AM New York
Pricey city drives out artists
By David Freedlander | firstname.lastname@example.org
January 4, 2008
Last year Galapagos Art Space, a leading venue in the city for emerging theater and art, had its bags packed and ready to go.
Rents got to be too much. Young artists that lived near the space in Williamsburg had scattered. And city officials in Berlin were trying to lure the group there.
"We were walking out the door and our jacket got caught on the latch," joked Robert Elmes, who opened the space in 1995.
At the last moment, they were offered a subsidized place in DUMBO, but some see the saga of Galapagos as a cautionary tale about how emerging artists are being squeezed out of the city.
"The cultural ecosystem is under incredible threat right now," Elmes said. "The word spreading back across the country to young, creative people is that New York is incredibly expensive and there isn't the opportunity to experiment with new work. The best and the brightest are going to other cities."
It's a common refrain among those who work in the creative industries and follow the cultural scene closely: New York City, which has incubated a century of the world's leading artists, musicians, and performers, will cease to be a place where art is made.
"New York could easily become a museum city like Paris or Rome that doesn't produce much in the way of relevant culture," Elmes said. "If you take emerging and cutting-edge arts away, the city becomes dramatically less interesting. That was always what New York was about but we are not protecting our brand."
But New York's cultural primacy isn't simply a matter of self-image. Arts and culture account for a huge part of the city's economy -- nearly $21 billion and as many as 160,000 jobs, according to a recent report by the Alliance for the Arts, an advocacy group.
Kate Levin, the commissioner of the city's Department of Cultural Affairs, says the city is aware of the problem.
"There was a time during the 'culture wars' that artists were seen as nasty and negative and, we've tried to change the discourse to make the case that artists are integral to a healthy city."
The Bloomberg administration has revised regulations to make it easier for smaller, nonprofit arts organizations to receive funding, but Levin added that city's ability to intervene is limited. "Everybody has an issue with affordable housing, and government can't legally build housing just for artists in the city of New York," Levin said.
Another concern is that the transformation of neighborhoods where artists congregate, like the East Village or Williamsburg, has dispersed a community that relies on proximity and relationships.
And many artists say that economic pressures in the city are so intense that they have to spend all their time trying to make ends meet rather than devote themselves to their passion.
"Historically. artists go into blighted neighborhoods and that's where they live and set up shop," said Elizabeth Currid, author of "The Warhol Economy: How Fashion, Art and Music Drive New York City." "Those spaces don't exist anymore. We won't have a new generation if the next generation of artists can't afford to live here."
Adam Forest Huttler, executive director of Fractured Atlas, an artist-support organization, agrees.
"Artists are crafty and resourceful, there are probably one or two more neighborhoods left, but not much more than that," he said. "I just don't see a lot of young, creative people settling out by JFK Airport. I think we are at the red alert level."
Economic contribution: $21.2 billion
Jobs generated: 160,300
Wages generated: $8.2 billion
Taxes to New York City: $904 million
Source: Alliance for Arts, 2007 report
Copyright © 2008, AM New York