“Warhol said it best,” said Clinton King, a contemporary artist from Ohio who lives and works in Bushwick, “Some people have deep-rooted long-standing art fantasies and they really stick with them.” These “fantasies” seem to be the common thread that pulls the arts community of New York together- a community comprised of people who are unwilling to give up making art, despite the hardships involved.
Historically, creative dedication has always been a part of New York City’s identity. “There will always be people who come to New York who are looking for this other kind of creative space,” said Marvin Taylor, an archivist from the Fales Library who specializes in subcultures of New York. “That’s engrained in American culture and artistic culture in general.”
This idealized creative Mecca has drawn in subcultures of bohemians, beatniks, and hippies alike. Now, it continues to attract throngs of creative-types, seeking this idealized notion of New York.
Their pilgrimage is one reason life can be challenging for all artists in New York. The “unimaginable saturation of recently-minted BFA and MFA grads moving to the City every year” has made it very difficult to “find your place here,” Stephen Traux, an established contemporary Bushwick artist and Glenview, Illionois native, lamented.
These individuals have been stereotyped in various ways including the age-old “starving artist” label. Whether or not “starving artist” is an accurate description in this day and age, many artists living in New York today undeniably face a difficult life. They sacrifice steady employment, health insurance, and bellies full of food in order to pursue what they love.
Theater director JV Mercanti said that when he first moved to New York to pursue acting in the early 1990s, he could barely afford his $500-a-month rent for a tiny bedroom in the East Village. He worked “every kind of job” in order to survive. “There will always be people who have to work for it and people with trust funds. That’s the way of the world,” said Mercanti.
Pete Hamill, an established NYC journalist, reflected on the preliminary career challenges he faced as well as those he observed. “I don’t think starvation produces artists,” Hamill said. “But I think poverty to some extent is a very great educational experience.” He believes it helps artists strike a sense of realism in conjunction with their optimism. Part of this realism is the awareness that, especially at the beginning, “you’re going to have a double life.”
For most artists, this double life consists of day jobs, night jobs and odd jobs in order to continue with artistic endeavors. “It can be hard to spend so much time working one of these jobs when your passions lie elsewhere,” Adam Rongo, a jazz saxophonist, said. When he first moved to New York a year ago, he worked in a wine shop to make ends meet. He never told any of his musician friends about this side job, out of fear he wouldn’t seem “dedicated enough” or “as willing to suffer” for his music.
While the majority of artists accept their double-lives, some, like Bushwick-based painter Ryan Ford, decide to truly surrender everything to their art. “You get to a point where you’re tired of it all,” he said. “After working shitty jobs I realized I had to find a way to make a living with my art. I have to do this to survive; it’s really what I enjoy.”
The presence of struggling artists in New York is unmistakable. While the “struggling artist” scene has moved from The East Village to SoHo, then across the bridge to Williamsburg, now to Bushwick, their existence has been constant since the nineteenth century. It can seem somewhat unsettling, however, as artists are pushed further down the subway stops and further away from Manhattan, as if the city no longer has a place for them to settle and thrive.
“It seems like artists always find a way to survive though,” said Scherer, “I think the main thing is we come here to be with other artists and to follow our dreams. It still feels like the place to come to be an artist.”
Mercanti similarly attested that, more than anything, the presence of NYC artists would always be determined by their perseverance, a factor that cannot be stunted by the economy or gentrification. “People will stay and people will leave. People will get defeated and people will work at it until they’re 70. I don’t think that will change,” Mercanti said with great certainty. “If you want it more than anything, that’s what keeps you going.”
Which begs the question “why?” Why choose hours and hours in an empty studio or running to auditions with the hopes of making ends meet? Why sacrifice stable paychecks for the chance to play saxophone gigs or write about topics you find interesting?
Actor Lucas Rooney said it is important to really examine that “why?” “If the ‘why’ is monetary or notoriety, find something else to do,” he said.
But for most artists, money and notoriety are not their driving forces. Most are intrinsically motivated.
“I just love art and I really one hundred percent believe in it,“ said Scherer. “I think there are few things in life you can truly believe in. So if you find one you don’t question it, no matter what the challenges are.”
Rooney, like many artists, often considers how his life would be different if he had chosen another path. “But what I have instead is a completely examined life,” he said. “And the ability to be in the moment in a way that I think very few people get.”