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How To Make It In NYC As An Artist

by Jonathan Mandell, Apr 11, 2006
 

It is still possible to thrive as an artist in New York City, according to several recent reports, conferences and hearings, as long as artists follow some simple guidelines.

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1. Never Get Sick

A recent survey of independent artists in the city (those without a steady employer) entitled Creative Workers Count found that more than a third "experienced a significant gap in health insurance coverage in the last year," and that 75 percent of those without insurance put off seeking needed medical care. The report, which is subtitled "New York City's Arts Funding Overlooks Individual Artists' Needs," found that many artists also lack retirement plans, and "are coping with financial instability generated by erratic employment and low incomes."

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2. Don't Be Born Abroad

This month, the cellist Yo-Yo Ma testified before Congress about the "extraordinarily high" barriers to foreign artists. He was talking in particular about the trouble foreign artists have been having in getting temporary visas to visit the United States in order to perform. But a few weeks earlier, Randall Boursheidt of the Alliance for the Arts testified before the New York City Council's committee on cultural affairs about the lack of opportunities for the city's immigrant "artists, both old and young…to continue to develop their work."

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3. Lower Expectations

At the Creative New York Conference held earlier this month at the Museum of Modern Art, dancer and choreographer Bill T. Jones contrasted what it was like in 1982 when he started his company in New York with what it is like now for dancers: “Five of my former dancers…are really depressed…they are despairing.” Two decades ago, “dancers would work for a song. Dancers did not expect health insurance, life insurance, they did not expect to have middle-class lives. Now everybody does.” That doesn’t mean they get it.

4. Make Sacrifices

At that same conference, Glenn Lowry, the director of the Museum of Modern Art, explained that artists are “willing to give up a great deal of comfort – financial, emotional, maybe psychological” to be in New York City. (But “what keeps me up at night” is that these artists will be “just as at home in Shanghai as they are in New York, if that becomes a more attractive city for their practice.”)

5. Learn To Love Inadequate, Overpriced Spaces

Those who care about the arts in New York City are increasingly alarmed at the trouble artists have in finding places to live and spaces to work – whether for rehearsing, exhibiting or performing (see Space Woes).

As bad as the problem is, what’s worse is that nobody really knows how bad the problem is, according to Boursheidt’s City Hall testimony: Nobody knows where the artists live, and how many are being forced to leave. By the time artists "exist in sufficient numbers in neighborhoods like Soho or Williamsburg or the South Bronx for the rest of the city to notice," Boursheidt said, "it's a pretty good sign the development pressure has already begun to force them out of those neighborhoods."

6. Focus On Business and Politics

There are opportunities for funding and other support from corporations, non-profit organizations and government agencies for those talented enough, and savvy enough, to make the cut. The private non-profit New York Foundation for the Arts, for example, famously offers annual "fellowships"($7,000 in cash) to about 150 individual artists in 16 categories from painting to performance art, crafts to composition. The official cultural councils of all five boroughs in the city offer grants as well, and, along with the Department of Cultural Affairs, provide other services, such as artist registries to aid individual artists in getting gigs.

But none of the cultural czars pretend there is enough funding to go around, the emphasis is support for non-profit arts organizations rather than individual artists, and there are such complicated restrictions and requirements for most grants and fellowships that an industry has grown up just to sort it all out.

"Artists need to be able to have the time to think about their art and to create," Ella Weiss of the Brooklyn Arts Council testified at the City Council hearing. "They also need to know that our society values the time they spend [creating.] The National Science Foundation funds pure research. Do we really ever fund pure art, just for the arts sake?"

"The secret shame of the art support system -- public and private funds -- is how much it talks about artists, but how little it really does to meet their needs directly," testified Ted Berger, the executive director of New York Creates, which tries to help folk and craft artists.

“An artist’s business is basically his or her art,” noted Councilmember Domenic Recchia, the chairman of the cultural affairs committee, yet “they can’t get a small business loan from the Small Business Administration.”

“There are far too many arts organizations in New York City right now,” Tom Healy of the Lower Manhattan Cultural Council testified. “They don’t do the best things for the artists they try to serve.”

7. Be Perfect

A composer who teaches on the faculty of the Juilliard School observed in a television documentary marking its centennial celebration that an average graduate of law school or medical school can still have a decent career. But it is not possible, he said, for a successful artist to be only average.

8. Have Hope

Yes, there are challenges, but some smart people are trying to address them.

Health care is a problem, for example, but an innovative approach to it is suggested by a program at Brooklyn’s Woodhull Hospital, called Artists Access, in which an uninsured dancer can perform in the pediatric wing for an hour a week, or an uninsured painter can offer patients drawing lessons, in exchange for “health care credits” they can redeem when needed.

Immigrant artists are being neglected, but the Brooklyn Arts Council has made a small step towards aiding such artists through its Folk Arts program, in which it has located about 135 traditional dancers from the borough, and then matched them up with schools, senior centers and other place where they can perform.

As New York City Cultural Affairs Commissioner Kate Levin said at the opening of the Creative New York Conference, “for several generations now, New York City has provided an environment where creativity flourishes, often against all odds -- and indeed, sometimes because of those odds. This is no small feat…Creativity can be enormously robust and productive, but an individual’s vision or idea can be quite fragile. Often, we think of creative people as craving solitude, but the reason they’ve flocked to New York for so many years is because of the critical mass of individuals, institutions and opportunities.”

 
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