Subsidized art studio space, a reality under Mayor Bloomberg, faces an uncertain future By Meredith Rosenberg
Jason Covert pays little more than $200 a month for a studio that is 20 by 13 square feet. Covert is among the 93 artists currently renting subsidized art studio space at the BKLYN Army Terminal, a former military supply space in Sunset Park that sprawls across three million square feet, and houses an array of businesses and groups that are funded by the New York City Economic Development Corporation. “I don’t know where I’d be as an artist if not for subsidized studios,” said Covert, 38, who takes photographs and makes larger-scale pieces. Since getting the space five years ago, he’s been able to work as a full-time artist for the past four-and-a-half years.
Artists such as Covert have had a champion in city hall these last 12 years. Since Bloomberg has taken office in 2001, he has greenlighted affordable art studio initiatives through various city agencies, including the Department of Cultural Affairs, the Department of Housing Preservation and the Economic Development Corporation. Chashama, Spaceworks and El Barrio’s Artspace P.S. 109 are among the three government-funded programs through these agencies, although the latter two are still in the development phase. “You see art everywhere you look in the city,” said Anita Durst, Chashama’s founder, who’s noticed a large increase in affordable studio space under Bloomberg.
Leola Bermanzohn discusses her art while she works in her studio at BKLYN Army Terminal.
In his three terms, Bloomberg has established himself as an arts champion. In the 2012 annual report from the Department of Cultural Affairs, Bloomberg said, “A magnet for talent from around the world, our creative community is also a thriving small business sector that exists in every neighborhood throughout the five boroughs. That is why our Administration has made supporting the arts a top priority, and why over the past five years — despite challenging times — we have strengthened our investment.”
In fact, the New York City Department of Cultural Affairs, especially under Bloomberg, is the largest funder of the arts in the United States, with a $150 million expense budget for 2013 alone. It funds at least 1,200 cultural groups in the city, including subsidized art studio spaces. And it has paid off: According to the city’s cultural affairs department, the city had 23.8 million cultural visitors in 2011 that injected almost $28 billion into the local economy. Bloomberg has put his own money behind the effort too.
During the past decade, he has personally donated up to $300 million a year to a range of causes, including the arts. Under Bloomberg Philanthropies, a charitable foundation he launched in 2006, he has allotted $34 million to an Arts Advancement Initiative that supports more than 200 smaller to mid-sized arts groups around the city.
“You see art everywhere you look in the city.”-Anita Durst, Chashama founder
Around the same time that Bloomberg Philanthropies emerged, the mayor also kicked off an initiative that allowed Chashama, an arts organization that provides affordable spaces across the city to artists in need, to acquire subsidized space at the BKLYN Army Terminal. Chashama was founded in 1995 at a time when subsidized studio space was more likely a product of individual landlords, as opposed to a mayoral initiative, according to Durst. The group was one of the first tenants at BKLYN Army Terminal six years ago, and since then artists have acquired spaces for up to 90 percent off of the market value.
Leola Bermanzohn is another Chashama artist at the BKLYN Army Terminal who creates murals and paintings. She pays less than $600 for a studio-sized space that she has had since 2009. “One of the challenges of working at home is that you don’t get a break from work, so having a space where I come to work is amazing because I can come here and have a clear head, and go home and relax rather than always feeling like I have to do something,” said Bermanzohn, who lives in Windsor Terrace. “It’s a huge difference how you feel every day.”
Aside from the BKLYN Army Terminal program, Chashama has connected about 10,000 artists with affordable space programs since its inception. In turn, that has delivered the arts to about 500,000 people. Durst said the Department of Cultural Affairs was its first funder, and it continues to receive money from them as well as Bloomberg Philanthropies.
More recently, the Department of Cultural Affairs has spearheaded Spaceworks, a long-term initiative that intends to add more than 100,000 square feet of affordable studio space around the city in the next five years. The department created the program in 2011 as part of the Mayor’s Fund to Advance NYC. The project is being developed by a non-profit real estate firm, and includes plans to create about 40 studios on Governor’s Island that are scheduled for completion in 2014. The department is footing some of the capital funding so that the city can offer the spaces for as much as three quarters off of the market rate. Spaceworks initially planned to occupy space at BKLYN Army Terminal, although for unknown reasons the location is no longer under consideration. Danai Pointer, a spokesperson for the Department of Cultural Affairs, said via email, “After an initial assessment, Spaceworks decided to focus on Governors Island and several other sites. Brooklyn Army Terminal may be a possible Spaceworks location in the future.” Paul Parkhill, the executive director of Spaceworks, could not be reached for comment.
The Department of Cultural Affairs, along with the Department of Housing Preservation, is also developing El Barrio’s Artspace P.S. 109, a project that is currently converting a long-abandoned school in East Harlem into affordable live/work space for about 90 local artists. The spaces are expected to become available in the summer of 2014, and rent for between 40-60 percent off the median income for a family of four. Artspace P.S. 109 is an initiative under the New Housing Marketplace Plan, with the Department of Cultural Affairs contributing about $3.5 million in construction funding.
As for future funding for subsidized spaces, it all depends on how dedicated the next mayor is to the arts. At the city’s last budget conference Bloomberg said, “Until we make meaningful reforms to our healthcare and fringe benefit programs, the services that have dramatically improved the quality of life for New Yorkers will be left to either compete for a smaller and smaller share of the City’s budget or rely on significant tax increases that will halt our economic growth and competitiveness.”
Jason Covert, the Chashama artist, added, “A lot of artists don’t have the money starting out to rent separate studio space.”