Once upon a time a mentor explained to me that what an artist most desires are the “Three R’s:” Recognition, Riches, and Romance. When graduate school ended, I was left with the decision of where to pursue these. Should I remain in the Northeast where I went to school and setup camp in Brooklyn? Or, do I return home to Texas? Being a sixth generation Texan, the pull home was too hard to deny. Yet every time I visit friends in Brooklyn I re-evaluate this decision. How important is location for an artist living in the New Millennium? Is New York still the ultimate destination for young artists?
Older more established artists (especially those who live or have lived in New York) will claim that to be a successful artist you must experience living in New York — that it is a rite of passage that cannot be skipped or equaled, although some have now slightly recanted in light of the recent economic downturn.
However, to be in New York these days means you live in Brooklyn. The old Manhattan neighborhoods of artist lore are off limits to a young artist unless you chanced upon a large inheritance, married well, or won the lottery. Even areas closer to the city, such as Williamsburg, are becoming more gentrified and thus more expensive. Some artists are moving to cities in Upstate New York, like Beacon and Newburgh. A few hop over the Hudson to New Jersey, but most want New York on their resume. Basically, if you are an artist living in New York’s environs, you are looking at around an hour commute into Manhattan, the area you so long to be in and associated with. And since young artists usually have to find work in Manhattan as artist assistants, gallery assistants, art handlers, museum guards or docents, framers, waiters, bartenders – basically whatever they have to do to pay the rent while allowing some remaining time to work in the studio — this means daily commutes into the city eat up a minimum of two hours per day in addition to their work schedule.
In general it is easier to find a job here in Dallas; our economy has been more resilient. To pay my bills I grabbed a teaching gig, which is not a realistic possibility anymore in New York, unless you have massive connections and an astounding resume.
Many New Yorkers are left to rent a studio space in addition to their expensive apartment unless they find a larger industrial space and build a small living area in their studio. The rent for the average studio space in Brooklyn is what we would pay for rent on a decent one bedroom apartment in Dallas. So they must find a way to pay for both and best utilize their studio space. Friends will tell me how guilty they feel when their schedule only allows a few hours a week to be in the studio. They calculate that they are paying a hundred dollars for each hour they are in their studio working.
Property is comparatively cheap here in Big D, and like many local artists, I have converted my garage into a studio. I also constructed an extra building in my backyard for storage (yeah, it’s nice to have a yard). Of course there is a downside to the tendency of Dallas artists working out of their homes. In Dallas, we have few studio buildings in a New York sense. The Continental Gin Building, Shamrock Hotel, and live/work spaces at Southside on Lamar fit the bill, but when faced with paying extra rent for a studio space, it makes sense to make do with second bedrooms and garages. Still, it is hard to find those twelve foot high ceilings that I long to have again.
In New York most of the surviving galleries are either thinning their herd of artists or just trying to maintain their current stable. With so many roving gallery-less artists, it makes showing one’s work even more of a challenge. Just getting people to look at your work is like pulling teeth. This forces artists there to seek exhibitions in cities such as Dallas. While this has only become a recent necessity for them, it has always been important for Dallas-based artists to get their work seen in other cities, to escape our bubble and reach a larger audience.
Becoming a household name in the arts community in New York ascends you to the global stage. In the Whitney Biennial this year over 50 percent of the artists are based in New York and another 10 percent live there at least part of the year – and this is the lowest percentage in years. There are more of the “right people” in New York to see your work and react to it. Showing good work in Dallas can be like the riddle if a tree falls in the woods… It’s a little harsh, but there is truth to it.
I see my friends in Brooklyn leading a frantic pace of life that leaves them breathless. They are in a constant struggle to prioritize working in the studio while also allowing time to make the most of being in New York by going to the museums and galleries, socializing at art events, and generally becoming involved in the arts community. But something has to give. If you are not going outside your studio, are you taking full advantage of being in New York? And if you are never in your studio, are you still an artist?
I know it sounds like I am performing these mental gymnastics to justify my decision to return to Dallas. Of course I am. That’s another part of being a Dallas artist. Living in Dallas comes with its own set of compromises. Do I think I will become some rich and famous artist by living in Dallas? Not in the least. But Dallas is a great low-stress place to produce work, and after all, isn’t that supposed to be the most important thing?
As Homer tells Lisa in Who Shot Mr. Burns? Part 2 of the Simpsons when he thinks she is reaching for one of his ice cream cones: “You chose fruit, you live with fruit.” Or at least that’s what I keep telling myself.