Our Town Creating City Spaces for Artists by Jennifer Goodnow

Our Town
Our Town
Creating City Spaces for Artists
Jennifer Goodnow

Legislation would allow performers to rent municipal buildings after-hours

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If the City Council adopts legislation, now in committee, that would allow artists or art groups to rent city-owned or city-run spaces for rehearsals and performances, concerts could take place in the Tweed Courthouse’s rotunda and inside several other stately buildings. Photo: Walter Snalling Jr., via Wikimedia

  • The Louis J. Lefkowitz State Office Building on Centre Street could be rented out after-hours for rehearsals, performances or concerts, according to legislation now in a City Council committee. Photo: Beyond My Ken, via Wikimedia

  • Perhaps more than ever, artists trying to make it in New York City are up against the financial wall. Besides having to pay ever-increasing residential rents, they must also dole out for rehearsal, performance and exhibition spaces — and are often getting priced out.

    “I know lots of artists, actors and singers who are frustrated about how hard it is to create anything due to cost of space,” said Michael Rider, a musician who lives in northern Manhattan.

    Rider said securing rehearsal space can quickly sap a performer’s budget. “Unfortunately, affordable spaces are getting harder and harder to find. Rehearsal spaces can cost as much $75-100 an hour, often making it impossible for artists to hone their craft and share their talents in the city,” he said.

    City officials are trying to address at least one aspect of the problem. Councilman Ben Kallos, along with several colleagues, including Councilwoman Helen Rosenthal, have introduced legislation that would permit artists or art groups to rent, at a reduced rate, city-owned or city-run spaces for after-hours rehearsals or performances.

    The venues could include Beaux-Arts spaces such as Manhattan’s Surrogate’s Court lobby, which rises three stories and whose marble staircase and other features recall Paris’ Palais Garnier Opera House. The Tweed Courthouse on Chambers Street and the Marriage Bureau in the Louis Lefkowitz Building on Centre Street could also become available.

    The idea is to keep artists in the city, said Kallos, who is chairman of the Committee on Governmental Operations, which has oversight over the Department of Citywide Administrative Services.

    “We can better serve our New Yorkers if we make government property open to them for community meeting and performance spaces to invest in our communities and the arts,” Kallos said in a statement, “Performance and meeting spaces are in high demand as the few that remain get displaced with new development, eliminating opportunities for artists and communities to congregate.”

    A few decades ago, artists could find and flock to low-rent neighborhoods, whether in SoHo, the Lower East Side and even, for a time, Greenwich Village in Manhattan. There was also Brooklyn.

    The irony, though, was that their presence would then help turn undesirable and even derelict neighborhoods into acceptable and, in time, cool, trendy — and expensive — destinations.

    Now, as with the rest of the city, outer borough neighborhoods that were once affordable are swiftly pricing out of the marketplace for struggling artists. The city used to be a thriving arts mecca, but high rents are driving away the creative class. Some artists are leaving the city for upstate towns such as Woodstock and Kingston. Others leave the state and even the country in search of places amenable to artists both culturally and financially.

    Edson Scheid, a Juilliard graduate and classical violinist, is hopeful the legislation could make it easier for performers to live, and make a living, in New York.

    “What a great way to make use of city spaces during after-hours! As artists, we always look for opportunities to perform and share the music that we love with audiences,” he said. “This initiative would be a wonderful resource for us, and would offer audience members additional opportunities to attend cultural events.”

    Kallos conferred with the League of Independent Theaters of New York to help come up with the legislation, which has been introduced to the Committee on Governmental Operations. Should it be enacted, the Citywide Administrative Services Department would then be tasked with coming up with a pricing scheme. Other considerations, such as security, would also be reviewed.

    “New York City is home to a vibrant community of artists and performers,” Rosenthal said in a statement. “By giving them access to City spaces at an affordable rate, we can help the creative community thrive.”