Thursday, October 27, 2011

PS109: An ArtPlace for Artspace in New York City

El Barrio's PS 109 Artspace, Harlem, New York, NY. Image via ArtPlace America
In my final piece for my October ArtPlace series I'm talking about two subjects near and dear to my heart - affordable housing for artists and New York City, the place I call home. I wrote my masters' thesis on artist housing programs and how they impact both artists and communities. After spending a good chunk of the last year studying these programs and interviewing planners and participants in affordable housing for artists, I'm quite passionate about the subject. So I was very pleased to see that several of ArtPlace's funded projects - including ArtPlace's only Manhattan-based project - are affordable artist housing developments. But why New York City? Read on to find out the benefits - for artists and community - of affordable live/work space for artists, in NYC and everywhere.

Artspace + ArtPlace = artists' space
    The PS 109 Artspace, located in Harlem, is being implemented by Artspace (not to be confused with ArtPlace!), a non-profit artist housing developer with extensive experience creating affordable live-work spaces in such varied locations as Houston, Reno, and  Brainerd, Minnesota (a town that fans of the movie Fargo will recognize). Though projects vary based on local resources and needs (it's all about the local, you know!), generally each development works from the adaptive reuse model - taking unused available buildings and turning them into affordable live/work spaces for artists (meaning apartments with extra room for studio space). The projects are funded through tax credits, especially Low-Income Housing Tax Credits and Historic Preservation Tax Credits. (PS 109 is receiving both of these credits, which will generate nearly half the cost of the project's development.)
     So what do artists get- and what does the community get? When complete, PS 109 will consist of 90 affordable live/work spaces for New York City artists and their families. In addition, most Artspace projects include community space for outside programming and arts organizations; PS 109 is no exception, as it will provide 10,000 square feet of space for arts organizations. That's a big number in New York City, the land of the Murphy Bed. So PS 109 won't just help individual artists who live there, but outside artists and organizations in need of programming space. It will also provide the community with a local hub for for art activity. A key component for the success of artist housing developments is integration into the neighborhood through programming, so this inclusion bodes well for PS109.

Does the land of the $10 sandwich need arts-based economic development?
     One notable difference between PS 109 and the other ArtPlace grants I have written about is it's location in New York City. It's already a notable cultural hub - perhaps even the cultural capital of the US. And New York, at least in the last couple decades, is known for a robust economy (at least compared to other areas of the country). This stands in stark contrast to Detroit and South Dakota, my previous two ArtPlace subjects, as well as many of the other ArtPlace locations. If anything, New York has a reputation for taking advantage of art as an economic developer in the past few decades, from the organic gentrification of SoHo and Williamsburg to the 2005 public art installation The Gates. (In fact, New York was the home of the first affordable artists' housing development, Westbeth Artist Housing. It's still alive and kicking today, and still the world's largest, housing nearly five hundred people. I was lucky enough to visit and interview several residents for my thesis.)
     Despite this, New York's arts community can stand to benefit from PS109. If you've been to New York you know that it can be astonishingly expensive. A sandwich? Upwards of $10. A cocktail? $12+. Rent? You don't wanna know. And for artists to create art, especially visual artists, dedicated space is important. That space is pretty hard to come by at an affordable price these days. So while many artist housing programs with economic development goals might focus on attracting artists to an area, New York's goal is to retain them by helping them afford the city's notoriously high rents. By helping keep a creative core in New York City, and specifically Manhattan, the city is at less risk for becoming a cultural playland available only to those who can afford high rents and ticket prices ($25 to get in the door at MoMA!).
     Keeping artists in Manhattan can help bolster the careers of artists, too. Much of my thesis research focused on interviewing artists residing in affordable live work spaces, and the ones who lived at Westbeth were particularly appreciative. It helps keep the artists closer to the collectors, allowing them to host open houses or showings at a convenient location. Those collectors might be less likely to trek to a studio in an outer borough. It's also worth noting that Westbeth has closed their wait list, as it is over ten years long. So there is clearly a demand for this kind of property in Manhattan.
    Plus, an added bonus of PS109 is that construction on the building will create jobs. New York might not be Detroit, but there are still plenty of unemployed folks in need of work. A win-win!

Are there affordable live/work spaces for artists in your city or town? Maybe you even live in one! Tell me about it in the comments.

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