I recently caught wind of the newly minted Kaufman Arts District and I must say I’m pleasantly displeased. This isn’t a curmudgeon’s rant, or a snarky finger-pointing diatribe, but a serious displeasure with the influence and reinforcing nature of money and politics in art.
1920 – Astor Room (not mentioned in article)
late 1970s – Kaufman Astoria Studios
1988 – Museum of the Moving Image
1999 – United Artists movieplex
2001 – Astoria Performing Arts Center (founded 2001, has had an office in Kaufman Astoria circa not-sure-when)
2001 – Frank Sinatra School of the Arts
2009 – Studio Square NYC bar (not mentioned in article)
2013 – Queens Council on the Arts arrives from Woodhaven
You can see there’s a compression of pivotal moments over time – as time moves on things happen faster and faster. Along with a synergy in the area from the era of silent films on up to modern studio times and into the Museum of the Moving Image’s founding and eventual expansion and the establishment of a truly world-class arts school in the area. Great! All those things on their own is good.
So. About that “arts district.” Is an arts district today (I’m talking 2014 specifically) a place where creativity can be found or a place where creativity can be made? If the former, this very well may be an arts district although to that degree I’d argue it doesn’t require branding to obtain validation – it was already there. But if the latter, the area is very much under threat to cease in possibility the potential for making, fabricating art, having outlets to show and express that art, and fostering a community of artists.
Case in point is Henson Co., which is only once-mentioned in the Times article. When you read about Henson Co. (founded 1958) you’ll frequently hear of “production facilities” in “New York City.” Those facilities are actually in Long Island City, but you’ll almost never hear that neighborhood name, or even Queens (the way you would if it was “Brooklyn” branded), but rather New York City. And why NYC? Why here? Because for years and years and years the rent was affordable and that allowed artists in the Jane and Jim Henson era to be creative, to make art and culture and expand their skills and grow their identity.
Henson Co. grew their name and trade for nearly two decades before they really took off (Muppets Inc. was actually founded in 1954, with Sesame Street being their national launchpad on NET/PBS in 1969/70 respectively). Originally produced in Manhattan, production eventually moved to Queens in 1993. Again, affordable rents = creative space.
Nowadays studio apartments in the area go for $1400/month, and that doesn’t even include a studio for your arts practice – that’s just a four-wall box room to sleep in (in the same room as your kitchen). I realize the branding of Kaufman Arts District isn’t directly responsible for rising rents. But answer me this: are affordable studios – or better yet, free – provided to emerging artists? Will the next Henson Co. emerge from within the Kaufman Arts District? I think you know the answer.
Nowadays, the only way to hold an event in the area is to work for HSBC, JP Morgan/Chase, Citigroup, or Wells Fargo. But hey we have this “arts district” with (eventually) street banners!
As one of the top commenters on Gothamist said about the branding of Kaufman Arts District,
“Well, that’s one good way to keep real, struggling artists clear of the area.”
In other words you have to pay to play.
Have fun, art.
As for the politics ask yourself did the public have any voice, an advocate, when “the seven institutions” who conjured up the idea proposed it? Was there any community input? Do you think the kids at Frank Sinatra School for the Arts were able to propose amendments to any plans? Were any of those future-artists of the arts district empowered to influence their community? If not, why not? Let me guess: business as usual.
It’s curious how a “Proclamation” supercedes the Public voice.