Why Starving Artists Still Prefer to Starve in New York

In a 1,000-square-foot Brooklyn basement split six ways, a bathroom doubles as a darkroom and shower curtains stand in for drywall.

“You learn to deal with what New York feeds you,” said Alyssa Lingerfelt, 25, who pays $300 a month for her share of the art-studio space. “You lose something when you leave New York.”

She and thousands of others are rejecting the advice of established elders like Patti Smith and David Byrne who say it’s time for the new generation to flee in the face of unchecked gentrification. As they have for decades, creative types are adapting in the Darwinian world of artists’ New York.

“For all the artists leaving, there’s also more coming in on the bus every day,” said Mark Rossier, deputy director at the New York Foundation for the Arts.

U.S. Census data show the number of artists in the five boroughs -- including painters, sculptors, musicians and dancers -- reached 141,000 at the end of 2012, the most recent data available, up from 109,000 in 2000.

Lingerfelt, who says her phallic resin sculptures and paintings of intertwined legs address gender and power, left Detroit to study at Brooklyn’s Pratt Institute art school in 2008. She helped her building’s landlord convert the basement for artists after moving into a fourth-floor apartment in the Bedford-Stuyvesant building three years ago.

Forced Ingenuity

“It makes you problem-solve,” she said of the tight quarters. New York “makes up for in community” what it lacks in space.

Life in the most populous U.S. city has long been a game of survival. Artists have been their own worst enemies -- pioneering neighborhoods like SoHo in Manhattan and Williamsburg in Brooklyn before being overrun by the forces of money and power they helped unleash.

“Artists will go into the crummy neighborhood because there’s lot of space and it’s cheap,” said Rossier of the arts foundation. “It starts to change the neighborhood and then in 10 to 15 years it becomes more gentrified and the artists can’t afford to stay there anymore. Artists are always a victim of their own gentrification.”

Some say enough is enough.

Smith, the “godmother of punk,” told an audience in 2010 to “find a new city” as New York had “closed itself off to the young and the struggling.” Byrne, co-founder of the new wave rock band Talking Heads, wrote last year that too many neighborhoods had become “pleasure domes for the rich” with “no room for fresh creative types,” in contrast with when he arrived in the 1970s. Actress and writer Lena Dunham, musician Moby and “outlaw artist” Clayton Patterson have lamented the demise of New York as cultural beacon.

Gone to LA

Only Moby has left the city, for Los Angeles. Patterson plans to move to Austria in the next year, said Kate Litvinov, who curated his last exhibit.

Ryan Turley, 35, heeded their words. The artist, who specializes in sculpture and installations, jumped at the chance to take over an out-building on a property his boyfriend bought in rural Columbia County, north of the city.

“I’m a total believer that you don’t have to be in New York City,” he said. “Everyone is more connected with the Internet and social media. If you’re in New York and you’re working two jobs, you’re not making it work -- you have no time to do art.”

Clustering Impact

He still may be missing out. People in like trades often cluster for commerce. It happens on the local level, with block after block of sock stores in Istanbul, and on the regional level, such as with technology startups in Silicon Valley. That facilitates sharing information and suppliers and attracts crowds that otherwise wouldn’t exist, said Mark Muro, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution.

In New York, it’s artists who cluster.

“The critical mass becomes a gravitational force and also a marketing force,” said Muro. “New York becomes famous for having art and it begins to feed on itself.”

The arts contributed $21 billion to the local economy and generated 160,000 jobs, according to a 2007 report by the Alliance for the Arts. That figure is the most recent available and compares with $13.2 billion, adjusted for inflation, in estimated impact in 1993, according to Rosemary Scanlon, the economics professor who led the studies and is now divisional dean at New York University’s Schack Institute of Real Estate.

Will to Stay

“You still can’t beat the amount of resources that you have in NYC in terms of critical feedback from writers and curators,” said Peter Fankhauser, 33, who moved from Nebraska in 2005. He now makes art in his bedroom in Manhattan’s East Village when not working at a nearby museum and teaching art in Harlem. “People who want to be here will find a way to stay.”

Established artists, such as Kara Walker, who received a John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation “genius” grant at the age of 27, have room to roam.

Her latest creation is a 75-foot-long, three-and-a-half story tall sugar-coated sphinx that dominates part of the sprawling Domino Sugar factory on the Williamsburg waterfront. The complex, which refined more than half of the country’s sugar in the late 1800s, will soon be torn down to make way for five blocks of apartments and office, retail and green space.

Such development didn’t deter Mi Ju. She came to New York by way of South Korea and California to pursue a Master’s degree in 2010. The painter, who supports herself through the sale of her work, rents an $860-a-month studio in Long Island City, Queens, after finding it too expensive in Bushwick, which has replaced Williamsburg as a haven for artists in Brooklyn.

Korea Dreaming

“There are lots of galleries in San Francisco but not the energy of New York,” said Ju, 30. “I’ve dreamed about it since I was little.”

In Williamsburg, the average monthly rent for an apartment shot up 22 percent in just two years, to $3,254 in March, according to real estate firm Douglas Elliman. At Westbeth in Manhattan’s West Village, the first and largest federally subsidized artists’ colony in the country, a prospective tenant has been on the waiting list since 1996, according to executive director Steve Neil.

It’s not just the artists but the art that’s affected. Will Hutnick, 29, who rents a 90-square-foot space in Bushwick, has shrunk his creations. The paper on which he applies tape and acrylic and spray paints most often measure 22 inches by 30 inches now, a 10th of what it did while he was in school.

“Sometimes you can’t make the work you want because you’re limited by space,” said Hutnick. “If I had my druthers, my work would be a lot larger.”

(An earlier version of this story was corrected to remove a reference to Walker being the youngest recipient of a MacArthur grant.)

Before it's here, it's on the Bloomberg Terminal.