skillman Avenue. It’s a modest commercial street, pleasantly and manageably populated with small storefront businesses. Did you perceive local demand for an art supply store, or were you driven to make art part of your vocation for other reasons? Perhaps both.
Ed Kim: I owned and ran Sunnyside Plays, a party venue and event space that included a cafe, bar, and indoor playground for kids, where I offered classes and programs for all ages. It closed the first day of the pandemic lockdown. At around the same time, the closest art store, Artist and Craftsman in Long Island City, shut its doors. After a fruitless extended job search, realizing no one wants to hire a middle-aged MFA graduate with no marketable skills, I decided to fill the void of an art store in western Queens.
Two Coats of Paint: Sunnyside Arts certainly offers an appreciable range of what working artists need to make art. But in less than a year, your enterprise has become much more than a source of canvases, sketchpads, paint, brushes, and pencils. Talk about some of the other activities that go on in your space.
Ed Kim: I imagined Sunnyside Arts as a hub that nurtured creatives of all disciplines, whether they were painters, photographers, knitters, writers, poets, or performance artists. So I’ve had knitting classes, creative writing workshops, and food tastings in addition to gatherings for painting, arts and crafts, comics and other areas of visual art. Creative impulses come in so many forms that I’ve opened my door to whoever has something to share. Sometimes it comes in a class environment where the content is new, enlightening, exciting, or stimulating. Or sometimes it’s something for trained or self-taught artists that they haven’t done in a while, such as regular figure drawing sessions in which I have a professional art model pose for a couple hours. It’s non-instructional and participants are welcome to drink a glass of wine while listening to music that reminds them of the forgotten days of art school. My shop is as much a classroom and meeting place as it is an art supply store. Space, as for many an artist, is an issue. It would be great to have more room for classes, screenings, dance performances, or happenings.
Two Coats of Paint: Before television, newspaper stands were not just displays where you could buy a newspaper or a magazine; the proprietors were also founts of information themselves, able to inform their customers about local goings-on, an interactive part of neighborhood life. There’s a rough analogy there with your outfit: you not only present the materials needed for working artists to function but provide the means for aspiring ones to hone their abilities as well. Sunnyside Arts seems to have become an organic part of the community. Did you plan it that way, or did the idea evolve after you opened the store?
Ed Kim: Much of art is inherently organic; it grows from the seed of an idea and manifests itself in one’s chosen discipline, or it blossoms from one artistic practice to another, like poetry to painting or music (think of William Blake or John Cage). And artists need a forum for artistic discourse; I like the romantic idea of a Parisian salon where well-coiffed artists smoke Galoises and drink absinthe while criticizing one another’s work. Or even Abstract Expressionists having fistfights at the Cedar Tavern, arguing over who’s the best painter. While we won’t smoke cigarettes or smack bloody lips, we usually have some wine lying around as people challenge one another at chess.
My initial goal was to establish an artistic hub and not so much a community one. That it became a bit more expansive might have been inevitable because of my aforementioned former business, Sunnyside Plays. Many of the classes at Sunnyside Arts are the same classes I offered at my old space. Many of my old patrons have followed me to the new space, too. The previous business was born out of a certain lack of resources as a parent and it lasted for about four years. And as Sunnyside Plays filled the needs of families, Sunnyside Arts fills the need of artists. They seem to have come out of their home studios and found the shop with a mixture of surprise and relief.
I have been pleasantly surprised by the number of painters, printmakers, photographers and ceramicists who all live “down the block” (or upstairs). The painters ask for professional-grade paints though I often apologize for not carrying better brushes (I can’t yet afford the display). I try to support local artists by offering to take selected work on consignment. But I also want to be honest in my assessment. I want to show work that I myself believe in, so my gallery is not a brick-and-mortar bulletin board. I am more than happy to give constructive criticism, but preface it by saying, this is just my opinion and what do I know? While I don’t show just any work, I also think I have a responsibility to broadly support and promote artistic practice. And I try to instill in every patron, artistic or not, how important it is to go home and just “make stuff.”
It certainly wasn’t my goal to mirror the neighborhood. At the same time, it would be difficult now to do anything subversive or brashly avant-garde. Right now, it’d be hard to show a performance piece where a naked model in Yves Klein Blue rolls around a canvas on the floor. I think there’s time to challenge aesthetic conceptions in the neighborhood. As the postmodern saying goes, art must be seen as ugly before it can be seen as beautiful. I would love to show more “ugly” things, but the shopkeeper in me says to make some money and sell some beautiful things first.
That said, the reception of people in the community has been overwhelmingly positive and welcoming. For a number of weeks, every person who walked through the door said the same three things: I’m so happy you’re here; this neighborhood really needs something like this; and wow, you have a backyard? In fact, although they can see the yard through the backdoor, it’s part of the bar next door and I don’t have use of it. Instead, I have a couch, which is my sign of welcome. Some of the dads who patronized my old space feel they’ve rediscovered their man-cave.
Two Coats of Paint: Have any previous establishments in New York or elsewhere informed your vision for your business? Does a particular model, possibly old-school, loom in your mind?
Ed Kim: I would love to emulate and reprise the now-closed New York Central Art Supply in the East Village. What I cherished about that store was how packed it was, how well-used and much-loved it was by its patrons. The cramped space had a distinctive character and a redolent smell that evidenced how durable and indispensable it was to artists. It had an aura that urged you to be creative and get your hands dirty. I often talk to other artists who think of it just as longingly, especially their paper department. So, perhaps in remembrance, I called one of their former suppliers, who also missed it, and now I have some of the paper they sold. It was the only store in NYC where you could get that paper. I’d like Sunnyside Arts to be a destination for things you won’t be able to find anywhere else in the city. But I will start with western Queens.
Two Coats of Paint: Let’s cut back to the Edmond Kim origin story for a moment. Did you grow up in the neighborhood or nearby? Is your interest in art primarily commercial, or are you an artist yourself? If you are, tell us something about your own work – abstract or representational?
Ed Kim: I grew up in upstate New York, and received my BFA in illustration at RISD and my MFA in painting at Rutgers. My first apartment in Park Slope had a view of the Twin Towers, but I was living on the Upper West Side when they went down. I have been in Sunnyside for something like 17 years. I still illustrate (no matter how many cartoons The New Yorker rejects) but mostly I am an abstract painter, though sometimes not. I suppose that’s a vague way of saying I work two-dimensionally in a traditionally tactile way. I am not a Luddite, but I’ve never touched a stylus to a laptop. (I think that’s what it’s called – a stylus?)
Two Coats of Paint: From our perspective, Sunnyside Arts is a great boon to Sunnyside, Queens, and indeed New York City. We hope it endures. Please reassure us that you plan to stick around.
Ed Kim: I hope to be around as long as I can, but it’s no secret how tenuous it is to be a brick-and-mortar shop. Still, no one wants to hire me anyway. And as a friend said to me, once you have your own business, it’s impossible to go back to working for someone else. So I guess I can’t go any other place anyway, anytime soon.
Sunnyside Arts, 45-18 Skillman Avenue, Sunnyside, NY 11104. Open Tuesday through Sunday, 9:30 AM to 6:00 PM. Owned and operated by Ed Kim.