Survival In New York: An Interview with Dan Cameron

by Paddy Johnson on October 25, 2010 · 13 comments Interview

Dan Cameron

The third interview in a series of posts examining what it means to survive in New York. Today I speak with Curator and Non-Profit Director Dan Cameron. Other interviews in this series include  Shelly Bancroft and Peter Nesbett of Triple Candie, a non-profit gallery located in Harlem, and artist William Powhida. A full piece reflecting on these interviews is available in this month’s issue of Map Magazine.

Paddy Johnson: You've been working in New York for a fairly long time, so I thought you would have a good perspective on survival.

Dan Cameron: I've been a New Yorker for like, 31 years. In the same apartment no less.

PJ: Oh wow.

DC: Rule number one, when I moved to New York: get your living thing taken care of as soon as possible, so you’re in a place you can bear to live in for a very long period of time, and you’re paying a rent you can afford, to reduce the stress level of everything else you have to deal with.

PJ: Was it easier to get a place 30 years ago?

DC: Well, I hit New York the fall of 1979. It was the same year I graduated from college, and by October I was in this place, this apartment. I worked at Tibor de Nagy Gallery on 57th Street and the artists there, the cool artists, were saying, “Well, you can’t even think about SoHo or TriBeCa or the East Village, and most likely even the East Village may have gotten too expensive. south of Houston, east of the Bowery, and if you can find a place there, you'll be settled for life.” So I crashed at a friend's house until I found on place on Clinton, between Stanton and Delancy. At that time it was a shooting gallery and heroin marketplace, but it was cheap. That was the first thing you did, because the alternative was to be homeless, which I wasn’t going to allow to happen.

PJ: In general, how would you define surviving in New York? Is that synonymous with success?

DC: It’s a tricky question because the exchange of one’s time and labor for money is at the heart of how a lot of people make that decision. Really, it comes down to whether you are making a decision based on need or whether those needs are taken care of. In other words, if someone is independently wealthy and they come to New York, then they can go about their life doing things without having to think about survival; on the other hand, there’s the proverbial greyhound bus, hitting the ground running and making a go of it. I would say that most artists are somewhere in between. More to the hit-the-ground-running side than the everything’s-taken-care-of side. I am more in the latter camp, so survival to me has meant figuring out a way that you can be recompensed for the things you most love to do. In other words, how do you find something close to what you do, so that you can, by virtue of proximity over the years, somehow get into doing what you want to do – like artists working as perpetrators.

PJ: How is art culture different in New York, as compared to other places? One of the things that people talk about is that here all of your friends are in the arts, typically, so at parties everyone is talking about the same things, and there is not a lot of down time.

DC: I think that’s really true, so true you have to be an idiot not to catch it. What is equally true to me is the thrill of being in New York. Being in New York and staying alive by one’s wits, in our age, seems to me a pretty major accomplishment in and of itself. Once you get beyond that, for me, the most important role I think I’ve been able to inhabit is that of a New Yorker of culture. Or a gentlemen of leisure, in the sense that not only am I a professional participant in the art world, but I go to BAM. I go to the opera. I go to the theatre. I go to all kinds of cultural activities relating to the performing arts where it’s within my means; you suddenly realize you can actually afford to go to the opera once in a while. It’s one of those amazing things; there is a whole community that is big and complex, perhaps bigger and more complex than the art world, of which this is a product.

I have a lot of friends who work in theatre and the performing arts and its great for me to get out of the art world and get into those worlds a little bit and half-inhabit them. It’s extraordinary to me that these worlds exist, as the art world exists. I am comfortable enough in the at world that I feel like I don’t have to be in it all the time.

PJ: Was that something you’ve always had or is that something that came as your career developed?

DC: I think my sense of what was possible in the art world evolved over time. Knowing that I enjoyed curating, even more than I thought I was going to, was combined with the observation that there was a need for a more critical relationship with curating. Museums seemed to be falling short, and alternative spaces seemed to present a better alternative for articulating what was going on in contemporary art, especially in emerging artists. I was realizing that in Europe a large part of the art industry was interested in producing curators, and that didn’t seem to have happened in the States yet. So I, with the luck of timing, began doing a lot of work in Europe in the late ’80s, and into the late ’90s due to a lot of projects I did in Europe being successful. So I had this peculiar life in New York because the East Village, which was the first movement I was involved with, went into its twilight years. I was doing a lot of work in Europe and eventually in South America, just research, but research that always seemed to evolve into more concrete projects. If you are visiting studios in Portugal or Argentina, eventually the Portuguese and Argentinean people dealing in culture want to know what the interest is, and they want to encourage this interest into whatever else you are doing.

PJ: What would you say were some of the biggest challenges you faced over your career, and which ones do you face now?

DC: My biggest hurdle is time management. I don’t really focus on future projects – speculative projects – in the way I want to. My career takes me places because things happen to me; I don’t really get a sense of planning anything out. I guess that’s partly because of being associated with the museum: I’ve gone from being a purely independent curator, to a curator within an institution, to now being a director of a startup not-for-profit. So I have a varied range of ways that I fit into the profession now, all of them primarily curating works. It’s about taking on as much as one wants, while feeling at the same time that one is doing a good enough job to do something right. What I would really like to do is clone two of me and have them at computer terminals doing their thing while I am out getting to exhibitions.

PJ: Can I tell you how many times I’ve had the same thought myself?

DC: Absolutely. And the biggest challenge right now – running a not-for-profit is difficult enough – is having a startup, one that came into existence in 2007 and had a great fundraising track, but which has just come out of a very punishing year and a half. Keeping your organization, your staff and board, inspired, and their morale up, and keeping everyone going forward on the fundraising front is the most important thing you can do. It’s a challenge because you are really struggling, yourself, to say, “Okay, I see three, four, five steps ahead, and I see how this will all finally work out.” It just means hunkering down, moving forward, and keeping everyone around you going, because they are the ones doing some of the hardest work; without them it wouldn’t happen. I think the strain of the last couple years is really starting to tell, within the profession, because it’s hard to be lean and mean and at the same time inspired and compassionate.

PJ: I was listing new non-profits in the city last night with some friends — the best known ones seem to have started in the late 1970s and early ’80s, a gap in the 90′s and now a few smaller operations getting started. It seems like there are few new non-profit art models on the scale of Prospect 1.

DC: I think it takes a whole lot longer, now, to get bare-bones small operations to something more medium-sized, like us. If we wanted to stay with a three person staff with a half a million or three quarters of a million a year in budget, we could pull it off, but we average two to three million in budget and have a staff of five, and also we’re based on a cyclical model, where we raise the money and spend it all at one time. Creating the appropriate models and funder relationships, and communities and public agencies, and local foundations as well as national foundations- they all need to be built from scratch. You have to have a very complex plan with lots and lots of layers. I am coming to the conclusion that this size is a transitional size, and it is probably a hard size to maintain: you are either at half a million or five million, but being in the middle is very tricky unless you go for bricks and mortar, which is not the model that we are pursuing.

PJ: It’s hard to imagine Prospect 1 or Prospect 2 being much larger than they are.

DC: Prospect 1.5 is going to be much smaller, and in fact is going to be the model for the foreseeable future.

PJ: I see.

DC: New Orleans isn’t the place for something that happens every other year. I’ve understood that organically and embraced it. It’s a city where things happen every year around the clock, like Mardi Gras. The economy has solved the problem of what to do during the off year, and what we do is a much more loosely connected string of exhibitions – curated by me and organized in collaboration with the Biennial, but focusing on local and regional artists and trying to pursue the more commutative and education programs as opposed to exhibitions with artists of international prominence. It’s a great idea and we are, this year, looking at artists native to New Orleans but who have since left. It’s an important factor, because that number is much larger than those who stay; it’s a place people are famous for coming from, but not for necessarily staying there: making their fortunes elsewhere, or returning there after doing something, if they can find a way to make a living. It’s interesting how even though New York is a very economically demanding city – it’s got a high cost of living compared to the rest of the country – in terms of economic survival it’s almost identical to New Orleans, which has the lowest costs of living in the country. The market there is microscopic compared to New York. Even if you’re a busy local artist in your mid 30s, showing and selling all the time, and you’ve got your work in every collection worth having your work in in New Orleans, you are still living from crumbs compared to what a successful artist could be making in New York in the same generation. You could make a lot of money; in New Orleans, you make very little money. They are at that peril. If you are a successful artist anywhere in the country, the balance is more appropriate.

PJ: I forget about that. Can think of anything else you want to mention about what survival means in New York.

DC: I think that success and survival in New York became the same thing to me at some point. If I had survived a given year, a given season, if we got into another year and I was not insolvent – I was a success. There wasn’t anything else that I needed to do to prove myself a success other than that I’d survived doing it. It’s still kind of how I operate. With artists, it’s so much more complex, because you don’t just pay the bills for eating and keeping a roof over your head, but you’re also creating a production system, a world of retail, where you are becoming your own corporation.

PJ: So you feel that the kind of overhead you would have is insignificant, comparatively.

DC: Yes, and now that I’m running my own company I really understand the difference. It’s the difference between having a monthly nut of a couple thousand dollars versus a monthly nut of 15, 20, 30 or 40 on upward. If you’re having shows around the world, or around the country, or two or three or four big exhibitions in commercial galleries, that’s a lot of production. Serious studio rental, a couple of assistants, fabrication, documentation, it goes on and on and on. Curators and critics have a lot to keep track of, but we don’t have those kinds of overheads; my most important work is on my computer or on my phone.

PJ: God forbid my computer die.

DC: Well, then the gallery comes to an end, effectively. That will be the end of historical time, as we know it.

  • http://thetaitglobal.com Liv

    These interviews are so valuable. Thanks, Paddy! I really wish my college professors would’ve given us anything close to this kind of advice. Plus, they just make for a good read.

  • http://matthewrosestudio.blogspot.com/ MATTHEW ROSE

    I’ve always enjoyed Dan’s commentary/essays. We were both writing for ARTS magazine (now defunct) in the 1980s. His take was always honest and right on, very little jargon and a true interest in what he was looking at. I’m not surprised he’s migrated to curator and the non-profit sector. About living in NYC: He’s right there, too. Get a place you can live in so you can then live out (your life). I did the same thing but in Paris. Good series you have here, Paddy Johnson.

  • http://www.ArtSucks.com Cojo

    So insightful. It’s interesting to see a NY art success time line broken down from arrival in the late 70′s to today. The city (and scene) must have changed so much in Dan’s tenure, and he rolled with it, and now look at him. A fucking kingpin! Kudos!

  • Wendy Milone

    I first met Dan Cameron on the pages of Facebook. From the very start, he attracted my attention. He offers so much enthusiasm and energy in his writing, that I found myself looking for his posts everyday. He has style and attitude to match. I love the way Dan writes and the way he thinks. Thank you, Paddy Johnson, for this interview.

  • Judith Braun

    “Being in New York and staying alive by one’s wits, in our age, seems to me a pretty major accomplishment in and of itself.” …….YES!

  • http://cablegram.wordpress.com/ Eric Z

    Great to read the varying perspectives and methods for survival in these interviews. As a recent transplant, its nice to see the possibilities and successes laid out so clearly.

  • http://twitter.com/gordonfearey Gordon Fearey

    “Serious studio rental, a couple of assistants, fabrication, documentation, it goes on and on and on.”
    That’s for sure. One way or another, and mostly sweat. I look forward to hearing more from Dan. Thank you, Paddy.

  • http://vergecenterforart.wordpress.com LivMoe

    I love these dialogues you’re writing Paddy! Despite not surviving in New York, trying to hold together a struggling arts non-profit on the West Coast certainly has it’s correlations with these interviews. I find myself nodding my head in agreement over and over again. There is a real value in seeing examples of others who are keeping their ships afloat despite the odds. It’s very encouraging.

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  • PhotoStudious

    I really love this interview! Required reading in our classroom = )

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