An Artist in Defense of New York City


Recently several older accomplished artists have made public declarations decrying the death of creativity in New York City.  Young hopeful artists should steer clear of the Big Apple and find more fertile ground in other cities.  They’ve been vague about which cities are supposedly the new cultural capitals although one article cited Los Angeles as an alternative.  It’s safe to say that the entertainment capital of the world isn’t exactly welcoming to huddled art school masses.  Detroit was also offered up as a suggestion but it’s hard to picture artists thriving in a city that has actually debated selling off the contents of its acclaimed art museum.

New York City’s critics and I agree though, our cultural soul is in trouble.  I moved here in 2001 when the cracks in the artistic landscape were already several feet deep.  Once concentrated in a few neighborhoods, artists are now scattered throughout the outer boroughs. Some of our most beloved artistic spaces have died, while others have morphed into upscale venues.  Rents have soared, and despite this new injection of wealth, arts organizations across the city find it harder to fight for donations and funding.  Broadway has gotten increasingly corporate and risky work has gotten much harder to produce.  Things are worse for New York City artists then they have been in decades.

Most of New York’s biggest detractors are famous millionaires.  It’s easy for them to look back and see so many other options.  Did they grow up in a smaller city in a solidly conservative state?  Have they ever lived in the South or Midwest?  Did it ever occur to them that an artist’s soul would be crushed anyway living in the middle of nowhere.

Pursuing a career in the arts is like climbing Mount Everest blindfolded while a sherpa throws frozen carp at your head.  Trying to balance paying rent while pursuing artistic pursuits is an incredibly difficult challenge regardless of where a person lives.  It’s not like the high paying jobs in the arts are just waiting for applicants in places like Topeka or Birmingham.

I don’t have a benefactor or well off spouse.  My family is not rich or well-connected, and I struggle to make ends meet every single month.  I share a one-bedroom in a dodgy, crime-riddled neighborhood in Brooklyn.  My life is not exactly easy.  Regardless of the challenges I still call NYC my home for a number or reasons:

  • Audience – The rents might be lower in a smaller city but the audience to sustain artists is microscopic. I regularly performed on a stage in a heavy metal bar that was nothing more but a piece of plywood on top of paint cans.  It might have been a humble performance space but the room was always packed.
  • Resources – NYC has everything.  It’s not cheap but you can find galleries, theaters, dance stages, rehearsal spaces, recording studios, comedy clubs, art studios, and sound stages.
  • Community – My friends are film makers, dancers, photographers, writers, actors, comedians, visual artists, designers, musicians and playwrights.  There are arts festivals in every borough year-round with contributors clamoring for a slot.  Collaboration across mediums is effortless.  A musician can find a dancer, who can find a costumer, who can find a print maker and they probably all live off the same subway line.  Few of us make a lot of income doing our art, but we can always find a way to express ourselves.
  • Competition – New York City is not for the timid or lazy.  A few trust fund brats might live in a studio in Chelsea, but for the majority of us, it’s survival of the fittest.  Being around so many other gifted artists makes us all work harder.
  • Education and Training –  New York city has  Internationally acclaimed Ivy League institutions to funky art schools and some of the finest public colleges in the nation.
  • Politics – In NYC if a performance artist wants to cover their body in lube and roll around on newspaper while projecting a pornographic film on their crotch – no one will stage a protest.  Try doing that in Idaho or Alabama.
  • There is still that one in a million chance of success – I know a few who have succeeded despite the odds.  Try getting a television show produced or a slot on SNL while living in Saint Louis.

New York is hard, in many ways harder than it’s ever been. Generic corporate sprawl of artless residential towers and national chain stores infect nearly every crevice of Manhattan.  We are at risk of losing our creative soul, but we haven’t lost it yet.  We are still creating art all over this city.  The semi-retired wealthy artists might not notice us, or pay any attention to our low-budget ventures but we’re still here.

If young artists heed the warnings and no new blood comes in, the doomsayers will kill the very thing they claim to cherish.   If we want to maintain this cities artistic credibility then we have to stay and fight.  The warnings to stay away from Gotham are nothing new.  Nearly twenty years ago, more than one professor warned – NYC is dead, don’t bother. Yet I’ve survived for thirteen years and I make my living creating art.

We can romanticize the past but there were many artists who crashed and burned in the 70’s and 80’s. NYC has never been an incubator with warm and fuzzy walls that nurtured anyone.  It’s a city that says from the moment you land here – show me something.  Show me why I should give a damn about what you do.

We’re in trouble, but if we tell the next generation to not bother, we expedite our demise.  Any artist who looks the rates of success wouldn’t bother anyway.  When have the arts been a practical career choice for anyone?  We don’t do it for outward gains, we create because we have to create, we must create and there is no better place than a city overflowing with artists.  I would say to young artists – New York might not be for you, but if you really want to push yourself and live among a bunch of like-minded freaks then take the leap. You probably won’t live in Manhattan, and you’ll most likely be poor, but you won’t have watch your dreams die in a small town in Kansas.  If you are going to burn out you might as well dream big.

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