Art and Business: How Do They Mix in Brooklyn?

March 22, 2012 Brooklyn Eagle Staff
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By Raanan Geberer

Brooklyn Daily Eagle

BROOKLYN — Although money is tight right now, business and government should support the arts because money spent on arts groups produces more income in the form of money spent at art supply stores, cafés and other local businesses — not to mention the new housing that the presence of artists attracts.

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This was one of the main themes of “Creative Growth: The Economic Impact of the Arts in Brooklyn,” the latest in a longstanding series of Con Edison Power Breakfasts at the Brooklyn Business Library.

Another theme, however, was more disquieting: That artists often get priced out of the very neighborhoods they help to revive.

The panelists Thursday included Chloe Bass of Arts in Bushwick; Kate Dixon of the Brooklyn Academy of Music (BAM); Danny Simmons of the Rush Philanthropic Arts Foundation, and Ella Weiss of the Brooklyn Arts Council. The discussion was moderated by Jonathan Bowles of the Center for an Urban Future.

Bass talked about the recognition that artists are getting for rehabilitating decaying neighborhoods, but asked, “What do the artists get from this?” Artists are being displaced from Williamsburg by high-priced housing, she said.

“Brooklyn is the hippest place in the world,” Simmons added. “But as artists come in, the stores and cafés come too. We love them, but they drive rents up.”

Weiss traced the location of artists’ communities along subway lines, and said, “Where the subways go, that’s where there’s been an increase in artists and their support infrastructure.” Artists first helped to revitalize neighborhoods closest to the Manhattan city center, such as Williamsburg, but now are moving further away and establishing arts institutions in neighborhoods such as Gowanus and Red Hook.

Weiss particularly recognized the Jalopy Theater in Red Hook, which presents bluegrass and country music, and the Tabla Rasa Gallery in Sunset Park.

Brooklyn’s being the “hippest place in the world” has led to an explosion in the borough’s arts scene, all agreed. When the Brooklyn Arts Council put together a directory of Brooklyn arts organizations in 2001, said Weiss, there were about 200 groups listed. In the most recent online version of the directory, there are more than 800.

Also addressing the glut of artists, Bass said the number of master’s in fine arts (MFA) programs has skyrocketed in the past 10 years. “The students all think they’re going to be a great success — then they graduate and they come to Brooklyn,” she said, to the laughter of the crowd.

Because of all this competition, the panelists agreed, that many, perhaps most, artists don’t make their living in the arts on a full-time basis. “At BAM,” said Dixon, “we have people on our office staff who are also working artists.”

Simmons touched upon the relationship between the minority community, which has often seen the arts as “something not for us,” and artists. “I originally opened the Corridor Gallery in Clinton Hill not only to showcase the artists, but to involve the community and encourage critical thinking. We have to think—how do we get people from the projects to BAM, to the Brooklyn Museum?” he asked.

On a related topic, Bass said that it’s often hard for Arts in Bushwick to form relationships with community organizations in predominantly low-income, Hispanic Bushwick. The longtime residents see the artists as a transient population “who won’t be here in two years.” Bass admitted that this is true for many Brooklyn artists, although she also said that there are others “who went to Pratt Institute, saw those brownstones, and never left.”

The recession, the panelists said, means that foundations and government agencies have less money to give to the arts. They recommended forming relationships between artists and local small businesses as an alternative. “It makes good sense to invest in the arts,” said Weiss.

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