Art
What It Takes to Live as an Artist in New York
New York City is mythical, heroic, cinematic, unbeatable, legendary. But it’s also a place where real people have real jobs, and really struggle to pay the rent in a place that is gentrifying at an unnerving rate. Older generations of artists staked out the then-desolate neighborhoods of SoHo in the 1970s, or Williamsburg in the 1990s; they bought cheap real estate or stumbled upon capacious, rent-controlled studios that they enjoy to this day. Those pockets of scrappy, affordable bohemia are now few and far between, even in the outer reaches of the outer boroughs.
At the same time, New York remains one of the undeniable centers of the art world, and proximity to its key players can be vital. Couple that with the ongoing professionalization of the art industry—in which a high-priced MFA degree can be touted as a prerequisite for success—and New York can suddenly seem like a dilemma without any clear answers.
might be fond of telling young people to get the hell out of town and move to Poughkeepsie, yet each year brings a fresh crop of bright-eyed artists eager to beat the odds. (Each year also brings the arrival of new corporate developments, like Amazon’s HQ2, sure to alter the creative fabric of an entire neighborhood, not to mention its availability of affordable apartments and studio spaces.) Rather than idly surmising about the state of the metropolis, we decided to speak with seven creatives, at various stages of their careers, to get a better idea of what life is actually like for artists in New York City, circa 2018.

The artist and experimental musician helping keep Brooklyn’s DIY spirit alive

Dean Cercone’s studio is in the basement of a Bushwick building that doubles as a concert venue.

Dean Cercone spreads his paintings out on the floor of his basement studio—a little extra dirt is part of the process. Photo by Heather Sten for Artsy.

Dean Cercone spreads his paintings out on the floor of his basement studio—a little extra dirt is part of the process. Photo by Heather Sten for Artsy.

When Dean Cercone was 18, he left his small, rural hometown of Renfrew, Pennsylvania, and set off to try his luck in Pittsburgh. There, he found a home in what he said was “basically a squat,” paying $80 a month for the privilege. He focused on making art and music (and surviving the winters without heating). Cercone and a few friends worked out of a large, questionably legal warehouse where they also threw concerts; it was called, in no-nonsense fashion, The Warehouse. But once the space was shuttered by city officials, Cercone started looking for a way out.
In 2013, he relocated to Bushwick, Brooklyn. He was familiar with the area from playing concerts at the now-defunct club Goodbye Blue Monday. “The neighborhood was just so wacky,” he said. “I kept coming back. I got soaked by train water [from the elevated J line subway]. There was garbage everywhere.” Someone else might have been grossed out; Cercone was thrilled.
Dean Cercone in the backyard of Bohemian Grove—where he'll also make paintings outdoors, when the weather permits. Photo by Heather Sten for Artsy.

Dean Cercone in the backyard of Bohemian Grove—where he'll also make paintings outdoors, when the weather permits. Photo by Heather Sten for Artsy.

He held a painting fire-sale out of his Pittsburgh studio, netting around $3,000, money he used to move to New York. Cercone ended up crashing on a friend’s floor for a few months, working first for Artex Fine Arts Services in Queens, and later Hauser & Wirth in Chelsea. He was inspired by the handlers he worked alongside—nearly all of them artists themselves—as well as the insider opportunities the gigs provided. Hauser & Wirth might have been “doing a private viewing of some work from 1943,” he recalled. “It’s a dream come true to be that close—to look at the back of it.”
But Cercone was anxious about paying the bills—despite, unlike most of his peers, not having student debt from a college degree to juggle. A musician acquaintance convinced him to move into his place, a building in Bushwick known as Bohemian Grove. The friend was looking to save money himself by downgrading his room and literally moving into the closet. “We have closet lofts,” Cercone asserted. “They’re…small. It works best for someone who’s minimalist and clean.”
Portraits of Dean Cercone by Heather Sten for Artsy.

Portraits of Dean Cercone by Heather Sten for Artsy.

Each of the six apartments in the building holds about six tenants, with no common areas. (His current rent is $790.) In its early days, Cercone said, the atmosphere was more freewheeling, with an open-door policy and regular concerts in the raw basement, where Cercone could also work on his massive, expressive paintings on unstretched canvas. Fearing that they might eventually lose Bohemian Grove as a show space, Cercone and his friends launched a second venue nearby, dubbed the Glove. He gave up art handling in favor of programming eclectic, very radio-unfriendly concerts and events. In other words: “Put on the weird shit, give people some booze, and the money will come.”
Along the way, the painter also fell in with a crew of creatives centered around a handful of Brooklyn bars, venues, and cafes—Happyfun Hideaway, Flowers for All Occasions, and Secret Project Robot. Bartending and working the door at those spaces allowed him to make money, as well as perform music and show his art.
“Put on the weird shit, give people some booze, and the money will come.”
Last year, with a few friends, Cercone staged a pop-up exhibition at a space in Chelsea formerly occupied by Tanja Grunert Gallery, selling a few 5-by-5-foot paintings for around $1,000. In 2018, he opened a an exhibition at Secret Project Robot, with found-object assemblages and giant paintings tacked directly to the walls.
Artwork by Dean Cercone
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Artwork by Dean Cercone
Things have not always been smooth. The Glove, once in a fairly removed corner of Bushwick, is now surrounded by fancy condos that Cercone said “literally were not there six months ago.” (The building’s new tenants “don’t actually want to live [in Bushwick],” he surmised. “They’re the people that call the cops on us.”) Cercone has recently gotten married, and he’s well aware that long-term conjugal bliss might be incompatible with a raucous building stuffed with artists, some of whom are happily living in closets. And however fun the nightlife industry might be, it has taken its toll. “Having to constantly subject myself to late nights—I’m sure that I’m getting older than someone else my age because of it,” he said. “It’s a psychotic lifestyle.”
Yet he’s still satisfied with his home in what he once saw as a garbage-strewn wasteland whose ramshackleness was a selling point. “I feel like I needed to get backhanded by the universe over and over again, on purpose,” Cercone said, reflecting on his decision to move to New York. While he was in Pittsburgh, he could never imagine his artwork resonating beyond that city’s own bubble. “Whereas New York—if you bust your ass for 10 years, something might happen. As for what that is, I don’t know,” he said. “But something might happen. And you’re doing it in New York! It rolls off the tongue better.”

The sculptor with a side hustle

Doreen Garner helps pay the bills as a tattoo artist.

After graduating from the Rhode Island School of Design, successfully applied to the Lower Manhattan Cultural Counsel (LMCC), a nonprofit that grants a year’s worth of free studio space in the city to participating artists. She’d also scored a Toby Devan Lewis Fellowship Award, which came with a cash prize of roughly $10,000. She supplemented that windfall with gigs both art-related (assisting ) and art-adjacent (as a salesperson at the MAC Cosmetics outpost in Macy’s on West 34th Street). Garner has also taught, at the Abrons Art Center and elsewhere, though the impetus hasn’t been purely financial. “Adjuncts—they say it’s like the ‘internship of the institution,’” she said. “The pay sucks, but I’ve been doing it because I want there to be more people of color in positions of power in art institutions.”
Artwork by Doreen Garner
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Artwork by Doreen Garner
Meanwhile, she’s been steadily amassing accolades as an artist in her own right. “My work’s a little more difficult,” she admitted. “People aren’t beating my door down to pay my rent.” Her sculpture can resemble putrid slabs of human flesh or mutant organisms; a single piece might incorporate hair weave, teeth, and condoms. Her work has been shown at Pioneer Works in Brooklyn; Wave Hill in the Bronx; and at the offbeat Lower East Side space Larrie, among other places. She’s now represented by the tastemaking gallery JTT, which showcased an installation by Garner in the Statements section of Art Basel in Basel; she’ll have her first solo exhibition with the gallery in May 2019.
Garner isn’t depending on art sales to keep her afloat, though. In 2016, she decided to pursue a sideline job as a professional tattoo artist. She now works out of Gristle Tattoo in Bushwick. Often, she has purposefully blurred the lines between her two parallel careers. Garner’s website reflects this, mixing installation shots of past exhibitions with a link to book a tattoo appointment.
“When I engage with the city, it’s on my own terms.”
The artist currently lives in Sunset Park, Brooklyn, where she also has a subsidized studio—paying roughly half of what the market rate would be, Garner estimates—via the organization Chashama. “There’s a lot of pressure about living in this huge community of all these important artists, and feeling like your voice is really small,” she said. “I had a lot of anxiety about putting my work out there, and also going to social things.…I tried to find ways to relieve myself of that stress—one thing was moving to Sunset Park. There are no hipsters around. There are no people looking at your outfit. So much less judgment—more families, more quiet.…When I engage with the city, it’s on my own terms.”
Garner’s long-term plan is boldly utopian, and brings together every disparate route she’s pursued thus far. “I have this dream of opening up a fortress,” she told me. Said fortress would be a multi-floor, mixed-use space—a café, a tattoo shop, all modeled after a “Black Panther Party meet-up spot.” Maybe, she surmised, her studio will be in the building, as well. “And then, in the back of the coffee shop, there’s going to be a little book store. You push one of the shelves, and it opens up to a dispensary.” High ambitions, indeed.

The Midwestern transplant with a love for teaching (and puppets)

Jaimie Warren stages elaborate, heartwarming performances with a little help from her friends

Jaimie Warren at work inside American Medium gallery, with the foam forest that served as the backdrop for her performance Love’s In Need of Love Today, 2018. Photo by Heather Sten for Artsy.

Jaimie Warren at work inside American Medium gallery, with the foam forest that served as the backdrop for her performance Love’s In Need of Love Today, 2018. Photo by Heather Sten for Artsy.

settled in Brooklyn five years ago from Kansas City, Missouri. She’d already made a name for herself with photographic projects commissioned by Vice magazine, and had shown her work at galleries like the The Hole and Higher Pictures. But life for the new arrival was not glamorous. “At 33, I shared a bedroom, bunk bed–style, with a close friend in Ocean Hill, Brooklyn,” she said. “The building was sold out from under us in less than a year.” She was paying off bills from the BFA she earned at the Kansas City Art Institute, while also amassing credit card debt. “New York tests you, to make sure you really want to move here,” Warren joked. “It always throws some crazy curveball—you move into your house and realize it has black mold, then you lose your deposit because you don’t want to live there.”
But along with those curveballs—be they mold, bed bugs, or a subway that only works when it feels like it—come benefits that are unique to the city. Warren kept costs down by relying on the donated time of fellow artists and performers, and also sourced much of what she needed from Materials for the Arts, a sprawling warehouse of donated artmaking goods. The artist’s practice often involves performances replete with elaborate costumes, large casts, and plenty of absurdity. Her Love’s In Need of Love Today (2018), staged at American Medium in Manhattan, was one of the most moving things I saw in 2018; it included Warren in various guises, including an anthropomorphic pile of garbage and a truly riveting version of shock-rocker GG Allin.
Portrait of Jaimie Warren with sculptural elements from her performance Love’s In Need of Love Today at American Medium. Photo by Heather Sten for Artsy.

Portrait of Jaimie Warren with sculptural elements from her performance Love’s In Need of Love Today at American Medium. Photo by Heather Sten for Artsy.

Much of Warren’s work happens outside of the gallery system. She helps run Whoop Dee Doo, a nonprofit she co-founded with Matt Roche that enlists kids, students, and other non-professionals for large-scale performances at museums, art centers, and festivals. Warren is also a regular educator at Dia: Chelsea, as well as the MoMA Teens initiative. “They allowed me to be the first artist to host a MoMA Teens all-night horror movie/haunted house slumber party,” she said. “We had a pajama tour of the galleries in the middle of the night.”
Since arriving in New York, Warren has always had studio space provided by a succession of residency programs—with Abrons Art Center, BRIC, Sharpe-Walentas, and currently, Pioneer Works. “I have never rented a studio,” she said, “and I don’t think I could afford to.” Her current personal rent is $900, in an apartment she shares with three roommates in Bedford-Stuyvesant: “At 35, I finally got a room all to myself!”
“New York tests you, to make sure you really want to move here.”
Money anxiety has affected her career in other ways. Warren was accepted to the prestigious Skowhegan School of Painting & Sculpture residency program, but ultimately had to turn it down—despite the program agreeing to waive the tuition fee of roughly $6,000. “You have to be gone the entire summer without having any income,” she said. “There was just no way that I could financially make that feasible.”
As a performance artist, Warren’s practice presents its own challenges, especially as she’s committed to keeping her live shows free of charge. Her exhibition at American Medium marked a slightly new stage in her career. The bizarre foam forest creatures that formed the backdrop of Love’s In Need of Love Today are offered for sale as individual soft sculptures, ready to be wall-mounted (the entire set is priced at $7,500). Warren also, for the first time, showed a series of small figurative paintings—three suites of related works on wood, dedicated to Michael Jackson, Stevie Wonder, and Freddie Mercury, respectively.
Portraits of Jaimie Warren by Heather Sten for Artsy.

Portraits of Jaimie Warren by Heather Sten for Artsy.

The feelings Warren generates during a performance—and the relationships she builds in order to make them happen—are what inspire her. Unfortunately, it’s hard to monetize an emotional state. “I’m kind of drowning in debt, but I’m very excited to live here, and the challenges that are embedded in that,” she said. “Will I be selling out if I’m changing my practice in order to pay some bills? Will I be proud of my work if someone has it hanging in their home, and does that have anything to do with who I am or what I’m trying to do?”
Artwork by Jaimie Warren
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Artwork by Jaimie Warren
That thoughtfulness is certainly at odds with the careerist mentality of some young artists who would be eager to move units. Warren’s true passions revolve around creating an atmosphere, a shared ambiance, a memorable moment. “A big part of my job is making sure that everyone who is a part of the work feels comfortable, feels happy, feels engaged, feels like they’re welcome and wanted,” she said. “That’s the teacher in me, helping create those communities. Being ‘on’ in that way is where I funnel energy—and then crossing my fingers that the people who see the show or the performances will hopefully be touched by the work and help me get to the next step.”

The French painter on the cusp of her New York breakout solo

Julie Curtiss exhibited diligently before being picked up by Anton Kern Gallery.

In ’s intricate paintings, food, hair, and the human body become strange and unnerving. The works tip their hat to the , so it’s fitting that the French artist’s journey to the United States began in that city—where, at the age of 23, she was a visiting exchange student at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago.
It was there that she met her future husband, , a fellow painter. They eventually settled into a long-distance relationship, with Curtiss returning to her home country for several years. But “I never felt like Paris was really that exciting of a place to be for art,” she said, and so she set her sights on New York. Curtiss’s partner scouted out places to live in Brooklyn, eventually stumbling upon a promising rental in East Williamsburg; when his roommate moved out, he was able to take over the lease. It was a rent-stabilized unit, one of the few remaining bulwarks against greedy landlords and ballooning rates. (Many New Yorkers live in rent-stabilized units without ever being informed that this is the case; it’s worth checking to see if your own building falls in this category.)
Artwork by Julie Curtiss
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Artwork by Julie Curtiss
Curtiss spent years showing in group exhibitions in Brooklyn, building a following, but not a firm market. “The studio is the thing I’ve never compromised on,” she said. Her first one—basically “a tiny hallway” in Greenpoint—cost her $275 a month. Meanwhile, she worked in a café, in a shoe store, and as an artist’s assistant, spending a year in the painting and sculpture department of ’s studio, and then four years as a part-time assistant for .
Recently, Curtiss has started regularly selling her own work, and has also shown at more prominent galleries, like Various Small Fires in Los Angeles. Her prices have risen substantially, which has helped. A 25-by-30-inch painting, she said, used to go for $3,000, but now commands roughly $10,000. (Curtiss does stress that, as in most artist-gallery relationships, her dealer retains 50 percent of this price, which “doesn’t reflect possible discounts.”) It’s been about a year since she has subsisted solely off income from art sales. So far, things have worked out, with some exceptions—healthcare costs among them, now that she has to purchase her own plan out-of-pocket.
But as her career has reached more solid ground, Curtiss has continued to invest more income back into her practice, realizing that, come tax season, it can help to offset extra earnings with valid expenses. The painter decided to commit to a new, $1,200-per-month, 440-square-foot studio in East Williamsburg. She’d concurrently applied for the Sharpe-Walentas Studio Program, but didn’t have high hopes for landing the coveted honor, which comes with 12 months of free studio space in Dumbo, Brooklyn.
Curtiss’s first studio was basically “a tiny hallway” that cost $275 a month.
“Of course, right when I signed a two-year lease on my new studio—the same day I moved in—they called me. ‘Congratulations! You got the Sharpe-Walentas!’” (Curtiss has since sublet the original studio to her husband, saving him from painting “in our building’s basement, which is pretty much only a few inches higher than his head.”)
And the good news kept coming. Curtiss has since been picked up for representation by Anton Kern Gallery; she’ll have her first solo exhibition there in 2019. Despite the upward trajectory, she’s cautious. “It feels very capricious,” Curtiss admitted. “I think it could change very fast—for the better, like it happened to me for the past couple of years—or for the worse. I guess I try not to get too pumped up. But now it’s good, and I’ll see how long I can sustain that.”

An artist and teacher living and working out of a converted firehouse in Harlem

Nari Ward readies for a major survey at the New Museum.

Nari Ward in the studio of his live-work space in Harlem, a building that was formerly a fire house and a piano moving company. Portrait by Heather Sten for Artsy.

Nari Ward in the studio of his live-work space in Harlem, a building that was formerly a fire house and a piano moving company. Portrait by Heather Sten for Artsy.

As an artist at the top of his game, is in an enviable place. He works out of a converted firehouse in Harlem that he bought back in 1999, using the space to conceive his large-scale sculptures composed of offbeat materials: shoelaces, tires, pianos. (The building is also a home for the artist and his wife, along with their two children, ages 17 and 21.) He’s prepping for a retrospective that opens at the New Museum on February 13, 2019. But it’s taken a long while for the artist—born in Jamaica, raised in New Jersey—to reach this point.
In the early 1980s, Ward was a student at the School of Visual Arts, crashing in Harlem with an aunt. Financial difficulties cut short his time at SVA. He later enrolled at Hunter College as an undergrad (the college was, and still is, renowned for being an excellent bang for one’s buck). From there, he pursued a graduate degree at Brooklyn College, studying with artists like and .
Portrait of Nari Ward in his studio by Heather Sten for Artsy.

Portrait of Nari Ward in his studio by Heather Sten for Artsy.

Through school, Ward supported himself with a variety of jobs that had little or nothing to do with artmaking: house-painting, for instance. “It’s not stupid work—there’s a certain amount of intelligence to figuring out how to do that—but it didn’t require a creative input,” he said. “I always wanted to have jobs that, when I left it, I left it.” Ward also moonlighted as an undercover security guard at Macy’s. “It was: Punch the clock, get the time in, get paid, get back to the studio,” he said. “That was the priority.”
After graduating, Ward took a chance and applied for a Guggenheim Fellowship. He initially thought he was too green to be a serious candidate, but he got it. “It was this shot in the arm to just be in the studio for the whole year,” he said, “and that’s just sheer luck. I mean, I had the work—but a lot of people had the work.” His studio at the time was on East 125th Street and Lexington Avenue in Harlem: a former ballroom on the second floor, with sweeping views of the street.
Photos by Heather Sten for Artsy.

Photos by Heather Sten for Artsy.

Ward also ended up taking an adjunct teaching position at Hunter, beginning in 1993 (he’s now a tenured professor there). His artwork had been generating modest sums, but the regular paycheck provided additional freedoms. “It made an important separation: I don’t have to worry about the art making the income. I can do what I want to do and push the envelope as much as I need to,” he said. “Man, I was finding things on the street and covering them with sugar.…[Teaching] allowed me to leap, [but] to not have to survive off the leaping.”
It was a lesson that had been imparted to him by Williams at Brooklyn College: “He’d always say, ‘Find a way to stabilize your income. Making a living off rich people’s disposable income is not something I would recommend.’”
“Punch the clock, get the time in, get paid, get back to the studio. That was the priority.”
In 1993, Ward rented a building on West 141st Street to stage a piece he called Amazing Grace: a stunning and unnerving assemblage of hundreds of found baby carriages. Afterwards, he left the work there for several years. The building’s owner was, he said, an art patron herself, eager to support striving talent. “It was cheaper to leave the piece in the space than to put it in storage,” Ward recalled, estimating that he paid about $5,000 a year for the privilege.
In 1999, when the owner wanted to sell the building—an idiosyncratic structure that had formerly been a fire house, then a piano-moving company, then a limo service—Ward and his family jumped at the opportunity, figuring they’d rent out units on one floor to help offset the mortgage. Ward’s bank loans didn’t quite cover all the necessary renovations. “All the work went into the rentals, and we were living in squalor for years, man,” he said. “It was rough. When we started to get a little headway, the first thing was to fix the kitchen—that’s the heart of any home.”
Artwork by Nari Ward
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Artwork by Nari Ward
In the mid-1990s, Ward had been showing with Jeffrey Deitch at Deitch Projects in New York. The exposure was great, but he had trouble securing a steady market: “Everyone knew my name,” he said, “but I was broke.” Occasionally, Deitch would step in and personally acquire a piece. Ward moved to Lehmann Maupin’s roster, where he found a more sales-focused environment—which had its own challenges. “You have to be finished with the work two weeks before the actual opening,” he said, “because they have to do all this PR stuff, and photograph it. They really go through the pains to get the work out there to collectors, make them feel like they’re getting special previews. And the relationship they build with these collectors who want something exciting really paid off.”
Now, at the age of 55, Ward is looking ahead to the future, but is still grateful for the opportunities of the past. He realizes that his situation—especially in terms of real estate—is unique. “A lot of people who weren’t able to have a place were displaced,” he said. “I get friends calling me, because in their imaginations I’m this landowner, I have properties all over. I’m just trying to hold this one thing down!” Some of his peers in Harlem, including those who are firmly established, he said, have found a temporary solution by paying studio rent in the form of artworks given to the landlord.
Ward could easily leave the city if he wanted to; his star is bright enough to coax curators or critics upstate if he decided to pursue a quieter life there with his family. It’s an option he has entertained, but mostly abandoned. He recalled taking his wife and kids along one summer when he was teaching at Skowhegan, in a remote spot of Maine. “Man, after the sixth week, I found myself running to Walmart on a regular basis, to feel a kind of urbanism,” he laughed. “It was bad. Enough of these trees, godammit!”

The performance artist striving to return to her favorite city

Dawn Kasper is a modern-day nomad, but she’d love a home base in New York

Part of ’s identity as an artist is that she isn’t exactly rooted to one place. Her Nomadic Studio Practice Experiment, an ongoing project begun in 2008, has found her bringing her workspace into galleries and museums, where viewers are able to engage with her creative process in real time. She first established herself in New York in 2012, in advance of her participation in that year’s Whitney Biennial. Over the years, she’s lived in almost too many apartments to count—from Greenpoint to Bushwick, Chinatown to East Harlem. For a multi-month project that followed the biennial, she lived and worked out of David Zwirner in Chelsea. To stay nimble, “I was trying to avoid signing any leases,” Kasper said.
Artwork by Dawn Kasper
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Artwork by Dawn Kasper
Kasper received her MFA at the University of California, Los Angeles, and retains a strong affection for that city’s performance art scene. While there, she also worked as a studio assistant for artists like , , and . But New York’s history called to her specifically, she said, as someone who “grew up obsessed with early 1970s body art performance and performance art from the Lower East Side.” She cited ’s 1969 Following Piece as a particular example: “quintessential New York performance art.”
As is the case with most young artists, institutional and critical acclaim—or even prominent placement in the Venice Biennale, in which Kasper participated in 2017—doesn’t always translate into a frictionless career. Kasper shows regularly with David Lewis Gallery in New York, and says that she has been able to support herself based on her sales, in conjunction with teaching jobs. But she’s yet to find a balance that would let her achieve her ambitions: a home and studio in New York, perhaps with enough income to pay a studio assistant.
She compares New York City to a bee that can sense your fear—and that’s a good thing.
At the moment, Kasper is bouncing between Philadelphia and Accord, New York, an upstate town a little over two hours north of the city. She spends the bulk of her week teaching at Temple University’s Tyler School of Art, then drives back up to Accord, where she has a live-work space in a “tiny little cabin,” complete with a woodburning stove, on a friend’s property. Back in New York, David Lewis provides her access to a shared studio in the Bronx that she can use on a project-by-project basis. She currently has an exhibition on view at the gallery through January 6, 2019.
The self-described nomad would still love to get back to New York on a more permanent basis. The city, she explained, has sharpened her performances, and made her think harder about her practice. (“The New York minute,” she mused. “There’s only so much time—you don’t want to waste people’s time.”) If, in her mind, Los Angeles was starting to feel like a comfortable outfit, she compared New York City to a bee that can sense your fear—and that’s a good thing.

The Canadian expat painting in the South Bronx

Cindy Ji Hye Kim juggles jobs, but aims to put art first

In 2017, staged a solo exhibition in New York, at Helena Anrather in Chinatown. The large-scale paintings on view were full of cartoonish violence—eyeballs being poked, knives stabbed into gloves. That mixture—of the brutal and the whimsical—isn’t a bad summation of her experience trying to make it work as an artist in New York. “Everything looks nice from the outside,” she admitted. But often, critical success—and even regular exhibitions—merely cover over the more grueling realities of day-to-day life.
A Canadian citizen, Kim is on an O-1 artist visa. (It’s good for three years, and the process cost her around $6,000.) That means she’s fairly limited in the sort of work she can take on to support herself; technically, every job has to have a relationship to her abilities as a professional artist. She’s helped pay the bills by gigging at an animation studio and working as a gallery attendant, among other things. Teaching, while a tempting proposition, would require an entirely separate visa. While Kim said that she initially considered money from artwork sales to be a welcome “extra,” it now constitutes around half of her annual income.
“I don’t think it’s about who works harder. It’s much bigger than that.”
The artist attended the Rhode Island School of Design, after which she returned to her hometown of Toronto. That was followed by a short-term relocation to Crown Heights, Brooklyn, before she left to attend the MFA program at Yale (she took out loans for both degrees). In 2016, Kim returned to the city, finding both an apartment—she has three roommates, and pays $600 for her room—and a large shared studio in the South Bronx. The latter was a roughly 3,500-square-foot space that she refurbished and subdivided with friends. Her 350-square-foot portion runs around $550, but Kim is convinced that the studio’s days are numbered. “Now it’s all changing—the headquarters of a skateboarding clothing company are in the basement,” she said. The owners of the building renovated the floor below Kim and her friends. “They built fancy studios, $3.50 a square foot, and then these smaller businesses moved into those spaces—Etsy shop owners, 3D printers.”
Artwork by Cindy Ji Hye Kim
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Artwork by Cindy Ji Hye Kim
Kim’s biggest struggle has been balancing paid jobs with the time and effort required to be in the studio in advance of a major exhibition. Making paintings for an upcoming show might necessitate that she turn down freelance work for an entire month; any sales from that show would simply be backfilling the money she lost during that time. “It’s unlike a salaried job,” she explained. “It’s very unpredictable. Nothing’s guaranteed. All my shows have been concentrated in one or two months, and then I’ll feel super comfortable—but I know that in the next three or four months I’ll just not be able to pay rent.”
We discussed Kim’s reaction to Jerry Saltz’s recent New York magazine feature on “How to Be an Artist,” in which he writes that those who are “sneaky” and “resourceful” can figure out ways to balance their art ambitions and their bills. Saltz adds that “fully 80 percent of the artists” he’s met have been able to do things like “scam a way to work an only-three-days-a-week job.”
“That is so toxic,” Kim said. “I know so many friends who stopped making work because they just can’t quit their full-time job…and it’s not because they’re less resourceful or less committed to artmaking. It’s just the environmental fact. I don’t think it’s about who works harder. It’s much bigger than that.”
Scott Indrisek is Artsy’s Deputy Editor.

Header image: Portrait of Nari Ward by Heather Sten for Artsy.

Corrections: A previous version of this article incorrectly stated that Jaimie Warren is an educator at Dia:Beacon and that she held her recent show at American Medium in Brooklyn. She is an educator at Dia: Chelsea, and American Medium is located in Manhattan. Additionally, the non-profit Whoop Dee Doo was misspelled as Whoop De Doo.

The text has been updated to reflect these changes.