Trees still grow in Brooklyn

A Dallas friend of mine recently told me that her daughter, who just graduated from MICA in Baltimore, was moving to Brooklyn. This mom seemed almost sheepish when saying it, as though bracing for a lecture about how bad New York is now for young artists, but my gut reaction was: Good.

And while I realize that the idea of urging young artists to move to New York and other art capitals of the world (London, Berlin, etc.) has lost steam in recent years, especially as these places reach a perceived saturation point and grads are saddled with soul-crushing debt, my sense is that artists can get as much from New York now as they did 15 years ago. The creative center may have shifted to Brooklyn but it’s far from dead.

In the meantime, more blogs and hip magazine writers are making top ten lists of better, smaller places for young art graduates to set up shop. New Orleans, Pittsburgh, Asheville, Richmond, Nashville; Austin is on and off these lists of course, due to its yuppification and expensive crowding. Baltimore is on the list. Detroit, with its hanging-in-the-balance desiccation that makes it so fascinating, is usually on the list. I like these lists, and look forward to the continued redistribution of creative people as time marches on. (Houston and Dallas don’t really figure into this national conversation, though I would argue that both of them should. A tough argument, especially where Dallas is concerned, considering it doesn’t boast a big art school, but I’ll take it on in a future column.)

Last time I was in New York a lot of people I ran into who were there mainly for Frieze kept talking about how over New York they are, while they took cabs from MoMA to PS1 to Zwirner to the New Museum and on out to the Domino Sugar Factory and then to a bunch of artists’ studios in Bushwick. Over it, they insisted. Okay.

I feel like we’re watching these pronouncements of prejudice against New York (not that it needs our help) with a kind of heightened schadenfreude, and while I haven’t lived there myself for ten years and didn’t live there for that long in the first place, my semi-frequent visits to the city solidify my sense that the pure density of its culture offers a healthy landscape, if not reality check, for suburban art-school refugees. Especially for those who seek stimulation and the extroversion of real urban life; they can always retreat back to Texas after a five-year stint in Brooklyn. To tell these young adults to avoid New York because it’s too expensive and crowded seems disingenuous. It’s like advice from cranky cynics who gave up on New York and left years ago, or from people who don’t like big loud cities in the first place. We know New York isn’t what is was ten and twenty and thirty years ago, and so do these young people. They’re not blind to history. If they were, they wouldn’t care about being in New York.

Again, and crucially, there’s a quality of conversation and expectation—a tradition of discrimination and deeper understanding of context—that still shapes New York and penetrates its willing inhabitants. The sheer ubiquitousness of visual art and the critical dialogue around it trains their eyes and minds and judgements in ways they’ll carry with them the rest of their lives, no matter where they live, and I’d argue that about half the people in places like Houston and Dallas who are doing anything really interesting have previously lived, studied and/or worked in art capitals with these high cultural and intellectual standards. Occasionally you’ll get an entrenched Texas local who has so much natural eccentricity, discipline and talent that they never need to leave to make good work, but most mere mortals need the continuing education of a really big old art city to make anything that resonates outside their little circle of family and friends.

Forcing a young and intellectually engaged young person to be broke and tired for the sake of living in a rathole in Sunset Park isn’t that interesting to me, but having them live among other young people who are working their butts off to make something worthwhile is a great extension of peer-driven competition, community, and collaboration—like an art school with the training wheels (and gloves) off. The stakes are much higher. I don’t carry some delusion that New York is a pure meritocracy, but I do know that if an artist’s work isn’t very compelling in New York, he’s not going to get to rest on any laurels for long. There’s little time or patience for the untalented, there’s no King of the Dipshits there, and that alone is a priceless lesson for a new graduate of MICA.

It may be that in another five to ten years the value of the extended New York City education won’t hold water anymore, that its polarization of wealth will be so marked and its crass commodification of art so overwhelming that there simply won’t be any point for a young artist to live and work there, but I don’t think we’re there yet. “New York is over” is overstated. Let the kids move to Brooklyn, or the Bronx, or Harlem; it may be just what they need. And if they come back, they’ll come back better for it.

 

also by Christina Rees

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6 responses to “Trees still grow in Brooklyn”

  1. agreed! … and not just for young artists…seems that although tough in many ways, there’s a unique vibrant and valuable atmosphere, energy and opportunity for connections that comes from living and working there…at any point in the career, especially for those who stayed there after school

  2. Christina, I noticed the absence of Chicago on your list. I’m meeting so many artists who have moved here from Brooklyn because it’s more affordable for artists not just in terms of studio space, but to experiment with their own projects. It has numerous densely-populated art communities, exceptional museums, and critically acclaimed art schools. Chicago is not New York, it’s something else entirely.

    1. I have to second the advocation of Chicago, not just because it has some of the best art schools in the country, but the community around art, and for me “experimental film”, is really hard to match.

      Somewhere like New York does provide some amazing history as film art is concerned, though. Where else can you go see this work screened in awesome venues almost every single night of the week? Chicago comes pretty close with its various institutions that have a strong history. But as the larger art world is concerned, it has the same kind of inferiority complex as Dallas.

  3. This is good advice as well as a nice prompt for students and older artists alike ; its good practice to keep a beginners mind , to stay a student of oneself in principle and to go places outside of ones comfort zone, literally and figuratively .
    The future is urban , everywhere , and growing up in urbanized centers prompts , by direct experience, a deeper appreciation for polycultural interdependence. Inner city life exposes us to dynamic challenges , even maladies associated urbanism which can inspire a sincere , honest art responsive to multiple issues simultaneously . Cultural intersections demand self reflection and conscious attention to ones “identity” or “self expression”
    I myself grew up in NewJetsey and attended MICA in Baltimore , which in part helped inform my appreciation of Houston as an alternative to working on the east coast. Without that background I’d have been more likely to overlook the DIY approach myth championed here by artists in my community who also share a passion for self direction outside of a slightly more calcified set of conditions.
    Going to another country for a little culture shock after school might even be a better option for many newly minted art school grads .
    It’s probably tacit , and I digress, but artists are likely born and then made , so failure in their field of training is no loss, as any self realization is supported by a study in the humanities, and it’s better to force a quit sooner than later, if art isn’t a calling.

  4. Interesting view, but I think it needs some perspective. If we follow recent history the rise of the art scene in the US was not that long ago. It began during the late 1940’s and early 1950’s when NYC was suddenly established as the center of the international art world. In hindsight we now know that had as much to do with marketing and geo politics as opposed to how intellectually rigorous it was. Concurrent artists of interest of that generation were in fact always regional and international.

    I have been living in Baltimore for some time now after a stint in Chicago, Denver, and a long time in Houston. I found there was a strong community of artists in each— which were informed by national and international trends but often of most import was regional community and influence. For example, in Houston’s case, artists such as Rick Lowe and Mel Chin may have more long-term influence than most NYC artists of their generation. They are both currently in high demand as artists and as speakers at universities all across the country and for good reason. Their personal vision/practice as artists that results in broad positive progressive community outcomes is now a much desired and well-respected path. There is currently a younger generation of artists that are very altruistic and as such sees artists such as Lowe and Chin as contemporary pioneers.

    Also we are in a time when the web, of which Glasstire plays a role, has seriously altered art world power dynamics and made it much easier for ideas and crit to flow around the country and made the art scene more fluid and democratic. Here on the east coast it is akin to the nineteen eighties punk music scene, when bands such as Black Flag or the Butthole Surfers traveled from city to city on their own, sleeping at designated houses, making a national scene happen outside the hierarchy of the music industry they rejected. In a similar way, artists of all types—but especially this emerging generation are on the move taking their work on the road as well, sidestepping the traditional gallery system. They have a circuit up and down the East Coast from Boston, to New York, Philly, Baltimore, D.C. to Florida, in the continuing emerging warehouse gallery culture that seeks to move beyond the audience their respective cities. Alternative spaces feature international shows which can be curated online and then send via Fed Ex or often simply accessed via digital media. Costs are minimal, cooperation and mutual admiration high.

    Baltimore and Brooklyn are very interconnected as it is a mere drive away. True Brooklyn is hopping with talent as is Baltimore and elsewhere. But Baltimore is inexpensive, Brooklyn not so much. So there is an interesting dynamic of a reverse brain drain that has taken place over the past decade.

    If anything the important thing now is not to head to New York for a taste of the big city (after all Brooklyn is a suburb), though I agree it can be eye opening because of the sheer density of talent there and the access to the now gentrified and very safe NYC. (This safety has oddly tempered NYC’s once challenging adventurous nature.) The bigger adventure I would advise young artists to take is to leave the country—get the hell out of the USA. Any artist I have known (especially young ones) who travels and lives abroad comes back transformed for the better with a much broader picture of the world and a stronger personal practice. Current hotspots are Norway, Finland, and Germany—all across Europe really.

    Also Korea, China and Japan have amazing vibrant art scenes. Many students from all three arrive in the USA for art education each year and their influence on others is obvious. Of course if in Houston one should certainly be exploring Mexico City and all points south. I am sure others have stories to tell of places they have visited of import.

    Regardless of where one goes, personal transformation occurs, perspective is broadened. So in that respect this article hold true and contains much good advice.

  5. You hit some great topics with this one. Having just returned from NY, I agree, Manhattan has become all about blue chip artists which isn’t to say that’s a bad thing. I saw two Joan Mitchell shows that had moments of rapture. But to see art on the edge in New York, Brooklyn is the place to go.

    To be entrenched is to live life in a jello filled ziplock bag of your own creation. It may feel jiggly sweet inside, but from the outside you just look silly.

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