Out of the Garret

A new study examines the real economic life of artists

Fuller is one of scores of artists who took part in last weekend's Second Annual DUMBO (Down Under Manhattan Bridge Overpass) Art Show last weekend, opening their studios to the public. DUMBO, as most people know, is an evocative semi-industrial slab of Brooklyn waterfront that is to the current New York art scene what Soho was in the long-ago days when signs on the cast-iron landmarks read A.I.R. and not Louis Vuitton. Greenpoint, Williamsburg, and Red Hook are not far behind.

Fuller shares a 1400-square-foot sixth-floor studio with furniture designer Rodney Trice at 68 Jay Street—a block-wide building so densely packed with young artists it's a virtual incubator. A 38-year-old Seattle native, Fuller was educated at Western Washington University and Pratt; she has patched together a living in a variety of ways. Now inhabiting a rent-stabilized Brooklyn apartment whose landlord rebates some rent in return for Fuller acting as gardener, she earns the bulk of her income as a freelance graphic designer. But she has also been a waitress, worked at cold-storage plants in Alaska, and driven ice-cream trucks and agricultural combines. "It's been kind of hairy at times," says the painter, whose heavily gestural pictures portray giant insects and flowers. "It says a lot about our culture that I could never survive any other way unless I had a trust fund. But I'm an artist. I'm making a living. It took me years to get to where I am with the identity, but everything else I do besides making art is just some other side of me. It's just money."

Until six months ago, photographer Mimi Wlodarczyk survived by fabricating other people's objects. "I did portfolio printing," explains the Manhattan-based Wlodarczyk, whose reportage-style pictures take their inspiration from the early Robert Frank. "But six months ago I stopped. I was having trouble doing any work of my own." Wlodarczyk, who also holds down part-time jobs as an adjunct professor at the New School and the Educational Alliance, pays $300 monthly rent to live in HDFC subsidized housing. She recently got health insurance for the first time in her life. "My parents are the American dream," she says. "They're first-generation immigrants and they're middle class. I guess I'm middle class. I've gone through grad school, but I live in a poor neighborhood in low-income housing, I make under a thousand a month teaching, and I don't get health insurance from my job because schools only hire adjuncts. No one wants to pay those benefits anymore. I'm an optimist about it. Some artists I know are, like, 'Everything sucks. Everything's bad.' I'm poor, but I'm happy. I prepared myself for it. I had to take the risk to do my own work."

With his computer, fax, and cell phone, artist Michael  Joseph represents the inverse of the anarchic boho waving a palette knife.
Sylvia Plachy
With his computer, fax, and cell phone, artist Michael Joseph represents the inverse of the anarchic boho waving a palette knife.

Wlodarczyk's experience isn't rare, as it turns out. Of the artists Columbia surveyed, 37 percent spent 31 or more hours a week on art or "art-related activities," while fully 59 percent spent over 21 hours a week on "other" employment. "I got a graduate degree to learn how to operate power tools," says painter Patrick Eck, who underwrites his Pearl Street workspace by doing contracting and building cabinetry. "I do a variety of jobs to survive," says 31-year-old Michael Joseph, whose image-based performance and video work has attracted attention despite the fact that "I don't make a lot of stuff that's viable" as an artifact in galleries. Joseph, who has been a house painter, studio assistant, and now constructs museum installations, works from a 2500-square-foot Jay Street loft shared with a fellow sculptor, two carpet pythons, and a California king snake. "As best I can," he says, "I try not to let the other work interfere with being an artist. I never want to say I'm so bogged down in a job that I can't be in a show. It's really important to me to have flexibility."

For all the "flexibility" his career requires, Joseph more accurately represents the inverse of the mad anarchic boho waving a palette knife. His studio and working life are models of organization. He has a computer, a fax, a resume, and a cell phone. He's as good with power tools as with his aesthetic apparatus. Politicians and arts funders might find it interesting to consider something the real-estate industry has long known, that artists are the mine canaries of urban development. Deploying the acquired abilities of a well-educated caste, good manual and social skills, and active credit cards in pursuit of affordable living and work space, they often head out for territories where yuppies won't venture. They establish beachheads, make improvements, and colonize the funky local bars. They crack the axles on their old Toyota pickups driving cobbled backstreets. Then—provided the artists don't fall dead from their perches—their urban frontiers generally get claimed by shiny people driving late-model Saabs. The artists are driven out to repeat the cycle in, say, underappreciated Far Rockaway.

"There continues to be a felt need for reliable and consistent information on artists' real conditions," says Columbia's Jeffri. "We need to translate the information into programs and policy." When Jeffri's group first mailed its surveys, they enclosed voluntary response cards soliciting participation in a separate longer-term study. "We mailed 7700 cards, expecting 10 responses," Jeffri says. "We got 2275 responses, and 1800 artists volunteered to identify themselves. I almost dropped dead." Because there had never been longitudinal data on artists, the high response rate held out the possibility of one day "doing the kind of thing the Harris poll does, when they have a particular issue they want to put to a particular population," and also building a comparative bulwark against the erratic data compiled in the only other national data source on artists, the 1990 U.S. Census. "For the first time, we'll be able to do an instant dip on issues that matter—housing, health care, credit, establishing standards of fair practice," says Jeffri. For the first time, we'll have an archetype to counter what "the Christian Coalition propaganda would have you think is artists standing in their studios and pissing on the floor." In this new archetype, the artists will of course be pissing on studio floors, but they'll be doing it as model Americans with a full debt load and a Keogh plan.

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