Queens public officials have invited Amazon to the bargaining table on behalf of Long Island City artists, a decision that has enraged community members who have accused the corporate behemoth of steamrolling dissent by “art-washing” their HQ2 headquarters proposal.
Earlier this week, longtime residents of the Long Island City (LIC) neighborhood were surprised to read minutes from the January 15 meeting of the Queens Community Board 2’s Art & Cultural Affairs Committee. The organization plans to invite Amazon and the Economic Development Corporation (EDC) to a discussion about how the global retailer might support local artists. According to the minutes, the committee has suggested that Amazon attend its March 12 session to discuss preserving studio space on its planned campus for artists “to work on projects as well as space to show and sell art.”
Anti-Amazon activists have rebuked the community board’s overtures for dialogue with the company in an online petition that characterizes the proposal as “a direct threat to Queens,” “undemocratic,” and “bad for the community.”
“We reject any outreach from Amazon including residencies, studio or performance space or exhibitions. We don’t want to help art-wash or culture-wash a dirty deal by Amazon,” reads the letter. “We are unequivocally opposed to the deal to bring Amazon HQ2 to Long Island City. As we’ve seen in Seattle, Amazon’s presence promises little more than soaring rents, rising homelessness and a white-male dominated mono-culture.”
Jenny Dubnau drafted the petition letter with her organization, Artist Studio Affordability Project (ASAP). The pledge against Amazon HQ2 is also cosponsored by the People’s Cultural Plan, which advocates for remedies to housing, labor, and public funding injustices.
“We’ve gotten little hints that Amazon was going to offer a few crumbs to artists and organizations to art-wash the deal and give it legitimacy,” Dubnau explained to Hyperallergic on the phone. “They give artists vague promises and it’s at the expense of the larger community.”
In November 2018, Governor Andrew Cuomo and Mayor Bill de Blasio announced the successfully courting of the world’s largest retailer, which they said would bring 25,000 new jobs to LIC, Queens with an average salary of $150,000 and incremental tax revenues of more than $10 billion over the next 20 years. The governor and mayor achieved the deal by issuing economic incentives and tax breaks through EDC and its state counterpart, Empire State Development (ESD), which allowed the politicians to sidestep City Council scrutiny and public review procedures. Previously, the governor’s office has boasted that the public’s estimated $3 billion investment will see a 9-to-1 return at more than $27.5 billion over the next two decades. But without conducting a cost-benefit analysis — particularly one that’s independently reviewed — City Council officials have doubted the deal’s merits. At the council’s finance committee hearing last week, Amazon representatives said that they would oppose worker unionization; they also would not address allegations of collaborating with Immigration and Enforcement Customs (ICE) despite numerous reports.
Jimmy van Bramer, a Queens councilmember whose district includes LIC, has opposed Amazon HQ2 since its unveiling. Back in November, he co-signed a joint statement against the project with Senator Michael Gianaris that characterized the deal as “unfathomable.”
Since then, Van Bramer has rejected negotiations with the company and recommends that other public officials do the same. In a statement to Hyperallergic, the councilmember said:
This debacle of an Amazon deal dies a little bit every day and no one should be negotiating with them to see what individual groups can get in exchange for support of this unparalleled act of corporate welfare. Anyone who speaks with Amazon should demand they end their cooperation with ICE, stop their union crushing ways, and give back the billions they are trying to take from working people. Jeff Bezos has not been a great champion of the arts in the past and there is no reason to believe he will become one now simply to save this dying deal.
Similarly, Dubnau considers the community board’s invitation to Amazon as a “tacit approval” of the retailer’s arrival. “You cannot allow them to get their PR message across by using artists. It’s a classic example of art-washing.”
She says that more than 30 people have already joined her plans for further action against the Arts & Cultural Affairs Committee. The online petition has received 176 signatures at the time of this article’s publication. On social media, organizations like Queens Neighborhoods United (QNU) and Chinatown Art Brigade have also voiced their support of ASAP’s letter opposing Amazon.
A spokeswoman for Queens Community Board 2 tells Hyperallergic that “there is nothing planned officially at the moment” regarding Amazon’s attendance at the March 12 meeting, but that their intention is to eventually bring the company to the table.
Dubnau says that while most of the artists she’s talked to are outraged against Amazon, few arts organizations have joined the fight because they are “very dependent on chasing funding.”
“It’s a pity because [an art organization’s] survival is at stake when it comes to the dynamics of this hyper-gentrification. They will always need affordable rent,” she said, “they’re shooting themselves in the foot.”
In November, SculptureCenter’s then-outgoing director Mary Ceruti told Hyperallergic that the LIC-based organization “will certainly be asking Amazon to support us and the cultural life.” When asked for an update on SculptureCenter’s policies, a spokeswoman for the organization declined to comment. Likewise, MoMA PS1 has yet to publicly address Amazon HQ2’s potential effect on its neighborhood.
By contrast, smaller arts nonprofits in the area are taking a stand against the company. Nat Roe, the executive director of Flux Factory, tells Hyperallergic that the gallery “will certainly not partner with Amazon in any way and will discourage our peers from doing so.”
“We’ve been laying the groundwork for some strategies that will have a long-term effect,” Roe said, “and I think will show that little organizations like Flux can punch above our weight class.”
Though outrage is fierce in the LIC arts community, Amazon’s toughest challenger may actually come from the New York State Senate. Recently, Democrats nominated Senator Gianaris for a critical position on the Public Authorities Control Board (PACB), which must unanimously approve financing for the Amazon project. Gianaris has been staunchly opposed to the deal since it was announced in November, telling a crowd of protesters that month to “strap yourself in and get ready” for a fight against the company.
Cuomo must still approve Gianaris’ nomination, though he seems reluctant to do so. Recently, a spokeswoman for the governor told The Wall Street Journal that the Senator Gianaris didn’t have the state’s best economic interests in mind as the deal will bring thousands of jobs to New York.