Art Market

Amazon Is Primed to Move into Queens—How Worried Should the Art Scene Be?

Benjamin Sutton
Nov 15, 2018 11:06PM

Photo by Kai Brinker, via Flickr.

“Long Island City is a mixed-use community where arts and industry intersect,” the staff of Amazon’s blog wrote in a post on Tuesday, announcing that the tech and e-commerce giant will invest approximately $2.5 billion in the neighborhood, building a 4-million-square-foot headquarters in the southwest corner of Queens to accommodate more than 25,000 employees. But for how much longer the community can maintain its alluring mix of arts and industry will remain to be seen.

“The Long Island City arts community has been grappling with explosive growth and development in this neighborhood for several years now,” said Mary Ceruti, the chief curator and executive director of SculptureCenter, a beloved local institution housed in a former trolley repair warehouse that’s now surrounded by high-rise condominiums. Ceruti, who took the helm at SculptureCenter in 1999 and oversaw its move from Manhattan to Long Island City—where it has organized major exhibitions by Sanford Biggers, Ursula von Rydingsvard, Ilya & Emilia Kabakov, Nancy Rubins, Rashid Johnson, and more—announced on Tuesday that she’ll be leaving town to be the new executive director at the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis. “Amazon establishing a second headquarters in Long Island City is certainly on another level. However, we still can’t afford to assume this is a done deal and that artists will lose.”

Nevertheless, the news has set off concerns that the already rapidly gentrifying Long Island City neighborhood will be transformed for the worse by Amazon’s arrival. As part of its agreement with New York City and New York State, the trillion-dollar company will receive upwards of $1.5 billion in public subsidies and grants over the next decade. The company projects that by the end of that period, the 25,000-plus employees it brings to Queens will be earning an average annual salary of more than $150,000, potentially contributing hundreds of millions of dollars in city and state taxes. But it remains to be seen what the company will do to support the local art scene that attracted it to the neighborhood—which includes marquee institutions like MoMA PS1 and SculptureCenter, smaller spaces like Flux Factory and Radiator Arts, and hundreds of artists’ studios. (At press time, a spokesperson for MoMA PS1 had not responded to a request for comment for this story.)

“The tax revenue from Amazon should be earmarked in part for government-administered support of the arts, whether at the city or state level,” said Nat Roe, the executive director of Flux Factory, a nonprofit space just north of Queens Plaza. “The way in which this moves through bureaucracy is going to be the difference.”

Thus far, in the memorandum of understanding signed by representatives for Amazon, New York City, and New York State, the company has committed to setting aside 25,000 square feet for artists’ workspaces and 10,000 square feet for an “art and tech accelerator space.” The memorandum also identifies the intended location of HQ2 as a cluster of lots that currently holds parking spaces and low industrial buildings along the East River waterfront and surrounding the small inlet known as Anable Basin. One of those buildings currently houses the nonprofit advocacy group Long Island City Artists, Inc., and the 12,000-square-foot community art and community space it runs, The Plaxall Gallery.

“As a nonprofit art advocacy group with almost 200 members in this area, we’re concerned with how much corporate responsibility Amazon is going to show in regards to the neighborhood,” said Edjo Wheeler, a member of the board of directors of Long Island City Artists and the artistic director of Plaxal Gallery. He called on Amazon to be more transparent with the local community about its plans going forward, but also to be patrons of the local art community.

“Please source locally—everything you need is in Long Island City,” he said. “From the artistic standpoint, use the artists that are here. If you’re going to put out a request for proposals, do it in this neighborhood—let us design some of your interiors, let us provide some of the artwork, let us provide the art for the sculpture gardens. Give the people in the neighborhood an opportunity to benefit from this.”

For Ceruti, the best way to make sure the local community reaps the benefits of Amazon’s arrival in Long Island City is through political pressure.

“We should still put pressure on the city and state to provide the necessary infrastructure and services that this neighborhood desperately needs,” she said. “We need to be pushing the city to address affordability, and, if they are smart, they will recognize that a vibrant cultural community is part of what drew Amazon to the neighborhood and make investments to make sure that community survives the development.”

Others are less optimistic.

“There are all kinds of things Amazon could do for local artists, but I don’t think they care,” said Tamas Veszi, the founder of Radiator Arts (Radical Mediator for the Arts), which operates both an exhibition space near the Queens-Midtown Tunnel entrance and studio spaces near Anable Basin. “The one thing they could do is set aside space for local artists to showcase their work.”

Certainly, if Amazon wanted to support local artists and arts nonprofits, there’s no shortage of worthy would-be benefactors. One is Materials for the Arts, a reuse center on Northern Boulevard operated by the New York City Department of Cultural Affairs that accepts material donations from companies and individuals, and provides them to public schools and nonprofits.

“Long Island City is home to a remarkable creative community, and we look forward to connecting this transformative development with local arts and culture stakeholders,” a spokesperson for the Department of Cultural Affairs said. “We’re committed to preserving the neighborhood’s unique cultural character while also embracing new voices and audiences. We are excited that through this deal, more space for artistic and cultural uses will be built.”

Another local art organization with a very different interest in Amazon’s arrival in the neighborhood is UOVO, the art storage company whose flagship, 280,000-square-foot facility sits in the shadows of the Queensboro Bridge. It doesn’t seem a stretch to imagine that the arrival of tens of thousands of six-figure earners in the neighborhood could provide a boon to its business.

“At UOVO, we are energized by the announcement, although Amazon’s decision comes as no surprise,” said Steve Novenstein, UOVO’s CEO, who also serves on the board of directors of the LIC Business Improvement District. “I see tremendous potential for long-term economic growth in the community. Of course, there will be growing pains—I expect the trains will get more crowded almost immediately.”

But the strain on local subway lines is one of the many issues about which locals are concerned—their future transit pain worsened, perhaps, because Amazon’s deal with the city and state will allow CEO Jeff Bezos to commute by helicopter.

“The big issue here is infrastructure: There’s no theoretical way to move all these people, the 7 Train is already a disaster,” said Roe, who fears that the strain Amazon would put on real estate and infrastructure in Long Island City, and adjacent neighborhoods like Greenpoint and Astoria, will be crippling.

The arrival of Amazon, of course, is just the latest stage in the neighborhood’s ongoing gentrification. In addition to its bevy of scrappy art spaces and marquee cultural institutions, Long Island City used to be home to the graffiti mecca 5Pointz. Like many of the area’s industrial buildings, it was demolished and is being replaced by glassy apartment towers, part of a tsunami of development that made Long Island City the fastest-growing neighborhood in the United States long before Amazon decided to move in.

“It’s greed and inequality laid bare at the expense of a neighborhood that used to be pretty cool and pretty weird,” Roe said. “This is not the straw that broke the camel’s back, this is like the cement block that broke the camel’s back.”

Benjamin Sutton