Choreographer Laura Peterson observed the uptick of empty storefronts and the lowered rents in late 2020. It was then that the choreographer, whose work includes installation, saw a sliver of an opening to lease her own studio that she could also rent out affordably to other artists. After 16 years of dragging her supplies and set pieces to studios all over New York City, Peterson found a 1,246-square-foot lease in DUMBO, Brooklyn.
While visiting the artist on a Sunday afternoon this past June, Peterson’s Open Arts Studio, with its industrial brick walls and sparse decoration, resembles artist lofts of yesteryear — minus the errant nail poking out of the floor or tumbleweeds of dust and hair. The glow of a desk lamp illuminates a pile of colored pencils and one of Peterson’s abstract sketches of overlapping colorful lines that jut out at all angles. Cleanliness and a sense of warmth are imperative to the artist and business owner who wants the studio to “feel good” to not only Peterson and her company but also to other artists so that “they can do their best work.”
While dance and visual art are central to Peterson’s practice, she welcomes creatives from across disciplines and of all ages, hence the space’s name.
“I’m realizing that I don’t fit in some categories and that I don’t want to,” she said, noting that the moniker also reflects her new lease on what it means to be an interdisciplinary artist. “I’m no longer interested in finding a label for all of us and separating [what we do].”
Peterson is one of several artists who have made strides to establish studios and residencies in New York, across the country and even internationally over the past year.
The desire to lease or own space is twofold, according to the creative entrepreneurs interviewed for this piece, made up of a cohort of nose-to-the-grindstone artists who have tirelessly contributed to their respective fields for years. Establishing spaces, they explained, is a way to garner a level of autonomy in a career where fate is often left in the hands of others. For some, creating physical establishments also satisfies an innate impulse to collaborate and to be in community with others.
What draws these spaces apart from traditional arts organizations is that the artists at the helm of these ventures know the plight of the working artist intimately. They’ve received countless rejection letters, created works on a shoestring budget and schlepped heavy props across the city. That’s not to say traditional arts organizations don’t understand the needs of their constituents. But artists opening studios and residencies are uniquely primed to identify the emerging needs of the community because of their own experiences.
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Real estate, the almighty monolith that affects all corners of New York life, is essential to many artists’ crafts. Yet, booking or leasing studio space often remains an elusive act. Even before the COVID-19 crisis, the lack of affordable studio options posed a challenge to creative professionals.
During the past year of closures, performing artists, in particular, faced a unique difficulty: Where could they go to create and train when studios were inaccessible? Many retreated to their postage-stamp-sized kitchens for ballet barre. Others trudged out to their local soccer fields to improvise and communed in parks for class, masked and clad in sneakers and parkas. While resorting to these alternatives showed steely resolve, it was and is not a long-term solution.
Months into the pandemic, aerialist and producer Kyla Ernst-Alper was, like Peterson, pining to be back with her community, which includes contortionists, burlesque performers, other fellow aerialists and circus arts performers. “Seeing my peers have no choice and have to leave was heartbreaking,” she said, referring to the number of artists who had to venture away from New York, either temporarily or permanently, due to not having work.
Ernst-Alper shared that the exodus of her peers and a shoulder injury that she sustained while rehearsing at an unheated space were catalysts in her quest to find an alternative. The artist saw a unique opportunity in retail and approached City Point Brooklyn, a shopping and entertainment center in Downtown Brooklyn, to inquire if they would allow her and other circus performers to practice in BKLYN Studios, the center’s empty 13,000-square-foot event venue.
“Erica Roseman from their PR company responded immediately and recognized the opportunity to bring arts to the people and support us at the same time,” Ernst-Alper wrote via email.
Since January, the partnership has afforded over 60 artists room to train and rehearse. While City Point has donated the space, the endeavor is still with cost. For circus performers, particularly aerialists, spaces must have high ceilings to accommodate silks, ropes and other equipment that hang from the ceiling. And to practice their daring crafts, they must carry personal liability insurance. This meant that Ernst-Alper had to personally come up with the funds to have the equipment professionally installed with safe rigging points. She also assisted those who couldn’t afford their insurance. Residents pitched in, too, when they could, by donating personal equipment for communal use and for supplies like toilet paper and cleaning products.
Though the partnership has been fruitful, the cohort has had to adapt to meet the needs of the evolving times. When BKLYN Studios needed to become a vaccination hub, for example, City Point offered an alternative space, a smaller vacant storefront in the central part of the complex. And now that New York is roaring back to life, the residency, which was only supposed to last two months, is officially ending in August.
While the residency may not be permanent, it’s a major win for Ernst-Alper and the circus community. “We’ve always been on the fringes,” she said, referring to both how circus is sidelined to other performing art forms in the United States and to the outer boroughs, where their training spaces often are located.
Artmaking may not often be in the same breath as luxury apartments or Lululemon — both of which are part of the City Point complex — but Ernst-Alper believes there is more room for the commercial and artistic worlds to coexist. “The visibility has been instrumental in educating the public of what circus is and can be,” she said. This summer, for example, shoppers can watch the performers workshop new material in an informal, kid-friendly show every Saturday.
The pandemic’s impact on real estate isn’t the only reason that artists have sought out their own brick and mortars. Teresa Fellion, choreographer of BodyStories, said a residency experience at Mount Tremper Arts in 2016 and annual sojourns back to her native Western Massachusetts, where she saw a plethora of idyllic barns on bike rides, inspired her desire to create a live-work space. The fantasy was shelved when the artist received the unique opportunity to teach dance in Dubai. But the idea resurfaced in summer 2020 while she was still abroad.
“The pandemic was an opportunity to assess and to move forward with things that I wouldn’t have considered prior to then, because I would have been on the hamster wheel so to speak,” she said.
Similar to the trending news stories of couples purchasing homes sight unseen, Fellion and her partner Orin closed on a barn in Jefferson, N.Y., while she was still in SWANA (South West Asia and North Africa). The dancer had only seen the property via FaceTime. Two hours and 45 minutes away from New York City, Fellion’s Middlebrook Arts Research and Residency Center is a 4,400-square-foot barn built in 1900. After a three-phase building project is completed — phase one is already finished — the barn will include a dance studio, visual artist and writer studios, a theater, guest housing and kitchen.
Dancer and software engineer Glenna Yu and her partner Tyler Tamburo, whose interests and training span from carpentry to sculpture, had a similar dream of one day buying land and building their own home and artist community.
With the wish to live more simply and to dedicate more time to their artistic pursuits, the couple decided to explore what was once a pipe dream. In February, they closed on 35.7 acres in Andes, N.Y. Unlike Fellion’s property, there currently isn’t an existing structure that’s suitable for a large studio. While their vision for their artist community will take a few years to complete, the duo is considering inviting artists as soon as this summer.
“From my perspective and my experience in tech, we’re trying to have people up as soon as we can,” Yu said, explaining that the approach is akin to beta testing.
Those who venture up have to be open to getting their hands dirty to assist with projects in an informal work-study capacity while camping in tents and using the big open field on the property as an interim dance studio.
“We really want to be a resource for artists,” Yu said. “You don’t need much but you do need space, which we have.”
New York artists aren’t limiting themselves to the confines of their state. They’re also putting down roots in Europe. Choreographer Mari Meade is renovating an old watermill property in Périgord Vert, France, with her partner Jérémy Galuret, a French native. Moulin/Belle, a multi-building property, is now their home-base and will serve as an international artist retreat center.
Born-and-raised New Yorker Stefanie Nelson launched Motore592 this summer, an arts venue that will support year-round programming in a former auto body shop. The new venture is in the Tuscan village of Lucca, a city where the dance maker has spent 10 summers producing Dance Italia, an annual intensive. Like the other artists interviewed for this article, Nelson, who has been in the dance field for over 20 years, is struck by the ability to extend opportunities to peers now that she has her space.
“We’re always waiting for someone to accept us — in the sense that we’re going to an audition and hoping to be picked, or submitting our work and waiting for someone to want to present it,” she said. “There’s something so exciting about taking some ownership and empowering yourself … And then within this space, [you can] offer opportunities to other artists. It’s so exciting at this point in my life.”
Residency ventures aren’t only being headed by New York-based artists. Long-time friends and colleagues Jared Williams and Nuria Latifa Bowart, who once worked on opposite coasts, have established the Field Center where they now both reside. The former inn-turned-residency serves creatives working in dance, performance art and multimedia in southern Vermont.
Interdisciplinary artist Taylor Simone is at the helm of Exodus School of Expression, a residency centering on new approaches to education, outside of academia, by and for BIPOC artists in Richmond, Va.
After more than a year of living in a virtual square, these industrious artists are embracing the unknown of being business proprietors. They’re welcoming a mélange of artists from disparate mediums and are energized by the blurring of disciplines through collaboration and experimentation — much like the vibrant, disarrayed sketch found on Peterson’s desk at Open Arts Studio.
While it’s yet to be seen how “getting back to normal” will impact these new spaces in the long term, these artists collectively believe the benefit outweighs the risk.
“I would rather crash and burn than sit on my couch for another year,” Peterson said. “It’s time for transformation. It’s time for change. It’s time to say ‘why not?’”