BOOM or BUST? 

New York Artists Prepare for the New Depression

When it comes to our artists, we (by which I mean the public at large) have something of a sadistic streak. We like to see them suffer.

We like to see them stationed at the fringes — scraping by in a busted downtown tenement or squatting with a gang of anarchist kids in the corner of some illegal outer-borough loft. We like to see them hiking to their studios through landscapes of crumbling warehouses and crack vials and burned-out cars. We like to imagine them cooking noodles on a hot plate, heroin in a spoon; wearing homemade clothes, rocking crazy haircuts, taking their baths catch-as-catch-can. We want late nights and bleary mornings and bed-hopping and drunken brawls and all the other sordid legends that years later might send a pair of college freshmen around the city seeking the sites of their origins. Essentially, we’d prefer that our art be made by the cast of Rent with an occasional cameo by Jackson Pollock.

These are updates from the vanguard that they’re sending us, after all, reports from the edge. That being the case, it seems only reasonable that they should actually live there. Which explains somewhat all the handwringing this past half-decade about the state of the arts in New York.

Look back a year or two or three, to the easy, idyllic days before our current financial collapse, back to when the ongoing econo-pocalypse was still just a glimmer in Dick Fuld’s eye.

Downtown had become a bankers’ playground. Brooklyn was morphing into a bobo paradise. Big box stores were muscling out mom and pop. Glassy new apartment buildings were rising everywhere you looked. A triplex on Avenue D went for $10 million. Some guy in Williamsburg was renting out a treehouse for a couple hundred bucks a month. Richard Florida was running around with his hair on fire. Julian Schnabel was painting Village townhouses pink and having Richard Gere come by for sleepovers. “But where will all the artists go?!” asked the New York Times. “Philadelphia?” someone suggested. “Buffalo, perhaps?” someone else said. “No, Berlin!” the crowd roared. And the rest of us all mumbled darkly that the way things were headed, pretty soon we were going to wake up and find ourselves living in Orange County East.

Now, there was some truth to all this, of course. Real estate developers did get carried away during the last five years (as the current and coming glut of condo inventory will readily attest), and fears of Manhattan’s “mall-fication” are easily enough confirmed by a short stroll through central Chelsea.
Contrary to the popular imagination, however, New York’s artists actually seem to have been doing rather well for themselves — at least to the extent that artists ever do particularly well for themselves. (Art has never been, after all, an especially surefire route to a steady middle-class lifestyle.) And insofar as the question comes down to having more or less money sloshing about the city, your typical creative sort would probably opt for more. “I would highly disagree with anyone who said the boom was a bad time for artists,” says Brooklyn artist Lee Roberts. “Ever since the time of monarchs, artists have benefited from certain groups of people being able to amass great amounts of wealth.”

Or, in other words — New York has a lot of people with a lot of money, and people with a lot of money tend to buy a lot of art. Art dealers want to be around people who buy a lot of art, and so New York also has a lot of art galleries. And artists want to be around art galleries in order to make money off their work. Hence, New York has a lot of artists as well. And a lot of artists all in one place is, essentially, what makes for an arts community, with all the infrastructure, atmospherics and extracurriculars that the term implies. Put simply — enjoy New York’s art scene? Go hug a bond trader.

“Everywhere I’ve lived, it’s actually harder to get by as an artist,” says Roberts, who’s originally from Atlanta and went to school in Baltimore. “It sounds weird, but there are just no jobs in the arts in other cities.”

Beyond jobs, there’s also the fact that, thanks to the factors mentioned above, New York boasts perhaps the planet’s most wide-reaching art scene.

“There are so many galleries here that’s it’s like a marketplace for the whole world,” says Noah Fischer, a mixed-media artist living in Prospect Heights. “If you have a show at a gallery in Chelsea, people are going to see it all around the world. “New York is like a brand name. If you show in New York, it’s like a brand name that works anywhere.” Which is why, despite what the casual observer might quite understandably see as a decades-long onslaught against the creative class, the city still makes sense as a spot for artists to work and live. It’s a lousy, pricey, difficult place to try to make it, but it’s probably better than anywhere else.

And actually, how much more expensive did life really become for New York artists during our recent real estate bonanza? When sculptor Randy Polumbo moved to New York in 1983, he paid $375 a month for an apartment on Avenue D. Adjusted for inflation that’s almost $800 today. $800 isn’t enough to keep you in the East Village, of course, but it’ll just about cover the rent on a studio in Bushwick. Granted, barring Hirst-style art-stardom, Soho will most likely remain forever out of reach, but who cares? What’s happening in Soho these days anyway?

“I think this has probably been a pretty good time historically speaking,” Fischer says. “There are pros and cons. In the 70s, real estate was cheap, but on the other hand, think of how high crime was in New York back then. You might have had a studio in Soho, but it might have been just routine to get mugged coming home.

“Money in the art world is definitely not a bad thing. It means a lot of artistic freedom for people to just mess around with stuff. Part of the game [during the recent boom] became how to sell the unsaleable. And that game was kind of fun for art. It was like a challenge to the galleries and the artists. It was kind of like, ‘How far can you push it?’

“Art as an exciting stock risk for a venture capitalist who cares little about the work itself will go away. This is a good thing.”

“There was a major expansion of opportunities. There were a lot more grants available. When the market was good, art was looking more like a safe bet than at any time in the past.”

Which is to say that, despite all the talk over the past few years about artists being priced out of the city, there’s little reason to think they’ll find the current slowdown particularly beneficial. Yes, rents and real estate prices are falling, no doubt, but that doesn’t much matter if you can’t sell your work.

“Unless you saved and have some disposable income, you’re probably not going to benefit [from the downturn],” says artist Saul Chernick.

Or, at least, you probably won’t benefit financially. One nice thing about the artist’s life, though, is that, as opposed to, say, a tobacco lawyer, you’ve got a couple of forms of compensation to choose from. When times are good and the market is up, you can enjoy getting paid just like the rest of us. When times are really good and the market is really up, you can enjoy getting paid just like the rest of us and perhaps do a little jet-setting around to hang out at the occasional fashion show. And when the global economy has gone bust and taken the entire art world down with it, you can always just hunker down and get back to the less tangible pleasures that probably drew you into the business in the first place.

“Real artists will continue to make work,” writes Caroline Woolard, an installation and performance artist living in Washington Heights. “Large-scale public commissions will suffer, but art as an exciting stock risk for a venture capitalist who cares little about the work itself will go away. This is a good thing.”
Woolard, though, doesn’t rely on sales of her art to make ends meet. She works at her alma mater, Cooper Union, making $1,866 a month and spending “$500 rent [studio] + $250 rent + $400 food + $100 transportation + $400 art/life supplies + $100 phone.” She offers up her budget information as part of what she calls an “attempt to begin a transparency with financial taboos.”

Artists accustomed to supporting themselves via gallery sales, on the other hand, are probably somewhat less sanguine. Particularly hurting, Roberts says, are mid-level artists who’ve been able, the last several years, to live solely off their work — but without much cushion to spare.

“It’s not like they’re nobody,” he says, “but, it’s not like they’re Jasper Johns, either.”
“Most career artists have cycles where they are making money and cycles where they aren’t making money,” says the painter Tom Moody. And right now, for many, is one of those cycles where they aren’t. There’s still money out there to be had, but a lot less of it than there used to be. In some ways this is probably a nice thing. It just shouldn’t be mistaken for anyone’s preferred state of affairs.

“I think it could actually be good for the production of art,” Chernick says, offering the optimistic take. “The people producing art in hard times are doing it because it really matters to them. You’re forced to do more with less. In the boom-time people had budgets and they could do all kinds of bigger and slicker things. Once upon a time, if people felt like making a bunch of ten-foot paintings they could. Now, though, if you want to paint a ten-foot painting, you really have to want to.”
“I will say,” allows Moody, “the trend of showering money on newly minted MFAs was bad, and I hope it’s over for a while.”
Then again, Fischer says, shrinking funds could lead artists to abandon the experimentation he saw during the boom years and fall back to wait things out in a defensive crouch.

Fischer is hoping for one silver lining, however — a renewal of the sort of community-mindedness he suggests fell a bit by the wayside during the flush times. This, after all, is how the popular myths are made — boozing it up at the Cedar Tavern, posing for a Warhol screen test, running into Keith Haring at a Sonic Youth show — and if these myths are rarely so central to the enterprise as an outsider often believes, well, they’re not nothing either, and a good deal of fun besides. As Fischer says, describing the ideal of the artist’s life that helped lure him into the business, “production is only one part of the pie.”

“I think that’s going to be one of the things that comes out of the recession,” he says. “Now that there are less market opportunities, people will start opening salons, reaching out more. There are so many artists here, there could be so much more community than there is.”

And if the whole togetherness gambit doesn’t pan out, well, there’s always cheering on our ever-unfolding real estate crash. As Fischer notes, there could be a lot of abandoned condo buildings dotting the East River waterfront in the not-so-distant future. If nothing else, artists could set up studios in a few of them as squatters and save themselves a little on rent. “The important thing,” he says, “is not to be scared. If you’re scared, you’re not going to enjoy being an artist.”


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