Elizabeth Currid's new book, The Warhol Economy: How Fashion, Art, and Music Drive New York City, posits that the city's culture is the key our fiscal well-being. With insights culled from many of New York's leading players in the worlds of art, fashion and music, she draws a detailed blueprint of how these creative processes become big-money industries. Currid's thesis is that the conditions that have made New York one of the cultural capitals of the world are severely threatened by obscene real estate prices and the city's rapid homogenization; she argues that, if only for the sake of maintaining a robust economy, the city should pay as much attention to courting artists as financial institutions. In reviewing The Warhol Economy for the Bloomberg Muse, Carly Berwick writes "It is the job of the social scientist to take a banal observation—for example, that New York is full of artists and musicians who like to go out at night and all seem to know one another—and worry over it to the point that the obvious seems to fairly glow with complexity. Currid pulls this trick off nicely, and she throws in some amusing backstage anecdotes for extra cultural currency."
It’s not news that art, fashion, music have made New York famous, but your book goes further that. How? I think people who study the industry understand the importance of New York with regards to its prominence in art and culture in a global sense. But what I think we didn’t necessary grasp is why New York is so important. Why is New York City as a place so important in the worlds of art and culture? Why does fashion pick New York City as opposed to Las Vegas for example?
Yes, why? I would argue that it’s really because of New York’s geography, in the way it’s actually built, in the walk-ability of the city, and also, what one might argue as its cumulative advantage. The fact that artists and musicians and designers come here means that more artists, musicians and designers come here. It also attracts the gatekeepers who review these industries, it attracts the firms that hire these people because the firms want to be around the labor pools. So what it creates is this neat little cluster where all these people, firms and resources are in the same place and it becomes a really efficient production system for producing cultural goods.
You argue that the culture industries matter more to the economy more than Wall Street. How did you arrive at this conclusion? Well, in some ways it’s the way you look at the data. So Wall Street definitely matters in terms of revenue. But in terms of jobs, Wall Street and art and culture are neck and neck. The real way that culture is different is that it provides what one would call a competitive advantage, which is that in a day and age where every city, to a certain extent, has management and medicine and law and finance, and every airport sort of looks exactly the same and there’s a McDonald’s on most blocks of every city, that there is in fact something that makes New York different. Art and culture is really that competitive advantage, it is the thing that sets New York apart from other cities.
It seems like you’re saying in this book that the city is making a mistake with policies that heavily subsidize the financial industry and but don’t do enough to help the cultural industries. Absolutely. Obviously finance is tremendously important and would be tremendously important even if it didn’t have government intervention. On the other hand, art and culture isn’t really given that much and when it is given it’s with the attitude that we’re doing art and culture a favor. But if we took art and culture more seriously and actually did provide it with substantial subsidies we might even see it contribute even more. The big problem is that it’s just not taken seriously.
As rents and the costs of living keep rising, do you see an opportunity for the city to help make neighborhoods more livable for struggling artists? Yeah, this is actually a huge problem. Part of what makes art and culture work so effectively in New York is that art and culture thrive in a very dense environment. It thrives on these spontaneous interactions, the ability for highbrow and lowbrow culture to bump up against each other, it thrives on the constant intermingling on these different types of creativity. Also the fact that historically creative people tend to like to live in the same neighborhoods and that reinforces all of these important things that happen when they live together, because they are running into each other, they are interacting and going through each other’s galleries. There is all of this stuff happening because they’re living in the same places. They can’t do that anymore, now they end up at best scattered in some far out place in Queens. And they’re not actually having an artistic community. But all those things that make New York so important and crucial start to dissipate.
Right. But don’t you think it’s not dissipating as much as it is changing its focus point? There are still artistic communities aren’t there? They’re just changing locations. Well, that remains to be seen. The big problem, from what I’ve gathered from the communities themselves, and also just by looking at the data is that these neighborhoods are so rapidly gentrifying that the minute an artistic community gets its own space, it’s quickly usurped by Starbucks and investment bankers. Places like Williamsburg are already no longer artistic communities for young artists in the way we hoped we would be. And adding to the rapid gentrification is that New York has an inelastic geography. It simply doesn’t have the space to keep re-establishing artistic communities. At some point there’s just not that much space left. We’re not dealing with Las Vegas, which seems to have an almost endless supply of land. New York is what some economists call a superstar city, which is that essentially by virtue of the fact that it doesn’t have a lot a land, only people who can afford a certain price point are able to live there.
You did a lot of interviews for this book. Who did you speak with? I spoke with Diane von Fürstenberg, Zac Posen, Quincy Jones, members of Talking Heads, Richard Lloyd from Television, Clap Your Hands Say Yeah; dozens of people.
What were some of the more perceptive observations they shared with you. Diane von Fürstenberg is one smart lady. When I interviewed her, her understanding of New York was as a marketplace. And her point was that it’s not that ideas are being traded, it’s that business is being done here and if business is done here it means that cultural goods have real economic value as opposed to just art for art’s sake. And so that creates a very different dynamic than if you’re just looking at bohemia. And so her perspective was that a lot of what made New York really successful was that it was a real trading center for selling artistic goods.
Similarly, Francisco Costa, the creative director at Calvin Klein, also understood New York and fashion as a business. And my sense is that the designers who saw that relationship between culture and commerce were the ones who were more successful. Because in many ways that is sort of how you make it as an artist in today’s economy, in your ability to transform your aesthetic ideas into real tangible goods, because if not you’re going to be a waitress.
The New Yorker and The Economist both reviewed the book very favorably but both reviewers disagreed with one of your conclusions, which is that the cultural industry is on the verge of crisis. The Economist wrote: “Manhattan remains as culturally vibrant as ever. The Chelsea neighborhood has at least 318 art galleries, many more than SoHo, a previous hotspot, had in its heyday.” Is New York really at risk losing its importance in the worlds of art, music and fashion? Well, you know, both The New Yorker article and The Economist article had a very good point, which is that maybe the marketplace can sort itself out and the market picks winners and we should let the market keep doing what it’s doing. So I don’t think there’s anything wrong with that perspective; it’s certainly a different perspective but I totally get what the point is there. I think that the problem for New York is that it’s not experiencing the cycle that allows for the influx of new talent. No one wants a recession to hit New York but if we look back in time to see when the new guard came in, it was often during a recession, because the real estate values decrease and you’ve got more cheap space and artists who traditionally are very poor before they become successful have the flexibility to all live together in these neighborhoods. That doesn’t exist any more. As it stands now, New York is in a great position as a creative center. But fifteen years from now, who are the artists? Because if they can’t actually live here they’re going to move somewhere else. So the stars of the next generation aren’t going to be coming out of New York if they can’t actually live here.
You also write of the increased importance of nightclubs in the city’s culture industry. But how do people conduct business in nightclubs when it’s impossible to hear what anyone is saying? That’s very funny. Well, you know, obviously all nightclubs aren’t conducive to it. But certainly my point is that these social institutions like nightlife – and obviously nightlife that has more subtle music in the background as opposed to blaring out of the speakers – but also other kinds of social institutions like gallery openings and fashion week and certain restaurants and bars are actually really important congregation spots for people who work in these industries and as a result people just end up doing business there. As someone I interviewed was telling me, at the last Monday of every month at APT Bobbito Garcia spins and all the big people in the music industry in New York go and they talk shop. And if even if they’re not intending to, they talk shop. So business does get done in these environments. In a lot of ways it is kind of by accident. It doesn’t necessarily have to be a cognitive choice. It’s just that if you get a lot of people who do the same thing in the same place they’re inevitably going to talk about the work that they do and collaborations will inevitably emerge out of it.
But haven’t people always done deals in social settings though, whether it be scotch at the Yale Club or, now, bottle service at the nightclub?What makes this situation different? Well, you’re right and that’s one of the things that interests me, is that in some ways art and culture is very different from other industries. And in other ways my research is shedding light on how people navigate themselves in innovation driven industries. So if you look at Silicon Valley, a lot of the same mechanisms are occurring there too, it’s just in a different context.
I will say that what makes art and culture in New York different are two fundamental things that are quite related. The first is that cultural industries are taste-driven and subjective. Cultural industries – whether you’re talking about a painting or a pair of designer shoes – you’re not talking about performance. At the end of the day you can evaluate whether a semi-conductor runs faster than other one. But if you’re looking at Manolo Blahniks versus a pair of Christian Diors, I’m not sure what kind of conclusion you can draw except, “I just like this one more.” So the subjective nature of it actually lends itself more to the social milieu being very important for establishing subjective relationships, enabling the evaluation of products and doing business with people you like. The second thing is that so much of art and culture and its value and demand is a product of the buzz that surrounds it. And so the media plays a very important role for art and culture, and a more pivotal role than in other industries. And that the media is located in New York makes that relationship very important and efficient.
If you had a chance to sit down with the mayor what would you propose as policy choices to ensure New York maintains its vitality as a cultural capital? I suppose the biggest thing I would say would be… You know, it’s counterintuitive to limit growth. We always think growth and development is a good thing. But when it comes to artistic communities it can be detrimental. So what economic development should really do is pay attention to is the rapid evolution of a neighborhood. And it doesn’t mean that Williamsburg or the Lower East Side is off limits to people who make six figures – or, actually, in New York, seven figures – but that when we see a neighborhood gentrifying we are able to put certain policies in place to make sure it doesn’t turn completely.
Because part of why the investment bankers want to live on the Lower East Side is because it’s a cool, interesting and creative place. And if we don’t keep it in check, they’re all going to move in and it’s not going to be so cool and interesting any more. So I’d propose certain kinds of zoning to prevent national chains from coming in, or bigger stores from coming in, allowing it to still be on a more local level, or artistic subsidies for the artists who live in these neighborhoods, so if the rent goes up they’re not pushed out. I think those are things that are very realistic. And Bloomberg is a tremendous supporter of the arts, but as much as supporting the institutions counts, if we’re going to support the arts in New York we should probably start by supporting the artists. Some of the funding that we give to institutions might be better used to support the artists on the ground level as well.