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8 Things to Know If You Want to Be an Artist in NYC

By Amy Zimmer | March 4, 2015 7:59pm
 For those set on being an artist in New York City, here's the lowdown from gallerists and artists.
Want to Be an Artist in NYC?
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MANHATTAN — As Armory Arts Week hits New York, big money takes over the art scene, with wealthy collectors plunking down millions for works on display.

The reality for many artists in New York City, however, is much less glamorous.

For New Yorkers who define themselves as working artists, even the $45 entrance fee for the Armory Show might be prohibitively expensive. Nearly 11 percent of artists live below the poverty line — an individual annual income of $11,702 — according to a 2014 report from a collective of artists and others called BFAMFAPhD.

Artist Caroline Woolard, who founded the BFAMFAPhD intiative, hopes not only to raise concerns about the economic struggles of artists but also to get artists affordable space through another project called New York City To Be Determined.

"I see a lot of young people who come for a summer out of grad school and decide not to stay because they think, 'The amount of time I have to be at my job to pay for my house and studio means I won't have time to get to the studio because I have to work too much,'" she said.

Woolard cobbles together a living through adjunct teaching jobs at Cooper Union, the New School and the Rhode Island School of Design. She pays $350 a month for studio space through a residency at the Queens Museum and keeps living expenses relatively low through a co-operative housing setup in Fort Greene where residents buy food collectively and cook dinner for each other.

It's in the city's financial interest to help artists remain here and flourish, Woolard believes. "Artists actually make the street vibrancy and nightlife so New York doesn’t look just another suburb."

Here's what you need to know if you're hoping to make it as an artist in New York City:

1. More than ever, artists working in the city have costly MFA degrees.

"I used to say it didn't matter to go to grad school," said Heather Darcy Bhandari, director of the Chelsea contemporary art gallery Mixed Greens, which shows emerging and mid-career artists. "If someone has [an arts] community, there's no real reason to go."

Then she looked at the artist roster she worked with and saw that 80 percent had MFAs. New artists see grad school as the place to first get their work seen, she said.

One year at Columbia's two-year MFA program costs $54,484. NYU's Tisch School of the Arts also costs more than $50,000 a year.

2. You will need a day job.

Few artists subsist on their art alone.

Of arts grads in New York City, only 15 percent make a living as artists, the BFAMFAPHD report found. Others work service or blue collar jobs, are educators or are in finance, technology or other sectors.

When Bhandari and co-author Jonathan Melber did research for their 2009 book "ART/WORK: Everything You Need to Know (and Do) As You Pursue Your Art Career," they found that artists, on average, earned about $10,000 a year after taxes.

That income level, she said, hasn't changed much in the last six years.

Brooklyn-based sculptor Valerie Hegarty, whose work has appeared at the Brooklyn Museum and in several galleries, earned a living off her art for roughly half of the 10 years she's been in New York, she said. 

Otherwise, part time jobs helped, like one for a Park Slope firm doing Power Point consultations.

"Generally, artists don't want to work full time," Hegarty said. "But that means you're losing extra income working part time and you have to pay own health insurance."

3. Studio space will give you sticker shock.

On the low end, you can spend $289 a month for a dark 10 x 10 room in Williamsburg, shared with someone who uses the space for storage. On the high end, you can pay $5,000 a month for a 1,750-square-foot Greenpoint studio with 17-foot ceilings and 270-square-foot patio, according to a recent email blast from the "Listings Project," a free weekly online newsletter from artist Stephanie Diamond that offers curated rental listings aimed at serving the city's creative communities. 

Rents averaged $1,145 a month.

4. Find alternatives to paying for studio space.

Getting free space through residency programs can help, but they are competitive.

Hegarty, who creates large-scale works, scored temporary free studio space through organizations like the Lower Manhattan Cultural Council and Dumbo's Smack Mellon. She now has a free space through a residency at Drew University, but she's also paying $250 a month to store her materials and artwork that hasn't sold.

"That's still cheaper and bigger than renting a studio," Hegarty said.

5. Don't use a gallery that charges to show your work...

Be wary of galleries that charge artists to show work. Most in the art world know which galleries are pay-for-play spaces and don't take them seriously, Bhandari said.

Some of these spaces charge artists upwards of $1,000 a month, she added.

6. ...But do collaborate with friends on your own group shows.

"You can actually spend the same money and rent a space yourself or get a space with friends to make an interesting group show," Bhandari advised, suggesting that artists try convincing landlords with empty space to turn it into temporary galleries.

7. Your peers will be your biggest resource.

Having a strong peer network to share resources, materials and skills with is "the most important thing to long term career," said artist Eve Mosher whose focus is environmental-based public art. Her best known installation, HighWaterLine, premiered in New York in 2007.

"Be willing to reach out and build that network," she said. "If you see an artist whose work you admire, reach out to them. They'd probably be happy to sit down for coffee."

You might even land a show thanks to your peers, added Hegarty, who supports friends by going to their openings.

"A lot of times curators will ask you, 'Do you know anyone else?' Your peers will suggest you if you're generous with them," Hegarty said.

8. Barter. Barter. Barter.

Woolard, a big proponent of the bartering economy, said trading skills is sometimes the only way projects get made.

"Sometimes we pour weeks into applying to grants and never get the work funded, so if we swap work, then we can just make the project," she said.