Where Have All the Artists Gone?

In 2010, Far Rockaway resident Patti Smith proclaimed that “New York has closed itself off to the young and the struggling” and she recommended other cities like Detroit and Poughkeepsie where they should consider living. “New York City,” she said, “has been taken away from you. So my advice is: find a new city.” Sadly, Patti is right: Many artists are giving up on New York because of the high cost of residential real estate and studios. In addition, if The New York Times is to be believed, many young artists just starting out are bypassing New York for more affordable cities like Los Angeles and second tier towns where a live-work studio can be had for a fraction of the price of a walk up tenement in Crown Heights. A recent Times article, “Art Scene Heats Up in Downtown Los Angeles” quotes L.A.-based artist Sterling Ruby. “Culturally we’ve always been overshadowed by the film industry, [but] now the art world is at a weird parallel with it,” Ruby, the Times writes, works in a four-acre studio complex in Vernon, California, just south of Downtown. A four-acre studio?

New York will not soon be replaced as a preeminent marketplace for art—given the city’s enormous wealth, tradition, and gallery infrastructure. But what has made New York such a unique and exciting city for the past 60 years is that art is not just consumed here, but is also produced in the five boroughs.

Is it possible that New York can continue as a creative center for artists in all mediums given the struggle for affordable space in the city? Maybe?

Last year there were signs that the city was catching up to the problem and offering viable solutions for the art community. Mayor de Blasio announced plans to develop 150 units a year (over the next ten years) of artists’ housing alongside a separate 500 units of workspace. In this plan, low-income artists can qualify if they make between $29,400 and $47,000 a year, with families of four qualifying between $41,951 and $67,120. Only artists and musicians falling within these annual salary ranges would qualify for the new units. The mayor’s office proposed four artist developments that are currently in the RFP stage: 55 Stuyvesant in Staten Island, Spofford (the former juvenile detention center) in the Bronx, the Slaughterhouse project in Manhattan, and a Downtown Brooklyn South site. These projects spread across the city are important first steps but for a city that needs scores of Westbeths, it is not addressing the enormous need.

It will be hard to compete with southern California’s low residential property values, but other European cities like Paris and Berlin have developed strategies to create, fund, and maintain housing for artists. So must New York City find a model that works in the five boroughs or the city will lose one of its greatest cultural assets—artists and cultural production.

Who wants to live in a city of only brokers and Wall Street financiers? New York seems to be strangling from its own success as it adds scores of new high-end apartments for wealthy art buyers but no room for the artists. The aforementioned projects are a drop in the bucket of the real need for affordable accommodations for artists but they point in the right direction. Fingers crossed!

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