The Centrality of Affordable Housing in Arts Advocacy

The Grad Center at CUNY is doing a yearlong initiative titled “Cultural Capital: The Promise and Price of New York’s Creative Economy.” They’ve had a number of interesting panels and talks throughout the semester. Of particular interest was the panel—What is the State of New York’s Creative Economy— consisting of Kate Levin, commissioner of the NYC department of Cultural Affairs, Jonathan Bowles, executive director of the Center for an Urban Future and Elizabeth Currid-Halkett, a sociologist and author of The Warhol Economy.

All made the case for the cultural sector as a major economic draw in NYC—both through its contributions to the desirability of NYC  as a place for innovative people to live, as well as a destination for tourism. But what I found most interesting is  that the advocacy issue that both Currid and Bowles really latched onto was not arts funding or promotion, but housing. Currid’s book argues that earlier NYC art scenes were so vibrant because affordable neighborhoods throughout the city functioned as a kind of incubator for artists, fostering ideas and experimentation and giving birth to movements that were larger than the contributions of any individual artists. (To be fair, what she doesn’t acknowledge in her idealization of these areas is that these neighborhoods were often dangerous and unsanitary.)

Nevertheless, in light Alecia Lynn Eberhardt’s blog post which has been making the facebook rounds and all of the talk of Bloomberg’s failures with regard to affordable housing, this seems a particularly potent issue. And a particularly tricky one with regard to the arts. As Levin brought up, it is inappropriate for the city to privilege artists over other professions—such as teachers, or nurses or policemen—in its initiatives for middle and low income housing. However, what her argument does not take into account is the precarious economic state of artists and other (often creative) freelancers. In some middle income industries, workers do have relative consistency and stability, as well as benefits. However, increasingly, and especially in the arts, such stability is rare. Jobs are often short term and artists are constantly trying to drum up more work/income/etc within this constantly shifting terrain. Perhaps a solution would involve a fundamental awareness of the precarious state of certain professions, and to provide solutions targeted in that direction. It’s a tricky proposition, though none can deny that living in NYC as an artist is increasingly untenable.

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