Flushing Town Hall in Queens, New York (via Wikimedia Commons)

A new report published last week by the Center for an Urban Future finds that almost one-third of all New York-based artists are immigrants. But the study also reveals that the city’s immigrant artists and immigrant-serving arts organizations were hit hardest by the coronavirus pandemic and that many are facing existential threats with little to no aid from the city. This reality threatens not only the livelihood of these artists and the sustainability of the organizations supporting their work, but also the centrality of New York in the global art scene, it warns.

Titled “The Changing Face of Creativity in New York,” the report is based on interviews with over 100 immigrant artists, directors of immigrant-led cultural and social service organi­zations, leaders of other cultural institutions, and government offi­cials, among others. Funded by the New York Community Trust, the Laurie M. Tisch Illumination Fund, and the Rockefeller Brothers Fund, the study builds on previous research by the think-tank about the vital role of the arts in New York’s economy.

The report shows that the number of immigrant artists in New York has grown by 69% since 1990, compared to a 30% increase in US-born artists. New York City is currently home to 12% of the nation’s immigrant artists, exceeding any other American metropolitan.

The study highlights the indelible contribution of immigrant artists to New York City’s famed status as an international hub for artists. “Foreign-born artists have long been here, birthing world-altering movements from abstract expres­sionism to hip-hop,” it says. “More than any previous era, however, immigrants have become pivotal to the success of the arts in New York.”

But now, as income from exhibitions, perfor­mances, and side jobs has dried up during the pandemic, and with limited access to government relief, immigrant artists are struggling to make ends meet.

The pandemic has compounded the financial challenges already affecting immigrant artists, who earn just 88 cents on the dollar compared to US-born artists, the study adds. (From 2000 to 2018, foreign-born professional artists in New York made an average income of about $41,000 annu­ally, compared to the $46,600 annual income of US-born artists.)

Lina Montoya, a Colombia-born muralist, teaching artist, and designer based on the North Shore of Staten Island since 2010, has seen her income vanish during the pandemic. Montoya’s work relies on public commissions and community participation, which have been drastically cut back.

“Everything fell apart,” Montoya tells researchers. “All my projects with the DOE [Department of Education] were canceled. The four pieces I was supposed to do in 2020 never happened. I haven’t been able to start any projects remotely or through distance learning.”

The Bronx Academy of Arts and Dance in 2016 (via Wikimedia Commons)

The crisis extends to immigrant-led and immigrant-serving arts organizations — galleries, perfor­mance venues, and community spaces — many of which are facing financial collapse. Surveyed institutions report revenue losses amounting to 50% or more of their annu­al budgets. These organizations were already financially precarious before the pandemic hit; the average arts nonprofit brought in just one-third of the government funding and less than 7% of the board contributions received by mainstream peer organizations.

Organizations like Local Project, Centro Corona, and Bronx Academy of Arts and Dance (BAAD!) had each been displaced from their respective locations, the report says. Some other organizations had shut their doors completely, including Librería Lectorum and Librería Macondo in Manhattan, and Century Dance Complex in Staten Island.  

The Bronx Academy of Art and Dance has lost over $20,000 in revenue from canceled events and rent­als since March, the report says, and has spent more than $40,000 on continued rent payments for its shuttered space. Flushing Town Hall, a multidisciplinary global arts venue in Queens, has lost more than $400,000 in earned income through June — over 17% of its an­nual budget — and projects losses up to $500,000 for the late summer and fall, including lost income from weddings, events, ticket sales, and govern­ment contracts. The Nuyorican Poets Cafe in the East Village has been closed since March with no earned revenue; the venue projects losses of between $400,000 and $450,000 for the year, more than half of its annual budget.

As this crisis continues, the report urges city policymakers to include new supports for New York’s immigrant arts ecosystem, now more fragile than ever, as part of broader efforts to revive the city’s economy in the wake of the Covid crisis.

“Immigrant-serving arts organizations and immigrant artists disproportionately depend on government funding, despite receiving far less support,” the report explains, adding that most city grant-making dollars “continue to be spent on mainstream and Man­hattan-based organizations.”

A poetry event at Nuyorican Poets Cafe in New York’s East Village (Nick Gulotta/Flickr)

Despite the city’s efforts to support smaller organizations in low-income communities, an analysis of the Department of Cultural Affairs’s (DCLA) funding in 2018 (not includ­ing City Council discretionary initiatives) shows that 62% of the grants went to Manhattan and 19% to Brooklyn, leav­ing 8% for the Bronx, 9% for Queens and 2% for Staten Island.

The study includes another striking statistic: the DCLA’s per capita grant funding citywide is about $4.79. However, in Manhattan, it skyrockets to $15.37, while per capita spending in the 10 neighborhoods with the highest immigrant populations was just $0.74.

Now, as the city’s 2021 budget had cut more than $23 million from the DCLA’s funds and slash­ed funding for Council discretionary initiatives by $79 million, funding for immigrant-serving arts organizations is expected to dwindle even more.

These economic conditions have made other cities better poised than New York to attract immigrant artists, the report claims. Over the past two decades, Los Angeles added more immigrant artists than New York, and cities like Austin, Houston, Minneapolis, and Miami all saw their immigrant artist populations grow faster than in New York.

The report delivers a stern warning to New York City policymakers: “To continue attracting and sustaining brilliant creators from across the world — and keep pace with cities like Los Angeles, Houston, and Miami that are now experiencing far faster growth in their immigrant artist communities — city pol­icymakers and cultural leaders will have to do far more to help immigrant artists and arts organizations to survive the current crisis and weave new strength into the cultural fabric of New York City.”

The study goes on to urge the city to “do much more” to provide immigrant communities with immediate relief from the ongoing pandemic, including address the per­sistent affordability crisis and “rectify the damage of the Trump administration.” It also advises policymakers to assist artists and organi­zations in overcoming the many obstacles they face in earning revenue, handling bureaucracy, obtaining in­stitutional funding, and navigating the immigration system.

In addition, the report calls on New York City to launch new initiatives to connect immigrant artists with vacant storefronts and commercial spaces, open public spaces for immigrant arts performanc­es and exhibitions, build space for immigrant arts into future neighborhood development plans, and strengthen the reach and effectiveness of the borough arts councils.

“Together, policymakers, cultur­al leaders, government officials, and philanthropists can uplift and sustain the immense contributions of its immigrant artists and ensure that New York City maintains its position as a global hub of creativity,” it concludes.

Hakim Bishara is a Senior Editor at Hyperallergic. He is also a co-director at Soloway Gallery, an artist-run space in Brooklyn. Bishara is a recipient of the 2019 Andy Warhol Foundation and Creative Capital...