Artist’s Studio: How About the Living Room?

As rents for studios and lofts rise, many young artists find themselves working from home and adjusting their art to fit into smaller spaces.

Artist’s Studio: How About the Living Room?

Erin Lorek works out of a shared three-bedroom apartment in a Bedford-Stuyvesant brownstone. Her roommates, other artists, have always been supportive, but her work involves moving large iron plates and welding — which she has to do elsewhere.Credit…Calla Kessler/The New York Times

Artist’s Studio: How About the Living Room?

Erin Lorek is an artist whose practice involves casting sheets of glass using large iron plates, work that would ideally be done in a concrete-floored, industrial warehouse with a freight elevator, rather than the living room of a shared, three-bedroom apartment in a Bedford-Stuyvesant brownstone.

“Mine is not a very romantic situation — the huge beautiful Brooklyn loft. It’s never been that for me,” said Ms. Lorek, 41, who works full-time doing production lighting and pays $1,250 a month for her live/work arrangement. “I could never justify a $700 or $1,000 studio space. You can’t get anything in this city for less; $500 will get you a tiny, shared windowless room.”

Ms. Lorek is fortunate that her roommates — other artists who also work out of the apartment — and her landlord have always been supportive of the setup, but working out of a shared apartment has its difficulties. She has to carry 50-pound iron plates up the stairs and she’s limited mostly to prototyping there, though when her roommates are out she’ll cut metal and bend steel, then take it to a friend’s place to weld. Her studio storage is her sister’s Westchester garage.

Ms. Lorek’s artwork includes iron cast glass pieces.Credit…Bart BlonskiIdeally, she would work out of an industrial space, where she could also show and store her art.Credit…Bart Blonski

“It’s a constant negotiation of moving stuff around and finding space to do this,” Ms. Lorek said. “But I was like, ‘What is more important? Having a studio space or time for my work?’ ”

Being an artist in New York City has always required a fair amount of negotiation, thrift and ingenuity — the time when non-blue-chip artists lived and worked out of expansive SoHo and TriBeCa lofts is, of course, long gone. But for decades, artists continued to find affordable spaces in the industrial buildings of Williamsburg, Bushwick, Bed-Stuy, Sunset Park, Gowanus, Long Island City and the South Bronx, hopscotching to the next cheap neighborhood as the rents increased.

In recent years, however, the question of how to afford to live — and work — in New York is one that even many seasoned and financially successful artists have struggled to answer. Faced with rising residential and commercial rents, a dearth of inexpensive neighborhoods left to move to and a dwindling supply of affordable artist-friendly industrial spaces, more and more of them are, like Ms. Lorek, working out of bedrooms, living rooms or rented studios split two or three ways — in many cases changing their practices to accommodate the costs and constraints of living in the city.

Though most New York artists say that the energy, inspiration and professional opportunities that come with living in the city remain unparalleled, “the economics really put a damper on things,” as one put it. Smaller-scale, apartment-friendly practices get crammed in around 40-hour work weeks outside their art, and unlike in years past, when artists could benefit from the community and commercial benefits of physical proximity to one other, affordability now tends to trump all other considerations.

Stephanie Diamond, an artist and the founder of Listings Project, a free weekly email of real estate and other opportunities that was started with her personal search for a live/work space, said that while she does occasionally see posts for beautiful loft spaces, live/work arrangements with art supplies wedged into the corner of a bedroom, or next to piles of books and clothes, are a lot more common.

“The scarcity of big lofts as live/work spaces have shifted what artists are creating and how,” said Ms. Diamond. “Artists who worked in large-scale formats have changed to smaller formats and work often requires a lot of logistical go-round to make it happen.”

When Levi Jackman, a 33-year-old photographer, first moved to the city six years ago, he worked out of his $1,650-a-month NoLIta studio apartment. “It wasn’t working well,” he said, and after a series of steep rent increases, he moved into a one-bedroom with his fiancé on the Upper East Side and started doing more work as a commercial photography assistant so he could afford a separate $1,250-a-month studio space in Mott Haven.

Three years later, the studio’s rent is up to $1,550 a month and Mr. Jackman is thinking about moving into a two-bedroom in his building and working out of the extra room.

“It used to be that people were repurposing industrial space. Now I think they’re repurposing residential space,” said Mr. Jackman. “The people who need significant studio space are moving far, far out; I have some friends who live and work in a studio out by the airport in Jamaica, Queens. Everyone else is just getting a two-bedroom.”

Jenny Dubnau, one of the founders of the Artist Studio Affordability Project, a group that formed in 2013 in response to rent increases that forced many artists out of their studios in Sunset Park’s Industry City, said that $2 a square foot per month for a studio is “considered great right now and that’s at the upper edge of what most artists can afford.” (A 300-square-foot private studio that rents for $600 a month is rare, though not impossible, to find.)

In the late 1980s and early 1990s, Ms. Dubnau said, 50 cents a square foot was common. By the late 1990s, she was paying a little over a dollar a square foot for a Greenpoint space that she eventually got priced out of; it’s now the Kickstarter headquarters.

Luxury condo conversions have been claiming industrial space for decades, but the more recent surge in demand for hip, warehouse-style office space, in combination with the co-working boom and maker space trend, has meant that artists are increasingly competing against deeper-pocketed tenants for what unconverted spaces remain.

Trudy Benson, a painter who moved her studio from a Clinton Hill warehouse to Brownsville last year, said that by the time she left Clinton Hill, there were just two other artists left on her floor of 10 studios. Which was not surprising, as she was paying over $1,600 a month for 375 square feet.

“Everyone else was a designer or a business,” said Ms. Benson. In Brownsville, she said, she and her husband, also a painter, paid about $1.80 a square foot a month for a 3,000-square-foot commercial space they found on Craigslist, where she used about 700 square feet and subleased the rest to other artists. But while industrial leases usually run for 10 years or longer, the longest lease they could get was three years — the landlord wanted to keep his options open — and they have since started subleasing their own space and working from their Sunset Park apartment to save money while looking for a more permanent situation.

Not only are leases in excess of three years now rare, but landlords often require 6- to 12-month security deposits for larger spaces, making it both difficult and unwise for artists to invest in building out studios, according to Esther Robinson, the co-executive director of Art Built, a nonprofit that recently partnered with the city to convert 50,000 square feet of the Brooklyn Army Terminal to affordable artist studios.

“We currently have a work space insecurity issue that is quite profound,” said Ms. Robinson. “There is a very limited supply of these types of industrial buildings — they’re like redwoods. The floors are reinforced, they have industrial elevators that work, that are not dangerous to go down to the loading bay. These things we actually think of as the classic New York City loft are what artists need to make things and get them out to galleries.”

Rising rents also mean that artist enclaves are increasingly becoming a thing of the past. Christopher Totaro, a sculptor turned painter who lives in TriBeCa and also works as a real estate agent for Warburg Realty, said that he didn’t see artists flocking to a specific neighborhood anymore.

“I think cost has created dispersement and fragmentation,” Mr. Totaro said. “I don’t know where the new generation of artists is anchoring. I don’t know if it’s in the five boroughs.”

Between 2000 and 2015, the neighborhoods where the largest numbers of artists moved were Bushwick, Williamsburg, and Greenpoint, according to a 2017 analysis of census data by the Center for an Urban Future, a policy research institute. But those same neighborhoods also saw sharp residential and commercial rent increases during that same period, according to the real estate brokerage Citi Habitats.

Since 2015, census data shows that the number of artists living in Bushwick has continued to increase, but at a far slower rate, said Eli Dvorkin, the editorial director at the center. South Crown Heights and Bed-Stuy, meanwhile, have supplanted Williamsburg and Greenpoint as the neighborhoods with the next largest influxes.

“Emerging artists find themselves chased from neighborhood to neighborhood,” said Mr. Dvorkin, who was also one of the founders of the now-defunct Bushwick performance venue Silent Barn.

Lia Lowenthal, a 35-year-old artist and designer, moved to Bed-Stuy seven years ago. But as the rent on the two-bedroom she shared with her husband climbed from $2,200 to nearly $2,700, and the 250-square-foot Bushwick studio she split with another artist went from $1,200 a month to $1,600, (it was so small, she also had to pay $200 a month for a storage unit), she increasingly felt the need to cut costs.

Fortunately, an artist friend who had taken a job out-of-state offered to rent them her two bedroom co-op in Pelham Parkway, in the Bronx, at a low enough price that Ms. Lowenthal could also afford her own studio in the South Bronx. But when her studio lease is up in five years, Ms. Lowenthal isn’t sure they’ll stay in the city.

She grew up on the Upper West Side, and while she loves living here and has found it enormously helpful as an artist, “as I get older I think maybe I don’t know if I need to be at the center of things. There are benefits to not having to think about how you’re going to make rent every month.”

In her book “Made in Brooklyn,” Amanda Wasielewski, an artist and art history researcher at Stockholm University who did her doctoral research in New York, argues that the burden of paying for space pushes many New York artists in more entrepreneurial directions.

Dr. Wasielewski, who rented a work space in Bushwick in 2015, said she was really surprised that so many people in her studio space were working on commercial projects for corporate clients. “I think it comes out of necessity for sure,” said Dr. Wasielewski.

Many artists take on either part- of full-time jobs in aligned commercial fields. Mr. Jackman, the photographer on the Upper East Side, said that in addition to taking more photo assisting gigs than he would like, he and many other New York artists he knows have found themselves developing more commercial practices — that is, producing more of what they know will sell well and less of what they themselves find interesting and challenging.

“It’s changing the work we’re making and in some ways making us less competitive,” Mr. Jackman said. “I feel like Berlin is breeding more young artists than New York. They’re going in a more conceptual direction and gaining attention.”

And though working from one’s apartment may be the most straightforward way to reduce expenses, many artists said their work — and their personal lives — suffered when they did.

“It’s hard to have a studio space at home for a lot of reasons,” said Andre Trenier, a 42-year-old Bronx muralist and painter who used to work out of his University Heights apartment before he started volunteering at the Andrew Freeman Home, a community and cultural center on the Grand Concourse, in exchange for studio space there about eight years ago.

“It’s nice to mentally be able to compartmentalize,” said Mr. Trenier. “Before, I had a room in the apartment to use as my studio, but inevitably I’d end up in the living room, on the couch, spilling something. My wife would be like, ‘I thought we agreed?’ ”

When faced with a challenge, artists are, of course, good at finding creative solutions. Laura Perez-Harris, a 31-year-old sculptor, for example, realized that she could get discounted studio space by re-enrolling, year after year, as an undergraduate at Hunter College, even though she already has a B.F.A. from the Rhode Island School of Design.

Taking a ceramics studio class there works out to about $230 a month, about half the cheapest studio space she could find. And unlike at a studio, clay and firing are included, along with guidance and critical feedback. Still, Ms. Perez-Harris would love a real studio space, one where she could show her work. “I’m happy, but I can’t do this forever,” she said.

Adapting practices, moving further and further out, it’s all doable until it isn’t. Ms. Robinson, the ArtBuilt director, said that some artists eventually give up and move to places like Philadelphia, Providence and New Haven. At the moment, many artists are still finding workarounds. And once in a while, a young artist still manages to score an affordable loft.

Laur Duvall, a 26-year-old who makes huge drawings from performance art pieces, had been bouncing between cheap sublets while renting an unheated Sunset Park garage as a studio for $500 a month. But when winter came — and the owner of the garage started cutting the electricity when Mr. Duvall used power tools, a friend connected him with Janet Traynor, a Warburg real estate agent.

Ms. Traynor mostly deals in co-ops and condos, but looking through warehouse listings, she found a 800-square-foot, undivided live/work space in an old industrial building on Atlantic Avenue in Crown Heights. It was more expensive than Mr. Duvall could afford, but Ms. Traynor managed to talk the landlord down to his $1,500-a-month budget.

“I walked into the space and was like: this is it,” said Mr. Duvall, who moved in a little over a year ago. “There were high ceilings and cement floors and a space over the door that I divided up to store work. And the freight elevator is killer — I have huge wood boards that I draw on that I don’t have carry up the stairs. My work has changed completely.”

“The only thing I worry about is that they’re going to raise the rent,” he said.

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