It starts with art. That is the idea that the artist John Breiner wants to get across to the town of Poughkeepsie, N.Y. But his message isn’t getting across.
As published on ArtsCultureBeat.com on February 28, 2014 [a student-run site as part of the M.A. Arts & Culture concentration at the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism].
It starts with art.
That is the idea that the artist John Breiner wants to get across to the town of Poughkeepsie, N.Y., where he recently moved after over a decade of trying to make a living in the New York City art scene. But his message isn’t getting across.
New York City artists have been migrating upstate, lured by both affordability and small town charm, for decades. Towns like Beacon, New Paltz, and more recently Hudson and Rosendale, have enjoyed arts revivals and healthy boosts in tourism. Peter Applebome of The New York Times called this artist relocation trend “the Brooklynization of the Hudson Valley.” But Poughkeepsie, a mid-valley town conveniently located at the last stop of the Metro-North Hudson line, has resisted any such renewal. Despite efforts to raise awareness of local arts and provide more gallery space, a lack of support from the city government and interest from fellow NYC artist expatriates both stand in the way.
Breiner, 33, brings street art to a refined level, collaging his graffiti with watercolors and found objects to create colorful, explosive works of fantastical urban scenes. His introduction to the business side of the art world began ten years ago, shortly after he graduated from the School of Visual Arts. An ecstatic woman found him at a house party/art show and offered to bring him to SCOPE Art in Miami, where he sold some of his first pieces. Since then, he’s been making work for usually one or two solo shows a year (plus groups shows), though he says the actual selling part has gotten a lot harder since the recession.
“You know, they say that the middle market fell out,” he explains. “Where you’re either established or always have sold and will continue to sell, or you’re just like the hot new ticket and you can sell through that. And it seems like all the people that are just kind of making work and progressing in their art career—if you’re in between those two things, it’s really hard right now.”
Breiner currently makes the majority of his income through commissioned work and selling small works out of his studio, wherever he happens to be living. He also makes a bit of money through Artsicle, a website where art lovers can rent pieces on a month-to-month basis. Besides that, he says, “If you don’t sell stuff and if you can’t live off of that, then you’ve got to have other jobs, other hustles.” He only just recently stopped working as an after-school sports counselor in Manhattan. But after years of scraping by, Breiner realized he was ready to escape the city.
“I got to the point where it’s like, I was doing so many other things other than making art just to have the place to make art,” Breiner says of his recent move upstate, “and you don’t get to make the art because you’re just, you know, you’re paying your apartment rent, you’re paying studio rent, and they’re expensive.”
Breiner grew up in Hyde Park, just ten minutes north of Poughkeepsie. He was already spending three days a week there to help out his parents, who had developed some health problems, so when a cheap studio space became available nearby, he jumped at it. But the trade-off for affordable living is losing the lively art community he loved so much in the city. He’s involved with the local arts council in Poughkeepsie, who are trying to revitalize the downtown area, but is very doubtful that the town will ever become the next Hudson or Beacon.
There’s promise in the town’s arts walk, called Queen City Saturdays, on the third week of every month, says Breiner, but what is really needed is more genuine interest from artists to show locally. “There’s so many artists that were [in the city] and they made it and then buy houses up there, and they show [in the city] or they show wherever…But they’re just not people that really are like, ‘I’m going to do this 24-7,’ because why would you think you could do that in Poughkeepsie?” In addition, he says that the local government is not as supportive of the arts as it claims to be, routinely turning down funding applications for projects like public murals.
“The people in power don’t really want things to change…it’s like they want to like skip ahead to condominiums and young professionals moving here, but it’s like if you follow the equation, they don’t come until the artists make it kind of cool. I don’t know any better alternative as far as turning communities over, how to do that other than with culture and art.”
It starts with art. Then what? For “middle market” artists, options are limited. Finding that the established arts communities are too expensive to survive in, they move to smaller pastures where they try to build their own communities. But it takes a long time to “Brooklynize” a town, and attempts are not always successful. Subsequently, those artists that are stuck somewhere between highbrow and lowbrow are constantly on the move, looking for the next affordable place to set up shop, fingers crossed for acceptance and (perhaps more important) sales. As Breiner puts it, “you’re either poor and making art, or you’re being supported and making art.” It’s the life cycle of the modern starving artist—a vicious one, perhaps, but a cycle nonetheless.