When Anita Durst was just 18 years old, she began performing with a man who would come to drive her life’s mission to support the arts. “Anyone who saw [Reza Abdoh‘s] work was deeply affected by it, he was a visionary,” the chashama founder says. “He took me under his wing and showed me that you don’t have to be what they told you to be in the suburbs. There’s so much out there, there’s so much to learn.”
Working with Dar a Luz, Abdoh’s performing arts company, Durst honed avant-garde performance techniques from the company’s seat in the Meatpacking District. But when Abdoh passed away in 1995, Durst was left determined to take the next step in her artistic career. She knew she wanted to continue working with artists and watching their process, and as an artist herself, understood the special challenges facing artists living and working in New York. Combined with her family’s real estate experience, Durst realized she could solve a growing crisis among local artists, and fill a temporary gap in New York’s pricey real estate market.
Shortly after Abdoh’s death, Durst founded chashama, an organization dedicated to giving artists the room to create, free of financial constrictions. To do that, chashama partners with property owners to transform unused real estate into spaces for artists to work and present. Rather than allowing a space between tenants to go unused, chashama takes over the space for a minimum three-month commitment, and rents small sections of each property to New York artists at about $1 per square foot. Artists are given a platform on which to work, and their artistic contributions often inflate the property’s value and desirability.
“Currently, we have 130 workspaces for visual artists, along with rehearsal and presentation space, and much of our spaces are concentrated at the Brooklyn Army Terminal,” says Durst, who is currently in the throes of planning chashama’s annual gala, which takes place this year on June 8.
Since its founding, chashama has helped scores of local artists find affordable studio spaces in New York. Through their relationships with New York property brokers, chashama is able to find and lease large, centrally located spaces across the city, so that artists can remain in New York while working, creating and networking with fellow artists and art patrons.
As an organization, chashama unwittingly solves a sort of New York conundrum. Affordable property has long been scarce in New York, but lately, so has the need for that property at all: Last month, the New York Post reported that New Yorkers are fleeing the city at a steady pace, with over 1 million people moving out of the region since 2010. Where so many New York property owners are reporting a slowdown in the commercial real estate market, chashama sees an opportunity to house artists in need while infusing a property’s valuation with cultural capital.
“We noticed there’s a lot of retail space in New York and a lot of property owners have been contacting us,” says Durst. “We’re used as a catalyst to rent out a space because when someone is using the property, it’s more desirable. We help them create an energy so they can rent it out, because we bring a certain cache.”
How Artists Can Land a chashama Studio
Finding an affordable studio in New York can be tricky: many report being shown dank basement studios in Brooklyn that rented for anywhere between $1,500 to $2,800 per month. chashama creates an unmatched opportunity for artists, who rarely spend more than $300 for a 300-square-foot studio.
Of course, affordable studio spaces are coveted by scores of artists across the city, and chashama parses out available spaces through a vetted application process. Artists apply through chashama’s website and pay a $5 fee per application. The Space to Create and Space to Present applications for available artist studios and presentation space asks artists to submit four images of recent work, a CV and artist statement highlighting their intention and overall thesis, and a description of their work process, which Durst notes is one of the most critical points of the application.
“For me, what’s important is process,” says Durst. “What really interests me is to watch an artist grow into their vision, whether it’s a solace for them, or they want to create a business, or sell their artwork, or work with kids.”
While Durst plays a role in selecting artists chosen for space at chashama studios, the selection process is managed by chashama’s programs director, Janusz Jaworski. Jaworski typically reviews applications based on need, the overall body of work and scope of vision, and how that work might fit into an allotted chashama space. “[Jaworski] is a mastermind and he makes the decisions for all our spaces,” Durst says. “So if we get a space on 55th and Broadway, we’re going to place more established artists, as opposed to 37th street, where we might put more emerging artists. We really try to cultivate a response to the space itself.”
Ultimately, artists interested in applying for a chashama studio or presentation space should study chashama’s available spaces and craft their proposals with a particular location or idea in mind. In addition, artists should pay special attention to their description of process, which tends to be the section that chashama program directors weigh most heavily. “There should be clarity in their vision when they write the application, I think that’s the best way to do it,” says Durst.
chashama accepts applications for studio space year-round, but studio space is on a first come, first-served basis. “The beauty of the workspace is that once you get in, you’re there as long as we have the space because I do put so much emphasis on process,” says Durst. “So 60 percent of our artists have been with us more than five years.” As a result, chashama can have a pretty lengthy waiting list: Durst reports that there’s currently 1,000 artists on the waiting list, and it can take up to two years to place an artist.
How chashama Studio Spaces Impact Careers
Though the process can be extensive, landing a space at chashama has proved worth the wait for a variety of artists. Sandra Spannan, an artist working out of a chashama space in Harlem, says that the program allowed her to develop her practice and eventually rent a space directly from the property’s owner. “When I got the gift of a small space through Anita Durst’s genius chashama organization – I not only found an easy to reach local and very affordable spot to work on art – but a whole new local Harlem community of friends and interesting artists,” says Spannan. “I was able to grow my decorative painting company at the same time, and move my art studio to a property managed through Janus Property.”
Dominique Paul had a similar experience. After exhibiting at chashama’s Tenth Avenue location in Chelsea, the artist was able to land gallery representation. “My 2013 exhibition, Migrations of the Anthropods, at chashama, is the reason why I’m currently represented by Miyako Yoshinaga gallery in Chelsea,” she says.
In addition to art studio spaces, chashama also provides artists with key resources to ensure that their careers continue to flourish. The organization often hosts workshops, provides various materials for artists, and small grants from time to time.
Soon, chashama will also announce a new housing project, which will pair artists with certain residences in exchange for hosting creative workshops. “We’re finding that artists have many sources of income, but many landlords require pay stubs before they’ll rent you an apartment,” Durst says. “I feel like that’s a struggle for them in New York, and I want them to feel like you don’t need a steady paycheck to survive.”
As Durst prepares for chashama gala 2017, which will feature over 200 chashama artists and performers, she hopes that the organization will only continue to garner interest from donors and partners who believe in chashama’s mission to keep the country’s most creative artists living and working in New York. “We’re in the creative capital of the world, where dreams are made,” says Durst. “Giving artists a safe, affordable space to work needs to be a priority.”
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