Redefining the Role of the Artist

by William Powhida on April 4, 2014 · 1 comment Opinion

The Studio in Crisis panel

The Studio in Crisis panelists at Cabinet

“Once speculators see an artist, they think there goes the neighborhood. You’re seen as the enemy in our neighborhoods, and that has to change.” I don’t think this is what the crowd of expectant white folk came to hear at last Thursday’s Skowhegan-led panel titled “Studio in Crisis,” but the candid remarks from Brooklyn’s Deputy Borough President Diana Reyna set the tone for the night’s discussion. It was as though Reyna, the first Dominican-American woman elected to public office in New York State, poured a bucket of cold water over the audience, by re-framing the debate from what artists need, to what can artists offer their communities. This raised a number of uncomfortable issues—the lack of racial diversity among the audience, the ethical implications of studio spaces in low-income neighborhoods, and centrally, the possibility of having to give something up or contributing outside the studio.

Moderated by critic Paddy Johnson, panelists included city planner Tom Angotti; artist and former officer for the EDC Shawn Gallagher; and artist and organizer Jenny Dubnau. The talk took place in an overheated event space at Cabinet Magazine.

Speaking as an artist, and like most artists I know, you are probably a recent migrant from someplace else, working multiple jobs, and struggling to get a foothold in this city or afford to stay where you are.  No one likes to hear that a core part of their identity is a problem for other people, particularly the working-class and working-poor who share similar economic circumstances. It’s hard to hear, but Reyna did exactly that when she framed the discussion around race.

Reyna summarized gentrification from her perspective, and the racial tensions caused by artists’ role: Artists outprice low-income families before they, themselves, are displaced by yuppies, chain stores, and anyone else who can afford higher rents. The phenomenon is so common, Reyna said that brokers “profile” artists’ movements (which should make anyone aware of how predatory the industry is). To be clear, Reyna singled out real estate speculators and landlords who harass their tenants as two enemies of her community.

I think artists can certainly understand how their own living and working conditions are under the same assaults. “I think, like most of you, I’ve gone from studio to studio,” said panelist and ASAP co-founder Jenny Dubnau. “I think many of us are feeling like we’re running out of places to go.” Artists, after all, are not the real estate speculators or the abusive landlords. The dire situation facing artists has been well documented recently in the press, including a feature in the New York Times, and the panel itself was a response to the displacement of artists from Industry City prior to the “Surviving Sandy” exhibition.

But while studio migration might seem an inevitable and maddening inconvenience, it’s not nearly as problematic as the situation posed by Reyna. She explained that for families in communities like Bushwick, displacement is absolutely destructive. It’s nearly impossible for them to pick up and start over again.”You have families who are grounded, their ecosystem is not the next door artist who’s supporting your work—it’s the family who takes care of the child after school, the grandmother who’s up the block. So it’s very difficult to not integrate your struggle with what is that particular situation.” Ms. Reyna described the class dynamics at play in the gentrification cycle and one in which artists have greater mobility and are often resigned to move where they can afford to work.

Diana Reyna at the Studio in Crisis panel discussion.

Brooklyn’s Deputy Borough President Diana Reyna at the Studio in Crisis panel discussion.

What is important here is recognizing the similar needs between communities.  The panel discussion was not all cold water; Ms. Reyna identified opportunities to create conditions of greater cooperation. She cited NURTUREart’s residency program, which connects artists with Bushwick schools, and artist Deborah Brown, who has joined the Bushwick community board. Paddy Johnson suggested that artists need to redefine themselves “as regular middle-class business owners” whose manufacturing needs would fall under a larger constituency. And later, the city planner Tom Angotti’s observation that “[Gentrification] really only works if you don’t talk to anybody”– seemed particularly relevant to moving beyond emotions and opening up more opportunities for real talk about possible solutions. Instead of focusing on class-based difference including greater levels of education (and often greater levels of student loan debt), artists and their neighbors may want to focus on genuinely affordable housing initiatives and preserving commercial workspace.

It isn’t easy to give up an idea of ourselves a kind of worker who doesn’t share the same concerns as the working class, yet is to be done if we don’t want to maintain the status quo of hostility and resignation. At the panel, these rifts manifested even when talking about tenants’ rights laws, like the 1982 Loft Law. The law was designed to offer residential protections to artists, who were previously living illegally in commercial buildings; in doing so, the law also helps reduce viable commercial space that can supply working-class jobs. For Reyna, preservation of higher-wage jobs in her communities was a key issue. It’s also a key issue for artists, preserving commercial workspace before it’s rezoned into residential housing.

Since it’s a shared interest to maintain commercial spaces, the panel tabled a few initiatives. “For the purpose of maintaining spaces, I like to consider of artists as small manufacturers,” Shawn Gallagher said. Angotti described the powerful real estate industry as posing one of the biggest obstacles to preserving commercial space, but he also said, “We also have a hundred years of vibrant community organizations. We have rent regulations because people organized to protest. We’ve got a lot of very good, stable community-based organizations who say no and don’t allow things to happen because they’re together.”

But the most impassioned and eloquent call to arms came at the end of the panel from artist-organizer Caroline Woolard, during the Q & A session. Immediately after an audience member “corrected” Reyna on her grasp of the Loft Law, Woolard took the mic to acknowledge the importance of her presence. “So because you’re here, and I felt this antagonism that was so unnecessary and so deflating,” she said. “I just wanted to thank you for being here and recognize that we can change the discourse…but the only way we can do this is if we recognize that we can redistribute our privilege.” Woolard called on the artists in the room to organize, not only on individual initiatives, but to join existing housing rights groups and show up for meetings and protests. Ms. Woolard cited a statistic that there are 93,000 artists living in New York. To put that in context, there are 73,000 4-year-olds looking for seats in Pre-K every year. Even if we organize ourselves, we will still need allies to fight for low-income and affordable housing, preserving commercial workspace, and creating new ceilings for a speculative, profit-driven market. It’s crucial that we don’t remain invisible.

Whether it’s finding new skill-shares with the community, or joining the group Make the Road by Walking to protest closed, market-driven events like “Landlords Schooling Landlords,” we have to be present. It’s not enough anymore to hold the position that being an artist is already a political position. It’s a belief that can too easily justify isolation and insulation from the world.  Being a political being requires work outside the studio, all for the very purpose of having a studio in a neighborhood that doesn’t hate you for who will arrive soon after you do—a douche in a suit with a rental agreement.

  • Umar Saeed

    Thanks for sharing the valuable article. Yes the role of artists is very important in our society. They throw light on various important issues in our society through their paintings and artwork. Thanks

Previous post:

Next post: