Downturn New York

Portrait of Daniel S. Palmer, pencil on paper by Phong Bui.

New York City is a place of perpetual change, but perhaps this has its limits. I’ve only lived here for about twelve years, but the past two or three have felt particularly different and especially precarious for the arts and for artist communities. Accordingly, this feels like the perfect moment and venue to bring together a group of New Yorkers to reflect on the changes that have happened to this city in recent years, and to discuss how they have impacted the creative sector.

The urban landscape of New York has transformed in ways that jeopardize its longstanding role as a preeminent environment for fostering creativity. Nowhere has this been felt more acutely than in the increasing disparity of the art world. While the market pushes prices upward for blue chip artists (climbing to previously unseen heights), the majority are having a harder time making ends meet. A growing number of them are forced to abandon unaffordable studio spaces for alternative arrangements. Some have given up entirely, leaving the city altogether. A myriad of galleries and exhibition spaces have closed or been forced to relocate because of rising rents and pressure to keep up with the expansionist mega-gallery mode while they lose market share of the support that had previously sustained their bottom line. Ultimately, many are finding themselves incapacitated and unable to serve as hubs for communities of artists to share their work. Those artists and gallerists that are able to remain here often seem to have to make compromising decisions or work within a system that may not be the most conducive to fostering true creativity and dialogue.

These reconfigurations have produced both tangible and intangible results. I’m particularly struck by the changes to our daily experiences of art in the city and the effect they have had on our community. We notice these differences at slightly sparser exhibition openings; or when we make the rounds to more decentralized galleries where their directors complain of reduced foot traffic and the stresses of enduring the global art fair cycle; or when we visit museums that feel like they are more crowded than ever but with fewer devotees willing to really look closely at the work; or at studio buildings where artists seem more squeezed than ever to make the rising rent (often in addition to what they pay for a primary residence); among other regular reminders of the mounting challenges that creativity faces here today. We are also confronted by what we don’t see: the countless eager young, ambitious artists who aren’t even able or willing to move here to try to survive as an artist in this city in the first place. Things are different these days. It seems that something has been irrevocably changed in New York’s creative environment. This city has been at the fore of the global art world since the middle of the last century, but is it in danger of losing this mantle if artists can’t afford to live and work here anymore? 

These alarming modifications to the city’s artistic landscape are mirrored by staggering alterations to its built environment, highlighting the greater powers at the root of the disturbance. We typically place the blame for art world troubles on the market (which is certainly a contributing factor), but that sector is beholden to even more profound forces of global capital. Most notably, an untenable real estate boom has been underlying much of New York’s most recent transformation, fueled by an influx of foreign cash (laundered or otherwise) into luxury high-rises and other investment properties. The paradox here is that the challenges we’re witnessing have not been brought about by a recession (which we saw actually fostered creativity and experimentation), but by the economic growth of recent years. This has driven modifications to our physical landscape and instigated the changes that are markedly visible throughout the city today: buildings knocked down to make way for new condos; large swaths of storefronts that seem to lie eternally unoccupied; but also the many new parks and shopping districts that have sprung up around town in exchange for taxbreaks that incentivize new construction. This remodeling is concurrent with improvements to public safety and quality of life amenities like cleaner plazas, bike lanes, and a more pedestrian-friendly city. They make the streets feel more vital than ever for portions of the population, but perhaps this comes at the cost of true diversity and natural dynamism. Unfortunately, these enhancements are not evenly distributed among the public. Rather, they’ve resulted in dangerous inequities by making the city’s center astronomically unaffordable, producing a torrential wave of gentrification that has forced the creative class and service class to be pushed further toward the underserved periphery where they are forced to subsist with inadequate essential services and failing public transit as their only lifeline.

But even so, New Yorkers persist. Perhaps then, these changes and challenges are part of the perpetual cycle of a great city like ours. Rather than lament the current situation or overly romanticize the hard times of the “bad old days,” it seems to me that we should analyze the moment to determine what can be done, focus on what we do still have, emphasize what we can improve, and work together to achieve that before it is irreparably damaged. New York City still has a diversity of viewpoints and thoughtful individuals who will remain ceaselessly creative in even the most dire of circumstances. Accordingly, I’m grateful to the seven artists and writers who have offered their voices to this Critics Page for their eagerness to address this situation, and for all they add to the vibrancy of this city. Their exemplary efforts living and working here ought to remind us of the spirit of constant dedication and determination of the city’s inhabitants. As their contributions show, whether the conditions are seemingly favorable or adverse, New Yorkers will always create, incite, proclaim, and resist together to make this city ever greater.


Daniel S. Palmer

Daniel S. Palmer is the Associate Curator at Public Art Fund, New York. He lives in New York.