Saturday, February 7, 2009

Art and the City

I recently saw the film, “Milk,” about San Francisco politician and gay activist, Harvey Milk. I was struck by something early in the film when Harvey and his lover moved to SF. Apparently he was an avid photographer and almost on a whim decided to open a shop below the apartment they shared in the Castro district, selling film and photo processing. What struck me was how easy it was - rents were very cheap, and the income not only was enough to keep the shop going and put money in his pocket, but he was able to hire people to work there while he spent most of his time and energy getting involved in local politics! I think the reason this stayed in my mind is that I’ve been toying with the idea of opening another business for awhile, but the biggest problem is getting the numbers to make sense. Rents are particularly high in most cities as compared to back then, and throw in insurance, all the taxes, red tape, etc, that are part of doing business nowadays and the nut just gets bigger and bigger. If Harvey tried to do that today, he probably wouldnt have had the money to open in the first place, probably not have been able to afford hiring staff, and he would have had to work long hours and not had the time or energy to get involved in local politics. So the thought arises: how many potential Harvey Milks are out there now that can’t do what he did because city life is so expensive, yet being in a city is part of the formula?

Two other examples come to mind. In the late 50s/early 60s, the rents in Soho were very cheap. Artists could rent large live/work loft spaces for next to nothing. Larry Rivers wrote in his bio about the camaraderie and support between artists such as himself, Jasper Johns, Robert Rauschenberg, Roy Lichtenstein and many others who interacted on a daily basis visiting eachothers’ spaces, looking at their work, socializing, sharing ideas, etc. (similar to the abstract expressionists before them). Artists today cannot afford loft spaces in Soho unless you’re a high ticket established one. Frequently I read and hear about artists who move far away and get a big space and cheap rent. This enables them to focus on their art, and if not surviving on that alone, they can get by with a part time job or roomates or their spouse working. The result is that they get to focus and work, which is what Rivers, Johns and others sought in NYC as well. However, it’s highly unlikely the artist out in Wherever USA has the interaction with other artists that they had, not to mention the lack of galleries and museums to visit. In a city you have a higher concentration of artists, not just visual artists, but writers, musicians, performers and venues - the aforementioned museums and galleries, music venues, performance spaces, theatres, foreign and indie films, and so on. Again the thought arises - how many potential Rauschenbergs are out there in the suburbs or the country toiling away in solitude that may never have those synergistic influences to light their blastoff into new realms of creative expression?

The East Village in the late 70s/early 80s is another example. Rents were very cheap mainly due to the fact that the area was in terrible shape and full of drugs and crime. I saw a documentary on Blondie (they lived on Bowery off Houston) and one of the band members said that people could live in that area at the time and be an artist or musician or poet and focus primarily on what they wanted to do and get by with occasional gigs. Watch the film, “Downtown 81” starring a 19 year old Jean-Michel Basquiat and you see that the east village looked like the Gaza Strip does now, so I’m not trying to romanticize things. The point is, if you were willing to make sacrifices, you could do your art, mix with like-minded people, and thrive. The list of artists and musicians who blossomed during that time in the east village/bowery area is staggering. While I was painting a mural at the first Howl Festival in 03 in Tompkins Square, this older painter told me that in the early 80s within 1 block of the park were about 40 galleries!! Many of the old buildings had mixed use apartments on the first floor, so artists would live there and make the storefront a gallery and/or studio. Some make the argument that its still cheap in Bushwick, but for how long? As for the east village, there is still alot of artistic activity there, but they are struggling and working their butts off (unless they’re trust fund kids) and stressed out due to the overhead.

I have no answer, or any point really. That scene in “Milk” just triggered this chain of thought. I mean even in Asbury Park the rents are high enough to have pushed out many artists. Perhaps the way grunge was born in Seattle, maybe there’s a similar city, away from New York, LA and Chicago where rents are cheap, creatives are gathering and before it gets gentrified something exciting will arise. Maybe with this bad economy, it might even happen in New York somewhere again.