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Bohemian Boot Camp

Being an artist in New York is no picnic. Creative Capital takes them upstate to teach them to survive.

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Illustration by Peter Arkle  

Performance artist Sheryl Oring’s current project involves dressing as a sixties secretary, sitting in front of a teal manual typewriter in public spaces across the country, and taking down 60th-birthday messages to President Bush from passersby. At 40 years old, sexy in a brainy Tina Feyish way, she’s the sort of artsy type that New York used to be uniquely hospitable to. But instead of la vie bohème, she toils as an archivist just to make the $1,500 rent on a railroad flat in Greenpoint (plus $315 for health insurance). She recently got into a relationship and panicked: How would she fit that in, too?

Two weeks ago, an arts foundation called Creative Capital held a six-day “boot camp” upstate at Colgate University for 86 of its grantees to help them figure out how to better run their art careers. Most of them hailed from Brooklyn. “Artists sometimes don’t like it when we compare ourselves to a venture-capital firm, but we try to invest in a long-term relationship with our grantees,” says Creative Capital president Ruby Lerner. Launched in 1999 to fill the gap left when the National Endowment for the Arts stopped funding individual artists, Creative Capital was recently given $10 million from the Warhol Foundation. It cuts grantees an initial $10,000 check for a project and then lets them apply over several years for up to $40,000 more. Past grantees include performer Lisa Kron (Five Lesbian Brothers), Sandi DuBowski (the documentary Trembling Before G-d), and Bill Morrison (the film Decasia). “They’re about helping us become entrepreneurs and addressing the fears we have about living hand-to-mouth,” said DuBowski.

Campers were urged to shed their self-­limiting anxieties and inhibitions. (Not to mention their Williamsburg attitude: “I try to run a post-cynical organization,” says Lerner.) Then came the “blue notebooks,” where grantees must abandon all bohemian laxity and rough out a five-year plan for their finances, art, and lives. For the ­expense-squeezed New York artists, the clearheaded, be-good-to-­yourself financial counseling unleashed a collective heave of relief. “The best advice I heard is that you have to budget for downtime,” said Fort Greene poet Christian Hawkey, 36. “It’s essential to your creative process, because when you’re working from paycheck to paycheck, you begin to feel like you’re trapped.”

Mark Russell of the Public Theater lamented, “I’m afraid New York is becoming Paris, where there are plenty of people to see art but not enough people to make it. We’re going from a café culture to a tourist culture.”

Tellingly, the New York artists on hand were nearly overwhelmed by those who’d left here for kinder, gentler, cheaperburgs. Oring still mourns for the cavernous, dirt-cheap space she inhabited in Berlin for six years. “For mid-­career artists like me, Creative Capital can help make the difference between whether we keep making art or give up,” she said. She glanced around the room at her colleagues from the great beyond. Phoenix. Austin. Ohio. Even Buffalo. “They may not have the opportunities I do in New York,” she observed, “but they seem happy.”

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