Can Arts Non-Profits Find Sustainable Homes In NYC?

I’m writing this after more than a year of searching for the right space for the twenty-year old art and tech studio Eyebeam. I’ve been director for almost two years and my perspective on the needs, hopes, and realities of an arts non-profit have expanded tremendously within that time. My hope is that in laying bare some of the details of a process that is equal parts extraordinarily tedious and occasionally controversial, I can shed a bit of light on what I see as the state of arts non-profits in New York, and the challenge of survival in a troubling environment — despite the importance of the arts to New Yorkers’ quality of life. I think it is important that we have these conversations openly in the spirit of making a better situation both for this city and for its art and creative non-profit organizations. And over the course of my search, I think I have some ideas on how we can solve this problem

For our first ten years, Eyebeam lived in a cavernous and expansive multi-floor 20,000 sq. foot space in West Chelsea, surrounded by galleries: we shared one wall with David Zwirner, another with Paula Cooper, and a third with Haunch of Venison. And there we were, with the most ridiculously huge space, selling nothing, really, but doing extraordinarily important work in launching the careers of artists, technologists, and creative practitioners, some of whom still defy ready-made monikers to accurately describe their visions. They range from Cory Arcangel to Ayah Bdeir; Sanford Biggers to Mary Mattingly; and more than 400 illustrious alumni who have launched projects, businesses, and non-profits of their own. We held incredible parties and giant exhibitions, never really having the money to pull it all off but somehow doing it anyway. To this day, many still associate that 21st Street space directly with Eyebeam, and cannot imagine the organization existing in any other way.

About four years ago, we moved to a 6,000 square foot space, in southwest Brooklyn, in a development called Industry City in the Sunset Park neighborhood. It was still a fairly gigantic space, but it was far from the center of the action: we could no longer count on people dropping by when they were in town. Now there was a real subway trip required, probably involving more than one line; it was a psychological if not actual distance for New Yorkers not trained to come to that neighborhood. And not only was it a radical change in terms of space, but it was a radical change in the organization’s finances. We went from $1/year rent in a space that also functioned as an income-generator from Fashion Week rentals, to an expensive lease that had little income-generating potential. This created a huge burden but through it all, our core residency program has remained as strong as ever and we’ve done a great job of building our community’s engagement with all of our public events held in the space, thanks to a dedicated and energetic team. I have focused on partnerships through the city and country, to help distribute the work of our residents and alumni and support their efforts. And the projects being produced in our studio, on a daily basis, are as invigorating as ever.

Yet, this space was always seen as temporary and before long it was time to start the process of finding a more permanent home for Eyebeam. With no time for a capital campaign, I prioritized a long-term lease to provide the mental headroom for strategic planning while concurrently running high quality programs. Through a process of reviewing over 20 spaces, speaking to scores of non-profit managers, business people, government representatives, and many real estate brokers and developers, I have a much broader sense of the larger NYC ecosystem. And while many people have shown through brilliantly with inspiration and vision, the larger picture is one of limited capacity in government for assisting smaller arts spaces in finding homes. Simultaneously, non-profits, particularly small and mid-sized ones, face incomprehensible overhead and difficulty in coordination with peers on what is at this point a pandemic problem of space for the arts throughout the city. This is troubling to me — people move to New York in part to experience our world-class art and culture, but how long can that last if emergent or small arts organizations cannot find a suitable, sustainable home here in town?

I’m happy to say that we’re closing in on several prospective spaces, and any one of them would make a fine home for Eyebeam. Throughout this search process, it has become obvious that there are many in other organizations that would be happy to participate in thinking through what the mechanisms for improving this process could be. Stability and the potential for growth are challenging enough for any arts enterprise, but why make it harder than it needs to be by making the space search process elusive? There are tangible ways to improve things.

As it stands now, so much is dependent on conversations of the “I know someone who knows someone” variety — but what if we could create open and trust-based frameworks that are evenly distributed and easy to implement? It’s not just a personality quirk; I truly believe that a focus on institutional partnership built on trust and transparency is the way out, particularly for small to mid-size non-profit arts groups. There are good services like SpaceFinder, by Fractured Atlas, to help artists find under-used space. But we need something similar, to work at an organizational level, so when a non-profit does does have extra space, there should be a way of making that available to others who need it, through strategic calendaring, classification, and transparency of shared need. And because management of these relationships is a major capacity drain for participating organizations, the process should largely be coordinated through city efforts, formalizing ways in which organizations can participate, creating symbiotic and long-term relationships that bolster the strength of all those who participate. Give it a fun name, make it completely transparent, and level the playing field a bit for everyone — it is not a structural solution to underlying problems, but it can be a solid tactical start.