[Editor’s note: This post was originally published on Facebook yesterday afternoon. It is republished here with the artist’s permission.]
As many of you in the art community know, there is a mega-show in Sunset Park opening to the common public today. The show, titled “Come Together: Surviving Sandy,” presents itself as evidence of the resiliency of the New York’s artists and their communal solidarity in the face of Hurricane Sandy.
This presentation is insidiously disingenuous. Before I go any further, I want to make clear that I am not attacking or in any way addressing any of the individual artists in the show. I know a number of the artists in the show personally, and I have a great deal of respect for many more. I am addressing first and foremost the premise of the show, and secondly, I am addressing two individuals: Bruce B. Federman, owner and managing director of Industry City and Phong Bui, publisher of The Brooklyn Rail and curator of “Come Together.”
This show is meant to strike two major emotional chords, not just in the art community, but in New York at large. The first is this sense of resiliency and solidarity. Ever since September of 2001, New Yorkers have felt a special kind of bond: nothing brings people together like common tragedy. The historically common “tragedy” of low income- and sometimes outright poverty- among artists has produced a similar ethos within our community. We like to think of ourselves as ready to help a fellow artist in need because “we have to come together in hard times.” This is the “Come Together” half. The other emotional point is Sandy. Coming up on one year since we were hit by the first of what promises to be more frequent and damaging storms, all New Yorkers have vivid memories of Sandy. A large proportion of the city’s disused industrial space, which the arts community occupies for studios, galleries and storage, is along the water front and was heavily impacted by Sandy’s storm surge. Hence part two of the title: “Surviving Sandy.”
So what’s wrong with that? Nothing, but that’s not what this show is about. The organizers of the show have co-opted the deeply engrained, if not pathological, goodwill towards all things “New York resilient” and “Sandy” to throw themselves a PR-stunt.
Industry City is one of the single largest industrial complexes in the country. (They say they want to be the next Chelsea Piers.) The owner, Bruce Federman, bought this building just before the market collapse of 2008. It was an unfortunate bet. However, he was able to refinance to avoid default on the property. The terms of that deal called for the increase of interest payments starting in April 2013. This is the time he started asking for exorbitant rent increases. There is nothing illegal about this. If he thinks that the market can bare it, then so be it. However, if you own a majority of that market, then you can dictate what that market will bare.
I have lived in Sunset Park for two years. I have a studio down here as well. To give you a sense of how out of touch Mr. Federman’s increases are, I rent for $1/sq foot, of actual measured space (not including the stairwell and elevators), and my annual increase is 3.5%. Industry city is now asking for upwards of $2/sq foot (which amounts to even more when measured) with annual increases of 15%. They are trying to use their shear presence to move the market. Sunset Park is a lovely working-class neighborhood, and I have recommended it to countless friends. This is not DUMBO, Williamsburg or Bushwick however. The artists who have moved here have done so, not for its hip bars (there aren’t any) or edgy food spots (we do have the best tacos). We have moved here because it makes economic sense. It is one of the last affordable areas with the kinds of former industrial spaces that many artists require to make work.
More importantly, the traditional manufacturing industry that has occupied much of Bush Terminal employs large portions of the neighborhood. One look at Industry City’s website will make clear that this is not the kind of business they intend to keep. I have a new neighbor by my studio who had his small manufacturing business in IC before he was aggressively priced out. In his case he was able to relocate and keep all 60 employees, but not all will be so lucky. This kind of top-down, managed gentrification only produces one thing: deep inequity of the kind that can turn a working class neighborhood into an impoverished one.
So how do Phong Bui and the “Sandy” show fit in? Well, I get the impression that IC is having trouble getting the prices they are asking for. Although I love my neighborhood, there really aren’t any of the peripheral draws to come down here. By mounting a museum-style, blockbuster of a show, the profile of Industry City is raised, and the perception that this is the next “hot spot” that we all better get in on quickly is established. If you think this is a stretch, ask yourself why they are prominently advertising for IC’s “creative spaces” on the “Come Together: Surviving Sandy” website. This issue with Industry City, which has displaced over 100 artist in the last year, was brought to Phong Bui’s attention back in February. He is more than complicit in this charade.
At least as much as storms like Sandy, increasing rent burdens on New York’s “creative class” threaten the well-being of our city. If we really want to “come together” and “survive,” then we have to bring to light and resist this kind of collusion between powerful real estate interests and artistic institutions. It’s hard enough to criticize an institution like the Rail for being involved with in deals that directly injure its readership. It’s even more difficult when that collusion is wrapped-up in the emotional fabric of our communities.
To all of you I know that are in the show: congratulations, and I look forward to see you later. I will be wearing an “X”. Know that this is not a protest of your having the opportunity to exhibit your work. If you believe that the kinds of problems I’ve described above are important, I invite you to adorn yourself with an “X” as well.
Many times while trying to address this show, I have been warned not to create divisions. This is where the title of the show becomes insidious. Although we all like to think of ourselves as interested in an “arts community” where we help each other, you all know that we are the first to be cagey and go behind each others’ backs. We feel that we are many in competition for a few resources. This only invests more power in those like Phong Bui and Bruce Federman who are in a position to dole out those recourses. Bruce Federman doesn’t want us to come together. He wants us to feel like we have to beat the next person through the door to get into one of his spaces. Bringing all of this underbelly to light should not deepen these divisions, but reorientate the terms of division. This show is not about us coming together, but it could be. This show is not about surviving Sandy, but it could become about us surviving New York.
[For an account by Lise Soskolne, who initiated the incubator program in Industry City and was later terminated when she conducted an informal survey to assess the program’s value click here.]