Against All Odds, New York’s Artist Buildings Have Survived

New York’s reputation as a beacon for artists was never inevitable. Only after World War II had destabilized Europe was the city able to usurp Paris as the commercial center of the art business. Veterans returning from abroad found a new diversity of college art programs and art schools thanks to the abundance of federal education grants made available by the G.I. Bill. The expansion of government-subsidized housing loans meant that cheap space was also easy to come by, as New York had a then-ample stock of residential and industrial buildings. In the following decades, which saw the birth of Abstract Expressionism, followed by Pop Art, followed by minimalism — all locally grown movements — the city also became the capital of what we now call the art world, a multibillion-dollar, mostly unregulated global economy of galleries, auction houses and fairs that has grown without interruption through wars, recessions and two pandemics.

No part of this system would function — or have any meaning at all — without the artists themselves. They’re the real reason New York and the art world are synonymous: Even now, when real estate prices have reached heights that would shock those postwar pioneers, artists still live here and, more important, they still work here. There are artists’ studios in pretty much every neighborhood of every borough, ingrained in the city’s architecture unlike anything else but bodegas and pizzerias. Beyond the fact of their ubiquity, there are no generalizations to be made about these spaces. One of the pleasures of covering art in New York is the ability to see firsthand the array of environments in which artists work: out of opulent homes or cramped and grungy rooms with no windows; out of converted office spaces or cavernous factories; in a sizable workshop or at a computer in the kitchen alcove of a studio apartment.

But the city has always romanticized artist-dominated buildings, the kinds of communal spaces in which every unit might be home to an artist’s studio (and sometimes, unofficially, their residences, too). With this in mind, we set out to document a sample of the artists’ buildings that currently exist in New York: a floor of the Brooklyn Army Terminal, a former military depot and supply base in Sunset Park; a shared space for photographers in Williamsburg, Brooklyn; a warehouse (and onetime textile factory) in Ridgewood, Queens; an office building above what used to be a Dunkin’ Donuts in Manhattan’s Financial District; and a loft in TriBeCa, a relic of the ’60s and early ’70s, before the area was zoned for residential occupation, when artists illegally took over abandoned manufacturing buildings. (The city had to mark stairwells and doorways with placards reading A.I.R., for “artist-in-residence,” so the fire department would know to rescue them in case of an emergency.) In an almost unheard-of feat of perseverance, the same artist, Don Dudley, 93, has been working out of this loft since 1971.

What’s featured here is not definitive, and perhaps not even fully representative of what it looks like to have an artistic space of one’s own in the city. Artists can and will work anywhere and, like their work itself, they’re limited only by the extent of their imaginations — and their finances. To have a studio at all, one has either to be able to afford to buy or have a gracious and understanding landlord, both rarities in the current real estate market. As of 2024, it’s never been harder for artists to find a place to work. In Manhattan, average rent prices have risen 15 percent from their levels just before the Covid-19 shutdown, and things aren’t much better in the other boroughs. (In Brooklyn and parts of Queens, rent is at least 10 to 15 percent higher than it was in March 2020.) So artists have had to create a kind of whisper network to withstand New York’s unimpeachable forward march, which the art market has, ironically, enabled. Suitable spaces are passed down, sublet, shared in secret. Most of them are temporary fixes before an artist — who’s grown out, or been priced out, of their space — has to move on.

But one thing is clear from the last 80 or so years of history: No matter how much the city changes, no matter how prohibitive it may seem, artists always make room for themselves. New York belongs to them.

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