Thursday, June 07, 2012

New York is Dead Yet Again

No New York for You!

This is 569,099,002 in a series of articles about the death of Art in New York, and I should say that know less from personal experience about New York than some of my Eskimo friends; for they are artists and very stylish women, and they probably go to Manhattan a lot more than me. You might want to ask them about this, if you can catch them at Heathrow before the flight to Moscow.

"Should I move to New York?" was once the cliche question for American artists, like Hollywood for actors.  Art as such is still thriving there by most accounts, the sales scene is huge and if you're saying "the Gagosian called: should I show in New York, even if they show terrible, plagiarized paintings by over-rated singers like Bob Dylan?"; why certainly yes, as there are many real estate managers and marketing vice presidents who require papering over the huge gaps in their souls. 

But like a celebrity dying that you thought died long ago, the New York Art scene has finally died, in Seattle, Washington, of evaporation, in the faded priorities of painters. 


It dawned on me a few weeks ago that I had not heard of any serious painter out West here talking about moving there in at least five years.  This came as something of a bolt in the soup- New York has been THE artists' aspiration my entire life, all the way through graduate school. But where was the buzz, the "I've got a friend who knows a guy who has sub-sublet in Chelsea, and I'm on the short list for the Astor-Hagan-Daaz grant - New York City, here I come!!" ? I 've been asking around in the Pacific Northwest for weeks - no artist, except one guy who was from there anyway, is planning to move to New York City.   Great city, New York, I'd love to be there,  if someone insists on a handing me a tenure-track teaching position at NYU or Hunter or something; few real ways to commit to a visual arts career there, unless you're able to sell $300,000 worth of art every year which would generate, after the 70% gallery commissions, taxes and rent, about $30,000 to live on. (Oh, you wanted a loft?)

Like Paris in the 20s, we dream this bohemian idyll of post-war New York, of art, music, social and political progress.  New York's post-war Paris moment is described by Elaine DeKooning's memories of flirting with Mark Rothko, when she was a beautiful, brilliant painter, looking a bit like Debbie Harry, who subsumed her career to a more famous bad-boy artist husband, just like Lee Krasner.  But these appealing scenes - NYC in the 40s and 50s, ruling the visual art of the world from studios in Soho and the Village- are now turpentine-scented ghosts among the lawyers.  It's priced out, and without artists able to live and work there (remember Williamsburg? I never made it in time to see its brief flare-up), it will dry up, except as a major sales point and cultural library. 

Even a decade ago serious, professional artists I know were still thinking about going to New York.  Today: no one. Between rent and the Internet, the great cultural magnet of New York City has demagnetized.


The cultural energy in the arts seems to be out West, where both tech and traditional arts are more or less exploding in quality and quantity.  Art scenes in Seattle, LA, the Bay Area, and Portland are thriving and attracting people, in spite of the economy and the price pressures. The cultural energy on the Pacific Rim is crackling, the creative community huge and diverse, economically significant, and politically important. 

And the economies are recovering - with an attendant risk of another rent run-up (more on that in another post.) A city that makes itself unattainable to its creative community injures its creative abilities as its society. The economic dynamism of the Bay Area depends on its diversity of ideas as much as anything, and if you just have lawyers talking to financial managers, instead of engineers  to manufacturers to artists to doctors to chefs, its the new Manhattan: a giant Wall St, with over-rated food.


So this all comes with a warning. New York City is not really a place to make art anymore, certainly not the way it was.  The West Coast cities, in much better balance, are.  But we face many of the same pressures, at risk of hollowing out with excessive gentrification.  I notice San Francisco is anxious is the same way NY was 15 years ago- artists are crossing the Bay, although I never figured Oakland for Williamsburg. Seattle gets a lot of credit for making live-work spaces a goal of city initiatives - but for artists there is always the rent, the rent, the rent, the struggling hold onto work and show space, which is the domineering, gnawing problem of a creative career. 

To avoid New York's fade into artistic irrelevance, to maintain our growing cultural strength, and to give people in the middle and lower incomes a fair shake, major real estate developers can never be allowed to have total dominance over housing decisions. To cities: make affordable housing a priority for your citizens, and if you have time, make it live-work. You will thank yourself in 20 years.