David Byrne Understands Why There's No Room For Young Artists in New York

Hurrying home every Monday night, my brain is numb from listening to hours of lectures and my body is aching from being pushed and shoved on the subway. It would be a depressing trek if it weren’t for one thing — the young artist in a hoodie near 70th Street by the Hudson River, painting on his canvas propped up by an easel. He’s there every Monday night at 9:35 p.m. without fail, and there’s something about that scene which makes me smile. 

For the sake of the artistic vibe in New York, I hope that scenes like these will last. Last week, Scottish-born musician David Byrne, who gained fame as the leader of the band Talking Heads in the '70s and '80s, wrote a piece for the Creative Time Reports arguing that it’s been increasingly difficult for “artsy” types to survive in the city. Wealth inequality has created a situation in which they’ve been pushed out of Manhattan by soaring rent prices and financiers whom he refers to as the top 1%. As a result, he concludes, the city's creative energy is drained and New York is becoming more like Hong Kong or Abu Dhabi, where there are museums but no culture.

 

As a young artsy type who has lived in both Hong Kong and New York, I have to say that there’s still some kind of allure that attracts young aspiring artists, musicians, actors, screen writers and fashionistas to New York. While most of Hong Kong is like Wall Street, architecturally and psychologically, New York still has graffiti murals on walls and rappers performing on the streets. The artist with his easel is not something that you would see in Hong Kong either.

That being said, I also believe that it’s becoming increasingly difficult for aspiring artists in their 20s to survive in the city, unless their parents are financing them while they pursue their dreams. And even then, it’s hard to break into the industry unless you are the child of a celebrity or have connections. David Byrne’s daughter, who is a jewelry designer, admits this in the New York Times. Her income barely supports her food and art materials, but “I’m one of the lucky ones,” she says. “I live rent-free with my dad, David Byrne.” Young artists are becoming more of an elite class, completely different from the “starving artists” of a generation ago. As an article from Philly.com described, it’s possible to find success here, but “the soil that lies beneath the concrete jungle is undeniably dry without the connections and money needed to fuel that growth.”

Unfortunately, not all of us have famous fathers like David Byrne. Millennials are putting aside their dreams of becoming artists, singers, or theater directors and settling for jobs that will pay the rent. Sure, there are some millennials who always had their sights on Wall Street, but for the rest, fatigue and stress from long work hours prevents them from drawing in their sketchbooks or composing song lyrics. Ultimately, they fall into a rut where they’re working hard to pay the bills and trying to convince themselves that maybe living in Jersey City or Hoboken won’t be too bad.

David Byrne mentions that he would only move to another city if New York became like Hong Kong or Abu Dhabi. But if the social and economic situation is alleviated such that creative energy can continue to grow and thrive, he insists that he will stay. Other artists are not so optimistic. Paddy Johnson, for instance, advised young artists not to move to New York. She suggests instead that they should try their luck in cities such as Baltimore, Philadelphia, or Atlanta, and perhaps move to New York when they are older and more established. A young artist notes in Front Row magazine that his house in Dallas with a garage which he uses as studio space is the same price as his friend’s cramped studio in Brooklyn. He describes Dallas as a low-stress place to produce artwork but is still trying to come to terms with the fact that he is probably not going to become “rich and famous.”

I doubt that David Byrne will leave New York even if it becomes more like Hong Kong or Abu Dhabi. He simply loves New York too much. Essentially, that is what’s keeping all the young artsy types here. I wouldn’t advice young aspiring artists, writers, or musicians against moving to New York. Maybe it’s because I’ve grown up in big cities and am used to a certain lifestyle, but if you’re prepared to make sacrifices and not let yourself become stuck in a creativity-draining rut, then New York is the city for you. It’s a stressful place but people like the artist with his easel constantly remind you that ultimately, you made the right decision.