Creating a blueprint to keep artists in New York City

The Variations Theatre Group practices an original musical at Spaceworks in Long Island City. Credit: Gwen McClure
The Variations Theatre Group practices an original musical at Spaceworks in Long Island City. Credit: Gwen McClure

Chicago has one. So do Philadelphia, Los Angeles, Dallas, San Jose and Phoenix.

All around the country, cities have adopted cultural plans— a process in which a city takes stock of its arts and cultural resources, needs, and ultimately, sets future goals.

With no comprehensive cultural plan, New York is the odd city out.

“That’s a glaring, glaring omission for our city,” said City Council member Jimmy Van Bramer of Queens.

He and Council member Stephen Levin of Brooklyn are leading the charge to change that: they’ve introduced a bill that would require New York City to come up with a cultural plan by July 2015.

“I think it’s important to establish a blueprint for how we fund culture, how we support it, how we want to look at it long term,” Levin said. “What we’re trying to do is get the conversation started.”

On Tuesday, the conversation officially began, as the city’s Cultural Affairs Committee held its first hearing on a possible cultural plan for New York City.

Mark Rossier, Deputy Director of the New York Foundation for the Arts, was one of over two dozen people from cultural and arts organizations around the city who testified.

“In talking about the arts, people often forget that art is actually made by artists who have to find ways to live and survive and create in this city,” Rossier said, referencing the high costs of making and supporting art in New York City— an issue that came up repeatedly in the three hours of testimony.

In recent years, arts and cultural organizations in New York City have seen hefty cuts to their budgets, as both private and municipal sources have reduced their contributions to the arts. Individual artists have felt the crunch, too.

Rossier touched on a concern shared by arts administrators and celebrities alike, including Lena Dunham of HBO’s Girls and David Byrne of the Talking Heads: that New York will prove too expensive for many artists and they’ll move elsewhere.

Though rent and living expenses are uniquely high in New York, so, too, are the costs associated with being an artist.

Stephanie Diamond is a social practice artist who runs the Listings Project, a weekly email of real estate options aimed at artists, including art studio listings. Diamond said since she started the Listings Project in 2003, she has seen prices go up considerably.

Renting a studio space “used to be a dollar per square foot, but it’s definitely not that anymore,” she said.

Kirk Gostkowski, the artistic director of Variations Theatre Group in Queens, said that for actors and playwrights, securing affordable rehearsal space is a daunting task. Prime spaces in Manhattan can cost up to $75 an hour and are often tightly booked. But rehearsal space is a necessary cost, Gostkowski said.

“You need to go to a work environment to do your work,” he said. “It won’t get done otherwise.”

This week, Gostkowski is running rehearsals for an original musical at Spaceworks, a new city-incubated facility in Long Island City that rents rehearsal studios for just $12-$16 an hour.

Spaceworks’ Queens facility opened earlier this year with substantial city funding, as did a second location in Gowanus with two visual arts studios that are being rented for $350 a month. Three other Spaceworks locations are slated to open in the coming years in Red Hook, Williamsburg and on Governors Island.

“Spaceworks is a really terrific first step,” said Council member Van Bramer. Still, he said, more needs to be done to make New York more affordable for artists.

In creating the cultural plan, Van Bramer said, many strategies for championing the arts will be on the table, including finding new ways of offering affordable housing to artists.

Van Bramer, it should be noted, is not simply an observer and legislative ambassador to the arts. Sometimes he’s a participant. On Saturday, he will be dancing, acting and, he said, “maybe even singing” in a fundraiser for the performing arts center at Queens College.


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