Interview: Artists As Activists For Affordability

Whole Black 2015 Foam board, Styrofoam and acrylic paint
Whole Black 2015 Foam board, Styrofoam and acrylic paint

I recently had an opportunity to speak with Bay Ridge Artist, Tamara Zahaykevich, after visiting her recent solo exhibition ZAHAYKEVICH at Kansas Gallery in TriBeCa.

Comprised of sculptures both free-standing and wall-hung, Tamaras work echoes the detritus of the urban landscape, as she employs discarded, low-end materials, that have been reconfigured to seemingly convey abstracted tribal totems.

A contrast between the weightiness that the bulbous forms suggest (reminiscent of the wall sculptures of Lee Bontecou) and the lightness that is inherent in the foamcore and styrofoam she employs is created in five of the works of small to medium scale, while a sole free-standing sculpture, Cultural Body, invokes the form of a conga, painted and constructed more like something you would encounter in a drum-circle at Burning Man.

Aside from being an artist, Tamara has taken on a role as an activist and is working to create a more sustainable environment amid the outrageous rent increases families, artists and businesses face in NYC. We sat down and spoke about the advocacy group ASAP she helped start.

What is ASAP – Artist Studio Affordability Project – and what is your role in it?
ASAP started on Facebook when a lot of people were complaining about losing their studios and their apartments. These were people that had been in Brooklyn for a long time. Within that period of time, I realized that I was going to lose my studio in Industry City. So there were about 75 to 100 people that lost their space all within a period of four months. There really wasn’t a good reason for pushing us out because there was so much space. We saw this as a trend: commercial rents are going up, and a scarcity is being made by realtors. I ended up with a friend from Queens, a lifetime New Yorker, who had the same concerns. We met at a coffee shop and came up with the name, ASAP: Artist Studio Affordability Project. We probably spent the first year making noise about things, bringing attention to the fact that rents were high and that New York was going to lose its artists. Our initial meetings were well attended, then some weren’t. During one of our meetings, we were coming up with committees, and it almost fell apart. There were people who thought that we didn’t know were doing because we didn’t have a specific focus at that point. We knew we needed help. We didn’t have a solution. We did a lot of coalition building with community groups, with tenant organizers, city council members. We were getting the big picture.

Installation view of “ZAHAYKEVICH” @ Kansas Gallery
Installation view of “ZAHAYKEVICH” @ Kansas Gallery

We went in a policy direction because it would benefit the most amount of people—even outside the arts—who were struggling to stay in their communities. We came up with a solution in the form of a bill, The Small Business Jobs Survival Act, for commercial rent control through the Small Business Congress. It is currently in the city council and needs support. The speaker has to bring it up for a vote. We’ve been putting more effort to get it more attention.

We’ve been full force with this bill, probably about a year.

I have always said that the gentrification of Bay Ridge by artists is next to impossible due to the lack of vacant industrial spaces that artists can move their studios into. Though, the industrial spaces on the outskirts of Bay Ridge, down by Brooklyn Army Terminal, can foreseeably be used by people in Community District 10 for arts purposes—visual, culinary or local artisans, etc.—rather than being gobbled up by larger companies. It seems like ASAP would be able to help.
Yes, this bill would help artists, craftspeople and light manufacturers: a doctor’s office, and acupuncturist, someone who makes pickles, someone with a wood shop, an artist. There is such a diverse amount of people that could benefit from commercial rent stabilization or rights. This bill is not that, but it would give longer leases. When I talk about this with artists I talk about what is good for them…the 10-year lease and reasonable rents. For business, especially immigrant businesses, there is extortion to meet the landlords and renegotiate leases up to $50,000 to $2 million. It’s a terrible situation. Small businesses are the largest employers in the city, many of them employ people in their neighborhood, so there is a “walk to work” situation. People that live in neighborhood and people that care about a business tend to stick around longer and can have better relationships with their employer. A lot of what makes a neighborhood good is when people that live there care about it. When people come in from out of town for low paying jobs, they aren’t going to care. We are losing person-to-person good will by the way we are conducting ourselves in a corporate sense.

Rosie Pinching 2015 Foam board and acrylic paint
Rosie Pinching 2015 Foam board and acrylic paint

You had some issues yourself in the past with your studio situation…
I was renting from the NARS Foundation who was renting from Industry City. We were, of course, hit up for an increase for basically no improvements. There were many who were upset by this, many of us created a coalition. We had a meeting with Industry City management and said they were willing to work with us on an individual basis rather than as a group. They wanted to know who was successful in the group and who could pay more. We knew that nothing was going to happen and we had no negotiating power. They were kicking out 100 artists and at the same time wanted to project that they were “artist-friendly” by having a three-story show with major artists from NYC entitled “Surviving Sandy” with artists that were in some way effected by [Superstorm] Sandy.

ASAP was just starting at that point. We were contacting the people who arranged the show and never heard back. We didn’t protest, but ASAP stood across the street and presented information about our story, that 100 artists were removed unjustly from their spaces and this show was a “cover-up”. We offered tape to put an “X” on peoples shirts that were going to the show to show support and awareness of the situation at hand.

There was a shift for me that went from “artists are really being fucked in New York” to “New York is really being fucked by real estate.” If ASAP was to do anything, it needs to grow.

Someone who worked with us was an architect who said, “I’ve always thought that speculators and developers follow artists, but now there’s proof.” At the time when I heard it, I was like “Wow, that’s crazy!” And I think that many artists don’t know that. ASAP is about educating artists on how they can stop being used as a wedge. It’s not easy, but it’s so important.

Tamara Zahaykevich was born in Livingston, NJ and received her BFA from the Tyler School of Art in 1995. She has had solo exhibitions at Bellwether Gallery, New York; Arena, New York and Gist Galerie, Amsterdam. Her work has been seen in such venues as Alexander and Bonin, New York; ICA, Boston; Feature Inc., New York; Tony Wright Gallery, Chicago; New Britain Museum of American Art, CT; Essl Museum, Vienna and Galerie Les Filles Du Calvaire, Paris among many others.

The artist Tamara Zahaykevich
Tamara Zahaykevich, right, with local Bay Ridgites Grant Huang and Lucky Huang–Zahaykevich. Photo by Marisa Tesauro