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Sex. Celebrity. Politics. With Teeth

'It's Like a Cult': How a Hyped New York Art Gallery Built Its Name on Exploitation

'It's Like a Cult': How a Hyped New York Art Gallery Built Its Name on Exploitation
Image: Angelica Alzona
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The team at Superchief Gallery was working late into the night building a giant, bloody severed penis. The art gallery’s edgy sensibility had always generated hype, but over the preceding few years, its hard-partying brand had spread its wings, as it set up permanent warehouse spaces in New York and Los Angeles, held massive parties in Miami, and cultivated lasting relationships with established media companies like Juxtapoz and Vice. The next day, on April 27, 2018, Superchief’s New York location, a cavernous 7,000-square-foot warehouse space in Ridgewood, Queens, was opening a solo show for Mike Diana, the first artist ever to be convicted of criminal obscenity in the United States. In honor of the gleeful debasement that defines Diana’s work, Superchief was installing a towering, dismembered human figure in the gallery, and as carpenters built its splayed, marionette-like wooden arms, a small crew knelt on the gallery’s black concrete floors, cutting strips of fabric and tackling the dick problem.

“Part of the piece was this guy had a dick that wrapped around the gallery. It was like 80 feet long,” said Jeanne Hurd, an artist who was then an unpaid volunteer at Superchief. “They were trying to fill this dick with balloons to make it hold up, and I suggested filling it with inflated garbage bags instead,” she added.

Ed Zipco, one of Superchief’s owners, had been standing nearby and took notice of her time-saving innovation. “He was like, ‘Jeanne you’re a genius, you can have any job you want here,’” she said. At first, she was elated, though she wasn’t sure if Zipco was serious. As was often the case, Hurd alleged, “he was tripping on acid.” The next afternoon, Zipco was still interested in hiring Hurd, but she was disappointed to find out the gig only paid $100 a week for four shifts, each between six and 10 hours. It wasn’t enough to pay bills, though Hurd also worked at a coffee shop and figured the experience and exposure would be worth draining her bank account. (Hurd was, according to her, unfairly, fired for lateness in 2018.) Besides, as Zipco always reminded his crew, he doesn’t think of Superchief as a business: it’s a family.

Founded in 2012 by Zipco and partner Bill Dunleavy, Superchief’s tastes favored body horror and creative oddities, drawing on street art, comics, digital works, and LGBTQ cultural communities to build broad rebel aesthetic. Superchief New York was, as one former employee puts it, a “blob” that in addition to showing art, housed artists’ studios, a cyclorama photo studio, and a film screening area. It evolved into less of a classic art gallery and into a sort of event space, a hangout where skaters, graffiti kids, and art nerds congregated, and a nightlife scene, inviting packed-out dance parties like Fight Club, and WWE-style drag-wrestling “extravaganza” Choke Hole.

Dunleavy, a photographer and grown-up punk-rock guy described by former employees as “chill” and “kind of quiet,” ran West Coast operations, while Zipco controlled New York and a number of other projects and events under the Superchief name. (Zipco and Dunleavy did not respond to interview requests for this story.) Broad-shouldered, with a red-blonde beard and slicked-back hair, Zipco had a reputation for being a provocateur with an edgy sense of humor. In 2015, for example, he was criticized for using a fatal beating that took place across the street from one of his galleries to promote an event, telling Gothamist that the death was “nice, in a weird way,” and “a bit of Old Brooklyn.” He added that he wasn’t “trying to disrespect somebody dead’s family.” Zipco’s twisted take mirrored the curation at Superchief, where the art often channeled the same morbid fascination and thirst for authenticity.

Art exhibitions, which often traveled between Superchief locations, included group shows and solo shows for emerging artists, like muralists The Yok and Sheryo, as well as sculptor Sarah Sitkin, whose well-received “Bodysuits” exhibition featured wearable suits fashioned from silicon and latex meant to realistically mimic the human body. Zipco reportedly built his talent pool from a core group of artists he knew from his tenure as a photographer for Vice in the late 2000s—that era looms large at Superchief, through talent like international street-art star Swoon, or UFO 907, whose spray-paint alien octopi were once a load-bearing piece of the Williamsburg-area landscape.

Despite that legacy, Superchief has stayed relevant, surrounded by a virtual colony of young volunteers and art students. Zipco and Dunleavy have a “knack for connecting with artists that are speaking to a lot of younger people,” said Caitlin Crews who volunteered for Superchief in 2016. Former Superchiefer workers in their early 20s say they were drawn in by minimal psychedelic artists like Lilkool and Yung Bachelor, the magical, animal worlds of Boy Kong and muralist Lauren YS, and photographers like Parker Day, whose freaky, super-saturated portraits ooze joy and dread, connecting like a gentle slap in the face. “From a curation standpoint [Superchief is] so good,” Crews argued. “But in terms of execution and the people management part? Horrible.”

According to the dozen former or current Superchief crew members interviewed for this article, the gallery’s hyped reputation has only been made possible through labor practices that they allege are illegal, unethical, and unsafe. More than a simple dispute over wages, or even just the latest example of the unfortunate-yet-unsurprising prevalence of unpaid labor in the arts, numerous former Superchief crew members allege that Zipco fosters unhealthy relationships with his employees and relies on emotional coercion and drugs to manipulate people. Zipco did not respond to multiple requests for comment, but according to former employees and volunteers, he regularly evaded conversations about payment, pleading poverty or allegedly demanding that they be grateful for the opportunity.

“It’s like a cult,” Hurd said. Recently, anger from Superchief alumni has bubbled out onto social media with former gallery associates decrying a work atmosphere they describe as “pure chaos,” an “ongoing abuse of power” and—maybe most devastating to the gallery’s brand—“super wack.”

Ed Zipco grew up in Florida and became a photographer for Vice when the magazine was still a countercultural phenom, before the multibillion-dollar valuations, in an age when Brooklynites were dipping in dumpster swimming pools, the economy had dipped into the toilet, and the Hipster Grifter was on the loose. Zipco launched his own magazine, Chief, in 2006, and in 2009, with Dunleavy, it morphed into, a blog that kept a “party calendar,” riffed on fashion, and offered irreverent takes on the day’s headlines.

William Medonis said he worked on a team of what he described as about a dozen unpaid, unstructured, “quote-unquote interns” who posted on the blog. Medonis, now 27, said one day in 2011, Zipco walked in and said: “Look, we’re going to start a gallery.” Superchief Gallery’s first location was “just literally some dude’s loft,” he added, and he and the other interns “went from doing magazine stuff to just all-hands-on-deck, let’s all work for this art gallery.” Zipco was already well-connected: “He knew [musicians like] Matt and Kim, Zebra Katz, he knew Ninjasonik,” said Medonis. Soon Superchief was holding successful art shows and parties around the city.

Superchief ran through a handful of spaces in Soho, the Lower East Side, Greenpoint, and Williamsburg, toeing the limits of gentrification’s reaches and drawing raucous crowds, at one point pulling off a string of 52 art shows in 52 weeks, all while dodging noise complaints and landlords. The blog faded away completely and the gallery’s partnerships with downtown and Brooklyn bar spaces like CultureFix and Tender Trap eventually fostered a business model that Paper described in 2013 as “based around selling drinks, not paintings.”

Volunteers came and went, but in some ways, the inner circle at the gallery was actually like a family. Over long weeks that could stretch into 70 or more hours of work, crew members grew close. “We all loved each other,” said Hurd,
now 21, a diminutive woman with soft features and short, dark, tousled hair. She felt like they were “doing something important,” she remembered, clawing their way into a stodgy art world with spray paint and street smarts. “We were these cool misfit artist kids coming together and pulling off these big shows.”

But Superchief isn’t—and has never been—a collective, or a co-op, or a nonprofit organization; it’s a business whose product is as much a vibe as it is art. “Superchief is a clout machine,” said Rüben Temmeli, 24, who worked at the gallery for about two years. “Coming to Superchief means a famous artist might talk to you. And they might remember you depending on what you did.” Many of those who worked for free or below minimum wage were lured by the social aspect of the scene, like Temmeli, who said that, at first, he was mostly looking for new friends. Others were there for pure networking reasons or Instagram trophies, but the majority were young artists, like Hurd, or aspiring gallerists hoping to advance their career.

Even as the gallery continued to grow, Superchief New York never seemed to have the funds to maintain a real payroll. From her experience working with museums and arts nonprofits, Crews said she immediately realized that something at Superchief wasn’t right. “They were doing so much,” said Crews, and that labor rested “on young people and particularly young people of color to pull it off.”

Jetaime Pizarro, Superchief’s general manager who quit in late 2018, sat cross-legged on a bench in the backyard of her Bushwick apartment building, her shaved head grown in enough to cover the tattoos on her scalp. Recently, she and Temmeli hired a lawyer to pursue legal action against Superchief and recoup unpaid back wages. (They have yet to file a lawsuit.)

She said that during her two years at Superchief, she managed gallery, event, and studio operations, as well as building and staff management, and promotion. Pizarro said after “interning” for several months, she was hired in 2016, at $10 per hour for 25 hours a week of work. Soon after, she says, Superchief began building out its Ridgewood warehouse and operating in Miami, and her schedule ballooned to 70 or more hours every week, though she was still only being paid for a part-time schedule. Even after an eventual raise, she was still making much less than minimum wage.

But she and Zipco were close, even though, she noted, they sometimes clashed. She remembered that Zipco called her his “best friend” and described himself as both “mentor” and “father figure.” That kind of rhetoric had an emotional impact on her. Growing up, she said, “My father wasn’t in the picture,” and “we were always financially struggling.” According to Hurd, Zipco wanted Pizarro to “see him as a savior. She was really struggling when she met Ed. He took her under his wing.”

Months after she quit Superchief, Pizarro started speaking out on Instagram. In a series of posts beginning in mid-May, Pizarro, who is black, compared working at Superchief to “slave labor.” In the posts, she claimed she was promised “$15/hr which quickly became $5.50/hr,” and alleges that “Superchief gets cool off the unappreciated, unlawfully underpaid, back breaking work of disadvantaged POC staff.” Zipco, she alleged, had been “aggressively leading me to believe he had my best interest at heart. While constantly denying me time off, ability to sleep and do basic human functions.” Her posts are filled with supportive comments from former Superchief employees, both paid and unpaid.

One post included a picture of Azealia Banks performing at one of Superchief’s 2018 Art Basel parties, an engagement that, according to Pizarro, “ended with Azealia Banks burned, not properly paid and letting @edward.zipco know point blank that she would not be working with him anymore.” (Banks did not return requests for comment.) On Instagram, Pizarro tagged organizations that have worked with the gallery, including Vice, Juxtapoz, and the Scope Art Fair.

Like other former employees interviewed for this story, Pizarro lived in a room at the gallery for a time, and during that time she alleges, most of her wages went immediately back to Superchief for rent. “When [employees] were living in the space they were constantly there,” said Hurd. Pizarro said once she moved in she was “never off the clock.”

Having people in the gallery all of the time was important to Zipco. It gave the appearance that the party was always going, and visitors and scene hangers-on could “show up there all hours of the day,” said Temmeli. From the employees’ perspective, he added, once they started logging all those long, late nights and living there, “You feel like you guys are really building a life together.” That same bond eventually became a kind of trap. “There definitely was a very real feeling of ‘oh, I’m going to lose all the people close to me right now if I walk away from Superchief.’”

Pizarro claimed that she endured the dizzying schedule, in part, because Zipco promised she would eventually be given his position, that he was training her to “take over” the New York gallery. Zipco told her that Superchief was always just on the verge of making “real money,” and soon they’d be able to do things right, pay people what they deserved, and free him up to take on new cities and projects, leaving her and the other dedicated staff to run New York. After more than two years, none of his promises materialized and Pizarro was burnt out, her mental and physical health in shambles.

When she finally quit, Zipco told her that she needed to “go to therapy.” In a moment that, according to Pizarro, showed how off-base the relationship had become, Zipco dismissed her concerns about wages and hours. “He said ‘hearing you guys talk about this stuff is like having kids and working hard to give them food, and having them tell you that they don’t like what they’re eating.’” Since she began posting about her experiences at Superchief, Pizarro said that she’s been contacted by people who “had the same story play out with them, all the way back to 2012. They’re all just as angry about how it happened. They were all lied to in the same way.”

Like Pizarro, Temmeli also lived in the gallery. He said that in exchange for “helping out,” Zipco let him crash on the couches. Eventually, that arrangement turned into a regular gig with some responsibility, including operations and construction. He was fired in April after months of increasingly angry confrontations with Zipco about how the gallery was being run. He said that during the time he worked at Superchief, he was paid $325 per week for what he described as “unlimited” hours of work. At one point, he said, he was not paid for a period of months, and then eventually only paid part of his earnings, and told he could either take it or leave it.

Temmeli said Zipco told him “the same things he said to Jetaime, ‘you’re going to inherit Superchief, I want you to take over my role… I’m talking, in the middle of the night, crying, talking about how I’m like a son to him.” Temmeli said he always found Zipco’s “family” schtick a bit corny, but he believed, “if it did become successful, then I’d be able to be like, ‘Yo look, we’re making millions now, give me mine.’ I thought ‘Maybe this will pay off in the end.’” Zipco, Temmeli said, “wants you to feel like he’s promising the world and all this shelter and stability. And at the same time, he puts in the back of your mind that it can all be taken away at any moment.”

Outside of his pseudo-paternal relationships with employees, art is a family business for Zipco. His grandmother, Anita Shapolsky, is a venerable gallerist on Manhattan’s Upper East Side who also runs an arts foundation in Pennsylvania. Shapolsky, now in her 80s is, according to Hyperallergic, “a veteran of the New York School,” of mid-20th-century abstract expressionists. She has plugged Superchief in interviews, and two former employees who claim to be familiar with Superchief’s finances said that she’s invested at least $150,000 in her grandson’s business. Shapolsky said that while she had “lent Superchief money,” over the years, she had never “invested” in the business.

“Ed comes from pretty good money, like from his grandma,” said Medonis. He remembered that Zipco’s family would hire him for odd jobs at the Shapolsky Gallery or other family-owned businesses. Lara Goetzl, who managed Superchief Gallery’s earliest incarnations in 2012 and 2013, also worked for Shapolsky. “I love Anita, she’s a real one,” said Goetzl. She remembered Shapolsky buying a piece of art from Zipco in the gallery’s early days. “I, of course, rolled my eyes at, but she didn’t want to hear any of that because he’s her grandson.”

Back then Zipco wasn’t pushing the “gallery family” narrative, Goetzl said, but the labor situation wasn’t too different. She was the gallery’s sole paid employee and was usually directing 15 or more unpaid part-timers. The size of the Superchief New York crew ebbed and flowed over the years, but former employees said things really became strained around 2016, when the New York gallery suddenly needed to staff out a giant warehouse space, juggle operations in new cities, and manage mainstream art-world partners. Over the last few years, at any given time there would be anywhere from five to 50 volunteers cycling in and out, along with maybe 10 staff members, some of whom were paid regularly and some of whom were “just thrown 50 bucks here and there,” said Temmeli.

Unpaid workers might be bartending (a coveted task, since it came with tips), working the door or merchandise booth at events, performing administrative tasks, painting, or building installations with the paid crew. Isaac Parker, a former Superchief employee, estimated that during the time he worked there, roughly two-thirds of the work done at the gallery was completely unpaid. The term “intern” was sometimes used to describe these workers and occasionally an actual intern would arrange college credit for time spent at Superchief, though the vast majority were simply “volunteers,” with no educational pretext. In a March Facebook post, for example, Superchief announced it was looking to “ADD TO THE A-TEAM 😎😤💪” with a call “for volunteers to help out with admin, art handling, production, and ALL of our events!”

In almost all cases, it’s illegal for private businesses to use unpaid, recurring volunteer labor and in order to hire unpaid interns, for-profit businesses must meet a series of strict guidelines, including notifying interns of their unpaid status in writing. According to the mandates of the New York State Department of Labor, the company’s system of informal payments that allegedly left many employees far below minimum wage likely violated a number of labor laws and tax laws. Former Superchief workers said that when they complained about wages, Zipco would, depending on his mood, either lecture them on how they should be more grateful for the opportunity, plead poverty, or apologetically tell them he was “new at this,” and still figuring things out as a business owner.

Despite the high-profile shows and media attention, in a way, Superchief’s success is “illusory” said Christopher Bleuze-Carolan, a 31-year-old video artist who managed personnel, logistics, and the gallery’s tech and digital art offerings. Bleuze-Carolan says he was promised a piece of the company, but was fired earlier this year, and he’s now “in my own legal situation with Superchief and I’m working that out currently.” (Bleuze-Carolan worked as an unpaid intern at Kotaku in 2011.) Bleuze-Carolan is trying to negotiate with Superchief for some kind of compensation and has not yet filed a lawsuit against the gallery though he won’t rule out the possibility of eventually suing to recover lost wages. The business, he said, is frequently on the brink of financial collapse, and “On paper [Zipco] has nothing.”

Though Zipco doesn’t take a salary, Pizarro and Bleuze-Carolan allege that his personal finances are inextricably tied up with the gallery’s finances. “He doesn’t often buy himself new clothes or anything like that,” said Pizarro, “but his cell phone bill? Paid for with Superchief money. His food and drugs? Paid for with Superchief money.”

Zipco likes to call Superchief a “‘DIT’—Do it together,” project as opposed to a DIY, Pizarro said. “‘We’re on a ship,’” he would tell his workers, or “‘we’re pirates, we’re at war.’” According to one of Superchief’s Facebook pages, the gallery is a “community center.” And Zipco seems to exploit that sense of community, many of his former employees described how warm and charming he could be. But that too could cross workplace boundaries. One Superchief associate, who asked not to be identified, said they noticed in the early days, “a lot of people [Zipco] ended up hiring were people he hooked up with.” Goetzl added that “[Zipco] wasn’t sexually inappropriate with anybody,” but he would certainly make comments about women being attractive or not attractive enough, things like that.” According to Pizarro, Zipco once told her he was always happy when pretty interns quit, “‘because then I can start dating them,’” and made other, similar remarks that left her worried “he saw our interns in a sexual manner.”

Similarly, Hurd alleged that in late 2018, she saw an Instagram call for volunteer figure drawing models that left her infuriated. Though it was slightly censored for Instagram, “the entire photo is me up close nude,” she said. “Jetaime and I and a couple of other girls organized a live art night,” Hurd explained, and she regularly modeled. A picture of her in little but sparkling clown makeup and a ruffled collar had been repurposed for the recruitment advertisement, a use Hurd said she “definitely didn’t consent to.”

She was able to get the post taken down and Hurd eventually sent an email threatening to sue Superchief for chronic underpayment and the use of her unclothed image. She never got a response, she said, and she didn’t pursue it further because, “at that point, I was completely broke.” “I was just like, ‘you’re really going to fire me and then use a cool photo of me to get more people to work for you for free?’”

Though he always seemed to be navigating some drama with an irate employee or disgruntled business partner, according to his former employees, most of the time Zipco personally avoided confrontation, usually firing people through an intermediary. He was usually “jokey” said Hurd, but “other times he was just snap and suddenly make me feel like I wasn’t even a person.” He “says weird, stupid shock shit,” said one former employee, who chalked the behavior up to “machismo problems.” When he got mad, [Zipco] would “talk about stabbing people and wanting to stab people a lot,” Hurd alleged.

There were certain things that just seemed to set him off, Temmeli said, like a stray cat that lived on the block, and would occasionally wander into the gallery. “Ed definitely fucking hated that cat.”

Hurd remembered one day when the cat got inside and “people are just petting it and holding it.” Zipco, she alleged, walked over and said “ ‘If I see this fucking cat in the gallery again I’m going to kick the shit out of it until it’s dead.’” “I was so scared,” she continued, “I thought, ‘how can you say that about a little animal?’”

Young artists that were drawn in by Superchief’s handmade, punk-rock approach eventually came to resent what they saw as unnecessary workplace hazards and the psychic toll of doing everything “the wrong way.” Temmeli, for example, alleges poor planning, a dysfunctional environment, and insufficient gear meant his job was frequently physically unsafe. He claimed he never had the right ladders, or tools, or supplies, and cutting every corner was the only way to get anything done. “There were no benefits whatsoever,” he added, “if I broke my leg I’d be fucked.”

During a particularly difficult project for Scope Art Fair’s New York edition in 2019, building and repairing modular walls, Temmeli posted on Instagram that he was “told that I was saving Superchief,” by taking on the job, “That we were going to go bankrupt without it.” Short on cash and focused on Miami, Superchief temporarily took the New York gallery off party duty, shutting its doors for weeks to complete the gig, which allegedly made them more than $20,000. It quickly became apparent to workers that Superchief management had underestimated the size of the task.

Temmeli wrote that the job was “literally back breaking work” leaving him with back pain, insomnia, and respiratory problems from breathing in sheetrock. He said he asked for protective masks, but wasn’t given them until he complained repeatedly and the project was already half complete. Since he hadn’t been paid in weeks, “I couldn’t afford to eat or buy clean water during this job,” he wrote. In a post that showed him and another bundled up coworker, he claimed the gallery had them working with “no central heating during the coldest reported months in NY history.” (Temmeli said this was to save money on utilities, but another employee said the heat just broke, Zipco was out of town, and no one else had the authority to hire someone to fix it.) During the Scope contract, he would wake up in the gallery every day with “a bloody nose [...] coughing drywall dust.”

Temmeli wasn’t alone. Many of Superchief’s former volunteers and employees noted the complete disregard for safety. A few former Superchief workers described a trip they took to Miami for the 2017 edition of Art Basel, which Pizarro described on Instagram as a “human rights violation.” A handful of Superchiefers set up the two venues: One was a downtown Miami space used often by Superchief, where they’d be setting up a complete gallery takeover. The other was the “Juxtapoz Clubhouse,” a “communal space” for the California-based arts magazine featuring a number of big-name artists like Shepard Fairey. (On its site, Juxtapoz praised the Superchief crew’s “relentless energy” that year.)

From the beginning, both projects were chaotic. Pizzaro said that art had been damaged in transit and, lacking a clear plan, everything was behind schedule. Workers were forced to labor at long shifts, up to 20 hours at a time, only stopping to sleep a few hours on the warehouse floor.

In the middle of the confusion, Pizzaro clearly remembered a jug labeled “do not drink, you don’t want this.” Despite the warning, Pizzaro said that “we would all just go to it and chug and it would keep us awake.” The jug was filled with water in which an unknown number of acid tablets had been dissolved. Everyone had been up for almost 24 hours of straight work, said Temmeli, and with workers fading, Zipco “brought it out, like ‘do some acid, we’ll make it through this last charge.’” Temmeli said the experience “felt weird like we’d become a cult,” but he “drank a little from the acid jug.”

Pizarro described a maudlin scene, an unquestionably bad trip, with young artists basically flopping around the space, struggling in vain to get work done as the onset of acid energy met the drug’s perception-melting powers. She remembers crying, stuck in a brain loop, as over and over, she tried to clean the same scuff off a damaged canvas. According to Temmeli, Zipco’s instructions became increasingly incomprehensible, leaving the dazed crew running in circles to decode his rambling ideas.

Pizarro and Temmeli told the Miami story as an example of how drugs were used to break down their personal boundaries and adulterate even the hardest, longest slogs with the trappings of Zipco’s never-ending party, a kind of fun that was no fun at all, and part of a frustrating sleight-of-hand, in which the gallery’s labor needs were somehow met without the presence of any “real” workers worth paying a living wage. Former Superchief workers didn’t have a moral problem with drugs, but they pointed out how the equation changes when the person offering them to you is your mentor, and maybe a familial figure, and your boss, and possibly your landlord.

Bleuze-Carolan claimed that he argued with Zipco about making psychedelics available to younger workers, but, he added, it was mere “gross negligence,” a product of good—if wildly misguided—intentions. “Ed’s not evil,” sighed Bleuze-Carolan, “He’s just an idiot.”

“I think what bothers me the most about this whole thing,” said Medonis, “is that Ed was always like ‘Bernie 2016, everyone should have universal income,’ just like, supporting these socialist-type causes.”

On Facebook, said Pizarro, “he reposted this Alexandria Ocasio Cortez post about housing. And someone commented ‘Dude, I think you should remain silent until you talk about why you’re exploiting your Black employees.’ And I commented ‘Thanks for your support’ and he blocked both of us.”

The complaints of Superchief’s former workers are familiar, turned-up-to-11 versions of indignities found in a lot of jobs: the demand for loyalty; the employer that acts like purchasing your labor is an act of charity. And of course, most working media or art-industry professionals can’t be totally surprised by the notion of exploiting young creative ambition in exchange for vague promises and a chance for exposure. When she shared her stories with others, Pizarro said they would gasp at the gossip, but most shrugged and said, ‘Oh that’s just how it is in the arts.” Temmeli heard similar feedback from peers.

Crews, who formerly worked at the Brooklyn Museum, said she’s “so sick” of casual attitudes towards labor in the arts. “It’s such bullshit, and you can quote me on that. Artwork is work,” she said, and “a lot of people just don’t understand what it’s like to be super young and not have money in Brooklyn right now. It’s hard.”

People still involved with running Superchief’s day-to-day operations said that Zipco has stepped back from actively running things at the New York gallery. Allegedly, Zipco’s been set up in Florida, on “personal time,” and it’s unclear whether he’ll be returning, though, according to someone with direct knowledge “no decisions have been made yet.” One of Dunleavy’s associates from the Los Angeles gallery has allegedly taken charge of the New York space’s operations and, in the past few months, the gallery has supposedly stopped using any volunteer labor.

But whether or not Zipco returns to the gallery he spent years building, these exploited workers are equally part of his legacy. He might have created a persona of a “cool guy,” as Temmeli described him, that was Superchief’s visionary, overseeing a forever party filled with edgy established artists and young artistic ingenues, clamoring for a place in the spotlight, but his former employees say it was built on the labor of underpaid and unpaid workers, often people of color. They say he sold them a lie—an old but enduring romantic vision of friends and family who feast on creativity, unconcerned with money. In a scene that now seems telling, at a 2017 show celebrating the gallery’s fifth anniversary, Zipco was asked to name his “favorite moment during Superchief’s tenure.” He didn’t have a specific memory to share, but replied, “Gettin’ away with it,” before he added, “You can’t get fired if you’re doing it yourself with your friends.”

Jed Oelbaum is a writer and multimedia producer in New York.