“How can we get more places like Flux Factory?” City Councilmember Jimmy Van Bramer asked Kate D. Levin. Van Bramer is one of the biggest arts advocates in the city, and Levin is the commissioner of the Department of Cultural Affairs; at that moment, she was also a spokesperson for the bulk of the city’s non-profit arts institutions. His question was central to a recent public hearing about how New York could be made more affordable for artists, and Levin’s reply started with the facts. “It’s a challenge to manage real estate for residents that are somewhere between a stable and transient population,” she said. Fundraising has been an issue; so too has finding the non-profit expertise needed to run these kinds of spaces. (Still, the commissioner saw progress in the philanthropic community’s understanding that the pipeline for emerging artists is important, too.)
Perhaps unsurprisingly, nobody who presented came prepared to answer why there aren’t more places like Flux Factory in Long Island City. I suspect that’s because nobody wants to replicate another arts organization. The latest non-profit that has people excited is Spaceworks, which makes affordable studio spaces available to artists: visual-art studios from 200-300 square feet rent for $250-$400; rehearsal spaces range from $10-$16 per hour, executive director Paul Parkhill said. All are awarded based on how intensely the artist will use the space.
It sounds promising—albeit untested—but it’s hard not to have some reservations. The organization isn’t purchasing property, which means if property values continue to rise, it won’t be able to address the larger financial problems artist face. And since New York is already too expensive for many artists to live in, a slightly below-market rate may not be enough today, let alone a few years from now.
Sheila Lewandowski, the executive director at the Chocolate Factory and a Spaceworks partner, brought up this issue. “Sixteen bucks an hour is more than most make in their day jobs” she told the City Council. “If we’re charging them more money than they make per hour, are we providing a service?” (Many artists live in constant economic uncertainty—and without healthcare.)
Still, it’s a start, and a needed one at that. Perhaps better than any administrator, Lewandowski was able to articulate best, in human terms, the problems that creatives face. “What is unique about artists is that they subsidize their own industry, and in doing so they subsidize every other industry in the city,” she said. “Without its cultural identity, people would not choose to set up businesses in New York, and it would not attract tourists whose money fuels a large part of the economy.”