As 2013 draws to a close, critics will be serving up their annual best and worst-of lists that offer a summation of what mattered in the art world this year. Jerry Saltz recently published his “Best Art Shows of 2013” in New York Magazine and picked “Come Together: Surviving Sandy,” organized by Phong Bui in Sunset Park’s Industry City warehouse complex, as the best show of the year. I haven’t seen the show, and I can’t pretend to offer an opinion about the quality of the show or the work. The premise is laudable and has brought together a large number of artists (many of whom I know and respect) affected by the devastation of Hurricane Sandy and artists standing in solidarity with them. Jerry’s endorsement comes from his own passion for art and support for artists. “This exhibition verified that New York is as alive and brilliant as ever,” he writes. “Maybe more so, with artists spread out into all the boroughs, living poor but with style. Which is one of the foundational conditions of any great indigenous art scene.”
Jerry is right; artists are living poor, and his endorsement of the show highlights a glaring disconnect between what he sees going on and what is happening to artists throughout the city. “Surviving Sandy” took place in a space that formerly housed artists until the landlords evicted them and increased the rent by 50%. Lise Soskolne recently published an excellent essay “Who Owns a Vacant Lot,” about the uneasy relationship between the Hasidic owners of Industry City and their artist tenants. Soskolne, a founding member of W.A.G.E., was involved in managing the rental of studio spaces to artists at Industry City, but was eventually forced out and replaced by the ownership. Her vision, “Returning control of this site to artists and separating it from the market was the goal of my involvement at Industry City,” briefly worked. For about two years, she was able to successfully negotiate the interests of artists and organizations like Light Industry with that of the landlords. Ultimately her vision was overwhelmed by other cultural events like Stranded!, a rave that brought in huge numbers of people and likely a lot of money. “My latent and diabolical fantasy was that New York could regain its potential to be a vacant lot once more. It could still be orphaned by all corporate and market entities, abandoned by all things aspirational.”
Soskolne was not able to achieve her goal of separating Industry City from market forces, and she acknowledges that it was in part rooted in a fantasy of empty spaces abandoned by capitalism, or the old New York that Jerry believes is still out there. In 2013, artists are in open competition with groups that can generate much more revenue and offer greater returns on investments like residential housing developers and start-up tech companies. What both Jerry and Roberta missed in their glowing endorsements of “Surviving Sandy” is that it is a generous concept wrapped in a terrible dilemma for artists; how to survive the increase of real estate values and diminishing availability of affordable studios. Most artists are working poor, and labor at other jobs to be able to afford studio spaces, with costs rising rapidly past $2 per square foot. From the capitalist’s perspective, artists are great tenants until there is someone else willing and able to pay more. “Surviving Sandy” may very well have been a great show, or a messy survey, but it was also a real-estate advertisement for Industry City’s ownership showcasing the available space to those who will be able to afford it.
When Jerry writes, “I call birdbrained-bullshit on all those who snip that New York is a pure trading floor, one that’s lost its place as a nexus of artistic activity,” he shifts the context of “Surviving Sandy” away from the problem of affordable studio spaces to a critique of the dominance of the art market. “Surviving Sandy” is presented as a shining example of art’s purity, undiluted by commercial interest, and the opportunity to advocate for the artistic community he loves by calling out Industry City for raising rents and evicting artists is missed. That’s too bad, because Jerry has a broad audience and his voice carries a great deal of weight.
But Jerry claims he and Roberta didn’t know anything about the evictions or massive rent increases; he thought the troubles of over a hundred artists were at 1717 Troutman Street in Bushwick. That error led his swipe at people like David Byrne, who are concerned that New York won’t be able to sustain a vibrant, living artistic community. Hoping to hit a home run against the malign forces of naysayers like me who complain about the pervasive influence of the market from auction records to rising rents, he totally wiffed on one of the most important and underreported aspects of “Surviving Sandy.”
For her part, Roberta wrote an excellent review of the show but failed to outline the context in which it took place. If neither Jerry or Roberta knew how “Surviving Sandy” actually came together—on the backs of displaced artists—it doesn’t make them terrible people, but reveals a startling gap in their understanding of what’s happening to their beloved art community. We don’t live in a time when this kind of neutrality is something to be admired.
Hurricane Sandy was a disaster of enormous proportions that no one could ignore. The response to it from OccupySandy to the city’s efforts to rebuild the beaches in Far Rockaway in six months (what one worker told me would have taken three years) has been inspiring. It also revealed the persistent problem of poverty in the Rockaways, forcing New York to see a community that was already facing a slower, less visible form of economic devastation. There’s nothing dramatic about rising rents and property values; it happens slowly, affecting pockets of individuals, and the dramatic fireworks emerge later in contentious debates around gentrification, where white artists are seen as harbingers of hipster-condo doom. Tensions build around the issues of race, class, and privilege as the luxury condominiums slowly rise in the background. More will start going up in Bushwick on the old Rheingold Brewing site, 1,000 units of shiny new housing (with 10 percent legally mandated to be “affordable”).
I don’t know who will take over the space after “Surviving Sandy” (which closed this weekend). But whoever rents the space will be paying significantly more than the evicted artists. That’s the quiet emergency facing artists in New York, and it’s something that needs to be discussed. Personally, the rent on my current studio space will have risen 53 percent in less than two years. The situation at Industry City doesn’t make “Surviving Sandy” a despicable show or ethically corrupt, but not talking about what happened to the displaced artists is a problem. Certainly, trying to use the show as an example that the conditions for artists are “great” is just wrong, and we should expect more from Jerry and Roberta.
In keeping with the spirit of “Surviving Sandy”, we need to demonstrate solidarity around issues of preserving affordable studio space in New York, and not start bashing each other for being more or less pious about the relationship between art, money, and real estate. Groups like the Artist Studio Affordability Project (ASAP) are working towards raising the necessary awareness about the rising costs of studios and providing artists with the information to make the best deals they can with landlords and commercial brokers. We also need the support of visible and vocal critics like Jerry and Roberta who command the public’s attention, and they need to be aware of the situation facing artists in order to do that.
I’ll leave you with this: The City Council Committee on Cultural Affairs recently had a closed hearing on a Monday afternoon at 1 pm when most of us were working, titled “Making New York City Affordable for Artists.” Paddy Johnson attended, and a few groups spoke on the behalf of artists (including the director of Spaceworks NYC), but if there were any artists in attendance, they did not testify.