Marketing Mondays: Own Your Space

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From OWS Posters

I saw this map on Facebook and shared it, commenting, "And most of the artists would be renting studio space on that red dot."

Henry Bogle responded:
. .
"They should do a map of New York City this way. Artists would end up in a gas station bathroom on Staten Island."

 I laughed. And then I cried.  So while I know I'll get some blowback here,  I'm going to say this anyway: Own your studio. I don't mean make it your own. I mean: Buy it. Possess it legally. Have it in your name.

Of course this is easier said than done, but but when you think about the money you plow into a studio over the years--especially in New York City, you're paying hundreds of thousands of dollars--you realize this is an undertaking worth considering. Do the math. Since I can only work in numbers by 10, these are probably modest figures:
. $1000 a month for a year: $12,000
. For 10 years: $120,000. Now factor in rent increases every couple of years and the figure could be closer to $150,000
. For 50 years: Considering that your original $1000 rent will probably have doubled somewhere along the line, you'll pay close to a million dollars in rent during your life as a working artist

Some thoughts:
. Buy in a borough  Yes, Henry, including Staten Island.
. Buy in New Jersey  Known colloquially as "West West Chelsea," cities like Hoboken, Jersey City, Union and Weehawken are reachable by the Path train or the ferry. Prices are high even there, so consider West New York, Bergen and other towns a bit farther north. West New York, for instance, is only a few miles from Midtown, though the Hudson divides it from Manhattan. If there were a bridge across the river at 60th street, West New York would be about 2500 W. 60th. Plus the views of the Manhattan skyline are spectacular. (Yes, the Port Authority sucks, but buses leave frequently and you're across the river at your bus stop in 10 or 15 minutes. )
. Buy up the river in the Hudson Valley, far enough to be away from the hot real-estate zones but close enough to be reachable by Amtrak. It doesn't have to be Woodstock. Kingston, for instance, has a great arts community. I notice that more and more artists--OK, mid-career and established artists--are relocating here, having paid their dues in SoHo or Chelsea. Dealers and curators, too.
. Buy in Philadelphia  A few years ago a friend bought a row house in West Philly for about $60,000. The modestly proportioned house, attached on both sides, has a parlor floor with living room and dining room, which are used as the painting studio, and a kitchen; the second floor's three bedrooms are used respectively for office, art storage and bedroom; the basement is for supply storage and canvas stretching. There's a closed-in front porch which serves as the living room, and a back yard, which becomes the summer living room. Oh, and there's parking right out front. Philadelphia is two hours from New York City and it has a lively arts scene of its own.
. Buy somewhere else and keep an apartment in Manhattan  That's what I did a few years ago when the rent on my Union Square studio was going up to $2000 a month After looking extensively in New Jersey, I surprised myself by making an offer on a building in Massachusetts, just north of Boston. I bought a  two-story former autobody shop for what I sold my 500-square-foot Chelsea apartment for. I now have a small place in Manhattan that serves me when I'm here, which is about half the month. Can you find other artists who have done the same thing who might share an apartment in town?
. Buy an apartment with an extra bedroom That's a classic strategy, but it will have to be one of the boroughs if you want that extra bedroom in New York City.
. Buy a small coop apartment and use it as a studio This is trickier, because you have to tell the coop board that you're going to live there, and nosy neighbors may wonder about the turpentine smell. One artist I know kept her apartment as a studio when her domestic arrangement changed (she moved into a new space with her new partner). The point is, be open to the possibility.
. Buy a multiple family house so that the second (or third) floors can provide rental income. But you'd better be handy, because ownership with tenants is a huge--let me say that again: huge--responsibility.
. Buy a small house with a garage Build a second floor studio; check the zoning first to make sure it's possible, or apply for a variance.
. Buy a space cooperatively with other artists  Across the river, towns like Union and West New York, New Jersey, once proudly proclaimed themselves "the embroidery capital of the U.S." There were many mom-and-pop businesses, but when the industry computerized and went offshore, Mom and Pop were stuck with small buildings they could no longer afford. I'm sorry for their loss, but these buildings are perfect for artists' studio space.
. . . . Know that artists and old mills are everywhere, so your cooperative venture could be in a location where the rents are cheaper, even if you wish to retain your relationship to New York City: Upstate New York, New Jersey, or Western Massachusetts, or farther east in places like Fall River or Lowell, Mass., or Pawtucket, Rhode Island. Don't enter into a cooperative relationship without an attorney and a contract that spells out very clearly what the terms of your cooperative ownership are.
. Know that commercial spaces will cost you three or four times as much in property taxes and utilities so proceed carefully. You can work from home (assuming you don't sell retail out of the space), but you usually can't live in a commercially zoned space.

How Will you finance it?
I'm neither a real estate agent nor a banker, so you need professional advice here. But consider that interest rates have never been lower, and that both interest and capital expenses are deductible. It's also much easier, and less costly, to buy something outside of New York City. (Another thought: If being in near New York City is not a requirement, you may find that studio rent is so cheap--like $300 a month for 500 square feet--I'm not kidding!--you may decide to continue renting your studio space and buy a home instead.)
Midcareer artists: You are used to paying monthly rent, so you will be able to swing a mortgage. The trick is the down payment. I can't help you here except to remind you that you have spent a lifetime being resourceful. Keep your eye on the prize. Ask other artists how they did it, or how they're doing it.  Again, it's easier to do this outside of New York City, where down payments are not 20 percent. The good news: You are probably not saddled with huge college loans since you went to school when tuition was significantly lower.

Emerging artists: You are probably going to have the harder time. If I were you, I'd take the money for grad school and use it for a down payment. Getting married? Screw the big wedding. Serve pasta for dinner, and request money as a gift. Use it to put a down payment on a space. Do you have to live in New York City? Many dealers want their artists to live locally, but I work with a dealer here who represents an artist from Kansas City and just made a studio vist there. So it depends on the dealer. What's the point of being  a "New York artist" if you never get to be an artist in New York, i.e. juggling three part-time jobs with no benefits and then trying to unleash the creative flow in your studio while worrying about how you're going to pay your apartment rent, studio rent, framing costs or art shipper's bill. You could be doing that anywhere--a lot more easily and cheaply. Just make sure you have easy and regular access to what feeds you as an artist. 

None of what I'm saying is without hurdles, but consider that if you're going to pay rent, it might as well be a mortgage. Having equity means that if you move in ten years, you will not have flushed ten years of rent down the john but will have something to rent or sell, thereby funding your move to the next phase of your professional life. And as a landlord, you will be far kinder to yourself than anyone else would ever be. Ownership comes with headaches, overhead, roof leaks,  unexpected expenses, and the financial responsibility of a mortgage. But when you consider the long haul, it's an investment worth making.

 Please weigh in. As always, anonymous comments are fine as long as they add to the discussion. If you want to post nasty or negative, you need to assume responsibility and post under your own name.

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Anonymous said...

Why focus on NY and NY art galleries? I love NY. BUT the world has changed. The artist today might be better off with a studio in Palo Alto. 1.) the artist would be surrounded by wealthy Internet entrepreneurs. 2.) the artist would be relatively close to San Francisco, which has a thriving art scene.

Some of the most influential artists in recent years made a name for themselves before stepping foot in NY. NY was just an afterthought. I think that trend will continue.

Michelle Arnold Paine said...

This is great advice - it is such a good time to buy. And Anonymous is right -- with the Internet it is not always necessary to be in NY - live for less, paint more.

Hoping I can follow this advice soon!!!!!!!!!!

Joanne Mattera said...


I focus on New York because that's my point of view. I will leave it to the San Francisco, Chattanooga, and Walla Walla bloggers to focus on their cities. I do say--quite clearly, I thought--"Do you have to live in New York City?"

Not everyone has to.

The larger point of this post is that you can extrapolate any of points I discuss and apply them anywhere.

annell4 said...

So many good ideas. I rented studio space for years, and at last, built my own studio... my investment in myself.

Anonymous said...

This point leads me to my current struggle---How to stay engaged and connected with other artists when my studio is (1) out of the way (2) in a residence I share with many family members such that it doesn't feel appropriate bringing in and out artist acquaintances etc. even if I can convince them to make the trek.

The financial benefits are inarguable, but how can I overcome the social and creative hurdles of working in isolation? (assume in this case buying into a cooperative isn't an option)

Lisa Dahl said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Nancy Natale said...

Excellent advice! Even out here in western Mass. where studio space is relatively cheap ($650 for 1000 feet of great space with plenty of light), it kills me to write that rent check every month and put it in someone else's pocket when it could be going into my own. Having owned a 2-family in the Boston area previously, I know how sweet it is to be on the receiving end of rent. One of my goals is to relocate and own a studio even if it's in a 2-family. And, I might point out that in my experience getting a mortgage on a residential space is easier than getting one on a commercial space. I think a 2-family is a good deal because if times get hard, you can always rent out the studio portion. However, it's not all gravy being a landlord. That monthly rent income has a cost in headaches.

Graphicmarx said...

I've been thinking the same thing lately. I saw a 7 acre farm in Wisconsin for sale and realized my rent in Chicago was more than the mortgage would be. Scraping together studio rent and stressing constantly eats into my ability to work. A place of my own, not to mention the equity would be worth the extra drive if I needed to head into the city. Good Post!

Jeff said...

...or build your own, but i'm in the outskirts of Philadlephia were it is a little cheaper. To raise capital i started a special program for my collectors where they could purchase a painting in advance and help pay to build my studio. 20 collectors later i have a 2 story 20'x30' space and a 100 yard commute...fedEx does the rest.

Great blog and advice.

David A. Clark said...

I would add to this discussion that it is important when buying a property intended for living and working that one consider resale and before converting a property or a portion of a property for use as your studio. I own my home and I use the double garage as my studio. I would love to convert the garage to a fully independent studio, but doing so would reduce the value of my house considerably. So it is important to consider those issues when buying property.

Anonymous said...

Happily, I have a wonderful niece I visit in NY whenever I do the gallery scene (2x a year). I'm a bit spoiled, though; Here in AZ (with super-cheap rent and mortgage) I have a huge extra bedroom I can stumble into any hour of the day or night and work in my jammies or whatever I am sleeping in. The only problem with this is relationships. I always see a new person eying my at home "studio" with an eye for their stuff to join mine - never happen!

Joanne Mattera said...

Thanks, everyone, for your good coments. I really thought I would get some comments along the lines of, "How dare you tell us to buy when the economy is so bad."

Annell and Jeff: I love your comments about building a studio.

Graphicmarx: Thinking about a farm, with space, is great. Down the road perhaps you'd be able to to build a small studio and rent it out as a retreat to artists who wish to take some time out.

DAC: It's possible to create a studio that could be turned into a useful multipurpose space if you decide to sell your property. With plumbing, heat, A/C, and a bathroom, it could be put to good use by an artist for a studio, a business person for a home office, a family for guest housing or in-law apartment. I see this increasing the value of your property.

Anonymous 11:18: You have just planted the seed for another MM post: How to stay connected. Look for it soon, maybe even next week!

Lorrie said...

I purchased a small home almost 12 years ago in upstate NY just 2 hours from midtown Manhattan when I realized my that the mortgage would be 40% less than what I was paying in apartment and studio rents (in Queens and Brooklyn). My mortgage included school and property taxes.

I converted the 320 square foot garage into my studio the 3rd year of living in my home. I have a shed for storage of shipping and art supplies. Plus, I converted the second bedroom into my office.

I go to the city every 2 weeks to see shows, museums and visit friends. I can drive, take Amtrak, Trailways or MetroNorth.

The relocation has offered me the best of everything...location, affordable housing and studio, a growing investment (yes, even in this economy) and a legitimate deduction.

Excellent suggestion, Joanne.

Anonymous said...

I own my's a camper! It's my house and studio...or if I like, my studio is outside at a picnic table by a campfire, in whatever state or town I feel like being in.

Susan Huxley said...

Think about downtown Easton, PA. My studio is in my home. I walk two blocks to catch a bus into Port Authority. It's only a 1-1/2-hour ride. The trip to Philly is the same distance, but you need to drive because the bus service isn't as good. I have 2,700 square feet of --liveable--space. Plus full basement plus backyard plus parking for three cars plus active arts scene. Only $78,000 a decade ago. Sweet. And deals can still be found.

Philip Koch said...

My studio is in a big townhouse. My registered nurse wife and I have paid off the mortgage to it years ago. I use the living room as my painting room, an upstairs bedroom as an office and half the basement is filled with custom built storage racks to keep the painting safe and sound. I have a table saw in the other half of the basement and build crates to ship large paintings when necessary. I also use art shippers frequently.

None of this would have been so easy to do if we lived in a bigger city, but we're in Baltimore, a lower cost of living East Coast town. I work with a half dozen galleries around the country (including New York). I completely agree with Joanne that it's great to own your studio. And one can do it very successfully outside of the big city.

Mine isn't the largest or the most impressive space to work in (House Beautiful Magazine won't be featuring it anytime soon) but it is an extremely workable compromise. Keeping our expenses modest has allowed me to cut way back on how much I teach at MICA and allows me tons of time to work on my paintings.

Joanne Mattera said...

Lorrie, Skye, Susan and Philip: Thanks for your comments. You each say something similar, yet your geographic diversity drives the point home. And for Skye, *drive* really is the appropriate word. Word!

Anonymous said...

Tough call-I bought a house just before the crash with the same idea and now it's underwater and I'm having a rough time keeping up. No matter how you do it in this day and age, the best bet is to keep your overhead and debt low, live within your means, and sock money away whenever you can. If I ever get a chance to get out of this financial morass, I will take my own advice.

Anonymous said...

1n 2010 I left NYC after 14 years and bought a 2250 sf house in Philadelphia- three stories, two for living and one for making art. I have parking, a huge back yard, and am close to public transit, shopping, and the Fairmount park system.

Here's how I did it: I called several banks to ask what I needed to be credit worthy, and in 2010 that was 1)good credit, 2)liquid assets, and 3)a job with W2 payroll status. I had #1 and #2 but not #3, so I had to search until I found a W2 job but that was not hard at all- artists can do anything the hard part is convincing someone of that. One year into said job I was pre-approved for a mortgage at a great rate. I put extra money down on the payment, and I'm glad I did because after two years of paying my mortgage I now have lots of equity in my home and qualify for a home equity loan at today's super low rates. Also, putting more down means a lower monthly payment and less stress.

One thing to note is that although you can get a house for $100,000 in an up and coming neighborhood in Philly (or a shell for $70,000), the city is poised to overhaul the tax assessment system in 2013, going from an antiquated and arbitrary system to a market-value based system, and those in gentrifying areas are going to feel the most shock, so factor that in if you buy now (taxes are super low in Philly, but we don't get much for our money anyway).

As for NYC, I make it up for art looking/business about once a month. Taking the Bolt/Mega Bus is less convenient than driving but saves $50 in tolls.