Lack of affordable studio space, infrastructure greatest challenges for Jamaica artists
Weary of already high rents and wary of the upwardly-trending Jamaica real estate market, artists, arts administrators and others gathered on Wednesday, January 13, for a discussion about what is needed for Jamaica artists to thrive in the rapidly changing neighborhood.
The Jamaica Arts Leaders Town Hall was a collaboration between the Queens Council on the Arts (QCA) and the Jamaica Center for Arts & Learning (JCAL), where the event was held. The forum was hosted by Molaundo Jones of QCA, who introduced panelists Cathy Hung, Executive Director of JCAL, Kendal Henry, Director of Percent for Art at the Department of Cultural Affairs and David Johnston, Executive Director of Exploring the Metropolis (EtM), the arts organization behind the Queens Workspace Initiative. Each answered questions posed by the Jamaica Arts Leaders program fellows. The current fellows are Stephanie Davis, Patricia Ghizamboule, Sol Gonzalez, Marvenia Knight, Rejin Leys, Okechukwu Ofiaeli, Dominique Sindayinganza, and Shenna Vaughn.
Jones, in his opening remarks, highlighted the purpose of the event, which grew out of the Spring of 2015 launch of the Jamaica Arts Leaders program, "an artist leadership development initiative designed to foster community and activism amongst Jamaica-based artists." In discussions held since then, the program fellows discovered the need for more community and identified the lack of studio space as well as "public spaces" to present art. According to Jones, the Jamaica Arts Leaders Town Hall is a first step designed "to empower, organize and support artists in Jamaica to address these issues."
The background for the discussion can be heard in the expressions of hope for the revitalization of Jamaica and the rest of southeast Queens, a hope that includes artists presently living and working in Jamaica. Okechukwu Ofiaeli, an "environmentally friendly art innovator" who works with recycled and reclaimed materials, said the Arts Leaders program fellows sought to "bring together artists, community members and policy makers to realize the full potential of the arts and artists in Jamaica."
"Lonely Planet's decision," Ofiaeli said, "to name Queens the #1 travel destination for 2015 helped place Queens in a position to benefit more from international tourism. It is time for artists in Jamaica to be given opportunities they need."
"We are here to discuss the state of arts in Jamaica and to bring attention to the things artists need in Jamaica," Ofiaeli said.
Arguably, the greatest challenge facing artists in Jamaica (as anywhere in New York City) is the lack of affordable studio space. Arts Leader program fellow Rejin Leys, the visual artist and activist behind the PulpMobile, said issues with studio space are central to the concerns of New York City artists, where older buildings once suited for studio space are converted to other, "more profitable uses," such as apartments. "New York is becoming unaffordable for the creative workers that helped make it a great city," Leys said.
But simply converting Jamaica into a haven for artists will only exacerbate problems associated with gentrification, like soaring rents and displacement of current residents. Leys expressed concern that the current situation causes local talent to leave for Brooklyn and beyond, when they could be supported to work and exhibit locally.
With attention now focused on Jamaica and with support from Queens Borough President Melinda Katz and Mayor de Blasio, it is commonly understood that the area is prime for investment. Such investment can bring both opportunity and concern for local residents. This theme ran throughout the town hall meeting, with many suggesting the goal should be to "develop" Jamaica from within, rather than import creatives from elsewhere looking for the cheapest or the "next hot neighborhood." Leys' question of how to go about creating the kind of infrastructure to support artists in Jamaica was put to panelists Cathy Hung, David Johnston and Kendal Henry.
Cathy Hung answered by representing the work of JCAL, saying that creating working space for artists "has been a priority." Among the initiatives she outlined were a NYFA-supported residency program, a annual exhibit of local artists' work, and the First Friday residency program, which provides a one month residency followed by inclusion in a performance. Hung emphasized the wide range of art forms included in JCAL programs, including dance, studio art, music and literary productions.
Replying to the concerns of Rejin Leys, David Johnston was direct: "Development is inevitable." But he also advised that those present be proactive, saying that any changes will come about because of community involvement. According to Johnston, changes "almost never happen because of decision makers making something happen" but because of people in the community coming together.
But, Johnston said, "development is coming—and soon. The idea is not that you're going to block it, you're not going to be able to. But, you do what you're doing now, which is you are coming together and say 'we want to manage this. We're members of this community, we're artists and we are giving of our time and talents to this and we will have say in this and we will manage this along with the other decision-makers.'"
"You want to make sure there is a place for the arts in the development....built-in to the planning at the beginning," Johnston said.
Johnston said the "Queens Workspace Initiative" study, which looked at workspace issues for artists in Queens, found "that everything seemed to be pointing towards Jamaica as really the area that was ripe for everything to happen because space was still relatively affordable, it was available and you've got amazing transportation options."
The other recommendation of the report, Johnston said, was that "arts leaders in this community need to be identified and developed. It's not a question of bringing in experts from outside Jamaica to sit down and tell everyone 'what Jamaica needs,'" he said. What is needed are resources to assist the members of the community to come together and "make things happen."
Kendal Henry echoed Johnston's emphasis on community members as the necessary change agents in making desired improvements. Henry pointed out that artists were "one of the economic drivers of New York City," something he said was "important to know." He went on to suggest that artists and leaders in the community needed to engage with relevant elected officials or city agencies when seeking "space in transition," for example, and implied that as a community they had more power than they realized when holding their representatives accountable.
Jamaica Arts Leader program fellow Marvenia Knight raised the issue of public art, including how to access empty or abandoned storefronts, by saying, "We would like to see more dedicated spaces for public art in Jamaica. We envision allocated public areas that will bring visual, performing and literary artists together and serve as a learning atmosphere for all ages."
Responding to Knight, Kendal Henry said that public art is more than murals and sculptures and advised the audience to think collaboratively. He said, "When you broaden your thinking of what public art is it opens up a whole new world of where you can do it." Sometimes art in the public environment involves taking a public space for a momentary, if transient interaction with a public that may not be aware of the exact nature of the engagement.
For Henry, such a view of art conducted in public means it could take place on "any sidewalk, any street corner, any window, any space can be a public art space," an axiom he countered almost immediately by saying that "every piece of land is owned by somebody." Streets and sidewalks are "owned" by the DOT and parks by the Parks Department and all private space is owned. "Luckily," Henry said, "both DOT and Parks have an art program" and he explained that these programs have process for allowing interested artists to seek permission to use those spaces.
Henry repeated his insistence that the community directly participate in whatever it takes to make it happen and he provided some practical advice on the permissions process. Often no permit is required, only a modest vetting, and even that could lead to modest support for the public work involved.
Regarding the Percent for Art program he directs, Henry described how the 1982 rule requires developers of eligible city-funded construction projects to provide one percent of their total budget for public art projects. Henry urged those interested to become aware of where projects were getting built and to be proactive in seeking out permission, if not financial support, for public art projects at those locations. Henry also suggested that this kind of work involved aspects of the artist's job that can be a drag, like networking, or explaining a project and its value in a written proposal. Knowing how to communicate is central to the activity and he said that if you can't communicate to those who may need to be persuaded, you should partner with someone who can.
Arts Leaders fellow Patricia Ghizamboule Robinson, Artistic Director of the United African Dance Troupe, asked the panelists about how the community might go about developing Jamaica into a cultural arts district.
Kendal Henry spoke about some of the challenges in creating an arts district. Suggesting that what might work in Chelsea might not work in Jamaica, Henry spoke of a "center that radiates outward," enabling synergy among organizations, industries and event spaces located in the district but would not lead to the marginalization of the arts district. The concern Henry seemed to have with destination arts districts is that people who may not consider themselves interested in the arts just would choose to avoid going there, leaving only those already predisposed. Henry said people might happen upon the arts and would be positively transformed by doing so—imagine a football fan leaving a sports bar and stopping into a gallery only to have a transformative experience with the art.
Another value of an arts district in a community like Jamaica, according to Henry, is that it might reflect the "flavor" of local artists "what would identify the district as a unique place." An example that came up several times during the town hall was Jamaica's rich history of jazz, funk and hiphop, three musical styles associated not only with southeastern Queens but African American culture and history generally.
The town hall was attended by approximately 100 people and at the end many took time to introduce themselves. Doris Jones, who develops programming for the Queens Public Library, spoke to the assembled group, urging them to speak with her about opportunities at the library. Others who spoke, to follow-up on topics already raised or to make new points, often did so with a sense of urgency about making connections and finding community. At the end cards and information were exchanged.
The Jamaica Arts Leaders Town Hall marked the first time the Queens Free Press live-streamed an event. To listen to a recording of the entire town hall, it is included below. 108 minutes. [download]