When Mikal Hameed opened up 99% Gallery and Art Center in Williamsburg in June 2010, it took off, presenting seven shows in six months showcasing prominent underground artists to large crowds, all while becoming the latest de facto haunt for Brooklyn’s cultural extroverts. By December, almost as swiftly as it emerged, 99% Gallery was closed. In half a year, Hameed launched and shuttered the promising business he built from scratch, lost his family, became the victim of possible embezzlement, and was forced to negotiate just to keep a roof over his head.
“I never tried to look at it [the art world] traditionally,” Hameed says in the unassuming Clinton Hill railroad apartment he moved to last December. His art pieces and commercial product prototypes take up nearly every inch of wall space. The apartment is also his studio, since he was forced to abandon the space he built up at 99 N. 10th St. in a contentious saga between Hameed, his former landlord John Mayer, and Vice Magazine Publishing.
The 99% Gallery Hameed started there was certainly unconventional; its first show in June 2010 was a fund-raiser for the space itself. The gallery charged $5 admission and patrons could bid in silent auctions on work from lots of notable figures in the street art and pop surrealist move-ments. Despite the cover charge the event was packed, and pieces sold.
A lot of the attention was generated by Andrew Michael Ford, another rising star in the gallery world. He was Hameed’s curator and partner in some sense, but he was mostly in charge of finding the talent for the space and communicating with the artists. He came to Hameed early on before the gallery opened and offered his connections within the influential art movements brewing around the city and beyond.
Ford could get great rising artists like Swoon, Gaia, and collagist Vahge and was a savvy promoter. But at some point, Hameed found some discrepancies with artists not getting paid. When he would walk home from the gallery late at night and see Ford drinking at Bedford Ave. bar Savalas after claiming to be struggling financially, Hameed started getting suspicious. According to Hameed, he eventually found out a significant amount of both the gallery’s and the artists’ earnings was missing.
“I asked him [Ford] where the money was, and he said, ‘It’s all gone,’” Hameed says solemnly. He considered contacting lawyers but merely told Ford to leave. “It just wasn’t worth it. It’s not who I am.”
Patrons and friends kept coming to the gallery’s events, thanks in large part to the unoppressive, anti-art-scene-establishment vibe it radiated. The space quickly developed into the kind of enlightened artist hangout that usually took more time to develop. The crew and talent from Truth and Soul Records, omnipresent Williamsburg bands like Ninjasonik, even the occasional staff member from Vice, would loaf around and drink beer as Hameed worked in the back.
Soon it could add the role of living space to its attributes. Around September, Hameed’s wife asked him for a separation. With nowhere to go, he left the Brooklyn apartment they shared with their three children and moved in.
Hameed’s landlord, John Mayer said the arrangement was fine. Mayer, a longtime local who owns buildings on Wythe Ave. and the 93-99 N.10th St. plot that included the gallery, had begun dropping by regularly to spend time with Hameed and let off steam. “He [Mayer] would come by at night, to get away from his ball and chain,” Hameed says. “He’d say, come have cigarettes with me, let’s go to the store and get some beers, let’s sit and talk about art, Mikal.”
As leases in the building were set to expire, Mayer casually mentioned that Vice Magazine might be interested in taking the space adjoining 99%. When Vice did come by a couple days later, it wasn’t alarming until, according to Hameed, “I open the door and it’s the three guys from Vice, some architects, and they’re going over what they’re doing with my space…and they literally said, ‘knock down this wall and that wall.’”
When Hameed asked the Vice contingent what was going on, they seemed surprised at his unawareness of the situation, and told him Mayer had offered them the entire downstairs at 99 N. 10th St.
“He must be telling us different things,” Hameed recalls one of them mentioning.
But there was not much room to budge in Vice’s mind. Hameed initially offered solutions to keep part of his space, giving up other areas in the front. It was met with stolid renouncement.
“It was all business with them,” Hameed says. Hameed offered to match the media company’s offer, but the landlord apparently rejected it without explanation.
When reached for comment, Mayer initially said: “It is an issue between him [Hameed] and Vice and that’s all I am going to say.” In a second conversation he would deny having ever said anything; on both occasions he quickly hung up the phone.
About the whole incident, Vice issued a statement: “To be completely clear, we inquired with the building’s landl-ord about acquiring additional space to accommo-date new employees, and he offered us the space. However, because we’re such mensches, we successfully lobbied for 99% Gallery to have money refunded, we promoted its art show, and gave it a free ad page in our magazine. The only comparison between Duane Reade* and Vice is that we’re both interested in pharmaceuticals.”
Mayer did help Hameed find a new apartment before his December 1st move-out date. In the first positive development in months, the one-bedroom in Clinton Hill was down the street from where his wife and children lived.
Other than reconnecting with his family, Hameed’s sole focus since the dissolution of 99% has been ReBaroque, a commercial adaptation of his own artwork, large-scale sound paintings converted to simple arrangements of speakers on vibrant textiles. Once again, Hameed hasn’t allowed himself a moment to rest after the gallery whirlwind ended.
“I can’t sit up and be upset, I did that one day and I was done,” Hameed says. “And the next day I started moving forward.”
“I’m thinking about doing a 99% satellite show in April,” Hameed says intently, as if the past year had suddenly disappeared from his consciousness. “If I have a good space, I’m going to turn it into something.”
*Comparison to Duane Reade is reference to large corporations that are lately making aggressive entry into Williamsburg.