Re-examining the Soho Effect

07/21/2010 4:00 AM |

In a review from the June issue of The Atlantic, Benjamin Schwarz suggested that urban shopping malls like Soho, desperate for street cred and "realness," might begin to don a kind of bohemian drag, importing artists in order "to ensure that the affluent, well-educated denizens of said neighborhoods be provided with the stage props and scenery necessary for what [Jane] Jacobs and her heirs define as an enriching urban experience." The trouble is, rather than being ahead of his time with that assertion, Schwarz is actually behind the times. It's already happening.

An uneasy example of this can be seen in a recent New York Times article about a midtown developer offering six months rent to the Baryshnikov Arts Center for $1, allowing them to house some of their visiting artists in the space. The deal will help BAC's bottom line in a significant way and so is answering a very real need, but the short-term nature of the deal hints at its publicity- and marketing-focused motivation. The unsavory feeling of the deal is most clearly reflected in the quote early in the piece by the building's director of planning that ends with this sentiment: "We're playing it by ear and monitoring how good these dancers look when they're walking through the lobby." While I can only hope that the statement was made in jest, even as a joke it's hard not to see it as speaking to some kind of truth—that on some level a piece of this deal involves satisfying the developer's wet dream of a hot artist wandering the halls of his building and how the sexy bohemian-ness of that added perk will boost the value of his property. If artists-as-window-dressing and fantasy fulfillment is part of the future, we're not headed to a happy place, not to mention the situations that artists who don't live up to the ideal might face. Most of the best art is concerned with taking down ideals, not living up to them.

A similar, but more robust and sustainable deal between a real estate developer and an artist comes in the form of Douglas Steiner, who recently helped performer Elizabeth Streb purchase the building that she had formerly been renting. The studio on North 1st Street is adjacent to a property that he's having trouble selling units in and he's hoping that Streb's continued presence will help lend his building a bit of character in a characterless corner of Williamsburg. Unlike all the subsidized rentals and temporary arrangements that most organizations get themselves into, Streb now owns her studio. She also already owns a Soho loft, presumably bought back when things were much cheaper.

The organization ArtHome focuses on the issue that ownership is one of the most important ways to counteract the dramatic and near constant migration of many New York City artists to ever-farther reaches of the city, in addition to seeking a concrete way to deal with the instability of life for most artists. The organization's founder Esther Robinson did a study of artists who were continuing to produce artistic work late into their lives and she discovered that one of the most important things those artists have in common is that they were able to purchase, were given, or inherited a home at some point in their career. On an organizational level, institutions like the HERE Arts Center and Dixon Place have also embraced ownership rather than rentals in the hope that this will provide them with greater longevity and stability.

Despite some of my initial misgivings about the above-mentioned partnerships between developers and artists, I have to wonder if there's something to them, particularly those like the one between Steiner and Streb. The reality is that there has to be, or inevitably will be a new model, as I'm skeptical that artists will simply give up on New York completely (though unusually high numbers of them are moving out).