Out of the Garret

A new study examines the real economic life of artists

Whatever became of starving artists? Was the legend of painters in garrets lit by 40-watt lightbulbs just a quaint cultural delusion? Or do they actually exist? If the '50s were last great soulful age of Cedar Bar bohos (with their toxic macho and hard-drinkin' gals), the Pop '60s heralded an era of unabashed materialists. Yet it wasn't until the '80s that American artists came into a collective

George Jefferson period, when all semblance of cultlike asceticism fell away.

No longer were artists ashamed to be seen moving up to the East Side. Hauling their loot home in wheelbarrows, they sunk their earnings into lofts and then buildings and then blocks and then towns. Often their houses were better documented than their art. And so, in many people's minds, the image of the contemporary artist morphed out of all recognition. In place of the impecunious genius scraping up a livelihood in some Loisaida bolt-hole, we got shelter magazine spreads on Philip Taafe's villa in Naples—and, later, his immense converted Chelsea schoolhouse where uniformed assistants scurry about. We got the assorted Manhattan and Montauk compounds of the art-world Bluto, Julian Schnabel, built to prop up his more protean fantasias. We got Jennifer Bartlett's Greenwich Village wonderland, whose Babylonian terraces were arranged by the society gardener Madison Cox. We saw Brice Marden's houses on St. Luke's Place and in Bucks County and on the Greek island of Hydra. We were treated to Calvin Klein's embrace of Minimalism in Marfa, the West Texas backwater snapped up virtually in its entirety by the late Donald Judd.

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.

True, there were famous artists living the old life. There was Vito Acconci, uncompromisingly hunkered anchorite-style in a loft below the Manhattan Bridge. And there was...well, Vito Acconci, whose loft's one concession to amenity was an inside toilet. There were others, of course. There are others still. But, as a study released this week by Columbia University's Research Center for Arts and Culture makes clear, the starving artist was always in large part myth. "American artists are overwhelmingly and squarely in the middle class," explains professor Joan Jeffri, an author of the study. "Even though they may not be making their living from their art so much as to support it."

Surveying 7700 artists in four cities, "Information on Artists II" followed by a decade a Columbia study that sought to establish benchmarks on the condition of American artists—their "income, education, community involvement, health coverage, legal and financial needs, technology, and professional status." The findings of both studies were both consistent and striking. With a mean age of 41, most artists surveyed were highly educated, had health insurance, and retirement plans. They had strong ties to their neighborhoods and, in many cases, had performed community service at rates that would qualify them handily for membership in the Kiwanis. They were Ozzie and Harriet with less colorful clothing and more Derrida on their bookshelves. As many as 75 percent owned computers. An even greater percentage held major credit cards. Still, adds Jeffri, "almost none of them said they were artists to get them. They figured, probably correctly, that if they told the truth, they'd be turned down."

It's in the disjunction between reality and perception that most contemporary artists find their limbo. On the national level, explains Jeffri, the perception is that "artists don't vote, don't work, don't contribute to society." Even among arts advocacy groups there persists an unbudging sense of artists as "wacky, alienated, and off the wall. People can't stand thinking about this group of people who're 'doing what they want.'"

Artists "doing what they want" are in actuality trying nothing more radical than to "work and live in society," as Jeffri says, for which read the middle class. "For example," she says, "people think that artists don't vote. All the arts administrators say, 'The last thing artists do is vote.'" Yet 70 percent of those surveyed voted at national, state, and local levels, more than three quarters of them as registered Democrats. And 30 percent were active in advocacy organizations. "You'd think that's the kind of thing that politicians would like to know when they're cutting budgets," Jeffri notes.

It will surprise no one to learn that white artists fare better than blacks and Hispanics at all levels of income. Figures showed that of 257 respondents who earned between $20,000 and $30,000, 78 percent were white, 5 percent black, and 5 percent Asian. A meager 2 percent were Hispanic. Curiously, says Jeffri, "non-Caucasians did better than whites in grants and awards." While this might mean that "all that foundation and institutional multiculuralism has had an effect," it could equally signal "that those multicultural artists got savvier faster." Any gains in grant-hustler status, however, were more than offset by the predictable and durable fact that, when it comes to applying for bank loans, lines of credit, mortgages, and credit cards, blacks and Hispanics are far likelier than whites and Asians to be turned down.

The majority of artists surveyed took home less than $30,000 a year. Tellingly, 45 percent of them derived less than $3000 of that income directly from their art. This figure won't come as news to that sizable population of New Yorkers who stubbornly persist in identifying themselves as artists while paying for the privilege by waiting tables and building bookcases in yuppie lofts. "Survivalists is what we are," says painter Marney Fuller. "We'll do anything to support ourselves when our art doesn't."

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."

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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