Endangered Species: An Artist’s Loft
In 1971, I was a junior at Oberlin. You could get college credit for a semester if you worked for an artist in NYC. I worked for Sol LeWitt, and my friend, the painter Jessica Weiss, worked for Red Grooms. We decided to share a place we found on Lispenard Street (which I had never heard of). We got this huge 2500 square foot loft. I remember that it was quite scandalous because we sublet it from these people who charged us $200 a month—everybody in the building was upset because no one had ever paid more than $100 a month for a loft before. Jessica and I divided this place up just by hanging some curtains.
So l got me a job working at the big gallery building that had just opened at 420 West Broadway and he “farmed” me out to other artists, so I met a lot of the Minimalists and early Conceptualists. Everyone lived around SoHo and what eventually became known as Tribeca. Every Saturday I would go look at all the galleries, and everybody would go to the Spring Street Bar on the corner of West Broadway after. Then you'd find out where the loft parties were. I will never forget one time walking down West Broadway and some guy on the corner of Prince Street screaming: “There's a party at Rauschenberg’s and they’re serving shrimp!” It was all quite fun and seemed like a small village.
I had to go back to Oberlin to graduate and then I went to Yale for graduate school. I didn't come back to New York until 1978, after I was done with a fellowship at MIT. A couple of friends from the Whitney Independent Study Program called me and said they were getting a floor in a building on Franklin Street. The three of us figured out how to divide the space. We put in all the electricity, walls, and plumbing. I had $13,000 in the bank that I had saved forever. That was the budget I had to make my loft.
The landlord was really friendly. It was right around the time of the recession. He happily gave us a ten-year lease at $300 a month. I could park my car on the street. Almost everyone else around was an artist of some kind. All these buildings had been filled with bolts of fabric and they were emptied out and sent to New Jersey to save money. The landlord knew we were living there illegally. It was totally fine. Everybody I knew who was a young artist was doing the same. There were so many empty spaces. You could get by with a live/work studio and a part-time job.
I wish I would have bought a place, but never really thought to. I didn’t have that entrepreneurial knack. I can remember around 1981 that my friend Jessica, who I found my first loft with, went in with a couple of people on a building on White Street. She called me and said “Do you want a floor? You could get 5000 square feet of raw space for $68,000.” At the time, of course, I didn't have any money, so I went to my parents who were professors to ask them for the money. They laughed at me as if I had just asked for a million dollars! But personally, renting that loft was really important for me. It allowed me a certain kind of freedom that I had fantasized about when I was a very young artist. I had a ten-year lease and I was happy to have the opportunity to work and live modestly off of part-time teaching and grants, and especially to be able to travel. And there was a real community, as well. Young artists were really talking with each other. No one ever used the term “art world.”
Around the early 1980s, the city was finding ways to protect artists and you could work with your landlord to legalize your loft and make it a rent-stabilized apartment. Then later when real estate started ticking up and our landlord was getting older he wanted to sell the building. A foreign investor bought it, but I don't think they had any idea that they couldn't get us out. So we had to go to court and we won because we were becoming rent stabilized. But the building kept getting sold and bought again and sold, until fairly recently when a very big developer bought the building and claimed they were going to knock it down and build a tower. We noticed more and more of that kind of thing happening in the neighborhood. People were being squeezed out and there were fewer and fewer artists around. We went to court again, and won at first, but eventually our lawyer said to us: “Look, you might be able to keep them in court for several years but eventually you're going to lose. You should take a buyout.” There were nine original tenants in the building. After forty years there, I was the last one who really wanted to take the buyout.
There had been a lot of pressure from these landlords over the years. It often felt like a Damocles’s sword hanging over my head. For all the anxiety of that, I stayed because I felt that the loft had been an amazing gift. It allowed me to live the fantasy of being an artist that I had as a seventeen-year-old middle class kid. I was unencumbered by the difficult matters that usually get in the way of most people who are trying to become artists. But it's time for a change across the board. The world is changing. The economy is changing. The art-world has definitely changed, and I am certainly changing. Now, I am really excited about this next chapter.
John Newman is an artist. He lives in New York.