Is New York sustainable for artists?

It’s graduation season and many graduating art majors are choosing between running towards or away from New York City. Whether staying or leaving, the young artists we interviewed all seem to agree that New York’s mecca-like quality is related to its human capital.

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Photo by Shawn Rutkowski.
Photo by Shawn Rutkowski, one of the artists interviewed for this piece.

It’s graduation season and many graduating art majors are choosing between running towards or away from New York City. Whether staying or leaving, the young artists we interviewed all seem to agree that New York’s mecca-like quality is related to its human capital. The city’s diverse inhabitants create a rich culture.

Young artists still move to New York regardless of the expense because of the endless energy generated from human interactions. As Will Moritz, a young musician who moved to NYC, said: “You sort of pay to be around tons of people.” For him, it’s not only important to connect with established musicians in the city, but to meet others who are just starting out.

Yet, Moritz speculated that the city will gradually lose its spell on artists in the coming five years due to upscale gentrification. As wealthier people move in, the cost of living will continue to rise and young artists will be priced out of the city. In addition to the rising rents, in a piece about the decline of New York’s artistic talent, David Byrne wrote that “the cultural part of the city—the mind—has been usurped by the top 1 percent.”  And his daughter, Malu Byrne, wrote a NYT column detailing how New York is not a supportive place for up-and-coming artists.

Other artists believe that New York will continue to draw aspiring talent. Shawn Rutkowski, a photographer who moved to NYC from Philadelphia just a few weeks ago, believes that the city will remain an artistic mecca as long as its core and driving force—the human capital—is still there. He is now living in his uncle’s apartment and acknowledges that having initial connections in the city helps artists to establish themselves, and can reduce the high cost of living.

Many New York City artists, including Shawn, have day jobs (or night jobs) to sustain their creative work. Zack Graham, a writer who moved here last year after graduation, told City Atlas that, “The vast majority of artists are too poor to support families. That is a major anxiety of artists everywhere. I am not currently a professional artist, and therefore do not know if it is as fulfilling as I’d imagine it might be.” The challenges of balancing a day job and an artistic career might encourage some to leave, but Zack plans to stay for quite a while.

Zack hopes that in the future when New York loses valuable land and architecture due to rising sea levels, the artists of the city will “create a floating island where lower Manhattan used to be where they can create, and that this island will be isolated from the capitalist thirst that makes the city less than it could be.” Communal living, working, and social spaces already allow artists to create the kind of communities they want within the greater city.

Although there are artists who think these kinds of networks can now exist on the Internet, some argue that the Internet isn’t always enough. Danlu Peng, who studied sculpture at Columbia University, believes that there’s a huge difference between appreciating sculpture in a gallery and looking at it in online photographs. Artists in the city not only learn from the surrounding people and art, they can also influence and contribute to their communities.

But artists may also dilute the city’s historic and ethnic culture when they move into new neighborhoods, as seen in the East Village and Williamsburg. The increased rent that follows an influx of artists not only stirs up dissatisfaction among local inhabitants, but also forces poorer artists to move to further marginalized areas.

The non-profit Artspace is currently transforming the former Public School 109 in East Harlem into affordable housing for artists. At least half of the units will be reserved for current East Harlem residents to preserve El Barrio’s traditional Latino culture. However, at the site groundbreaking in 2012, two protestors shouted, “This is about gentrification — it’s not about art.” As reported by DNAinfo New York, the spokeswoman for Artspace countered that, “What Artspace does is the very opposite of gentrification. We create affordable permanent housing so that artists can’t be gentrified out of their neighborhoods.”

Both young artists and the city face the question of long term sustainability.

Artists often move into and then positively contribute to a neighborhood. In the Bronx, a group of artists started the Bronx Documentary Center. It is a non-profit gallery located on the ground floor of a recently revitalized building in the South Bronx. This center aims to create an engaging environment for artists, but will also run educational programs for kids living in the local community.

Artists’ sustainable lifestyles can also contribute to the resilience of the city. Zack says, “Being an artist is the best thing for the planet.  The more people create and the less they reap for themselves, the better it is for the planet.” And artists who live in the city consume even less than those who live in the suburbs. According to David Owen, the author of Green Metropolis, in the city “the tightly circumscribed space creates efficiencies and reduces the possibilities for reckless consumption.”

The dense human capital in NYC also creates the perfect environment for a sharing economy, which can further reduce consumption and the cost of living. is a barter network for the creative community in NYC to trade skills and objects. Its aim is to help artists achieve their artistic goals without spending money. Caroline Woolard, the co-founder of believes that by building up community trust, a sharing economy can lead to social justice and a more equitable society.

An Alliance for the Arts report shows that the arts industry is also a vital, important part of the traditional New York City economy. According to the report, “The arts invest in local economies by hiring a local workforce, engaging local businesses and paying local and state taxes. Beyond that contribution, every part of the industry plays a role in attracting visitors from other parts of the country and the world, making arts-motivated visitors one of the strongest components of New York’s growing tourism market.” In addition, the arts draw in other new residents, both young and old.

Artists do not move here only to be with other artists. It is the electric, immense, varied entirety of the city that attracts so many newcomers. And once they are here, artists become a fundamental part of New York City as a whole, spending and sometimes making money and, of course, making and sharing art. 

Thumbnail image by Jim Power “Mosaic Man”