Life in New York is shaped by relationship to property. This is true for New York’s wealthiest and most destitute, and for the politicians who are accountable to both of those groups and the rest of the city’s 8.4 million residents.
Over the weekend, artists were invited to spend Saturday afternoon in the atrium of the Queens Museum for Stay in New York: The Affordable Workspace Conference. The venue was perfect for conversations about real estate development and ownership in New York City, because the museum would not exist without the dogged efforts of the 20th century’s notorious “master builder,” Robert Moses, who spent four decades on plans to transform Flushing Meadows from a waste dump into a park.
At the conference, behind the panelists, you could see the “The Panorama of New York City,” a complete architectural model of every building in New York City. The permanent installation, which continues to be updated, was originally commissioned by Moses for the 1964 World’s Fair.
In addition to using trainloads of public and private money to build parks all over New York, and roads to access them, Moses built housing, and his grand projects dislocated hundreds of thousands of New Yorkers through eminent domain.
Despite a public fall from grace, he is still revered by many developers with a fan boy kind of devotion that requires them to overlook Moses’s racism and class bias and the fact that imposing massive projects on stable neighborhoods is often a terrible idea. But mega-development continues, increasing pressure in the market for affordable space, which is what has brought visual artists to the Queens Museum today.
Stay in New York evolved from conversations Paddy Johnson of Art F City had with artists in conjunction with Skowhegan about the precarious economic environment of art-making in New York. With exhibits, panels, and a resource center featuring organizations like ArtHome and Volunteer Lawyers for the Arts, the conference invited visual artists to consider how they make use of their space: as neighbors, as members of an occupational class, and within professional groups.
Panel: Community, Gentrification, and Displacement
Stay in New York began with a discussion led by Flux Factory executive director and Silent Barn co-founder Nat Roe. Artist Ambre Kelly described her work in helping artists find event spaces in New York, while real estate developer Shawn McLearen talked about the affordable live-work artist spaces he’s helped to create, including El Barrio’s PS109. Artist Wayne Hodge related a story of displacement and community that illustrates the importance of knowing your neighbors. When a Harlem landlord rented a Superfund-designated building to a school and the site was shut down as unfit for children, the landlord rented it to artists (who didn’t know the building’s history). In a further insult, artists had signed licensing agreements, not leases — which meant they were financially obligated to the landlord but lacked tenant rights.
The panel discussion transitioned to accessing space and making it available. When asked about the success of Arts in Bushwick and Bushwick Open Studios, conceptual artist (and former Arts in Bushwick organizer) Chloe Bass challenged the definition of ‘success’ (bigger is not necessarily better), and noted that not all artists or organizations need permanent space, which for some is a financial burden that perpetuates instability for artists and organizations. When asked whether the inventory of spaces available for artists in New York City seemed large enough, Stephanie Diamond (who runs Listings Project, a weekly email of real estate and other listings) framed the problem well: “There’s definitely a lot of space in New York City, it doesn’t necessarily mean we can inhabit it or work in it.”
Later in the discussion, Bass suggested people to consider privilege, and question where aspects of their identity — as artists, or white artists, for instance — are potentially being “instrumentalized towards something that we might not want to support” when offered what she calls fundamentally unstable proposals. In the Q&A, Diamond also pointed out that being a steward for one’s community begins with advocating for one’s self, including insisting on being paid what your work is worth, for instance.
I spent the break talking with Cynthia Tobar, who is creating an oral history of Bushwick residents, and to Anthony Rosado, a performer/installation artist who recently called out both Bushwick Art Crit Group and a lead organizer of Arts in Bushwick over issues of privilege and accessibility within that neighborhood. Rosado has been contributing to conversations about art and displacement there by insisting that Bushwick (the arts community) make room for Bushwick (the native New Yorkers).
The unstructured break facilitated conversations all over the museum, and this felt like very much the point. My sense was confirmed when I later asked Paddy Johnson to identify a couple of key moments. “I spoke to a number of participants and attendees who said they were able to connect to people they didn’t already know — including the artist and activist Eve Sussman. When an activist tells you your event was great for networking, it’s a big deal. Their networks are by necessity much larger than the average person’s. On a very practical level, this was what I’d hope the conference would do for people.”
Panel: Activism, lobbying, and securing affordable workspace
William Powhida led the second panel, in which artist Jenny Dubnau, a founding member of Artist Studio Affordability Project, described the organization’s efforts to help pass the Small Business Jobs Survival Act. SBJSA would shelter artists — as well as small businesses who rent commercial spaces — from some of the effects that turbulent markets have on commercial leaseholders. Jenny says the SBJSA bill has 19 sponsors in City Council and needs just seven more to pass. Jenny called the lack of affordable space a crisis, one that will not be resolved without political action. Eve Sussman stressed the need to create a groundswell that makes rent stabilization an issue politicians have to grapple with, to urge the city to do more. The audience applauded when Sussman pointed out there are millions of square feet of empty city, state, and federally owned spaces and, “We own that property already. We need to remember that. That is our property.”
Artist and writer Adeola Enigbokan’s experiences as a renter in Brooklyn formed the basis of a collaborative investigation of the social and historical basis of renting homes. Through this project, she noted the citizenship and strong social relationships that are possible for a city comprised of so many renters.
As these conversations revealed, the access to space is a question of power and agency. This sense only deepened when Enigbokan told attendees that as a descendant of slaves, her family has “a different and very precarious relationship to property, having been property.” Her comment was still reverberating when an audience member asked Tamara Greenfield about Spaceworks’s business model, which critics say privatizes public property. Greenfield, the nonprofit’s deputy director, explained that revenues are reinvested to cover their costs. The social issue raised was larger than the context of the discussion, but worth considering: What does it mean for a company to rent to us property which we, the public, already own?
Artist and Bushwick gallerist Deborah Brown led the day’s final panel, focused on ownership. Esther Robinson of ArtHome combined basic financial reality (“You must know how money works”) with passionate and unshakeable confidence that artists are innovative problem solvers who know how to create the impossible (and so perhaps need to learn skills so they can do the possible — basics like creating savings plans, acquiring assets and developing credit scores). Steven Englander of ABC No Rio and Risa Shoup (of Real Estate Investment Cooperative, Invisible Dog, and executive director of Fourth Arts Block) stressed the importance of relationship building and alternative ways of owning cultural spaces. Englander mentioned resources like the Urban Homesteading Assistance Board, and Robinson pointed to other nontraditional spaces such as ArtBuilt’s mobile studio (which was parked outside). The sense was distinctly “where there’s a will, there’s a way,” but with concrete successes that back up their faith.
It’s an unintended irony that I missed the keynote address by Tom Agnotti, the director of the Hunter College Center for Community Planning and Development. I don’t live in New York City and had to leave, to catch a bus. But Paddy Johnson related to me that both in Agnotti’s book, New York for Sale, and in his comments, he urged artists to work together — a message I imagine was the perfect end to a solid beginning. Beginning of what? The emergence of a new form of civic literacy, perhaps?
Hundreds of attendees who gathered under a soggy sky (and checked in via web) left Stay in New York with resources and information supporting two key ideas: First, in order to make creative life work, artists need to meet and share survival strategies as individuals, such as at events like Stay in New York. But second, the struggles facing many of the 140,000-plus artists living in New York City are systemic problems more vast than any one person’s ingenuity or ability to devise solutions.
My one tiny criticism of the event is that no specific request was made or opportunity created to direct attendees towards concrete action, however small. For instance, as you read this, developers for Bushwick’s massive Rheingold Brewery project are trying to wriggle out of promises that were made to that community for a specified percentage of affordable units. But in a room full of New Yorkers invested in affordability, I didn’t hear anyone with a microphone mention Rheingold.
The shrinking pool of affordable space is not a problem exclusive to visual artists (musicians, performers, writers) in New York. Manufacturers and retailers are struggling to keep their doors open, too. And millions of New Yorkers need paychecks that outpace rent increases at home. But there is a key difference between artists and other groups like labor unions, trade groups, and even residents who organize by geography or social cause. Many advocacy groups in the city have pooled time and resources and accumulated institutional knowledge over decades of existence. There is no equivalent coalition to advance and represent artists’ interests, and this makes all the difference.
Artists do not have sufficient access to affordable space and a lavish share of the city’s prosperity, because artists as a group have not yet formed a voice strong and loud and persistent enough to demand what they need from those who have the power to provide it. That and only that is the single reason that New York artists today are still fighting the battles that artists were fighting 50 years ago—in some cases on exactly the same turf. Consider Flushing Meadows, where we were gathered: according to the book on Robert Moses The Power Broker, he “turned down repeated requests by artists’ societies … to display American art” at the World’s Fair, “because no one came up with the high rental he demanded” for a pavilion.
Really, when is enough, enough?
Stay in New York: The Affordable Workspace Conference took place at the Queens Museum (Flushing Meadows, Corona Park, Queens) on June 27.