(Visual Arts Director, HERE, a Not-For-Profit Multi-Arts Center)
Income: $20,000 (1998)
Health Insurance: covered by employer
If I’m with a friend who I know is poor and I have five dollars, it’s my job to pay for it. I can’t help it. I’m a sharer,” Ellen Staller said. “In high school, my friend Michele and I would fight and it would be, ‘No, I’m sorry.’ ‘No, I’m sorry.’ ‘No, you must be right.’ ‘NO, YOU MUST BE RIGHT.’ Even now, with my roommate, I get dressed in the dark because he’s sleeping. When he gets home at five in the morning, I get up because I know he wants to talk. I can’t help it.”
If she won a billion dollars, would she give away seven-eighths? “I don’t know. At the moment the ceiling of what I can extend to people is an order of fries.”
Staller, 26, dressed in a black glitter sweater and long Pucci-looking skirt and with a piercing in her lower lip, sat in HERE’s café with her chin on her hand and chatted away. She also sees chatting as part of extending—it was always an issue in the days of report cards.
Staller is visual arts director and a member of the six-person executive council at HERE, a not-for-profit downtown multi-arts organization with three performing spaces. She said she earns around $400 a week putting in 50 to 80 hours curating the two gallery areas, a job she got while she was still working on her master’s in visual arts administration at NYU.
Staller supplements her income doing freelance arts consulting. It is not enough. She “shivers” thinking about the academic loan shark. “The whole master’s program cost me $40,000. They want me to pay about $450 a month, so right now I’m on deferment and paying this and that and $100 in interest a month. You know why I may never pay back my school loans? Because I’m doing exactly what they taught me to do: running an arts organization. Why don’t they scale the cost of these programs to match the average income of the professions people end up with?”
She may not be rich in cash but Staller is rich in phone messages—30 a day, more than 10,000 a year. She knows so many emerging artists—more than 1000.
Staller grew up in a condominium development in New City in Rockland County, about an hour from New York. She was the oldest of three daughters of artists who went into health care professions. Her upbringing was “about art rather than money, yet I grew up thinking I was poor even though I had a TV in my room.”
Rich also meant Benetton sweaters, Guess jeans, Golddiggers—”those tight jeans with gold zippers. But it wasn’t only did you have a pair, but how many colors. I had no Golddiggers. I had the remake. I stamped my foot. I’m not going to have second best. So I redefined the standard of first best. I made clothes, did the thrift-store thing, which was extremely outlandish for the suburbs.” Ivy League schools were also an issue. “I got into a few but I could not afford to go. Of course I had a wonderful education at Binghamton but, at that time, school was about how fancy is your life going to be.”
So, would she have a life with thousands in acreage and tapestries made of silk or would she live on the Lower East Side with a bartender-roommate in a one-bedroom made into two with a wall of bookshelves? For now it is the latter. She is active in the Downtown underground economy. “There’s a strong sense of camaraderie in the East Village and Lower East Side. Everybody’s 20 to 35. Everybody works in bartending, food service. Everybody’s bartering. Like so-and-so is a bouncer at this club so he’ll get me in for free and I’ll get him whatever. Though nobody really gets anything for less. It’s an illusion.
“Let’s say I go to my favorite restaurant. My friend’s the waiter. He’ll give me a few extra things and maybe the tab will be lower than it should but then I’ll tip him $10 instead of $3. Of course I’ll end up paying the same as if I didn’t know the waiter in the first place. But it evens out in the end.”