There is something bigger than beer brewing at the Francis Kite Club, a new haunt in the East Village whose artists hold performances, shape its programming and debate politics from their barstools.
Above the patrons, including art stars like Marina Abramovic, is a mural by the painter Nina Nichols that imagines New York City repopulated with native plants and animals. A central panel features Annie Sprinkle, the artist and sexologist, and Naked Bear, a figure of Iroquois mythology, setting fire to the Merchant’s House, a local historic landmark. Cocktails are named after the picture, with the building’s destruction memorialized by vodka, Earl Grey tea, lemon and honey.
“I wanted to build somewhere warm and convivial, with cheap drinks and good people. Somewhere that definitely does not feel exclusive,” said Laura Raicovich, a former museum executive who is entering her second act as a bar impresario. Her business partners include the musician Kyp Malone, the stunt coordinator John McEnerney, the designer Alice McGillicuddy and the artist-activist Laura Hanna.
In a recent interview, Raicovich said she was done with the rarefied side of the art world after nearly 20 years nudging it toward political action and social work. During that time she clashed with trustees at the Queens Museum and ultimately resigned in 2018, after disagreements about an event featuring former Vice President Mike Pence that was sponsored by the Israeli government and pushback on her idea that her museum could serve as a sanctuary space for migrants.
Looking back today, she said, “Museums have a tough time at making social spaces because they come out of a model of broadcasting information rather than exchanging it.” She added, “The narrowing of imagination and culture is something that I want to reverse, and investing in culture through the bar is a material way of making that change.”
She is not the only museum professional to spurn a traditional path. Many employees have changed jobs in recent years because of frustrations with low pay and high stress.
A recent survey of nearly 2,000 museum workers found that 60 percent of employees are thinking about leaving their jobs because of reasons including income and stress. More than a quarter of executives surveyed also said that their salaries could not always cover basic living expenses.
“People are burned out,” said Mia Locks, the director of Museums Moving Forward, the nonprofit organization behind the survey. She resigned from a senior curatorial role at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles in 2021, among a wave of other leaders during the pandemic.
“The report shows that people are burned out but don’t want to give up on the creative energy of museums,” Locks added. Projects like Raicovich’s, she said, “are evidence that these exchanges can happen outside of museums.”
The owners of Francis Kite Club said they are self-financing the project until the bar turns a profit, and attendance has steadily increased since the business opened in September.
“We are definitely not trying to build a Soho House or Zero Bond,” Hanna said, referring to the exclusive social clubs that count many wealthy artists and musicians in their ranks. “If you come here, then you will help shape the programming. We are thinking about it like a working-class cocktail lounge.”
Raicovich sometimes falls into old routines, applying curatorial terms like “modality” and “sociality” to the daily operations of a bar. But the reality is much easier to understand.
Between Monday and Wednesday, when the bar is closed, a small publishing company named OR Books rents out the back room as an office to focus on works of literature and political activism. And many evenings, the Francis Kite Club hosts artists who program the evenings, through short residencies provided by the bar.
The costume designer Larry Krone spent November in rhinestones at the bar’s microphone, singing songs and reading excerpts from a forthcoming book, including a chapter called “Ruin Your Life (and Look Great Doing it!).”
On New Year’s Eve, Chelsea Manning, the former intelligence analyst, was the D.J., playing house beats and electronic music into the early morning, mixing records as a disco ball shined above the audience.
And the artist Kameelah Janan Rasheed used time there to develop her own poetic projects, including an upcoming exhibition at the California Institute of the Arts. On a recent Friday evening, she skipped the small talk and led about 20 patrons in a discussion about ghosts and spirits with Raicovich, who made homemade onion dip for the crowd.
“It was delicious,” Rasheed said. “And I walked away recognizing that I had some very clear understandings about life and death that I had never fully articulated.” She said she is considering becoming a death doula to “help support people engaging with the afterlife.”
Residencies are currently unpaid, though some performers charge an entrance fee in order to subsidize themselves. Rasheed said the residency also fills a gap in the resources available to artists.
“If you get a research grant, it is because you have already decided a line of thinking,” she explained. “The actual discovery phase is missing.”
The talent who appear at the bar often have personal connections with the Francis Kite Club owners. Rasheed is a friend of Raicovich, and many of the musicians come through the doors because of Malone, best known as the guitarist and vocalist of the band TV on the Radio. Recently, he programmed a benefit concert for a charity aiding Palestinians. “It’s about figuring out how to get people together,” Malone said. “And there was an inkling of potentially marrying nightlife with more pressing matters in the world.”
Opening a bar wasn’t exactly pinned on his vision board, nor was it something that Raicovich ever imagined for herself. For years, she had worked on grander designs to transform the Breuer Building on Madison Avenue into a cultural experiment.
She attempted to raise money through donors to lease the Brutalist building — which has previously housed the Whitney Museum of American Art; the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s modern and contemporary exhibitions, and, currently, the Frick Collection — as a collective space where employees were stakeholders in leadership decisions typically reserved for trustees and executives. She hoped to enlist artists like Amar Kanwar, Jeanne van Heeswijk and Mel Chin to create projects that would begin to fill the space.
But when Sotheby’s auction house purchased the space for $100 million last year, Raicovich knew it was time to move on. “In hindsight, this was all related to my desire to be involved in running a collective space,” she explained. “I think the imprint of a single director at museums is not sustainable.”
But that spirit survives on a smaller scale at the Francis Kite Club, which aspires to become this generation’s Cedar Tavern, a hangout spot for postwar painters like Willem de Kooning, Jackson Pollock and Robert Motherwell, Raicovich said. Though hopefully with cooler heads prevailing; artists were known for brawling at the bar and Pollock was barred briefly for ripping a bathroom door off its hinges and throwing it at the artist Franz Kline during a fight.
“I wanted something that was a little more about bringing people together,” Raicovich said. “For me, being an adventurous person, experimenting in a bar setting feels like the right thing to do right now.”