Gotham Gazette

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Space Woes

To understand why artist Andrea Zittel moved to New York City –- and also why she, like so many others, left -- it helps to look at her art projects. For one, she lived in a small basement room for a week without sunlight, a clock or a calendar; “I wanted to see if my day-to-day activities would completely fall apart.” She also lived for a month in one of her “Cellular Compartment Units” (which are not much bigger than a jail cell), and she has designed and constructed even smaller “Homestead Units” (the size of a kitchen) and “Living Units”(the size of a closet) and “Escape Vehicles” (the size of a car trunk) that she likes to call “intimate universes,” though others might see them as "cramped spaces."

So she did not mind that her first apartment in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, when she moved to New York in 1990, was just 200 square feet, bigger than most of the universes that the city would help inspire her to create.

"I prefer small spaces," she told me the other day at the New Museum of Contemporary Art, where her work is on display in an exhibition that opened this month entitled "Critical Space."

There is nowhere where space is more critical than in New York City, and arguably no New Yorkers who struggle more for enough of it than the city's artists.

Fleeing For Space

“Space is the number one issue,” Robin Keegan testified last month in the third hearing by the New York City Council’s committee on cultural affairs into the problems facing the city’s cultural community. Keegan is one of the authors of Creative New York, a report (in pdf format) released in December by the Center for an Urban Future that examines the strengths and challenges of what it calls the "creative core" of New York. "In New York, complaints about high real-estate costs and too little space are hardly unique," the report concedes. But the space problems of artists and arts groups –- space for living, for working, and for presenting their art -- are "particularly acute.” For example, “the high cost and scarcity of studio time for musicians and visual artists, and rehearsal space for performing artists, regularly requires them to make heroic efforts to pursue their art in the city.”

Many have been giving up trying to be heroes. “Most artists are driven out of New York because they can’t afford space,” Andrea Zittel said.

She herself certainly still has a presence in the city -- besides her current exhibition at the New Museum and another one beginning February 9th at the Whitney, her art work has been exhibited at the Museum of Modern Art and in Central Park, where her “Deserted Islands,” about the size of bean bag chairs, were placed in the Central Park Pond. She also owns a three-story building in Williamsburg, which she bought once her art career had begun to take off, where she lived, worked, and presented her art in storefront exhibits on the ground floor.

But she left New York City five years ago for California, and visits only a few times a year; the ground floor of her building is now a cafĂ©. In a recent article about her in New York Magazine entitled “The Non-Manhattan Project: Andrea Zittel bolted New York for the California scrub…”, she is quoted as saying: “I wanted to show that there could be a viable arts community outside a cultural capital like New York or Los Angeles, somewhere more affordable.”

Artists quoted in the Creative New York report seem to be fleeing New York not because they want to prove anything, but because they feel they have no choice. Hope Forstenzer, a graphic designer and glass blower, moved to Seattle. “I love New York,” she told the authors. “But I couldn’t change my life in any way to make it more secure.” At the time he talked to the authors, sculptor and copy editor Doug Culhane had definitely had it with New York City: After living in the same building in Williamsburg for 12 years, he was being evicted by his landlord, along with 11 other artists who live in the building -- even though the presence of such artists helped revitalize the neighborhood in the first place. Culhane had decided to leave the city altogether, and was trying to choose among Hudson, New York, Providence, Rhode Island and several other destinations. “Cities everywhere want artists,” Culhane said, “and are making room for them.”

“Even cities like Paducah, Kentucky are developing tax incentives and affordable housing to retain and attract creative talent,” Robin Keegan testified. “And whose talent do they want most? Ours.”

Scrambling For Space

Nearly every day there seems to be an arts story in the papers that is as much a story about real estate. Two hit Off-Broadway shows can't find a Broadway theater to move to. The Seventh Regiment Armory on Park Avenue announced this month that it will be turned into a venue for the performing arts, which worries the art and antique dealers who have been holding their fairs there. The Department of Education sent a letter evicting the Boys Choir Of Harlem from the public school where it has operated rent-free since 1993.

The one mention of art or culture in Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s State of the City address -- delivered at Snug Harbor Cultural Center in Staten Island -- was, in a way, all about space. After boasting of having "dramatically increased capital funding for arts organizations in every borough," he continued: “This year, the 30th Anniversary of our city’s Department of Cultural Affairs, we will help unveil a number of exciting projects, including a new performing arts center at Harlem’s Aaron Davis Hall, and a beautiful new wing at the Bronx Museum of the Arts. And -– I know this will be a favorite with many here today -– the Staten Island Zoo will open its long-awaited Reptile Wing!”

If many arts institutions are looking to expand -- most art museums, for example, have enough exhibition space to show only one or two percent of their collection -- less-established arts groups and individual artists feel increasingly desperate about getting enough space just to meet their basic needs.

Artists “are losing hope and growing bitter about not being able to live and work and stay here,” testified Ted Berger, retiring director of the New York Foundation for the Arts.

Offering Space

Cultural Affairs Commissioner Kate Levin acknowledges the problem, and (during the second hearing of the city council committee in October) enumerated some of the ways the city government is trying to do something about it, such as creating a new cultural district in downtown Brooklyn "that will include rehearsal and performance spaces at affordable rates," and transfering ownership of a half-dozen city-owned properties on East Fourth Street "to the cultural tenants that have occupied them for years, including Ellen Stewart's La Mama Experimental Theater Company."

Several non-profit organizations also have stepped up to help.

NYC Performance Arts Spaces helps artists find rehearsal and performance space, with searchable online databases for musicians and for dancers, and one soon for theater performers and also authors looking for a place to give readings. (The average rate for a rehearsal space these days, according to program administrator David Johnston, is $20 an hour.)

Swing Space, a project of the Lower Manhattan Cultural Council, convinces owners of buildings below Canal Street to make available temporarily vacant space for free or at low cost. Currently, according to cultural council president Tom Healey, 140 artists have free use of some 80,000 square feet of “vacant storefronts, storage units, office floors and lofts.”

Workshop space is often available through artist residencies, such as those offered by the New York State Artist Workspace Consortium, a group of ten art institutions (five of them in the city, from Socrates Sculpture Park in Long Island City to the Lower East Side Printshop). Brooklyn installation artist Kim Mayhorn has been accepted to some half dozen artist residencies, most (but not all) offering workspace as part of the deal, including one at the Whitney Museum and a residency lasting two months in Utica, New York at Sculpture Space. “My brain tends to work on a very large canvas,” she said, “but I can’t afford to rent an art studio of the size that I would need for my work, unless I also moved to a cheaper apartment, which would have to be the size of a box.” The residencies, she said, “allowed me to have more space to think, and to create.”

There is even affordable housing specifically geared for artists. Some of it is famous, such as Westbeth, a century-old factory building in Greenwich Village which four decades ago was converted into what it claims is “the largest artists community in the world,” and the Manhattan Plaza on 42nd Street. Less well-known is the Aurora, developed by the Actors’ Fund, which also has been offering monthly seminars on finding affordable housing. The Fund is just about to construct new artist housing as well, Schermerhorn House in downtown Brooklyn, in a joint project with Common Ground. And they are not alone: Artspace, which bills itself as “America’s leading non-profit real estate developer for the arts,” is engaging in its first foray into New York City, a joint project with a local community group, El Barrio Operation Fight Back to create 65 affordable apartments for artists and their families in the building that once housed P.S. 109 on Third Avenue and 99th Street.

Nobody is pretending that any of this is enough.

“Many of these projects are becoming less and less replicable," Keegan said, "due to the continued escalation of real estate costs across the five boroughs."

Suggested Solutions

At the city council hearing in December, Norma Munn, of the New York City Arts Coalition, suggested three ways that the city government could help solve the problem, ideas that have the backing of many arts advocates in the city. One, which she called an interim solution, would be for the city to provide a package of tax incentives that would encourage landlords to rent to non-profit arts groups and to individual artists; and that would encourage developers to set aside part of their new building for an art group or individual artists.

Longer term, Munn suggested the establishment of a “citywide community cultural land trust” – basically, a not-for-profit real estate development corporation that would buy, renovate and resell buildings but restrict their use in perpetuity to something art-related, such as artist workspaces.

Munn also recommended that the city use its planning and zoning in a way that is more attentive to the real cultural needs of the city. “Right now the City Planning commission’s idea of planning for culture is to block off an area in a master plan and say cultural center,” Munn testified. The planners, she said, give no thought to what that center will actually be -- “It’s just a blob” – and as a result, it rarely happens.

Indeed, planning sometimes does as much harm as good. Ironically, the recent rezoning of Williamsburg and Greenpoint to create new affordable housing there has increased the price of real estate in these two arts-heavy neighborhoods to the point of threatening to drive out many arts groups.

A Room Of One's Own

"A woman must have money and a room of her own if she is to write fiction," Virginia Woolf famously wrote . She understood why there could be no great female artist in Shakespeare's time: "One has only to think of the Elizabethan tombstones with all those children kneeling with clasped hands; and their early deaths; and to see their houses with their dark, cramped rooms, to realize that no woman could have written poetry then."

T.J. Volonis has a room of his own -- or almost his own; it's a room in a brownstone, without enough space for a bathroom, which is out in the hall and which he shares with the other tenant on the floor. Volonis does "functional art," sculpture-like chairs and tables, one of which sold at an art auction for $1,300, but he's having trouble doing it where he lives. "I've been looking for a new space so I can do my work. I'm tripping over my sculptures. It makes it difficult to produce more pieces."

On the other hand, he admits he is not one of those frustrated New York artists. It is hard to be frustrated after only a few months. Volonis, who moved to the city after graduating from college in 1999, did not make his first piece until last August, the one that sold in November. "If I had moved anywhere else," he says, "I don't think I would be producing art." Space isn't everything.

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