Luis Martin, programming director at Brooklyn Brush Studios, noticed something different at Bushwick Open Studios this year. “We witnessed a few Maseratis pull up,” he said, pointing to something indicative of the neighborhood’s transforming art scene. “It’s become this Miami culture, and along with it comes Manhattan real estate prices.”
Brooklyn Brush includes three buildings in Bushwick– REmerge Studios at 44 Stewart Avenue, BBS 362 Jefferson Street, and BBS 203 Harrison Place. Rafael Alvarez, the founder of the network, claimed that REmerge, which is filled to capacity, has studios leasing for an estimated 30 to 40 percent lower than market value.
But prices have gone up. When REmerge first opened for business back in 2008, Alvarez said, it was renting for around $1.65 to $1.75 per square foot for window or interior space. “Now there’s places that rent up to $5 a square foot.”
After Bushwick Open Studios, Martin said, Brooklyn Brush gathered its members in the gallery and toasted to their success with Prosecco. But one studio tenant spoke up, interrupting the celebration. “He said, ‘I want to make sure you’re not going to turn us into condos next year.’ And these are concerns that are in everybody’s minds.”
It seems like things have moved faster than expected in Bushwick. Jessica Peters, a broker at Douglas Elliman, told B+B that “re-sales in prime Bushwick would sell for approximately 44 percent higher today than in 2012.” But even more dramatic changes to the neighborhood are on their way. “12-18 months from now the neighborhood will see an injection of luxury product hit the market,” Peters revealed.
It’s no secret that artists lead neighborhood rejuvenation and gentrification, and artists and studio landlords alike are aware of the transient relationship between an artist and his or her studio. Todd Patrick (aka Todd P), who has had his fair share of getting run out of less than legal spaces, runs Myrtle Light Studios, where he has a long-term lease on the second floor of 1533 Myrtle. “We’re not in imminent danger of getting priced out.” But, he said: “We’re always looking for the next project, you gotta sort of hedge against that, we’re always looking for another spot to keep it going.”
“We’re at a crossroads where Bushwick is about art and it’s about real estate,” Martin said. “But it doesn’t have to be an adversarial relationship… I think we can create an ecosystem where the people that are coming in can support the artists by buying their art, creating space for the art, and by patronizing the art.”
But Martin’s optimism regarding the potential for an“ecosystem” seems tenuous at best in the face of exponentially growing prices in Bushwick and the reality that most artists are not of considerable means. Those without cushy bank accounts are left with few choices in a neighborhood where not only studio space but housing is becoming increasingly desirable. Cheaper, quality spaces fill up quickly, or have waiting lists that are years long.
Even if you’re lucky enough to score one of these spots, there’s always the possibility of being priced out and given short notice to GTFO. The other option is to find cheap, often illegally converted industrial space, but here there’s the same risk of getting kicked out — with the added risk of dying in a fire. Take the recent ousting of the galleries at 17-17 Troutman.
At least one artist seems to have found a solution, albeit a temporary one. George Ferrandi is a sculptor and performance artist but she also runs Brooklyn Wayfarers, a studio space and something of an artist-run coop in south Bushwick, just on the border with Bed-Stuy (aka Bed-Stick).
Back in late 2010, Ferrandi was priced out of her studio, and told she had to vacate the space before her lease was up. “I had a studio in Williamsburg for 10 years and my landlord got offered twice what I was paying,” she said. But Ferrandi’s landlord apparently isn’t a total jerk. As compensation, he offered her a relatively cheap, long-term lease for a large industrial space in Bushwick.
Ferrandi divided up the building at 1109 DeKalb Avenue into 15 spaces– ten for private use and five for shared rooms. She wanted to create a decent, affordable workspace for serious artists. “We’re structuring it like a non-profit. No one takes a paycheck, but I get paid back for my initial investment,” she said. Membership fees are $350 and $150 a month for private spaces and shared spaces, respectively. Though the private rooms measure only 96 square feet, Wayfarers boasts a silkscreen studio, gallery, wood shop, and communal spaces.
Having such limited, desirable studio space gives Ferrandi control over the artists that are accepted into the Wayfarers community. There are strict rules governing membership– not only must the artists complete their designated work each month, new artists must first be approved by Ferrandi and an advisory board, then go through a brief probationary period, after which they are subject to an approval vote by existing members. Artists must also be present at their studio for a designated number of hours. Ferrandi said members also need to be “community oriented.”
Wayfarers boasts a unique feature– the member-operated gallery, which hosts group shows and solo exhibitions of the members’ work. Ferrandi ensured that Wayfarers does not depend on selling artists’ work at the shows. “We don’t have to sell anything in the gallery, so we can show more experimental stuff,” she said.
“So far this model is working,” Ferrandi said.
Yet Ferrandi is cautiously optimistic and ever aware of the seemingly inevitable SoHo syndrome. “But maybe through an increased awareness of the cycle and with better tools [like the Internet] for organizing, we can do something to break the cycle, or at least slow it down,” she said.
Like Ferrandi, Alvarez and his partner do not own the buildings that house Brooklyn Brush Studios. This model is one that’s common in Bushwick: real estate prospectors sign long-term leases (in Alvarez’s case 15-20 years), put some work into otherwise pretty rustic industrial spaces, and rent them out for shorter term leases to artists.
But this model is far from permanent. So why not just buy the building, as some artists doing? “Somebody offered $18 million for one of the buildings and the owners didn’t take it– that tells you something about the area,” Alvarez explained.
Alvarez was adamant that rent increases at Brooklyn Brush Studios are indicative of neighborhood improvement. “The landscape has changed,” he said, pointing to the number of new bars, restaurants, and shops that have opened in Bushwick in recent years. Getting the raw industrial spaces up to code also contributes to higher rents. “There’s a ton of stuff you have to do to get it legal,” he said. Add to which, the deadline to apply for protection under Loft Law passed in March.
But Ferrandi insists the price increases in Bushwick are superficial. “I’m surprised at, just in the time that I’ve been here, how disproportionately fast the rents have increased,” Ferrandi said. She explained that in Williamsburg, studio prices increased gradually and were commensurate to other hallmarks of gentrification. “Here the rents have already increased comparable to Williamsburg prices, but there still aren’t a lot of places to get healthy food, [for example]. The landlords are jumping the gun.”
Yet clearly many artists are still willing to pay high prices. Kevin Lindamood is the owner of OfficeOps, a building with private studios and event space located on the border of East Williamsburg and Bushwick. “We have an angle that keeps us fully occupied all the time, everybody that’s been here has been here for years,” Lindamood said.
Units measuring 400 to 850 square feet at the Thames Street building cost from $1,600 to $3,200 a month. OfficeOps occupies the upper range of the studios we surveyed, with an average rate or $3.76 to $4 per square foot. However Lindamood pointed out that OfficeOps does offer opportunities for subsidized rent, “for people doing stuff that doesn’t make money.”
So what makes a place like OfficeOps so worthy of the price tag? Lindamood admitted rent has gone up in the 15 years since he started leasing the space, but insisted it was in step with his building’s amenities and neighborhood change due to the “fabulous benefits of too many people”– urban renewal, beautification, new businesses, and lower crime rates.
Lindamood claimed there’s nothing profitable about leasing art space. “Nobody makes money doing that stuff, it’s just a nice caché, a nice asterisk to your building identity. Businesses aren’t exactly clobbering over each other for non-paying customers,” he said.
But signs of innovation– the fact that landlords are increasingly adding nicer studios with more amenities to the market– indicates there are substantial profits to be made in this business.
REmerge Studios was Alvarez’s first venture in leasing artist studio space. Martin described it as having a “more rustic, Basquiat” vibe compared to the other two buildings leased by BBS. But for the company’s latest acquisition, 203 Harrison Place, Martin said: “We really wanted to go all out.” BBS 203 has a lounge area, complete with a kitchen, daily cleaning service for common areas, and a gallery run by Martin.
But do artists really need all this cush? Such amenities are certainly a far cry from anything we would associate with Basquiat.
However even Ferrandi advocates for perks like an in-house gallery. She said it was really the only way she could “philosophically” justify the Wayfarers project. “With the gallery, it’s not just people making stuff, it’s also a way to get our work out into the world,” she said. “It’s a bridge between the community and the artists and the makers.”
Ferrandi’s model demonstrates that a certain level of cush doesn’t have to be so expensive. After just one year of private membership for $350, artists at Wayfarers are given the opportunity to host their own solo show. Members are also given access to a shared screen printing studio and wood shop. The cost remains cheap because Ferrandi has essentially cut out the middleman. Though she will receive a return on her initial investment, she said that Wayfarers just barely breaks even.
Ferrandi admitted that Wayfarers will not be able to stay in its current space when the lease is up in six and a half years. But she’s determined to come up with new ways to invest in the future. She hopes that Wayfarers might actually be able to buy a building of its own and end the cycle of being priced out, then kicked out.
She’s also confident that Bushwick’s community of artists has the potential to confront these issues in the near future. “The Williamsburg art scene was never that coordinated,” she said.