Damien Hirst's For the Love of God

Artists Assume Their Position Amid Crisis

Damien Hirst's For the Love of God
Damien Hirst’s For the Love of God

When the Dow plummeted on Monday after Congress failed to pass a bailout for Wall Street’s many woes, Brooklyn’s creative class was already bracing itself. A downturn at the top of the food chain can’t bode well for those closer to the bottom, like the plethora of visual and performing artists that reside here.

“It’s just a drag,” said Karen Brooks Hopkins, the president of the Brooklyn Academy of Music, whose fall season opens this week. “What I feel bad about is that the arts organizations, the cultural organizations, have finally recovered from 9/11, and now this.

“So it’s hard, you know, but I also feel that New York City has got an edge because of its cultural life,” she continued with a bit more cheer, “and the cultural institutions provide a tremendous return for a very small investment.”

Karen Marston, a painter living and working in Williamsburg, runs NurtureArt, a nonprofit gallery in the neighborhood that seeks to support emerging artists and to develop young talent. Its upcoming fund-raising gala, on Oct. 27, will have works for sale for $150, a small price tag compared to much of the art selling in New York City.

“I know people are cutting back on their restaurant meals or nice shoes,” Ms. Marston said. “I would worry more about that than the $150 price point at our benefit.”

She says, though, that her organization isn’t really focused on sales, but on its network of 1,200 artists, 62 percent of whom are concentrated in the 11211 zip code, otherwise known as Williamsburg.

For arts and cultural institutions that rely heavily on fund-raising, grants and ticket sales, like BAM, the picture becomes a bit more grim, reminding Ms. Hopkins of the years after Sept. 11.

“Everybody lost tons of money, there were cuts, massive city cuts, a lot of individual cuts; there was a downturn in fund-raising,” Ms. Hopkins said. “Ticket sales were harder, people were going out less; it was hard.”

But, at this moment, keeping the cultural identity of New York City intact is high on City Hall’s priority list, with the mayor proclaiming last week that one of the city’s many mistakes during the economic downturn of the 1970s was that “we stopped supporting our cultural institutions.”

Many of the people I spoke with from Brooklyn’s art world sounded fairly sanguine, perhaps buoyed by the optimism that has washed over the borough during this period of cultural renaissance, and by knowing that art is something that has a lot of value here.

“Brooklynites seem to be very protective over their culture and are proud to be neighbors with artists and creatives; our political and civic leaders are all incredibly engaged with the community and so are residents and even developers,” said David Harper, who curates the visual arts program at BAM, which opens its Next Wave Art exhibition on Oct. 1, featuring five emerging artists from Brooklyn. Though, he added, “I think artists will suffer as much as the rest of us. The next months are going to be hard for Americans.”

“The current economy only emphasizes the notion that a fine arts career is even more of a crapshoot than before,” said Kat Cope, an artist and freelance designer living in Bushwick. “Unless you’re a bankable, established artist, you’re going to have a particularly tough time convincing an art buyer to invest in your work.”

Finding a financially secure career in a creative field in the best of economic times is hard enough. Now, it’s all about riding the storm through mutual support—what Wall Streeters call networking.

“This is a very resilient population,” said Ms. Hopkins, of Brooklyn’s young artists. “They know how to survive when the going gets tough. They have a great espirit de corps in their community. I think they are very street smart, and will prevail.”

“It may in some ways actually help some artists,” Ms. Marston said. “It’s definitely a double-edged sword because if art’s not selling, that’s a problem, and if people lose their day jobs, that’s a problem. It remains to be seen, it’s a mixed bag.

“We’re really looking to function outside the money exchange, to support art for its own sake,” she added. “I think a lot of times when the attention gets taken away from money … it dials down the volume on a certain craftiness and gets the focus back on the content of the art.”

There’s a tremendous focus on individual entrepreneurship in Brooklyn, in a variety of fields, and it’s that population that typifies those most likely to continue to support the arts.

“I just think that Brooklyn is different than it was,” Ms. Hopkins, of BAM, said. “The good news is that we have a much more affluent population now in downtown Brooklyn than we used to have, so the hope is that these more affluent Brooklynites will be loyal to the institutions in the home borough that they support.”

Of course, the highest echelons of art collecting will likely not break stride because of the downturn—artist Damien Hirst recently sold $200 million worth of work through Sotheby’s the same week that Lehman Brothers tanked. Philanthropic institutions, with longer lead times on fund-raising, will continue to support the arts, and you never know what you might find out there in terms of collecting, should you prefer to invest outside of Wall Street.

“Art has overperformed spectacularly,” Mr. Harper said. “I mean, people bought Basquiats in the East Village off the streets in the ’80s for a grand and sold them at Sotheby’s for a million.”

Ms. Marston, the Williamsburg artist, expressed the sort of optimism that first drove artists across the East River 20 years ago:

“We really tend to inhabit the unwanted corners and revitalize a lot of parts of the city that people aren’t interested in,” she said. “In the same way that the New York real estate market hasn’t dropped as much as the rest of the country, there’s such an intense concentration of talent and desire to be here that I don’t see that going anywhere anytime soon.”

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