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Arts Boost New York Economy, But Many Artists Remain Poor

Arts and culture account for nearly $21 billion of New York’s annual economy and provide 160,000 jobs, according to the latest report by the Alliance for the Arts, a private organization. The arts draw many tourists to New York, too. But as the cost of housing in Manhattan climbs ever higher, artists are moving farther away from the city center, into far-flung neighborhoods in the outer boroughs of Queens and Brooklyn - or even entirely out of New York.

Andrew Carnegie built his famous music hall in New York City more than 100 years ago. Above it, he erected more than 170 tower apartments. He said they should be used as studios where artists of all kinds could live cheaply and devote themselves to their work. Choreographer George Balanchine, actor Marlon Brando and many other artists, both famous and little-known, have lived or worked here.

They include 84-year-old Donald Shirley, a Jamaica-born concert pianist who has been here 50 years, and who’s performed several times in the recital hall below his studio. “There's just no place else where I could practice the way I can practice here,” he said in a recent interview, as he played a delicate melody on his Steinway grand piano.

Over the last 16 years, however, the Carnegie Hall Corporation has reduced the number of artists living here to about 40, converting the empty studios to offices or leaving them vacant. Now the remaining tenants are being asked to leave, to make room for a music school.

“It's a terrible thing because my adult life has been spent right here. But I'll stick it out and see what happens,” Donald Shirley said.

He is part of a group of artist-residents, led by photographer Josef Astor, who are fighting back in court. A series of photographs by Astor contrasts the light- and art-filled studios of current residents with low-ceilinged offices converted from previously vacated studios. The tenants say that Andrew Carnegie intended for individual artists to use the tower studios. Carnegie Hall Corporation officials declined to be interviewed, but have previously said that their obligation is music education for the city’s children.

Whatever the outcome, the artist-residents say they are lucky to have had their huge spaces for as long as they have. Many New York artists can no longer afford even small apartments or workspace in Manhattan, and have left for neighborhoods far from the city center.

“Artists like to gather in communities,” says Randall Bourscheidt, president of the Alliance for the Arts, a private advocacy and research group. “They like big cities, not because the rent is cheap, because it's not cheap, but because the diversity of experience and the diversity of mankind is so great here.”

But Bourscheidt says that although the arts account for a significant chunk of New York’s economy, artists themselves often barely scrape by.

“There a number of people who are highly talented, esteemed members of their profession, actors, dancers, singers, musicians and so forth, who live near the poverty level,” he said in an interview at his group’s offices in Manhattan. “It’s not a happy picture.”

Writer Elizabeth Currid, author of The Warhol Economy, agrees.

“They really are finding it difficult,” she said in an interview at a downtown art gallery. “And the thing is, artists know they have to be here. So they still come here, because they kind of have to - to make it.”

In The Warhol Economy, Currid argues that the clustering of artists helps both art and business to thrive.

“That socializing translates into real economic output,” she said. “In their social and artistic communities is often where they do business, where they collaborate with one another, where they interact with the gatekeepers who make decisions about what good art or good fashion is.”

She says that even excluding fashion, arts and culture are the city’s fourth-largest employer, almost on a par with the finance industry.

Currid proposes that the city take steps to keep neighborhoods affordable for artists, by capping rents, for example. Otherwise, she says, she says the city will lose economically as well as aesthetically when high rents drive even more artists from the city center.

“That density and dynamism that occurs when you have all these artists living and working in the same place [then] ceases to exist,” she said.

At the same time, pianist Donald Shirley notes that art's greatest value to New York cannot be summed up in dollars.

“Everything else we have messed up, everything,” he says. “The only thing that is pure is art. What would we do, what could the human being do - what can life be without art?”