Monday, July 6, 2015

Where Will the Displaced Artists, Arts Organizations and Administrators All Go?

Good morning.
"And the beat goes on……………………."

The issue of artists being priced out of living and working in our cities is not new.

The concentration of wealth in a smaller percentage of the population, steamrolling gentrification, finite urban real estate options in many areas (including in limited premium locations), skyrocketing real estate prices, increased rents, and such things as AirBnB putting pressure on real estate to turn high, quick profits - have together have made it increasingly expensive for artists to live and work in cities across the country.  The problem continues to grow. Those who think there is still a solution might prefer to cast it as a challenge, while those who think the die is cast - at least in some cities - might see it as an unsolvable problem).  However you frame the situation, it continues to be worrisome.

On the role of AirBnB in the process of making it hard for artists to live and work in their cities, the Pacific Standard article made this point:

"In desirable urban space, the company (AirBnB) is helping to breed a gentrified monoculture that threatens the cultural diversity it piggybacks on as long as cities don't take steps to balance its effects."

We have long lamented the negative impact this can have on urban areas as the creative economy finds it difficult to exist, let alone flourish, when artists are economically excluded from a territory.  In my own backyard of the San Francisco Bay Area - long an incubator for ideas and discoveries that have changed the face of the world - from television to the Beatniks; from the Hippies to America's answer to the Beatles launched British Music Invasion; from the Anti-Vietnam War movement to the Silicon Valley computer revolution.  All of those things had their genesis in this area, and it is hard, if not impossible, to imagine that any of them would have come to pass were artists not part of the fabric of the City (and when we say the City here we mean San Francisco, but we also mean the greater Bay Area).  The same is likely true of other cities.

And yet there are few cities making a concerted effort to retain the artists, arts organizations and arts workers so as to protect and expand their creative ecosystems.  The issue is usually framed as a problem for artists - which is assuredly is.  But it's also a problem for arts managers, and for the organizations themselves.

What is to become of these oases of creativity, if the artists won't be a part of life there anymore?  As author Sarah Kendizior noted in an essay entitled "Expensive Cities are Killing Creativity":

"New York, San Francisco….and other cities where the cost of living has skyrocketed - are no longer places where you go to be someone.  They are places you live when you are born having arrived."

 She goes on in an analysis of creativity becoming the handmaiden of the rich:

Creativity - as an expression of originality, experimentation, innovation - is not a viable product. It has been priced out into irrelevance - both by the professionalization of the industries that claim it, and the soaring cost of entry to those professions.
The "creative class" is a frozen archetype - one that does not boost the economy of global cities, as urban studies theorist Richard Florida argues, but is a product of their takeover by elites. The creative class plays by the rules of the rich, because those are the only rules left. Adaptation is a form of survival. But adaptation is a form of abandonment as well."

The incasing difficulty in living and working in some major cities affects not just the artists, but the newer and the smaller and the mid-sized arts organizations housed in these cities.  Increasingly they too are being priced out.  Some of these organizations are finding it difficult to continue to stay in the very cities they might have helped create.  As landlords seek to maximize the return on their properties - aided by demand exceeding supply in many instances - arts organizations are finding they can't afford to stay in their current locations.

There are projects underway to try to address this issue for both artists and the organizations that promote, curate and present art.  Placemaking devotees understand that there is a relationship between the art that "makes" a place more viable, livable, healthy, dynamic and valuable, and the artists and the arts organizations that are the core of that effort.  But can they alone buck the trends of artists and organizations simply not having the resources to live in the cities anymore?

And then there are the arts administrators who work in the organizations and with the artists facing a forced exodus.  They haven't escaped the dilemma either.  But for the senior management at the largest cultural institutions who are competitively compensated, and for the few that are the beneficiaries of rent controlled housing, many middle and entry level arts managers are finding that they simply can't afford the rents or home purchase prices to live in the cities in which they work.  It makes little sense to support the needs of the artists and the organizations that work to support the art created, if we fail to support the managers who make that happen.  Arts administrators' needs for affordable housing have to be central in the mix, but I rarely hear them included.  This is, in my opinion, a serious threat to the development of our future leader class.

In San Francisco or down the Silicon Valley for example, rents have risen so far so fast, that a simple studio apartment can easily cost $1500 to $2000 a month, if you can find one - and not a lavish one at that.  A 2 bedroom house can fetch upwards of four or five thousand dollars.  An entry level administrator, being paid a starting salary of  $40,000 (or a middle level manager making $60,000 a year), very likely have only two choices (assuming s/he is not married to a wealthy partner or the heir to a nice fortune):  1) Share a place with several roommates (not always the most desirable option), or 2) live an hour to three hours commute time from where you work - where housing is still affordable (perhaps even a less attractive alternative).

The problem, of course, is not just affordable housing. The issue is also inadequate compensation to artists and administrators, and inadequate capitalization and budget for space for organizations.  Prices are going up.  Income is not.

Being priced out of the market is not the reality everywhere, but it is the reality in an increasing number of places.  If that trend continues, what will that do to our leadership for the future?  What happens if people in certain areas like San Francisco, New York, Los Angeles, Boston, when faced with having to live far from their jobs, or in unacceptable living arrangements (I mean if your in your 30's do you really want to live with roommates still?), simply opt out for something else, or somewhere else?  Will our talent pool shrink?  And what happens if that trend expands to other cities?

Or will that not be a problem, because the organization itself will be forced to move out of the city it supposedly serves?    Or will that not be a problem either, because the artists that comprise the organization will have moved on to somewhere else themselves?

If the trends continue to turn certain urban areas into the enclaves of the very wealthy - unaffordable for the middle class and for artists, arts organizations and arts administrators, where will they all go? And that doesn't even consider the question of middle class audiences.

And that might just be the crux of it.  Artists aren't going to just disappear, nor will all of them simply stop being artists.  Ditto for organizations and managers.  What is more likely is that they will simply move - to where life is more affordable and more conducive to their lifestyle and to their work.  And in so doing, it may well be that such a move will herald the beginning of a new creative burgeoning in another geographic area - another city, another town, another undeveloped venue.  And if that turns out to be the case, that will be a boon for those newly found meccas. It may also turn out to be disastrous to those cities they were forced out of; cities that over time will become transformed into something entirely different than that which gave them greatness, and which attracted people in the first place.

One hopes that the cities wake up to the challenge (problem?) and can help - with housing subsidies, tax breaks for builder / developers and tax breaks for artists.  And we ought to start thinking about tax breaks for arts administrators at a certain level, as well as for artists.  If we are to support creativity and art making, performing and exhibition as part of a place, then we ought to include support for the whole of the ecosystem, and that includes the managers who will make it all happen.

Have a great week.

Don't Quit

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