What Do Brooklyn Artists Need?

07/17/2013 4:00 AM |

Artist and arts educator William Powhida, in tandem with artist Jules de Balincourt, recently heightened the discourse of sustainably affordable studio spaces in NYC—which disappear all too quickly and reliably—by voicing initial proposals via social media, then organizing, along with de Balincourt, Lynn Sullivan and Paddy Johnson (who writes for The L), a town hall style gathering to address the issue. About 100 artists and interested parties showed up to chime in—not merely about artists vs. realtors, and not merely about gentrification (i.e. not merely about artists’ woes and historical precedents). The conversation generated a wealth of particular concerns and broad-ranging suggestions, some of which have since congealed into more coherent, perhaps even operable, ways forward. We asked Powhida a few questions.

What are some of the primary ideas that have concretized since the town hall gathering?
I think the four of us realize we have a lot of work to do before another public meeting. The town hall was an opportunity for artists to express their needs and ideas about how to address them, but it showed us that there are significant gaps in knowledge and awareness about the issues. We appreciated the level of engagement and are looking at the surveys we collected. We’re also talking with people we connected with directly and indirectly through the meeting. It’s clear that we need to work in the order of awareness, advocacy, and then action.

Educational initiatives would seem to be a great way for artists and their surrounding communities to exchange energies and skills, and perhaps form real ties. How have these ideas factored into the dialogue?
Our starting point has been to address a specific need, artists’ studios, and to develop a clear understanding of what we’re asking for. When we have that understanding, I think we will be able to better collaborate with the community. I can only speak for myself here, but I think one immediate area of mutual interest is art education. I see artists as an incredible public resource for after-school programs, continuing education, and community workshops. It’s well known that public schools struggle to offer arts education. This seems like an opportunity to bring artists into schools or make them available in the community through an exchange of time for space. Education may also provide a way for some of us to integrate with the community instead of remaining insulated from it. For me, having taught in Bushwick, Bed-Stuy, Brownsville and Williamsburg for 14 years, it has been a long standing dream to see the arts create opportunities for integration. This could realize it.

Are there any local officials or developers you’d be interested to bring into the conversation?
In terms of pursuing affordable and sustainable studio spaces for artists, we’re willing to talk with developers about progressive ideas involving long-term spaces for non-profits, creative work spaces, and affordable housing. We also regret not knowing that there was an important community board meeting on the same evening as ours, which highlighted our own need for awareness and solidarity with the community. As we have a better understanding of what we’re asking for, we would be interested in talking with local officials like Rep. Nydia Velazquez and local community groups about working together on mutual needs and alternative exchanges.

Might we close here with at least guarded optimism? 
I think we understand the 10-year cycle of artist migration and that simply shutting up and moving on is part of the problem. I’m darkly optimistic that we can get things going as a group and collaborate with the surrounding community. Jules and I weren’t really speaking for years, and now we’re talking about issues that matter. That gives me hope that we can make something different of this cycle.

You can follow Paul D’Agostino on Twitter @postuccio