Artist Hans Haacke has made headlines with his artwork that links Rudy Giuliani with fascism, to be exhibited next week at the Whitney Biennial. But the mayor’s politics have also been the source of a sweet real estate deal for Haacke. Thanks to Giuliani, Haacke was able to join other tenants in buying a downtown loft building from the city at a price that any apartment-seeker would consider a steal.
The deal was signed years before Giuliani’s attack on a Brooklyn Museum of Art exhibit spurred Haacke to create his work, “Sanitation,” which opens March 23 (see “The Art Libel” by Richard Goldstein). But the same conservatism that fueled the mayor’s rage against the Brooklyn Museum also laid the philosophical groundwork for the deal with Haacke. Because Giuliani fervently believes that property is best held in private hands, he ditched a Dinkins-era plan to include Haacke’s building in a string of properties that would house low-and middle-income tenants on the Lower East Side. Instead, in 1998, Haacke and other tenants were allowed to buy the five-story loft building at 269 Bowery for $460,000; Haacke’s share was $67,153.28 for a full floor of about 2000 square feet. The occupants are now free to develop the property as they like.
Haacke says the building will be used by tenants who have lived there for years. He told the Voice he sees no contradiction in his creating an artistic tirade against Giuliani while personally benefiting from the mayor’s policies. “The two things are totally unrelated,” says Haacke. “One is a question of free speech, and the other is a matter of whether you will be able to continue living in the building where you’ve lived for 10 or 20 or 30 years.”
Haacke became famous after the Guggenheim Museum canceled his 1971 show detailing the massive holdings of a real estate speculator; now he is in a position to speculate himself. This good fortune can be traced to the fact that, years ago, he happened to settle in a Bowery loft within the Cooper Square Urban Renewal Area, a five-block patch of city-owned land and buildings stretching from East 5th to Stanton streets and from the Bowery to Second Avenue. For years, Haacke and other artists paid the city an average monthly rent of $300 for space that many New Yorkers would consider galactic.
In October 1990, Mayor David Dinkins drew up a memorandum of understanding (MOU) to fund housing in the urban renewal area and to renovate seven loft buildings along the Bowery, including Haacke’s. Two properties were vacant and would have been used to house families who might have been temporarily or permanently displaced from other sites within the urban renewal area. But the plan stalled, and by 1996 Giuliani was mayor and the city had pulled every penny from the project. Rather than use the loft buildings to aid the urban renewal plan, the mayor sold them for a total of $2.97 million.
“The so-called MOU reads beautifully, and I was very excited when I saw it,” says Haacke. “But a change of administration made the MOU worth nothing.”
That change, however, was worth a lot to Haacke and his artist neighbors. While the MOU required that the Bowery loft buildings be developed in a way that would maintain affordable housing and be owned in a nonprofit form to “avoid speculation and profiteering,” the Giuliani plan put no such restrictions on the owners. In fact, at 259 Bowery, sculptor Charles Saulson has added three floors: A 2200-square-foot floor is expected to fetch $945,000, a 1600-square-foot space is being marketed for $825,000, and Saulson says a top-floor penthouse will rent for $7000 a month. Saulson paid $340,000 for the building.
The irony of his neighbor’s situation is not lost on Saulson. “Hans has made his career pointing fingers at big corporations; he’s a political artist,” says Saulson. “And while he’s not the first person to refer to Giuliani as a fascist, I do have to say it’s kind of a weird situation. Is he biting the hand that feeds him? It’s an interesting call.”
Giuliani’s sale of the loft buildings “really screws us,” Cooper Square activist Fran Goldin said when the plan was announced in 1996. A local artists’ coalition complained that the vacant buildings—which have been purchased by restaurant-supply businesses—should have been developed as affordable lofts. And things became ugly even among the loft tenants, with 255 Bowery resident Gerald Jackson alleging in state supreme court that the owners of all seven buildings are trying to force him out of the deal for financial reasons. The case is pending.
Asked if Giuliani’s role in the real estate deal has inspired any appreciation of the mayor, Haacke emphatically answered: “No. I have never been an admirer of Rudy Giuliani.” And while he says the building is “not a cash cow” and is instead in need of much repair, the value of his investment is clear. With loft-buyers at Saulson’s building paying for one floor twice what occupants paid for the entire Haacke building, the deal seems artful indeed.