In a light-filled Greenpoint studio where the walls are crowded with her deliriously colorful, whimsical paintings, former Atlanta artist Shara Hughes sits with her anxious Boston terrier, Chicken Nugget, at her feet, cooing and whimpering for attention.
Hughes is mellow and easy-going, but don’t let that cool-girl façade fool you. Ambitious, smart and laser-focused, Hughes’ successes have come from an obvious talent mixed with the kind of tenacity that allows artists to navigate the very difficult reality of the New York art world.
Perched on a stool in the cluttered, well-used space, Hughes ticks off some of the art world successes that have been stacking up for her as of late, including six of her fantastical landscape paintings being featured in this year’s prestigious Whitney Biennial, a survey of the country’s best and brightest.
Hughes has also had solo shows this year in New York and Aspen, Colorado, a two-person show in Berlin, and she’s currently preparing for a group show in Zurich. She’s been heralded in the pages of Artforum and Vogue, and the career-making New York Times critic Roberta Smith described Hughes’ paintings as “frequently irresistible.”
It has been an incredible rise, evidence of the value of having moved four years ago to New York. But the triumphs come with the travails of living in the city.
While her Marietta high school friends are settling down with husbands and babies, Hughes is living in a cramped one-bedroom in Brooklyn with her boyfriend and Chicken Nugget, wishing her dog had more outdoor space to roam.
“Right now I miss space, being outdoors and finding a pool and the pace of life, especially in the summer,” admits Hughes, “and also being close to my family.”
For all of the excitement and action, the reality of living in New York also means long commutes, tiny living and studio spaces, jobs so demanding that finding the time to make art can be a challenge, an extraordinarily expensive standard of living and the quotidian difficulties of doing laundry, shopping or buying groceries without the convenience of a car or even a subway stop close by. Then factor in the challenges of living in a city that pulls so many talented artists into its seductive orbit and the competitiveness that creates.
Still, New York City remains the artist’s Everest, that one tempting, damnable hurdle they may curse themselves for if they never try it.
The inevitable question is whether the jump from Atlanta to New York is all it’s cracked up to be. With so many artists frustrated by limited exhibition opportunities and the stagnant collector base in Atlanta, is a jump to NYC the only way to really make a long-term career in the arts?
Who better to ask than three former Atlanta-based artists living and working in New York: Shara Hughes, Christopher Parrott and Alex Kvares. Each has had varying degrees of success and different levels of satisfaction with their decision.
Hughes first struck out for New York in 2007, but she only made it for eight months before ricocheting back to Atlanta.
“I just wasn’t ready. I was so used to being in Atlanta where you could get in your car and get stuff … I felt like it was so difficult to be here and just do regular things. Just to get groceries took up the whole day. And the lack of privacy; I wasn’t really used to this,” she says.
But this time around, Hughes has learned from her mistakes.
“When I decided to come back, I knew what I was getting into,” she says. She found a studio a 10-minute walk from her apartment to insure she would actually make work with some frequency, and she’s there seven days a week. But the biggest lesson Hughes may have learned since that initial, abortive stint in New York is the value of making connections and showing your work to as many people as possible. Studio visits, though uncomfortable for many artists, are one definite advantage New York-based artists can claim, says Hughes.
Yes, there are ample downsides to living the artist’s life in New York.
“It’s hard to stand out and it’s really competitive; a lot of galleries are closing,” she concedes. “The difference is, I think the artists here know how competitive and how hard it actually is, so everyone kind of supports each other so it doesn’t seem as competitive. We’ve all been there in a way. There’s a lot of help.”
Artist Alex Kvares has the kind of enviable space and domestic comforts real estate-obsessed New Yorkers pine for, a spacious 120-year-old, three-story, corner-lot, brick townhouse in Bedford Stuyvesant that he shares with his wife, an editor at the New York Times, and their young son. Kvares has a garret on the third floor where he can look out over the backyard and work on his precise, meticulously detailed drawings inspired by politics and a streak of cynicism informed by his Russian-origins.
Despite the comforts of his home, Kvares’ move to New York in 2011 after 10 years in Atlanta wasn’t necessarily a welcome one. The couple moved for his wife’s job, and in some ways Kvares’ thriving art career in Atlanta — teaching, working in the artist collaborative Golden Blizzard and showing with great frequency — has paid the price.
“It was more a necessity,” he says about the move. “I wasn’t particularly excited. Atlanta just felt more comfortable for me.”
Kvares acknowledges it is difficult living in this competitive, pricey city. As the city has become increasingly more expensive, he says a new kind of artist has moved in, different from the introspective, analytical, publicity averse artists he knows. He calls them “art jocks.”
“People who are much more aggressive, much more social, much more confident and personality driven,” he says, with none of the insecurities or limited resources of previous generations of artists.
In a city where cocktails sell for north of $20 and modest Long Island City one-bedrooms start at a million dollars, finding the funds and the time to make art, as well as making the connections to get that work shown, can be a challenge. When Kvares moved to Atlanta after graduate school in Kansas City, he remembers personally calling every important contemporary art gallery in the city and making appointments to see their owners.
“Here that’s not an option,” says Kvares. Call a gallery in New York, he says, and the best you’re likely to do is talk to an intern. He had a 2014 solo show reviewed in “Artforum” and several group shows at the Lower East Side gallery Mulherin+ Pollard, but the space has since shuttered. Kvares continues to work with gallery owner John Pollard at ADA Gallery in Richmond, Virginia.
After stints teaching at SCAD and Georgia State, Kvares says teachers in New York tend to death grip their jobs as long as they can. When a teaching job opens up, you better get in line because “there are 500 people for every position.”
The fact is, living in New York can be exhausting and lonely. With fellow artists spread throughout the city, creating a support system of fellow creatives can be a challenge. “Getting together and collaborating is definitely harder here,” admits Kvares.
Christopher Parrott had representation at two of Atlanta’s premiere blue-chip art galleries, Alan Avery Art Company and the now defunct Fay Gold Gallery, but he’s not second guessing his move to Huntington, Long Island, where he lives with his wife, a professor at Long Island University, and two young children. Parrott admits he never really felt like a part of the Atlanta art scene during the 13 years he lived in the city.
“I feel so much more accepted here than I ever felt [in Atlanta] by other artists,” says Parrott, who felt judged for making more commercial work. Parrott’s sophisticated, psychologically loaded paintings feature well-dressed, moneyed types in art world settings like galleries and museums, and send up the mix of vanity, eros and greed in his commentaries on human mortality and art’s immortality.
“I feel like I’ve met more people here who get what I’m doing,” he says.
In New York, Parrott just wrapped up a group show, “Modern Masters,” at Arte Ponte in Chelsea, and he’s teaching a class this fall at Long Island University on art and politics. For the most part, he’s happy he made the change.
New York may not be for everyone. Maybe it’s only one stop on a career in the arts. But these artists agree the city has great value for creatives looking to advance their careers, even if it’s a detour instead of an end road. As long as you don’t romanticize the reality of living in New York, says Hughes, “why not try it?”
Or maybe a better option is to straddle Atlanta and New York.
“Probably the best of both worlds is to live in Atlanta and be a part of the New York and L.A. art world,” says Kvares.
“Socializing and networking in New York is incredibly valuable,” he says, but adds, “I think that Atlanta’s probably a better place to do your work.”
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