City fathers scramble to keep New York’s mini-Patti Smiths from choosing ... Detroit?

Robert Mapplethorpe and Patti Smith. ()
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In May the novelist Jonathan Lethem interviewed Patti Smith at Cooper Union, and during the question-and-answer session afterward, someone from the audience asked Smith whether it was still possible for young people to come to New York and live as artists, the way Smith had done.

"New York has closed itself off to the young and the struggling,” Smith said. “New York City has been taken away from you ... So my advice is: Find a new city."

Young artists may be better off in Detroit (one of Smith's suggestions), but New York guards its position as the center of the universe for the arts jealously, if not always carefully.

Much of what's "improved" about the city is attributable to the same factors that have catapulted its already famous cost of living even higher, which is why the interest shown recently by the Bloomberg administration in holding on to New York's "creative capital" seems like a tricky maneuver.

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Industry and government agencies—the sorts of institutions that that Patti Smith and company were, years ago, busy subverting—are now studying the lives of all the mini-Patti Smiths of New York today, and trying to figure out how to make them stay.

Monday, the Center for an Urban Future held a morning conference call (billed with the title “Time to Be Creative)", at the headquarters of Grey Advertising on Fifth Avenue in the Flatiron district. Moderated by C.U.F.’s director, Jonathan Bowles, it was meant to look at how “the city is facing new threats to its longtime dominance in the creative fields,” in large part because “artists, arts organizations and creative entrepreneurs” have “found it increasingly difficult to find affordable space in the five boroughs to work, live, rehearse and perform.”

From the question posed to the panel it was clear that real estate was considered the central issue. Bowles asked the panelists whether “there’s an opportunity to start addressing space needs of artists,” a time to “create innovated spaces,” due to the economic downturn. The broken-down New York City of Patti Smith's days, after all, accidentally spawned an art movement in New York. Could the current downturn be leveraged, intentionally, to create the same opportunities for artists?

It's a weird question. But the answers weren't weird: they were mostly about whether tax incentives and tax breaks might help, and whether unused space could be programmatically turned into inexpensive or free rehearsal, studio and performance space.

Certainly, this discussion of the “creative sector” by development professionals, not from the perspective of charity but on a mission of economic development, felt like something different. The fact that the conference was held (deliberately) in a loft-like office of an advertising agency, with walls of wooden planks of different colors and an open plan where rows and rows of 20-something sat at long diagonal tables lined with Apple laptops, was either fitting or not.

(Had some Patti Smith-like creature lived here illegally back in the day, long since pushed out by high-paying "creative" tenants who found new cachet in the neighborhood because artists once were there? Were they debating the issue at the scene of the crime?)

Sitting in a high-celinged conference room that looked onto a concrete atrium and its large concrete sculpture, it was possible to see, through glass, a meeting taking place on the second floor around a long table, all eyes directed at a PowerPoint presentation.

THERE HAVE ALWAYS BEEN LARGE cultural organizations in New York, museums and opera companies and recital halls, and there have long been artists. But the idea of an officially designated “creative sector” that includes individual “starving” artists didn’t exist when Patti Smith arrived in New York in 1967. At that time the president of the Real Estate Board of New York was not concerned about whether or not Smith had affordable “live/work” space.

So there in an office of an advertising agency on Fifth Avenue at 10:45 a.m. Mary Ann Tighe, now head of REBNY, was sitting on a panel and bringing up the idea of giving artists and art organizations a voucher that would free them of having to pay real estate taxes; somehow a program of this type could reduce their rents by 25 percent.

She was joined by the president of the city Economic Development Corporation,Seth Pinsky, who first spoke about the 40,000 square-foot artist “incubator” the E.D.C. developed in Sunset Park to not only supply studio space at below-market rates, but provide a way for artists to connect with each other through proximity and programs like E.D.C.-created "Curate NYC, “a showcase for emerging New York City artistic talent.”

Sam Miller, the brand-new president of the Lower Manhattan Cultural Council, talked about the LMCC’s “Swing Space” program, which provides temporary space for creative endeavors, was also on the panel.

All these accomplishments notwithstanding, all allowed that more needed to be done.

“The opportunity here is that artists have a permanent need for temporary space,” he said.

And finally, there was Shawn McLearen, director of the nonprofit development organization Artspace, who continually referred to “the creative sector,” which he said has a “messaging problem.”

“Our sector needs to get serious about these issues,” he said.

It was two black suits, one grey one, and a conservative black dress: that was Tighe, whose hair was finely styled in waves.

It's one of the oldest intersubjectively-held truths of New Yorkers: a neighborhood goes down the tubes, and gets cheap. Artists move in. Then there's a coffee shop; a gallery (not probably a good one); then a bar or two. After 10 years of slow and painstaking development an "art neighborhood" takes shape, and just as the neighborhood converts from a sometimes weekend hangout for the young, upwardly mobile professional set to a plausible place to live, real-estate comes in. Like some kind of benign bacteria, artists have been helping the city digest its slums for decades now.

If they all move to Detroit, what will real estate do?

"THE ARTS HAVE SEVERAL THINGS GOING for them,” Pinsky said. In New York there are many “consumers” of art and lots of support for the arts. And many landlords understand that artists can make their property more valuable, he said, citing DUMBO, where Two Trees Management has left some space for artists, making the neighborhood a “destination.”

The underlying premise of the panel was that if art no longer acted as this benign bacteria on the organism of New York real-estate, it would have to be made in vitro and injected. Where can this approach to the arts lead?

The view at Grey Advertising wasn't meant to be a close-up. The punchlines were all familiar: "Affordable housing" and studio space makes New York more competitive in terms of attracting artists.

But how can rent be low enough in New York to compete with rents in Detroit? It's unlikely.

And anecdotally, how many artists leave New York because they can't scrape up the $800 rent on one of three bedrooms in a Bedford-Stuyvesant apartment?

In other words, is controlling the expenses of artists in New York the way to keep them? Or is it perhaps controlling their sources of income? The availability of the small-business and neighborhood ecosystems in which artists thrive?

When he worked in business, Pinsky said, the company employed numerous artists who worked on their art during the day and supported themselves by working as word processors at night for his firm.

“Are there the types of jobs that artists used to work that aren’t available anymore? How are they supporting themselves?” he asked. “We need to think of the whole sector in a really comprehensive way.”

With this Pinsky struck closer to the ultimate issue: what an artists life actually looks like. Show us a painter without a day job and we'll show you someone who doesn't need help from the Real Estate Board of New York in the first place.

So why New York instead of Detroit? Let's say a painter stays because of a rent abatement that allowed her to afford a studio space on the income she makes as a night copywriter. She produces 20 paintings in a year. Where will they be shown? And who will buy them?

The panel might have considered the for-profit sector in the arts: not just how "arts organizations" can get lower rents, but why so many art entrepreneurs (gallerists) in Williamsburg that used to give validation and small paydays to young artists in the neighborhood have shut their doors. Because our night-copywriter will have to get a lot of rent abatements before her work is showing at Mary Boone or on 57th Street. And to be honest, that difficulty is more likely than high rents to make her decide to get packing, no?

Consider music, of the guitar-and-drums, basement dwelling sort. There's an explosion of it in the city right now, but it's not because the bass players have affordable housing, or because the city has provided practice space, it's because there are dozens of small venues where bands can make-it-small and make-it-medium.

What's happening here? Well, for as long as it lasts, tickets are selling, which means that on a regular basis private money is coming in to the arts ecosystem. And it thrives, for a time, at least.

Some other questions: Can artists afford to visit museums like the Whitney Museum of American Art, the Museum of Modern Art? Can they afford to drink with other painters at night?

Pinsky said arts organizations often lack “general management” skills, and he’s interested in “teaching artists how to think like entrepreneurs.” 

Tighe brought up the Catholic church, one of the city’s largest landowners, because the configuration of congregations has changed and attendance at services it down, leaving the archdiocese with extra space. 

“They have all these venues,” she said, and they “are already off the tax rolls.” (Before his next comment, Pinsky said the idea was “interesting, and probably something we should talk about afterward.” )

It's interesting to think that the problem for artists might be that they can't find places to perform, to show, to play. As though all the "land" in Manhattan and Brooklyn has been eaten up, and there are no more Sohos for Patti Smith to root around in.

As with the administration's smoking bans, its bike lanes and its extensive rezoning, art will be made a conscious element of a city that is being re-planned—curated—in a way it hasn’t been in a long time, possibly since the street grid of upper Manhattan was laid down. As the mantra goes, New York is always changing, and there’s no reason necessarily to be sentimental about illegal lofts or CBGBs.

But whether the Bloombergian effort can engineer an arts scene is a question that will have to wait for some time for an answer, if the progress of that conversation so far is any indication.

“We want to continue to be the city of aspiration for all kinds of people,” Tighe said. A high aspiration.