Radical reorientation: Leaving New York

Joy Garnett, looking out her Greenpoint window on her last night in Brooklyn.

Contributed by Sharon Butler / Joy Garnett, an artist I met via her formidable art blog NEWSgrist (“where spin is art”) in the early art blogging days, has just left Brooklyn. On social media I discovered that she has packed up her studio and apartment and moved to the high desert in Nevada.

Her empty Brooklyn apartment

Shock and surprise gave way to the jarring realization, after the stultifying sameness of a 75+ day lockdown, that change is upon us. As the economy likely implodes, galleries and art organizations will inevitably close or relocate. Young artists looking for other smart, ambitious, talented people will reconsider their options. If the conversations aren’t taking place in New York IRL, what’s the point of paying exorbitant rents for studio space and spending every last dime on materials and supplies if you can sustain a creative life just as easily and far more cheaply in a smaller city or rural outpost? With Zoom studio visits, it may not matter where you’re calling from. After seeing Garnett’s post, though, I was mad that I didn’t follow up on that painting trade we talked about the last time I visited her studio. Now the paintings are in a moving van on some interstate, heading west.

Joy Garnet, Honeycomb Series, 2019.

I sent her a note to find out what happened, and I was surprised to learn that Joy had not, in fact, moved in response to the pandemic. She had made plans to do so long before the lockdown because she no longer felt as though New York offered any promise. Here is what she told me and later posted on social media:

“Multiple friends have assumed we abandoned New York due to the pandemic, but no. We packed up our lives, our apartment and art storage, and flew away because life in the city (pre-pandemic) had become untenable and awful in so many ways. Unaffordable, precarious, and denigrating. You have all heard it even if you haven’t been there. Those of us who stuck it out for so long did so because of the sense of promise, which had once been real. Or so it seemed. I guess promise is a state of mind.

“For decades, we suffered those endless underpaid jobs in the ‘arts,’ enduring the creeping and then rampant glossification and dumbing down of much that had brought us to the city in the first place. We somehow lived through the traumatic loss of affordable studios across the five boroughs (among other things), adapting by transforming the way we worked. We came to accept precariousness and instability as a way of life – but for what, now? That used to be an easy question to answer. My last stand against the forgone conclusion entailed an odious underpaid job that would soon self-implode.

“And so, for many months, we planned our escape. We had inspiration from friends and help with logistics. The virus stopped us in our tracks rather suddenly. And then, after a month of lockdown and with enormous help from those same friends out West and from our families, we pulled it together and kept mostly to our plan. Yesterday, we made it out and here we are, in the West. We don’t know where we’re going or where we’ll end up. Our state of mind is a luxury. Maybe it’s not so different from how we used to feel in New York. As I sit here staring out at the forest of pines and the lake beyond, I need to write it down again and again to believe it’s real.”

Driving through Donner Pass on their way to Tahoe.

It’s true that to live in New York, artists accept a lower standard of living and often mid-career indignity unlike anywhere else, but the reward has always been that we are participants in the most vibrant art community in the world. What happens when the tradeoff is no longer worth it? The fantasy of living in New York, once seen as the quintessential path, might be a straitjacket, keeping artists from truly thinking inventively about their lives and work. What happens if the combustible creative energy and ambition are dispersed in communities around the country? Artie Vierkant points out in a thoughtful Art in America commentary that this critical moment, in which life as we know it has been suspended indefinitely, could provide a unprecedented opportunity for reorientation. I’m looking forward to watching how Garnett’s adventure unfolds and reshapes her world.

Related posts:
Quick study: The quiet city
When do artists leave the country?
10 ideas and influences: Joy Garnett
With or without a dealer
Blast Radius

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