Creativity
How One Philanthropist Is Making Studio Space More Affordable for New York Artists
View of August Love Volbrecht's studio. Photo by Sara Luckey. Courtesy of Hercules Art Studio Program.

View of August Love Volbrecht's studio. Photo by Sara Luckey. Courtesy of Hercules Art Studio Program.

The building at 25 Park Place, in the Manhattan neighborhood of Tribeca, is an unassuming hub of commercial activity. A sandwich shop on the ground floor sits above a boxing gym in the basement, while upper floors are occupied by a law firm and a design agency. The exception, though, is the third floor, where an airy, white-walled space is host to sizeable art studios that brim with work by seven contemporary artists.

The artists are the first cohort of the Hercules Art Studio Program, an initiative launched by designer and philanthropist Andrea Woodner and architect Claire Weisz in 2016. The program offers affordable studio space to recent MFA grads for a two-year term. Though it’s small in scale, only able to support seven artists at a time, Hercules is among very few subsidized studio opportunities for artists in the famously expensive city.

Woodner owns the whole building (as well as the one next door), and when her third-floor tenants at 25 Park Place departed in 2015, she seized the opportunity, hatching a plan to turn it into a series of 300-square-foot artist studios, and to charge artists just $300/month ($1 per square foot).

“I’m foregoing market rent,” Woodner tells me when we meet during the most recent Tribeca Art + Culture Night, for which Hercules studios opens its doors to the public. “It’s not a not-for-profit or anything like that, I’m just subsidizing the rent out of my own pocket.”

Woodner and Weisz renovated the empty office space and designed it to house seven 300-square-foot studios, plus communal space for programming and exhibitions. Then, they set out to find deserving artists who would make the most of the opportunity (and who really needed it, financially).

A three-person jury, including Woodner, architect Mark Yoes, and artist Jennifer Boysen, scoured the MFA shows in the New York area that spring 2015, surveying the graduate work coming out of the art programs at Hunter College, Columbia University, NYU, Parsons, Pratt, the New York Studio School, and Rutgers University. They invited applications and called finalists for in-person interviews, ultimately landing on seven individuals.

View of Sophie Grant's studio. Photo by Sara Luckey. Courtesy of Hercules Art Studio Program.

View of Sophie Grant's studio. Photo by Sara Luckey. Courtesy of Hercules Art Studio Program.

The first group of artists (which will occupy the space until May 2018, before a new group arrives in June) includes Jenna Westra, who graduated from Hunter College’s MFA program in 2015, with a focus on photography. Prior to earning a spot at Hercules, she tells me, she was paying more for a 90-square-foot, closet-like space in Ridgewood, Queens. “That’s just the case for artists,” she says. “It’s impossible to find affordable studios.”

Thanks to Hercules, Westra has been able to forgo a full-time job outside of her art practice, and she can devote each Friday, Saturday, and Sunday to studio time. “It’s three days a week but it makes a big difference,” she says.

Her space, a squarish cubicle dotted with recent photographs, has also become a location for shoots, and it’s inspired her to push her practice forward. Since starting the program, Westra has forayed into filmmaking for the first time.

“It’s only seven artists,” Woodner acknowledges, “but at least it’s seven artists who get a little bit of a toehold at a critical, vulnerable point in their careers.” She nods to the jarring experience young artists face as they transition from supportive school environments to the ruthless, costly, and competitive realities of a big city like New York. “This is like a two-year soft landing after graduate school.”

A few yards from Westra’s studio, her former Hunter classmate Sophie Grant has a space filled with paints and in-progress paintings taped to the walls. Grant, who went to the Skowhegan School of Painting and Sculpture before starting at Hercules, notes that her studio has enabled her to work on a large scale, and she appreciates having space to program as well as to make work.

Grant has launched a critique program called Clinic, for artists to convene and share thoughtful feedback on each other’s work in the shared space, which is frequently hung with shows curated by the Hercules artists. At the time of my visit, it was host to a group show co-curated by Westra and her friend Johanna Jaeger, as well as a solo presentation of new paintings by another Hercules artist, August Vollbrecht.

Photo by Sara Luckey. Courtesy of Hercules Art Studio Program.

Photo by Sara Luckey. Courtesy of Hercules Art Studio Program.

“I wanted to make a protected space,” Woodner offers, “where they don’t have to be completely bare-knuckled about the commercial environment. Here, they can be artists, think about and show their own work, and use the facility as an artist-run project space.”

What led her to focus her altruistic efforts on the art world? “I like New York and I like art, and I think that New York needs artists as much as artists need New York.” And one thing the city needs, she believes, is studio space.

“The city and wealthy people who support the arts tend to support performance and exhibition, and there’s not much opportunity to support production,” she says. “So, it’s almost impossible for artists to live and work here. A gallery might want to exhibit your work, but you can’t find space to make it. That needs to change.”

Ultimately, Woodner wants to be an example for fellow real estate owners in the city; she hopes that others will follow suit, but hasn’t seen progress there yet. “What I’d ideally love to do is to convince the city to offer property owners real estate tax subsidies if they forgo market rents to offer space like Hercules,” she explains, adding, “Hercules could manage it for the landlords!” She acknowledges that achieving this would likely require the help of a lobbyist.

“I would love to see the tide turn, I’d like to see a movement,” she says. “I want the city and the citizens of New York to start thinking about the arts in terms of production and creation, not exclusively in terms of consumption.”

Now in the process of selecting the next seven artists to participate in Hercules in 2018, Woodner notes that in her search for worthy artists, she looks for grit and determination. “With every one of these seven artists, it was abundantly clear in their interviews that there was no ‘Plan B’ for them,” she explains. “They were going be artists, come hell or high water.”

Casey Lesser is an Editor at Artsy.