It’s May 2014, and as a visitor to New York, during my short but fruitful stay in arguably one of the most prestigious centres of the art world, did I notice a pervasive attitude that is happening across cities globally. That of sky-rocketing rents.
Here though, the very essence of art and its purpose are thrown sharply into view. As many cutting edge, long time galleries, and studio spaces are increasingly priced out.
New York has been the base of the solid art market that exists today within the global one, due to a culturally rich and vibrant past, and historic encouragement of the arts. Small wonder it is such an intense draw for so many artists now.
And this is the problem, as rents rise, the few pricey art venues and artists who are shown in them, are creating an ever smaller clique. The go to of choice for the few who can afford these prices. And within this clique are many who are buying for profit alone.
So, the art may or may not be of quality, but the entry point into this world is undoubtedly about money and lots of it.
The Lower East Side, once an eclectic haunt of artists in the 80’s. Has had numerous high profile building projects of late, projecting this area into one of the trendiest sites on the Island. Some newer galleries like Brian Morris manage to incorporate these spiralling costs within their vision.
Brian Morris Gallery on Chrystie St, LES
basement steps to the gallery’s indoor and outdoor space
As Above / So Below by Carol Salmanson and Ruth Hardinger
Brian Morris Gallery May, June 2014
Carol Salmanson’s light works, inside and in the garden.
Carol is also part of artist run, non profit organisation Nurture Art, based in Bushwick
I went via the Lower East Side galleries as they are only a hop, skip from Williamsburg’s bright, young trendy professionals over the river in Brooklyn. Stopping off a few notches down the line in Bushwick for Bushwick Open Studios.
Merged into the City of New York over 100 years ago, Long Island’s districts have become synonymous with the economic politics and flux of the City. Immigrants settled in Bushwick and invested in ownership over rent.
Then the perfect storm happened, a well meaning policy encouraging higher rents for those on welfare transformed into the reality of landlords snapping up huge swathes of the needy and placing them in vacant buildings around the Bushwick area. Drugs and crime followed in the 70s and people moved out. Riots ensued and reluctance to return to those days was understandably ingrained.
The buildings in disrepair, a housing regeneration process began with assistance from the NYPD’s narcotics branch. By then the artists had already moved in.
So in 2014, emerging from the Williamsburg subway, a stone’s throw from Manhattan, I ventured onto the streets. I was faced with what I can only describe as a wall of hipsters out on their Sunday stroll. Williamsburg’s artists have long been edged out by a steady influx of other creative professionals and city commuters.
Bushwick is two stops down from here and has over 900 artists registered in studio spaces in its long deserted industrial units. This number does not include the wider area of Brooklyn, purportedly one of the largest concentrations of artists in the world.
And in these units space is key. The studios I visited when I spent the weekend walking round the Bushwick Open Studios event (which incidentally is in its 8th successful year) were a surprise to me. Some averaging 50 square feet, with or without window, costing on average $1.50 to $2 and now up to $4-5 per luxury square foot. The type of art made in these spaces is obviously going to be smaller, accumulative pieces or internet based, and certainly not large unless you get lucky.
Carla Gannis in her studio at Varick Ave during Bushwick Open Studios
Carla’s studio space
Man Bartlett in his studio at Varick Ave during Bushwick Open
Man Bartlett’s studio
56 Bogart Street
Carol Salmanson of Nurture Art, a collection of artists running non-profit studio spaces and gallery located in the basement of 56 Bogart, spoke quite matter of factly about the very real and imminent threat of rent hikes, saying simply, “it will come.”
Theodore Art at 56 Bogart
Joyce Robbins exhibition Paint and Clay at Theodore Art June 2014
Stephanie Theodore at NEWD Bushwick Open Studios
Theodore Art representing Scooter La Forge at NEWD
56 Bogart is located adjacent to the Morgan St L train subway, probably one of the first areas to be seen as good pickings. Some of the gallery spaces around may just afford it, but it will alter the number and also type of artists who can be in studio spaces in this area.
The number of artists here in 2014 bares a similarity to Berlin’s Auguste Strasse district in the 90s when everyone flocked after the wall fell. That too was reaching community status until the cheap rents and boho life appeal took on currency. Those artists had to move.
Bushwick artists are a community, and a well organised one, not like their predecessors in Williamsburg. And they are in no doubt that they are going to be up against this tidal wave of gentrification very soon.
Jefferson Street Bushwick
Rent, for residents, artists and gallerists alike is key, to whether they are to stay within this particular area of New York, which has, up until now, been one of the most accepting of cities as far as creativity goes.
As an outsider, the only option I can see is to have a well organised time-relevant rent stabilisation programme with limits in place when leases are up. This will at least slow down the rampant focus on cash for space. And most importantly it will give time for communities, art or otherwise to evolve.
Art is at the very heart of New York, and so a balance has to be met.
It’s either that or head back out to the sticks. Escape from New York indeed.