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Last Exit Magazine « The End of the Beginning

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[published: August 12, 2008]

The End of the Beginning

A flood of new money has changed the art world and changed New York and now it’s drying up. We’ve seen this all before.

“The Village, like New York City itself, had an immense, beckoning sweetness. It was like Paris in the twenties—with the difference that it was our city. We weren’t strangers there, but familiars.”
-from Kafka Was the Rage by Anatole Broyard

In the preface to his slim, tender memoir of life in 1940’s Greenwich Village, Anatole Broyard, a former book critic for The New York Times who died of cancer in 1990, called Kafka Was the Rage “a valentine to that time and place.”

Greenwich Village in the years immediately after World War II “was charming, shabby, intimate, accessible, almost like a street fair,” recalled Broyard. This accessibility, this intimacy — and a shared obsession with art, literature and sex — were the fertile soil from which a flourishing bohemia grew in New York.

Fast forward roughly 60 years and the notion of a bohemian life seems all but a fairy tale in this city. Consider that the average rent in 2007 for a studio apartment in the Village was nearly $2,500 a month, according to a market report from the Real Estate Group of New York.

Of course, pondering the sustainability of bohemia is an empty pursuit; we should be more concerned about the widening income gap between the richest and poorest here. On the other hand, the history of this city is tied so enormously to the history of its creative movements that the question of whether New York is still accessible to a vital art scene is worth examining.

Writing in the December 2007 issue of Art Forum, Debra Singer, executive director and chief curator of The Kitchen—an experimental performance space in Chelsea—noted the paradox of the recent economic boom: Although the immense wealth made by investment bankers and hedge fund managers has meant significant wealth for the contemporary art world, Wall Street’s success has also helped create a city of high-priced condos that’s becoming less hospitable to artists.

“Unless something starts to give in 2008,” wrote Singer, “we risk ending up a metropolis filled with art but lacking artists.”

Since Singer wrote that piece, something obviously gave: The real estate bubble that fueled so much of Wall Street’s recent success has burst. In May, Bear Stearns, one of the world’s largest investments banks, unraveled in a stunning collapse. And now thousands of bankers, many of whom poured massive amounts of money into contemporary art, are losing their jobs.

But the art world has seen this all before. The overheated market of the 80s—fueled in large part by Japanese investors made rich from skyrocketing real estate prices—turned artists like Jean-Michel Basquiat into stars. The recession and correction eventually followed with the American stock market crash of 1987, and Tokyo’s in 1990.

Not surprisingly, the 90s proved a struggle for both artists and galleries. But for some artists, who felt they were always on the outside looking in at the bloated bubble of the 80s, the recession was a nice change of pace. The focus moved back to the work, and away from the floundering market.

In examining the New York art world as it approaches life after the latest economic deluge, it is important to look at the changes the new money brought. But it is perhaps just as important to recognize that what we believe New York is today, and what we believe it was in the past, can often be distorted by what we need its story to mean to us at the moment.

***

“Still, it would be naive to pretend that New York was ever a cheap place to live, or that the problem for today’s artists is strictly one of dollars and cents…The problem for today’s artists is not that rents are high. That has always been the case. What’s different is that the 80s art boom glamorized the profession of art and conferred upon the moneyed life a new prestige. Picturesque squalor is no longer possible.”
-‘The Art World Bust,’ by Deborah Solomon
The New York Times Magazine, Feb. 28, 1993

“This is something I always tell artists, not only artists that I work with, but just artists in general: Making a living from your art is like winning the lottery,” said James Fuentes, who opened his small Chinatown gallery last year. “It’s an extremely difficult thing to do.”

Of the seven artists represented by the James Fuentes LLC gallery, only a few make their entire living from their art. “Even if it’s happening, don’t count on it happening the next year or the year after that,” said Fuentes. “These things come in waves and you always have to brace or prepare yourself for the worst.”

Agathe Snow, a well-regarded emerging artist, and Lizzi Bougatsos and Brian DeGraw of experimental band Gang Gang Dance are among the artists represented by James Fuentes LLC. Snow and the band all took part in this year’s Whitney Biennial.

Fuentes, a former gallery director for Deitch Projects, keeps his overhead low. Up until recently, he lived in a small apartment above the gallery. He prices the art he sells modestly, with most pieces selling for under $10,000. In the leanest times, he can cover monthly overhead by selling a few drawings.

“The price tag for a sculpture or a painting here basically translates to keeping the lights on, and giving the artist some supplemental income,” he said.

Fuentes sounds confident that his Spartan approach to managing the gallery will help him survive a less robust art market. Still, he is already getting a sense of the shift that a recession could be bringing. The response to a recent email he sent clients introducing new work at the gallery was blunt: This isn’t a good time.

These are the same hedge fund managers and investment bankers who helped bankroll the overheated market of recent years. “Obviously we’re all aware of the situation,” said Fuentes. “My response is always that the artists continue to make their work and I continue to do my job despite whatever’s happening in the stock market. It’s obviously something that’s important to be aware of, but life goes on.”

What’s being weeded out now and what’s diminishing, according to Fuentes, are collectors that are in it for pure investment purposes. He gave as an example, a client that he has worked with in the past who has no input into the works that go in his collection; the decisions are made entirely by advisors.

“Things will shift and it will be kind of gnarly for everybody, including myself,” said Fuentes. “But I think this is a time when really important, under-the-radar artists are starting to resurface a lot more and being given more credit, rather than a frenzy on a recently-graduated MFA. Which I think is cool and I’ve always advocated.”

***

“’This is the last place before the river. They’re tearing things down all over—where are the artists going to go? They’ll wake up when New York becomes a cultural desert. After all, the atmosphere we create is part of what attracts high-caliber people here to live and work.’”
-‘Neighborhoods: SoHo Is Artists’ Last Resort,’ by Grace Glueck
The New York Times, May 11, 1970

At what point does the question of whether New York still serves as an art Mecca become irrelevant? At what point do outlets like the internet supplant the need for a city to be a single art center? That point is already here, according to Devon Dikeou, an artist and editor and publisher of zingmagazine, a contemporary art magazine she founded in 1995.

“I think it is too easy to drift into nostalgia for times and generations of New York gone by,” Dikeou wrote in an email. “Of course, today’s New York is not New York of the 60’s/70’s SoHo, New York of the 80’s East Village, or even New York of the 90’s Williamsburg. But it is also not New York of Henry James’s Golden Bowl. And many people, artists included, don’t expect it to be.”

These neighborhoods, added Dikeou, “are at least a small reflection of their initial native spirit.” While the emergence of culturally-rich metropolitan centers like Silver Lake in Los Angeles and East Austin in Texas have taken the focus off of New York to a degree, just as important are the popularity of MySpace, blogs and various art websites, which represent a shift in emphasis to the virtual community, Dikeou noted.

But the growing influence of the internet will not likely mute the voice of those who believe the city must still re-affirm New York’s status as a breeding ground for emerging artists. “This is really a question of civics and its relationship to the history of connoisseurship,” said Dikeou. “Should the artist be nurtured and propagated by the state or celebrated by capitalistic entrepreneurs and bourgeoisie? It remains a question. But more than any other city in America, New York has invested in its cultural currency, and other cities in America are learning that culture does create a significant economy, as it has in New York, and are thus following suit.”

Fuentes, a Manhattan native, said he has not seen a mass exodus of artists, who are still lured to New York by the exposure the city offers them, and its access to materials. But he conceded, “It is getting extremely difficult to live here and be an artist.”

He related the story of an artist he works with who is in L.A. for an MFA program. Although he wants to come back to New York, he doesn’t know whether he can give up the big space that he pays very little for out there.

While more and more people are getting priced out of Manhattan, “that doesn’t mean there aren’t opportunities in Staten Island and Brooklyn,” said Fuentes. “You go a little further out and figure out a way.”

***

“The contemporary art world of the early eighties blew apart into four main fragments, of which the East Village was one. The others were a defensive establishment of older artists, a fashionable confederacy of neo-expressionists, and a gang of theory-mongering Duchampians. All surfed waves of new money.”
-‘That Eighties Show’ by Peter Schjeldahl
The New Yorker, January 24, 2005

The influx of new hedge fund and investment bank money has left its mark on all levels of the contemporary art world according to Dikeou, who is also a collector and founder of the Dikeou Collection in Denver. Art, for one, has begun serving as a commodity on a much larger scale. In 2006, the entertainment mogul David Geffen sold paintings by Willem de Kooning and Jasper Johns for a total of $143.5 million in a failed effort to raise enough money to buy The Los Angeles Times.

“This kind of atmosphere, as noted by the non-New York players, is clearly not confined to Manhattan,” said Dikeou.

The new money, as has often been reported, has shown its greatest impact on the secondary market, or auction prices. Global investors have taken advantage of the weak dollar, and investors in general have helped over-inflate the prices for 20th-century work. Meanwhile, bigger-named contemporary artists like Jeff Koons have taken advantage of the bullish market and gone directly to auction with new works, forgoing the gallery circuit altogether. Last year Koons sold his sculpture “Diamond (Blue)” for $11.8 million at Christie’s to the Gagosian Gallery. It had been expected to fetch between $12 and $20 million.

The money has also seeped into the emerging market. “The natural presupposition is that this kind of speculation isn’t good because it pushes the emerging market seemingly beyond the reach of what an artist’s career, history, and work really merit,” said Dikeou.

The market will now wean things out and there and leave some casualties in its wake, according to Dikeou. She believes the million-dollar artists will be fine, while the artists on the high end of the emerging market will likely take the biggest hit.

“Going beyond ‘better’ or ‘worse,’ I think the adjective ‘interesting’ best describes the state of the art world,” she said.

***

“New and old residents agree that development should not mean an end to the characteristics that have made Williamsburg alluring in recent years: the one-bedroom apartments renting for $500, the low-rise, sun-drenched quality of the streets and the corner patisseries where a cannoli and espresso costs just $1.

‘Whenever we see an article about Williamsburg, we cringe. We see what happened to SoHo and the East Village, and we don’t want it to happen here.’”
-‘A Metamorphosis for Old Williamsburg’ by Lisa W. Foderaro
The New York Times, July 19, 1987

To understand the speed with which New York can convert culture into economy, one must only look at Williamsburg. Artists first started moving to the quiet Brooklyn neighborhood in the early-80’s in order to escape the rising rents in Manhattan. Cheap spaces could still be had in Williamsburg and the neighborhood was soon dubbed the “new East Village” and the “new SoHo.” By the early and mid-90’s, Williamsburg’s status as a hipster enclave of “new bohemia” was certified.

The cheap rents are now a thing of the past, replaced by a seemingly endless number of new condos and condos in waiting. Restaurants, bars, cafés and clothing boutiques seem to line every street. Young people chasing expensive apartments appear to be moving in droves. Williamsburg, at last, has become the new East Village and the new SoHo.

“I remember moving here and people we’re like, ‘Ah, Williamsburg’s dead, man. It’s already over,’” said Sto, an artist who co-owns Cinders Gallery with Kelie Bowman. He moved to New York in 2000 from Virginia.

“But in the past eight years we’ve really seen it change more,” he said. “It was different when we first got here and it was like a little community. You would see the same people all the time.”

Sto (he goes by one name) said he is concerned about the kind of people that have been moving to Williamsburg in recent years. “Especially the people who may be moving into the condos,” he said. “Are they even going to care about us and this kind of culture? So I’m a little worried in that respect.”

His sentiments were echoed by Todd Rosenbaum who co-owns—with wife Cecelia—The Hogar Collection, a small gallery on Grand Street in Williamsburg. “The neighborhood is changing so much in a way that I don’t know how much I see the arts being supported,” he said. “It’s very hard to know where the neighborhood is turning economically as far as things outside of bars and restaurants.”

Rosenbaum and his wife opened their gallery in 2003. Both were artists at the time—he has since devoted himself full-time to managing the gallery—and sought a way become more independent in the way their lives were structured and how they went about making money.

“It was kind of very naïve starting out,” he said with a laugh. “I mean as far as what had to be done with collectors and clients and bringing in the people and making the business sustainable and bring the money in. It’s much harder in a sense to bring people to Williamsburg even though it’s such a popular place. But what it’s popular for are bars and shopping.”

For Sto, moving to New York from Virginia was eye opening.

“It was really tough selling art in Virginia,” he said. “I mean I would throw art shows with my friends and we might sell a couple of paintings but there was really no market for it.”

After moving to New York, “I used to set up and sell paintings on the sidewalk and make a couple of hundred bucks every day. It was shocking to me.”

***

“Hardly anyone imagined that a scattered group of individualistic artists with a horror of being classified or organized would meld into a true neighborhood with such middle-class concerns as the rising crime rate, day care and dog leashing.”
-“SoHo a ‘Victim of Its Own Success’” by Wendy Schuman
The New York Times, November 24, 1974

A lot of Sto’s friends have left. Some have gone to Philly, some to Providence, others just deeper into Brooklyn, away from Williamsburg. They’ve lowered their cost of living and have to worry less about making money to make ends meet every month. They now have more time to work on their art.

All of which begs the question: Why stick it out in New York?

“You know, I ask myself that every week,” said Sto. “But I know one of the main reasons I’m sticking around is because I just love how much goes on in New York and how everybody just ends up coming through town.”

The gallery, of course, is a big reason for Sto to stay in Brooklyn. But, ultimately, even after the gentrification, after the rising cost of living and the changing neighborhoods, the reason to stick around New York is the same reason he ever thought of moving here in the first place.

“There’s just not that many other places where people are supportive of the arts,” he said. “I know people who pay cheaper rent in other cities but they don’t sell that much art. You may need less money but it’s harder to make money as an artist.”

Dikeou said that while rents may be higher in New York, other metropolitan areas don’t offer New York’s artistic community and gallery systems that nurture young artists.

“‘Sticking it out’ means sacrifice of some sorts, and those unwilling are more than likely going to find that out pretty quickly—be it in New York, Berlin, Philly, L.A., or rural Appalachia,” she said.

Berlin, with its cheap rents and high unemployment rates (sound familiar?) is now being touted as the new bohemia that’s attracting expats from all over. In some ways, it plays into the stereotype of young artists as underemployed, overeducated misanthropes. Not everyone’s buying it.

“Berlin’s also for the most part extremely lazy and not very competitive,” said Fuentes. “The difference between New York and Berlin is that it’s a very competitive environment here, which is a good motivation for artists. Bohemia is such an outdated, archaic idea anyway.”

***

“I’m not prone to much sentimentality, but you should treasure your own history, however weird it is.”
-‘One Brief, Scuzzy Moment’ by Gary Indiana
New York, Nov. 29, 2004

In the beginning, New York was something different. It was Whitman’s New York, a city of orgies and “continual lovers.” It was the New York of Gregory Corso, who declared, “in lovelier cities I join my dreams in whose care I depend though not once owning love to any city but the city of my heart. New York City.”

In the beginning, it’s always Didion’s New York—no mere city, but instead an infinitely romantic notion. There’s “the sense so peculiar to New York, that something extraordinary would happen any minute, any day, any month.”

New York City is built on a succession of grand beginnings and grand endings. Each decade gives birth to swift artistic or cultural or market movements that sometimes seem bigger than they should, and then are declared dead just as they learn to walk.

But the beginnings are also immensely personal. It is almost impossible to describe to someone who has never lived here how connected you can become to New York. This is, after all, a city you don’t drive past, but actually walk through. Every smell, every sound, every step becomes a part of the story of how you fell in love, and sometimes eventually how you fell out of love.

And it is true, as Didion wrote, “one of the mixed blessings of being twenty and twenty-one and even twenty-three is the conviction that nothing like this, all evidence to the contrary notwithstanding, has ever happened to anyone before.”

Which is why the endings are also immensely personal. When New York is dead, it killed a part of you too. It is why the title of Didion’s famous essay—“Goodbye to All That”—seems to be used by every young person who leaves this city as reassurance that he or she is making the right decision. (Never mind that Didion herself eventually moved back to New York for good.)

When people here talk about the beginning of something great, it is not just that it is happening in New York, but that it is happening in their New York. And when something ends, when New York is said to be no longer what it once was, and when we look back fondly at when New York was a more exciting place to live—we are also looking back fondly at a time when we were younger.

New York has died a thousand deaths and will die a thousand more. It is always the end of a beginning; of someone’s beginning. The golden age for Greenwich Village was 1940’s bohemia, unless you asked the Beats of the 50’s or the folk singers of the 60’s.

Even today: For all the money that has poured into New York—and maybe as a resistance against it—the city actually has a very thriving, underground D.I.Y. community right now. Whether it’s bands playing in the numerous converted performance spaces on any given night in Brooklyn or Queens, or small galleries throwing art shows throughout the city, it can be heartening to still see young creative people in New York carry on because of, and in spite of, the city’s history.

New York is dead or it’s not. The artists have all left or they haven’t. This is a city that will always live in the shadow of its past. Anatole Broyard said his memoir about Greenwich Village was “a plea, a cry, an appeal for the survival of city life.” He was right to care about that.

“I think there’s a great nostalgia for life in New York City,” Broyard wrote.

He was right about that too.

Copyright Last Exit 2008

Photo by John Cohen/Getty Images


Reader Comments [1]

  1. 1.  

    Paul,

    thank you very much for having written such an informative article. I really appreciated the historical perspectives you include. It is a fascinating subject – the delicate (and sometimes not so delicate) balance between capital and “cultural production.”

    As an austinite, i was also happy to see that east austin (my permanent abode) is counted in among the current epicenters of some very fresh work, across various media. To that effect, i would like to tell your readers that the yearly East Austin Studio Tour will be happening on November 22 and 23 (http://www.eastaustinstudiotour.com). This is a mind-blowing experience. Even as an austinite i am always amazed at how much fertility there actually is behind all of those closed doors that i daily drive by or ride past on my bicycle. During the tour, anyone can just mosey into any artist’s home, and see their space and their work. Media spans the classics (paint, sculpture, ceramics, printmaking) and includes furniture, music, scents, dance, paper, video installations et al. Great stuff.

    Thanks again for the excellent article Paul.

    best wishes,

    l.e. porto
    leporto.net

    Lito Porto · Sep 23, 10:17 AM ·#

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