I first spoke with George Ferrandi, founder of Wayfarers last summer. The arts organization is a co-op of sorts of like-minded artists working in a variety of mediums who came together to run an affordable art studio collective and gallery right on the Bushwick-Bed-Stuy border. I was interested in hearing about the alternative model she’d come up with— Wayfarers provides below market-rate studios to artists who go through a rigorous application process. In exchange for the cheap space, artists must pay membership fees and contribute work on a monthly basis. The program was created to address the soaring cost of studio space in Bushwick specifically and to create a space where emerging and established artists could support one another in ways that might be impossible in overpriced studio buildings.
A few years back Ferrandi was abruptly kicked out of her beloved studio space in Williamsburg, which went instead to a higher bidder. But Ferrandi’s landlord felt bad about giving his longtime tenant the boot with such short notice. To make amends, he offered her an affordable, but much larger space in Bushwick and the opportunity to sign a 10 year lease. The place was much too big for Ferrandi to rent out on her own, instead of simply renting it out to other artists she decided to create Wayfarers. Dividing it up into several studio spaces, Ferrandi and her partners began interviewing potential members– serious artists only who underwent a portfolio review and who demonstrated a willingness to be an active part of the Wayfarers community.
Ferrandi has never been blindly optimistic about Wayfarers situation– inevitably, rent will go up after 10 years– in fact, she’s been refreshingly real about Wayfarers tentative existence. That’s not so say she’s complacent, but like many other artists in Brooklyn, she’s feeling the aftershocks of the recent closings of DIY spaces, stories of artists getting kicked out of Industry City, and Galapagos bidding farewell to Brooklyn altogether.
I recently caught up with Ferrandi and found her hard at work as ever.
How have things been going since we last spoke?
I’m definitely thinking about how this model can continue to sustain itself because the premise right now is that we offer really affordable studios and our goal is to give underrepresented and emerging artists a cheap place to work, access to facilities, and a way to get their work into the world that bypasses the commercial art world.
The way that we are able to do that is our space is very affordable, but our rent increases every year. So next year it will push what we have to charge for studios up to a level that doesn’t seem as inexpensive as we want it to be in order to be really competitive as far as who applies.
So we’re thinking about how we can offer fellowships and keep the spaces really cheap, because that’s really important for getting a wide range of applicants and fostering a community that we’re excited about. It’s working great now but we’re realizing that with a 5 percent increase next year, our spaces aren’t going to be as cheap as we want to keep them.
I know you’re very committed to your neighborhood, but how do you balance that connection with an awareness that you might have to move on in the not so distant future?
We started with a 10 year lease and we have 6 years left on that lease. It’s so unlikely we’ll be able to stay there after that. Again, in keeping with our mission statement we’d have to increase the cost of membership fees so much that it would just be a different kind of thing. It wouldn’t be appropriate for emerging artists, it would have to be established artists who have a much greater income and who could afford to be members there. And generally those folks need bigger studios than what we have. So it’s very unlikely we’ll be able to stay there 6 years from now.
Given the current climate of Brooklyn, what do you say to emerging artists who have doubts about moving here? Can you still honestly tell them that the benefits outweigh the costs?
You know, it’s really hard to gauge those things and I think about when Teresita Fernandez gave this commencement address recently and she talked about how if you move to Bushwick, you’re going to have to work three part-time jobs and you’re not going to have a lot of time to work in your studio. It can be detrimental to a young artist, but maybe moving to a more affordable town with a small art scene is a better idea. Yeah, I guess it is a lot harder for me to advocate moving to New York now. Young artists don’t mind working hard, but it just doesn’t seem to get easier.
Do you think Brooklyn can bounce back from this, or do you think things will keep going as they are? Will the cost of real estate will keep shooting up? Will long-term residents will continue to be pushed out farther and farther?
I really think that’s going to rely on getting advocacy from our representatives. There was a meeting last year related to the increasing costs of studio spaces and our council woman Diana Reyna, the concern was more about, I shouldn’t misquote it. But you know, an artist in the room said ‘Artists aren’t going to be able to afford studios and they’re going to have to leave this neighborhood.’ Understandably she said ‘I’m more worried about families who are not going to be able to afford to stay in the neighborhood.’ It’s completely understandable– that’s a priority– but it also doesn’t bode well for us.
Do you know artists who have given up recently and move out of Brooklyn?
Sure, I know lots of people who are leaving or debating leaving, but also young people who are looking to other places. Right now I’m teaching at Virginia Commonwealth University and it’s hard for me to say, yeah, come to Brooklyn. I mean there’s a thriving art scene but it’s not the best situation to start a thriving life outside of art school.
In terms of the artists who do move here, what kind of qualities do they have? What sort of characteristics do they need to be happy here? Obviously it’s not just artists who move to Brooklyn who don’t mind working hard, and it’s also important to consider that deciding not to move here isn’t a sign that someone doesn’t like to work hard. But for the people who do come here and are successful and stick it out for the long run, what are they like?
I mean lots of us stay here, lots of us keep doing it. It’s very unhealthy, but we work really hard and we’re ambitious and motivated and idealistic or oblivious. But I would say, something has to give in terms of your quality of life in order to stay. Even at Wayfarers, these are younger artists for the most pat and their studios are on the low side of affordability,
Part of our program relies on how we keep our costs cheap, all members have to offer four hours of service to the organization a month. And there are some people who, their service hours have to come after 2 am because there’s not enough time in the course of their day to put 30 minutes toward sweeping the floor. It’s that kind of a person, a person who’s OK with running from one obligation to the next and not getting a chance to take a breath. And again, we’re all willing to do that. We’re hoping that if we keep doing that, ultimately it will get easier. And with the cost of rent and living in general in Brooklyn constantly on the increase, it just doesn’t seem to get easier.
I can sympathize, living and working in this city is really tough.
I think we’re offering an interesting model that’s an alternative and it’s effective, but I’m just aware what a house of cards it is. You know? We got a good deal on a lease but the chances of that happening again are slim. So we all take some kind of comfort in spaces like Galapagos continuing to exist and even when Goodbye Blue Monday folds and when six galleries get kicked out of a major art space in Bushwick, it’s sort of like oh no! the house of cards is collapsing.
Do you think there’s anything people can do?
I think people like Deborah Brown– who is a major force in the Bushwick arts community and who runs a space and is an established artist herself– she’s also on the community board. I think all of us need to be more proactive in that direction, where we are active in the civic community in which we live and we take a more active role in our political representation as well. I think that’s difficult because we are all stretched thin. I feel like we have fewer and fewer advocates.
Yeah, unfortunately politicians can easily frame working people’s interests as inherently inconsistent with those of artists.
It’s kind of an unfair contrast to put the needs of the 4-year old kids in the neighborhood against the future of the arts in the neighborhood, because of course families are going to win, but it shouldn’t be such a diametrical opposition. There should be support and advocacy for both.