Artwashing During a Pandemic: Should Artists Say No to Real Estate Crumbs?

Stonehenge NYC is a real estate company that according to its website “owns and manages a portfolio of properties in New York City valued at approximately $1.9 billion. The portfolio is comprised of 19 income-producing properties with 2,800 apartments representing 2.9 million square feet of prime real estate.”

In a time of pandemic and economic precarity, Stonehenge is making NYC artists an offer that they hope cannot be refused: 20 rent-free luxury apartments leased for one year, in exchange for “commissioned work.” Their website is vague on the specifics of how many pieces would be expected from each artist and how the contract would be enforced. After one year, the artists would lose their deluxe accommodations, and be thrown back onto the dysfunctional rental market along with everyone else, including thousands of other artists. Is this a great opportunity for artists, or an extraction of value? And how will this “real estate residency” affect the broader community of artists — and struggling neighborhoods throughout the city?

2019 building projection by The Illuminator, as part of a protest organized by the Ridgewood Tenants Union against a luxury tower (photo courtesy William Powhida)

Artwashing happens when real estate entities use cultural capital to rebrand their luxury developments. As a public relations shtick, cultural capital is a tricky thing, with seemingly contradictory associations. It nods to the global art market and conveys luxury commodity value, but at the same time offers up notions of edginess, hipness, and even danger. Developers conflate blue-chip Chelsea galleries and global art collectors on the prowl with scruffy artists and graffiti-covered walls: The rebranding of neighborhoods is full of clashing notions.  And in practice, real estate artwashing often involves a temporary opportunity tossed to a few lucky artists.

It is happening in Sunset Park’s Industry City, where Jamestown Properties raised rents and displaced dozens of artists and manufacturers, while at the same time sponsoring open studios and art shows. It happened in Long Island City, when David and Jerry Wolkoff tore down the 5 Pointz artist building, and built two luxury towers in its place — with a bronze replica of the famous graffiti installed in the lobby. Again and again, the cultural capital of art is used to boost the value of real estate in our city, and ironically, the result is broad displacement of actual working artists. For every artist who gets tossed a crumb, like a temporary studio or a chance to make art for the lobby of a new hotel in a manufacturing zone, there are dozens of other artists who lose their studios because the surrounding rents go up as a result of the luxury development that these “opportunities” reside in. Artists’ economic desperation is used to displace their fellow artists.

Even more insidious, though, is the way the professional artist class (who despite their relatively low economic status are disproportionately white) are used by real estate developers to displace low-income people of color. We should be clear-eyed about this.

How are we used? The concept is “secondary displacement,” and artwashing plays directly into this. Market-rate developments raise the value of surrounding real estate, and landlords raise rents on unregulated apartments, storefronts, and manufacturing workspaces. Working artists are victims of high rents, but when we flee gentrified neighborhoods seeking affordable spaces, and landlords and developers see an influx of mostly white artists, their arty rebranding campaigns are set in motion. They often toss a few crumbs to a very few artists, which further burnishes their image. But they then raise rents on all unregulated properties because they can; the neighborhood’s original residents are displaced, and artists are often next in line for displacement. It is no surprise that white artists are often seen by displaced Black and Brown New Yorkers as gentrifiers.

Most NYC working artists are renters, and most are low-to middle-income. We are adjunct professors, freelancers, or full-time workers squeezing our art making in on evenings and weekends. Some of us rent separate work spaces, some make work in our apartments, and a relatively small number of us rent live-work lofts in manufacturing zones. Like most New Yorkers, we are rent burdened — meaning, we spend more than 30% of our income on rent. So it’s unsurprising that artists will leap at any chance to catch a break — free workspace, a chance to exhibit or perform, or even a free place to live for a year. But given the emergency that our city is in, maybe it’s time for us to choose a side.

New Yorkers of all stripes are organizing to change the trajectory of gentrification and rampant luxury development, and to check the post-pandemic austerity that we know is coming from state and city governments. The housing movement is mobilizing to pass universal rent control, so housing is affordable to all. Small businesses are fighting to pass commercial rent regulation, so mom & pop stores, manufacturers and working artists can afford their spaces. Given the recently-elected Democratic supermajority up in Albany, there is a push to tax the wealthy in New York State, so human needs — including the arts — can be adequately funded. NYC’s working artists’ true interests lie with the diverse coalition that is mobilizing to fight for a more equitable city and state, and we should join them. What if we artists loudly and publicly rejected real estate goodies, and instead advocated for policy change that would benefit all working artists in the city and not do harm to working class Black and Brown communities? Is one year of free rent for just 20 artists worth the cost of alienating us from our fellow New Yorkers and abetting more luxury development?

Banner from the community group MiCasaNoEsSuCasa, during the Bushwick Street art weekend that took over Bushwick Open Studios (2019) (photograph by William Powhida)

NYC is suffering an affordability catastrophe, and a diverse, functioning city is lifeblood to working artists. There are policies to be fought for that would benefit us and all New Yorkers, and a growing movement to fight for them — we can join those movements. There are many terrific organizations, but here are a few: Art Against Displacement, Artist Studio Affordability Project, and Housing Justice for All Coalition. We need to ask ourselves if it is worth lending our creative capital to real estate developers to increase the value of their investments, when the destruction of living communities is the result.

If you want to get active, reach out to artist studioAP@gmail.com or aad.nyc@riseup.net and we can help connect you.

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