Re-examining the Soho Effect

07/21/2010 4:00 AM |

The trick, of course, is that in today's world Streb is the exception and places like 3LD, Dance New Amsterdam, and the Ohio are the rule. A once benevolent landlord who gives these groups favorable terms either sells or stops being generous, the terms change, and the artists go, or struggle to find some way to stay. Ownership is, of course, not a panacea—building maintenance and property taxes don't come cheap, mortgages can obviously become a significant source of financial stress, and the pressure to sell at the height of a market can be overwhelming. But it does seem like ownership might provide sustainability for some organizations.

What's key in this look at the "Soho Effect" as it radiates to these new partnerships is a recognition that people in power and those with money have expressed a clear need for artists. Yes, it's as a means to an end, but if they know that and we know that, why aren't more people leveraging that need to create long-term sustainability for the arts rather than accepting weak, short-term deals. More artists should be using their status and the willingness on the part of real estate developers to play ball not only to orchestrate better deals for themselves (instead of continuing to sell themselves short), but to also look for ways to help stimulate development that doesn't dismiss the prior existence of entire populations of people in these transitioning neighborhoods. If the rich people want diversity, and they've already shown that these days they're willing to pay for it, then we ought to be using that impulse to do something good in the world, rather than letting them get what they want cheaply and easily. Cities around the country and the world continue to look to artists as a means to an end, but the artists are not using the power they have in that situation to influence what's happening both for themselves and the communities around them. We're too used to taking whatever scraps they throw our way.

Even if these partnerships don't mark the beginning of a new model, the likelihood is that there is one coming. Just as every artist has a different combination of tricks that allow them to make ends meet, so too do arts organizations. The survival instinct among artists is sometimes frighteningly strong, even in the face of a near complete lack of support from local or national government and the dramatic loss of infrastructure like performance spaces that has taken place over the past twenty years. Art, after all, has been around much longer than New York City.

All of this is to say that despite the tongue-in-cheek title of Lyons' closing show for this year's Ice Factory, Soho will not die. Unlike people, Manhattan neighborhoods do not experience death—they get renamed, rezoned, rebuilt, and repopulated, but they don't cease to exist. The "Soho Effect" has run its course in that particular corner of the city and now the wealthy have another pert little playground to add to their portfolio. Across all five boroughs new residents continue to arrive on the city's doorstep. The city's major industries are in flux. Neighborhoods continue to change. Sustainable low income housing continues to be one of New York's major failings. There are many paths forward. I can't predict the future of either Soho or New York, but it certainly has one, regardless of any judgment that people might want to place on it or wishes they have that it would take a different course.