Displaced Artists Open a New Front at the Brooklyn Army Terminal

Jessica Dickinson and her husband, Marc Handelman, both New York artists, sat in Ms. Dickinson’s newest studio in Brooklyn with a big loose-leaf album that might have been a baby book. It was a record — photographs, floor plans, drawings — of all the unaffordable spaces they had looked at, or had been turned down for, after they were evicted from their studios in Gowanus after 11 years.

“We even have photographs of the first space we got kicked out of, 13 years ago, in Harlem,” Ms. Dickinson said, with a measure of pride. Mr. Handelman is thinking of making the book an art project.

Now they each have new studios at the Brooklyn Army Terminal in Sunset Park, within the largest nonprofit artist-space project to appear in the city in 20 years. At 50,000 square feet, ArtBuilt Brooklyn, where Ms. Dickinson, Mr. Handelman and roughly 100 other artists now work, was constructed with a creative combination of private investment and civic support from Mayor Bill de Blasio’s administration, specifically the Affordable Real Estate for Artists program of the Department of Cultural Affairs and the New York City Economic Development Corporation.

Its intention is to provide physical stability to redress the economic volatility of being an artist working in New York. ArtBuilt offers below-market rents — between $13 to $24 a rentable square foot, compared with approximately $28 to $36 a square foot for commercial space in Brooklyn last year, according to CoStar, a real estate research company. Ms. Dickinson pays $1,092 for 827 square feet; Mr. Handelman pays $1,146 for 868 square feet.

More important to many of the artists, the project has a 10-year lease with the Brooklyn Army Terminal, which it, in turn, has offered to its tenants. They include small arts-based businesses like Purgatory Pie Press, a letterpress, and musical instrument-makers like Matt Rubendall, who hand-crafts guitars. There will be annual increases of 3.5 percent.

It is the first realized studio build-out for the project’s parent, ArtBuilt, which sees it as a model for creating affordable space rentals in collaboration with local governmental agencies to keep a flagship creative population from flight. Studio artists are rapidly being muscled out of gentrifying neighborhoods across the city by commercial real estate pressures. And it’s tough being a New York artist in Providence.

“Fraught, fraught, fraught,” said Tomashi Jackson, a multimedia artist, recalling her previous studio in the South Bronx. As she spoke, Ms. Jackson was at work on “Hometown Buffet-Two Blues (Limited Value Exercise),” which was headed to the 2019 Whitney Biennial. But being shown and collected by major museums did not make Ms. Jackson immune from the studio turbulences of New York artists.

“We were bailing water,” she said. “Melted snow was coming through the ceiling.” Ms. Jackson finally decided to leave the Bronx because of the threat of a stiff rent increase — and news of ArtBuilt Brooklyn.

Nearly fully rented, the work-only spaces are private and up to code, a relative luxury for many artists battling development in ex-industrial zones that they have, paradoxically, helped pioneer.

When a Whole Foods appeared across from his studio in Gowanus, Paul Ramirez Jonas, a sculptor, recalled thinking: “Well, that’s it. Our days are numbered.” His leases got progressively shorter: five years, then three. Then two, and one. Mr. Jonas’s rent at ArtBuilt Brooklyn is $2,174 monthly for three spaces that total 1,809 square feet.

“There need to be places for artists to thrive in place, and that is extremely important to this entire enterprise,” said Tom Finkelpearl, the commissioner of the Department of Cultural Affairs, which oversees the Affordable Real Estate for Artists program. “Three years ago, the mayor said that we really have to look at ways to keep artists in the city. There’s an affordability problem that’s absolutely a looming problem for artists in the city.”

Esther B. Robinson and Guy Buckles, the founders of ArtBuilt, said they worked backward from what artists said they needed — a process akin to the oft-cited story of Sony’s executives presenting its engineers with a five-inch square block of wood that became the Walkman.

“I went backward from the math — until the math worked,” said Ms. Robinson, a former filmmaker who has a kind of unstoppable enthusiasm, even when jet-lagged. Ultimately, that meant scaling the project to 50,000 square feet, from 10,000, to bring down the rents. With that, they were no longer competing with companies like WeWork and Google that were looking for white-box desk-space and able to pay top dollar to private landlords. After working with commercial brokers, Mr. Buckles and Ms. Robinson realized that New York City itself might hold the key.

“The city is the largest landowner of industrial space,” she said. The Brooklyn Army Terminal, designed by Cass Gilbert and completed in 1919, has 4 million square feet of space, and the New York City Economic Development Corporation, which administers the city’s real estate portfolio, was interested in adding creative sectors to the building, said Julie Stein, the corporation’s executive director of Sunset Park. ArtBuilt’s founders paid a development cost of $1.3 million to create infrastructure and studios, with a security deposit of $75,000 on the lease.

Ms. Robinson and Mr. Buckles quickly realized they needn’t have worried about filling the space.

“At any given time there are literally hundreds of established reputable artists who are losing their spaces or recognize that they’re about to lose their spaces,” said Mr. Buckles, previously a founding director of the Elizabeth Foundation for the Arts, a New York nonprofit that offers one- to two-year subsidized studio space, granted by application and a juried decision. (Other programs in the city, such as Spaceworks, ChaShaMa and the Lower Manhattan Cultural Council, whose new Arts Center on Governors Island will open in September, provide more temporary opportunities for working artists.)

ArtBuilt Brooklyn was rented mostly by word of mouth, with references based on professional reputations or personal relationships. Critics might argue that it was filled without the democratic opportunity of an open call, or the elective oversight of an application process and peer review. But some of the earliest artists to join, which included Ms. Dickinson and Mr. Handelman, were part of a group evicted from a building in Gowanus, close to where Ms. Robinson lived.

“At that time, our focus was helping these artists stay in New York by building a solution as quickly as possible,” Ms. Robinson said. ArtBuilt is in talks to create a second space in New York. Ms. Robinson said the organization would refine its recruitment process going forward.

Its tenants, like Carrie Moyer and Sheila Pepe, fall within the art world’s spectrum between “emerging” and “art star” — successful artists with gallery representation, inclusion in institutional collections, teaching positions and often families.

“We kind of had a real estate tsunami last year,” said Ms. Moyer, a painter represented by DC Moore Gallery. Her partner, Ms. Pepe, whose installations the artist has called “improvisational crochet,” leases a space across the hall. Both lost their studios, and coincidentally, their residence, “in the middle of organizing big shows,” Ms. Moyer said. She pays $1,467 monthly to rent 1,116 square feet; Ms. Pepe, whose studio has no windows, pays $1,231.

On a recent visit, ArtBuilt Brooklyn had the tentative feel of a freshman dorm where students have just arrived and are still figuring it all out.

Eric Pitra, who makes experimental electronic instruments, with clients including Trent Reznor of Nine Inch Nails, said that he thought ArtBuilt Brooklyn already had a fledgling community aspect. Mr. Rubendall, the guitar-maker, has lent him an oil can he admired, to contemplate — a studio version of a neighborly cup of sugar.

“Good vibes, good energy,” Mr. Pitra said.

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