Is NYC Affordable for Artists? Discuss.

David Johnston

Last Monday October 21, 2013, I was invited by the New York City Council Committee on Cultural Affairs, Libraries & International Intergroup Relations to testify on the challenges of securing affordable workspace for NYC performing artists. My testimony is below:


New York City Council Testimony

Oversight Hearing:  Making New York City Affordable for Artists

Committee on Cultural Affairs, Libraries and International Intergroup Relations

Oct. 21, 2013


I am David Johnston, Executive Director of Exploring the Metropolis.  We focus on solving the workspace needs of New York’s performing artists.  Thank you for holding this hearing and thank you for the invitation to testify.

The issue of “affordability” – for artists and arts organizations – has guided our programs and studies for decades.

In 2002 we developed NYC Performing Arts Spaces, a website that enables performing artists to locate affordable, available spaces to create, rehearse and perform.

Our 2004 seminal study of orchestras’ needs for a consistent, affordable place to rehearse led to the DiMenna Center for Classical Music.

Our study of mid-career choreographers’ needs led to foundations’ implementing rehearsal space subsidies (affordable) and small capital improvements for facilities.

Our EtM Con Edison Composers’ Residency Program provides free space and a stipend for composers in cultural and community facilities.

Obviously, there are many issues which enter into the question of affordability for artists, such as housing, health insurance and child care.  At Exploring the Metropolis, our focus is workspace – that intersection of artists, facility and audience.

Currently, Exploring the Metropolis is studying these issues for our Queens Workspace Initiative. Through research into existing data sets, surveys and focus groups, we are analyzing the space needs of artists, and hope to propose solutions that address affordability, accessibility and availability.

Build interest and consensus: We involved many in government and in the private sector in Queens to ascertain whether such research had been done, and whether it would be useful.   There was uniform agreement, and our steering committee will continue to be actively involved in this two-year process. We are in conversations with many stakeholders such as the Queens Library system, Business Improvement Districts, and various economic development corporations.

Document demographics: We will have our own surveys, as well as data provided by groups like Cultural Data Project, the Naturally Occurring Cultural Districts Working Group, NYC Performing Arts Spaces (now operated by Fractured Atlas,) and the Furman Center at NYU.

Analyze the supply of cultural infrastructure: We want to identify both cultural and community facilities that could answer the demand for workspace.

The resulting data should identify what is affordable, and what other resources are needed.

Then develop cost-effective strategies. I want to note our research is in an early stage; therefore we don’t have any findings to disclose at this point.

But as far as recommendations and new programs, we know we need to look broadly. Our sense is that many different strategies and ideas will be needed to keep artists in New York City, to make it a place where they can afford to live. Possible recommendations may include:

  • zoning changes
  • expansions of workspace rehearsal subsidies
  • engaging the philanthropic community to look at the needs of smaller arts organizations and direct support for artists and artists workspace
  • establishing new residencies and residency networks in targeted communities, residencies that come with stipends and funding that will have an impact on the artist and enable them to complete their work
  • collaborating with partners like CUNY, Queens Library, and community boards that are engaged in this issue

We have to find ways to keep artists here, and to keep them in the communities where they wish to work.  I was at the Municipal Arts Society Summit last week, and I heard a speaker say that arts and culture are an economic asset to the City, a big one. Therefore artists are an economic asset.  Another speaker said that for cities to grow and thrive, they have to be true to their DNA.  A city which violates its own DNA is not going to grow.

We asked members of our Queens artists’ focus group tell us what success looked like in ten years. I want to leave you with a quote from one of these artists, Alberto Denis, who’s a choreographer/performer/educator:

“I want to do more than survive, I want to thrive.  Which means consistent dance making residencies and access to space. I want to be able to say I just taught at the Frank Sinatra School, now I am invited to the Greek Center to rehearse there and do workshops, then I go support an artist at a bar in Sunnyside. I am respected and recognized and people come to those places.”




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