“Don’t move to New York,” I told an audience of young students at the University of Georgia last week. To my surprise, most of the students were already familiar with my thoughts on the matter—I’d forgotten about a conversation I’d had with local artist and MFA graduate Layet Johnson, who’d called to ask me if he should move to New York. That conversation became part of an installation in a hotel show. It’s a small town, so by the time I’d arrived, the entire student body had listened to the piece.
Still, the topic came up again and again during my stay, and part of it was my own doing. I’m sad that New York, the city I’ve lived in for more than 10 years, is now barely hospitable to those making the kind of art I love. It’s my job, though I don’t like it, to tell young artists thinking of moving that without connections, their job prospects are dim. The ugly reality is the cost of living is prohibitively expensive in New York.
Typical studio rent in Bushwick runs at $600 for 250 square feet, according to Stephanie Diamond’s Listings Project, a real-estate email service for artists. That’s more than $2 per square foot. Sunset Park is more affordable, but as I reported in the last issue, landlords are raising rents there by as much as 50 percent.
Given these numbers, most artists will need to secure a middle-income job to maintain an apartment and studio, which creates a catch-22: artists have to work all the time to pay for their studios and thus have a hard time ever using them. But they may be the lucky ones. I frequently hear about graduates who have been unable to turn their unpaid internships into paying positions. Only a few years ago such a fate was reserved for the particularly unskilled.
It’s bad out there for emerging artists and students know it. When I visited Baltimore last week, I heard from multiple sources that many MICA graduates are no longer moving to New York; instead, they’re finding cheap studio space in Baltimore and staying put. Students in Athens talked about moving after graduation, too. Although they were less likely to move to New York because of the distance, they did mention the appeal of larger communities like those in Philadelphia and Atlanta.
I can’t say I blame them. Spending a few months in New York to build connections and get studio visits isn’t a bad idea, but it’s possible to keep up with most art virtually, and art here has becoming increasingly lifeless anyway. The Lower East Side has become particularly stale lately; in the past four months, I’ve seen only two solo exhibitions that I thought were exceptional—Sara Ludy at Klaus Von Nichtssagend and Jaimie Warren at The Hole. Neither of those artists lives in New York.
It’s unlikely that there’s a single cause for this, but the city’s rising costs and diminishing benefits are certainly part of it. Given the number of emerging and mid-level dealers, curators, critics and artists in this city who work constantly and are just scraping by, we may be starting to see its toll.