Nearly every artist considers moving to New York City at some point. And many do. Some return to their home cities, and some move back and forth. It’s hard to balance the benefits of working in New York against the livability of just about anywhere else in the country. In this column, we have looked at the variety of environments and amenities Atlanta has to offer its artists. For our last segment, we will describe the largest factor when choosing a studio to work in Atlanta: the city itself. For this, we visit the studio of Atlanta-born Shara Hughes, who moved to New York in 2015.
Shara and I used to debate the conundrum of New York vs. Atlanta all the time. We had both lived in the megalopolis, and five years ago, both found ourselves living in Atlanta. After the recession of 2008, the art market slowed dramatically,and many artists, Hughes includes, saw their income slashed. Shara left New York after after about a year, and returned to Atlanta for a more affordable live-work situation. She quickly established herself as a fixture of the Atlanta art community. She started a studio visit organization with artist Ben Steele called SeekATL, and had solo shows at the Atlanta Contemporary Art Center and Museum of Contemporary Art of Georgia. Shara settled in and did what she could to expand her career and make the most of Atlanta.
Atlanta has affordable housing and studio spaces with all the creature comforts one could hope for. It’s a huge city but feels more neighborhood than urban. A car gets you into a beautiful natural landscape in minutes. The art community is affable and approachable. Curators, writers, galleries, and artists exude generosity and openness. Obtaining a studio visit with many of the most influential voices in the city is only as difficult as reaching out. However, even in a metro area with a population of about six million, the number of artists can feel small and the number of venues to show work has fallen over the past five years to just a handful. Building momentum to show frequently is difficult. Even an artist of Shara’s high caliber and output could only reach a limited audience in Atlanta. Her efforts seemed to fade like radio waves at the Macon County line. Her only opportunities for gallery shows came from other cities. Slowly, even with her reduced cost of rent, she found making a living as an artist in Atlanta too difficult. She was taking odd jobs to make ends meet [including at BURNAWAY], and the connections and opportunities she had fostered in other cities began to diminish.
In the end, Shara moved back to New York in 2015. She found a studio space in Greenpoint, Brooklyn. The location is great. Price per square foot was fair ($2.25 per square foot), and the building was filled with other artists. She shared the studio with her artist boyfriend, Austin Eddy. Her rent had doubled and her studio was smaller, but in the past two years, she has been in 18 group shows and two solo shows, including an almost sold-out show at Marlborough Chelsea gallery that has been favorably reviewed by Artforum, the New York Times and Hyperallergic, and posted about by Jerry Saltz on his Facebook page. New York offers constant interaction with other artists, studio visits, openings, and a huge number of galleries, all of which foster opportunities to grow as an artist and find venues to show one’s work. At the same time, the high cost of living and tight quarters can make one’s existence far more precarious and stressful.
Still, there is another element at play. Shara’s increasing renown is not simply due to new opportunities. She is making the best paintings of her life. One reason for this objective increase in quality has at least something to do with a dirty word in the art world: competition. By quantity and quality, New York offers the strongest competition in the country for any visual artist.
Given the vast number of artists vying for a space to show their work, securing a solo show is no easy task. The competition can be intimidating, exhausting, and defeating. And “success” in New York rarely offers any tangible increase in comfort. For all of her hard-won accomplishments and accolades, Shara still works a morning desk job at a health club. But, even while she hasn’t necessarily increased the comfort of her living in the past two years, she is far more successful than she was during her time in Atlanta. Her recent paintings speak for themselves.
They stand as the measurable and tangible markers of her success. New York is a very tough place to live, maybe even a bad place to live. But to work, to work as an artist, it can be a great place to work. If the sole focus of an artist’s life is their work, and impacting the global art community, the competition offered in New York can be exhilarating, necessary, and life-affirming.
Ultimately, and this is an important distinction, Shara is not enjoying more success because she lives in New York. She is more successful because she is making better paintings. And, it should be clear, competition is not the only path to artistic achievement. Many great artists have worked in solitude. But, for Shara, competition seems to have helped. Perhaps it seems outmoded to believe that competition is a good thing, and that art can be judged. But, we must admit it exists. While Shara’s show was up, she vied for the attention of viewers and critics whose eyes were inundated with strong work by hundreds of artists showing within a 1-mile radius. Jonathan Lasker was showing at Cheim & Read, Eddie Martinez at Mitchell-Innes & Nash, Richard Aldrich and Lari Pittman at Barbara Gladstone, Judith Bernstein at Mary Boone, Marcel Dzama and Raymond Pettibon at David Zwirner Gallery — and this list does not even include the surrounding exhibitions of photography, sculpture, and film, nor the nearby gallery neighborhoods of the Lower East Side, Upper East Side and all of Brooklyn.
The fear of appearing rote and banal is real. And I know Shara felt it and and overcame it by creating her paintings. She worried whether she could make something that would hold up and garner attention. Those worries forced the creation of a set of paintings that are impeccably executed and deeply complex.
And, if the word competition sounds too hyperbolic, let’s replace it with something more touchy-feely, and yet more concrete — how about communication?
If art is at least in part about striving to understand our humanity and explain who we are to each other, it does so with a desire to create a deep connection between the viewer and the work. Even if great work can be created in solitude, it cannot exist in isolation or autonomously. Quantifiably, when it comes to visual art (that is art that must be seen in person, which is different than other media, such as the written word or music, which can be transmitted seamlessly from one country to another) more dialogue and communication is taking place in New York. For many artists, that conversation is the sole relief from loneliness — the kind of loneliness that can crush the desire to live. That conversation, that competition, offers meaning and a measure of success.
The big question is: when thinking about where to work, is such a contingent vision of success sad? Probably a well-adjusted person finds the largely thankless pursuit of art depressing and the crushing expenditure of resources in New York depleting. For most people, Atlanta offers more tangible opportunities for happiness and hope. For any well-adjusted person whose life-affirming measures include family, nature, religion, hobbies, exercise, and niceties, Atlanta is great to place to live. For a singularly focused artist who draws energy from making work, seeing art, and participating in the conversation, New York is by far the best place to work.
Brendan Carroll is a painter who has lived in Atlanta since 2011. He is relocating to New York City this month. He received his MFA from the Maryland Institute College of Art in Baltimore in 2011.
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