Bushwick, South Bronx seeing spike in artist residences as MFA graduates struggle with student debt

New York has long been a haven for the “starving artist,” but there’s one major difference between artists of the past and those coming up now: Most are deeply in debt.

A graduate degree has become an entry point to the art world. A recent study at CUNY’s Guttman Community College shows nearly half the artists showing at the top 45 commercial art galleries in New York City have master’s degrees in the arts (MFAs or MAs). Twenty-eight percent have bachelor’s degrees (BFAs or BAs).

“We need school. Yet school debt is a huge wedge that makes it almost impossible to work as an artist in New York,” says Noah Fischer, 40, an artist living in Prospect Heights, Brooklyn, who says he spent about $100,000 a year getting his MFA at Columbia University and paying living expenses in New York.

Fischer is a founder of the Occupy Museums movement, which has been vocal in demonstrating what it calls the “economic inequity” between cultural institutions and the artists that supply them.

Its recent survey of 500 artists, most of them in the New York area, was part of an exhibit at the Whitney Museum. It revealed $55,552,069.84 in student loan debt between the artists in the survey.

“So much debt adds on anxiety, trouble paying rent, low production or not having a studio space,” says Tariku Shiferaw, a gallery employee and artist living in Ridgewood. He says he has over $159,000 in student debt.

The financial realities of life in the city have spurred geographic shifts in New York’s artist population between 2000 and 2015, according to a recent report by the Center for an Urban Future. Manhattan has seen a 10 percent drop in residents working in the visual and performing arts fields over that period. The Bronx, on the other hand, saw its population double. In Brooklyn, Bushwick alone saw a 1,100 percent increase.

“There is a strong, vibrant community here,” says Anthony Philip, owner of Bushwick’s Anthony Philip Fine Art. “The second you get off the train, you see art everywhere.”

Philip, whose gallery has been in the neighborhood since September 2015, said he is starting to see some of the same trends that sent priced-out artists east into Bushwick from Williamsburg. But he thinks the impending L train shutdown could stabilize the area.

“There is a little tension. There’s been an increase in rents on the lower end,” Philip says. “But I don’t think the gentrification is going to happen here as drastically or as rapidly as it has in other neighborhoods.”

The South Bronx has also seen a spike in artist residences, according to the report by Center for an Urban Future, but some Mott Haven artists who have lived there for years dispute the numbers. Linda Cunningham, co-founder of the nonprofit gallery and venue BronxArtSpace, moved to Mott Haven in the early 2000s. While there is definitely a strong art community there, she says, more artists have moved out than in.

“Artists can barely afford anything here,” Cunningham says. “We’re making art for the love of it. A lot of people have two or three jobs.”

Of course, being an artist, for many, is still hard enough economically without also being saddled with debt. Deborah Doering, a conceptual artist in her 50s, has moved eight times since arriving here from Chicago three years ago.

She even lived in a Manhattan church for a month because it offered a youth group room for $25 a night. She and her husband work part-time freelance jobs.

“I was very shocked, coming from Chicago,” Doering says. “To find something livable so I can continue to make my work means moving constantly, usually to sublets.”

Yet creatives are still drawn to the city due in part to its long-standing reputation.

“New York is still the center of the art world,” says Alexeis Reyes, a sculptor and photographer who works as a teacher in the New York public schools. He says he still owes about $85,000 in student loans. “New York still drives me and my community of other artists to keep at it despite all the debt.”

There is some hope, however. The city has a number of subsidized housing spaces for artists and there are a variety of programs geared toward providing the creative class with workspace.

And artists without master’s degrees need not despair. Jamie Sterns works at Interstate Projects gallery in Brooklyn, and said as many as 70 percent of their artists do not have graduate degrees. Nevertheless, she said graduate programs can be tremendously helpful for budding Bosch-es.

“Graduate school gives them time and space to experiment and focus, but it’s not essential,” Sterns said. “I would recommend artists take a few years post-undergrad before beginning a grad program, but recommend doing it for anyone who is ready.”

Cunningham echoed Sterns’ take.

“Becoming your own person and finding out what you have to say has nothing to do with a graduate degree,” she said. “What a degree does provide is a level of sophistication and contacts.”

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