Meet the Organization Providing Affordable Space to NYC's Emerging Artists

One of the most pressing challenges facing artists in big cities is the lack of affordable studio space. When we say "big cities," we mean places like New York and San Francisco, which have been experiencing unprecedented gentrification and, along with it, rent increases.

While these things are all relative, we'll go out on a limb and say that due to sheer market economics, artists in smaller cities probably have it better off.

For example, take the work of the Minneapolis-based Artspace Projects, whose mission is to create, own, and operate affordable spaces for artists in cities across the U.S. The organization, which we profiled in a previous post, and which gets significant backing from the Kresge Foundation, strikes whenever it sees a compelling business case for development. And so it has set its sights on cities like Detroit and Cheyenne.

On Wall Street, the adage is "buy low, sell high." But what about the artists and nonprofit organizations living in the hyper-expensive cities on the coasts, where rent is already high?

Enter Spaceworks, the Brooklyn-based organization committed to providing artists with affordable rehearsal and studio space. Founded in 2011, the organization has been involved in several major projects throughout New York City, including its recent renovation of the Williamsburg Library’s 4,400-square-foot top floor into rehearsal space and art studios. 

It recently announced that it was promised $10 million from the city to embark on its largest project yet—renovating 50,000 square feet of future studio space and community arts facilities in two locations in the Bronx.

Spaceworks is fortunate in the sense that it has an ally in mayor Bill de Blasio, who previously announced plans to build 1,500 new affordable live/work units for artists over the next decade. That said, the goodwill has to be matched by an action plan, and it seems as if Spaceworks brought a compelling one to the table.

Spaceworks focused on the Bronx due to its lack of affordable workspaces. It also targeted the borough because—in a strange twist—as the city continues to gentrify, artists have been blamed in some quarters. "We hope that these projects can help change the (often unfair) perception of artists as agents of gentrification, toward one of artists as agents of neighborhood stability and vitality," Mr. Paul Parkhill, executive director of Spaceworks. 

To that end, Parkill noted that Spaceworks does not offer space to "more established regulars."

"We have found that most of our dancers, theater artists, and musicians are in the 'emerging artist' category," he said. In other words, organizations like Spaceworks cater to the needs of the kinds of artists whose needs align with those who are afraid of being pushed out of the neighborhoods where they've lived for generations. Struggling dancers and aspiring playwrights aren't akin to hedge fund managers and Silicon Valley executives. 

In short, as artists and nonprofits across the country struggle to obtain and secure affordable housing, perception is oftentimes as important as the plan.