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Has New York Become the Art of the Impossible for Young Artists?

It is 1990 in a college dorm somewhere in California, and a student about to graduate proudly declares, I'm an artist, so I'm moving to New York City. This sounded reasonable then. New York City was the first home to artists in America, and in the twentieth century it became for artists something closer to the center of the universe. In 1990, according to the 1990 United States Census, there were 123,000 artists working and living here.

Fast forward to today. New York City still beckons. But now it is a different city. Only the naĂťve would expect to make a living as an artist; our college graduate knows she will have to find a day job. She also knows she is unlikely to find a place in Manhattan.

That still leaves four very lovely boroughs. But an apartment even in the "outer" boroughs for low-income people is very hard to come by. A move to Williamsburg three or four years ago was possible. Today, the middle class has arrived. Another concern for the young artist, approximately two thirds of whom are women, is that she sees moving to the poorer neighborhoods of this city as a potentially high-risk choice.

So, the question is: will she wind up coming to the city at all?

The results of the 2000 Census are not in yet, but there is some evidence to suggest that she will not.

"In the years that I've been here," says Paul Basista, the executive director of the Graphic Artists Guild, "the core of the New York chapter was originally Manhattan based. Not now. They're in Hoboken, or Williamsburg, or leaving."

Concrete statistical data is difficult to obtain. Artists are not joiners, and there are few guilds, like the one for graphic artists, to keep track of their members.

But one hint of the degree of change comes from the applications for artists fellowships from the New York Foundation for the Arts. From 1992 through 2000, four out of the five boroughs experienced a decrease in the number of artists applying. Manhattan decreased 31 percent, the Bronx 41 percent, Queens 15 percent, and Staten Island 42 percent. The only borough to show an increase was Brooklyn, and it was a tiny two percent, which does nothing to compensate for the losses in the rest of the city. Since a fellowship is a steadily desired goal for any artist, a decrease in applicants of this magnitude is a clear sign that the artists have moved elsewhere.

We are losing the people, in other words, who supply the base for our Off-Broadway theaters, the downtown visual arts scene, the small dance venues. We are losing writers, poets, sculptors, musicians, composers, photographers -- all of whom are also part of the commercial economy, and not just as waiters. Painters do illustrations for books. Writers write book jacket blurbs and edit corporate in house newsletters, or spend years at publishing companies. Photographers and graphic artists are the backbone of the advertising industry's visual output. Musicians abound in the computer industry.

It is hard to argue for housing for the well educated "volunteer poor," as one past city administration referred to artists, when such large numbers of involuntarily poor New Yorkers are homeless or living in sub-standard housing.

But unless the federal, state and city address the housing problems of New York, we can expect the next decade to show a diminution in the one commodity without which the arts cannot survive: talented new artists

Norma Munn is the chairwoman of the New York City Arts Coalition, a citywide advocacy group. She is also president of the Artists Community Federal Credit Union, and is a former chairwoman of The City Club of New York.

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