BY BARNABE GEISWEILLER
Across New York City, arts organizations have needed to tighten their budgets, reduce staff and cutback on programs or events. In fact, 80 percent of arts groups surveyed by the Alliance for the Arts, a New York-based research and advocacy organization, said they were trimming down their budgets, and more than half were reducing staff and postponing or cancelling events in 2009.
Flux Factory, a non-profit cultural organization in Long Island City, has had to scale back its projects and stop paying staff. But it has managed to continue providing artists with a place to create and display their work, despite cuts in funding.
It has coped thanks to a sense of community among artists in Long Island City who must work together in order for their art to survive.
Last summer, Flux moved in to an old 8,000-square-foot, three-story greeting card factory, transforming it into a bastion for the arts in which performers, painters and musicians can collaborate, support each other and weather the financial crisis. Flux runs a residency program for artists, commissions new collaborative works and is invited by host institutions to do projects.
But Flux, like most other cultural organizations in the city, has by no means been insulated from the economic downturn. It has seen most of its private donations dry up. It was promised $10,000 in state funding but then the state never paid. Its operating budget is down by about $60,000 compared to previous years.
Artists are traditionally among the first to be affected by economic slumps. The city’s unemployment rate hit 10.3 percent in October. Artists were unemployed at twice the rate of professional workers in 2008, according to the National Endowment for the Arts. Many outside of Flux have lost their work spaces and have had to get day jobs to pay the bills. Artwork sales are also down.
“Sales have been slow,” said Heather Jones, a multimedia artist and Flux Factory resident artist. “Galleries have been extending their shows or choosing to close during the down season. Non-saleable, installation-based art has taken the biggest hit. Galleries are a lot less willing to invest thousands of dollars on art that’s experimental.”
For artists, finding affordable studio space is often very difficult. Flux rents 14 studio spaces to artists for about $450 to $750 per month – below market rates but slightly up since previous years – and its main gallery space for around $1,000 per night.
“I work for an artist who had a large free studio in Chelsea, and then the building was re-appropriated for smaller, expensive studios and we couldn’t afford to stay,” said Jones. “A lot of galleries in that neighborhood were shutting their doors. A lot of free spaces were taken away because people could no longer afford to give away studios.”
How Flux ended up at the greeting card factory in Long Island City is a story similar to that described by Jones.
Flux Factory was launched in 1994 in Williamsburg, Brooklyn. The tenants were evicted in 2001 when Williamsburg became the trendy place to be and rents soared. In 2002, Flux moved to Long Island City.
Flux was evicted again in 2008 when their building was taken over by the MTA through eminent domain. Optimists Chen Tamir and Jean Barberis, the directors, saw this as an opportunity for growth.
“You make your opportunities,” said Barberis.
Flux took the money it got from the MTA and moved. Volunteers have donated countless hours of their time fixing up the factory on 39-31 29th St. With their help it has been turned into one of Long Island City’s most talked about art institutions.
Since 2002, Flux has showcased more than 500 artists from the U.S. and around the world, according to Barberis.
“Flux is in a really wonderful position where we’ve been around for so long and we’ve created this amazing community, which is really what we’re all about,” Tamir explained. “We can rely on that community, or we’re hoping that we can rely on that community, to support us.”
But despite the duo’s sanguinity, continuing to operate during an economic downturn has not been easy.
Flux can no longer afford to pay staff and artists, or take on as ambitious projects. It used to pay artists when it commissioned works but now even has a hard time affording materials.
The collective was able to fix up the old factory with donated supplies and labor. But the place still needs major renovations such as installing a second bathroom and, even more pressing for the winter months ahead, fixing the heating system.
Flux holds free weekly and monthly events, but attendees are encouraged to leave a donation.
Tamir and Barberis are trying a new approach to raise funds this month. On Dec. 10, Flux is having a fundraising night with performances and music sponsored by local stores and caterers such as Vine Wine, Blink’s Deli and Heritage Foods, and Campari, the alcoholic aperitif. Flux will be selling box sets of limited edition works by eleven artists including well-known Andrea Dezsö, Swoon and Ward Shelley. Flux Factory plans on selling the art online afterward and is setting up a Kickstarter webpage – an innovative funding platform for artists or pretty much anyone with an idea and too few dollars to make it happen.
The event is the first of its kind at Flux, and demonstrates how artists are donating work and time to help raise money for the collective.
The art scene in Long Island City has been able to maintain itself through cooperation, volunteerism and innovation, said Tamir. She believes that overall things are beginning to improve, and hopes Flux will be able to keep putting on new shows for New Yorkers to enjoy.
In the meantime, artists such as Heather Jones continue producing art thanks to their resourcefulness, determination and places like Flux.
“Affordable studio spaces are very difficult to find and here you have studio space, you have common space, you have a gallery space, support to work on your ideas, extra hands, etcetera,” said Jones. “It’s really incredible.”