Art Wayfinding

For Michi Jigarjian, Building Community Is an Art. Her Work Is on Full Display at the Rockaway Hotel

Portrait of Michi Jigarjian by Abby Drucker. All images courtesy of the artist and Rockaway Hotel.

Some people can’t describe what they do in an elevator pitch. Michi Jigarjian—whose professional hats include artist, investor, publisher, trustee, and teacher—is one of them. 

“I take pride in that,” she says, sitting in a room earlier this month at the Rockaway Hotel, the buzzy beach getaway she helped launch in 2020. The morning sun pouring in through the windows matches Jigarjian’s disposition. So does the plethora of vibrant artworks that surrounds her—on the walls, in the hotel lobby below, and outside on the streets of Queens, where she commissioned murals by artists including Ivan Forde and Shantell Martin. “I love the flexibility of reimagining. That's where my creative brain really comes into play.”

Artwork by Julia Chiang.

The hotel marked something of a departure for Jigarjian, whose recent years had been mostly spent ping-ponging between personal art projects and nonprofit administration. It was a risky proposition, too, opening at the height of the pandemic in an area where other high-profile hotels had failed to find a foothold. The stakes weren’t lost on her. “I can't tell you how heavy it all was,” Jigarjian says, adding with a laugh: “I'm still sore from carrying it!” 

Back in 2010, Jigarjian enrolled in the ICP-Bard MFA Program in Advanced Photographic Studies. It was, for her, a moment of transition. She had just given birth to her first child (she applied while pregnant) and was an image maker in search of an outlet. “I never really saw myself as the artist that put things on the wall,” she says. An early class with the writer and photographer Pradeep Dalal put things into perspective. “He was like, ‘Michi, what do you want to do?’” For Jigarjian, something clicked. “It was like a lightbulb came on,” she recalls. “Community is my medium.”

Artwork by Shantell Martin.

Her compass remagnetized, Jigarjian went to work. Upon graduating from ICP-Bard in 2012, she was named president of Camera Club New York, the historic organization for which she had interned just a few months prior. A year later, after the birth of her second son, Jigarjian relocated the uptown nonprofit to the Lower East Side and gave it a new name: Baxter Street Camera Club. Once a place defined by its associations to 20th-century photography giants like Alfred Stieglitz and Paul Strand, the club is, today, more of an incubator for young, socially conscious artists like Nona Faustine, Tommy Kha, and Zora J. Murff. It’s also a popular downtown haunt; openings and events often spill onto the streets.

In 2017, Jigarjian joined brothers Daniel and Terence Tubridy as a developer in the Rockaway Hotel project. At that point, she had a long and varied list of professional achievements under her belt: she had co-founded a publishing house (Secretary Press) and an experiential art group (New Draft Collective), served on the faculty of ICP, and joined the investment management firm 7G Group. But it was her experience rejuvenating the Camera Club that she drew on most in her new venture.

Artwork by Julia Chiang.

“People often ask, ‘How did you jump from Baxter Street to being in the Rockaways?’” Jigarjian says. “It just made so much sense to me—how we were bringing together people at Baxter Street and how that would translate. Rockaway had this awesome, bustling cultural community but they didn't really have the hub.”

Three years after its launch, Rockaway Hotel is what its founders always envisioned it could be: an upscale gathering place that is equal parts neighborhood nucleus and out-of-town destination. The hotel’s constant concerts, fundraisers, and public art programs have made it a hub; a commitment to the community, Jigarjian says, will keep it that way. “Art is a catalyst for change for me,” she explains. “It’s the bedrock of the trust that we’ve gained here at Rockaway.”