Experimental singer, frankly in need. Who isn’t?

Mossa Bildner, an indefatigable vocalist and performance artist, is the subject of today’s “The Neediest Cases” column in the New York Times, because having suffered as a freelancer from the economic downturn, she’s been facing eviction. “This could happen to anybody,” she told the newspaper, and though asking for help “was a strange position to find myself in . . I didn’t feel ashamed.”

Nor should she. Having brought her classical music education and renegade instincts to collaborations with improvising composer Henry Threadgill for five years (overdubbing operatic and jazz ballad parts, for instance, on “In Touch” for his 1995 album Too Much Sugar For A Dime), and stretching the musical envelope as recently as last Tuesday at the downtown art space Local 269 by leading a band with Brahim Fribgane on oud, Andre Lasalle on electric guitar and Val-Inc on electric percussion, Bildner knows creative work doesn’t necessarily align with financial stability. Rent in NYC is expensive: Her 800-square-foot converted industrial space costs $1300 a month. Loose your day gig teaching bankers Spanish and Portuguese (she was born and raised in Brazil), and you get very close to the edge. 

In Bildner’s case the UJA (United Jewish Appeal) Federation of New York, a recipient of the NYT‘s Neediest fund, came to the rescue. Not everyone can get such support. That’s one of the reasons pianist Connie Crothers has been exploring the possibilities of organizing musicians to purchase a newly built building in foreclosure (Crothers also has expertize in co-op and condominium law) for use as a rent-supported live/work residency. Here’s a note cribbed from a recent meeting of the grassroots group advancing towards this goal:

affordable rent
soundproof live-work spaces
wing to house older musicians with on-site staff
2 performing rooms, one large and one small
1 room for instruction with instruments accessible to the community
an activity room to belong to community
a separate 24/7 jam session room
a separate performing room to belong to the community
units for visiting musicians
commercial spaces: a grocery co-op providing food from regional farmers, coffee shop, gallery
all construction would be “green”

New York City has two officially subsidized “artists buildings,” Westbeth and Manhattan Plaza — which date from the 1970s and have had long waiting lists delaying the acceptance of new tenants for years. In the early ’90s some non-profit community organizations helped low-income artists in the East Village reclaim buildings abandoned in lieu of tax payments from the city, to get ownership of homes they’d restored and invested in with considerable sweat equity. 
Not much of that is happening now — though a glance at the New York real estate market suggests there is unfinished and uninhabited new construction aplenty. (Of course banks aren’t currently offering those good mortgage rates to borrowers deemed risky, but the President is presumably applying leverage about that). The Jazz Foundation of America had for a while pursued something similar to Ms. Crothers’ idea, a home for elderly jazz musicians, but the economic downturn has slowed progress on that project.
A couple days ago I blogged about the Congressional resolution praising jazz, and other bloggers’ responses that there were things government could do for this admired music beyond lip service. Here’s another of them. Relatively small grants could help artists obtain affordable housing. Artists build communities, most often in fringe neighborhoods, and up pop jobs. There are lots of economic recovery programs in progress, and no one is talking about finding homes for musicians except the Times, in the giving spirit that attends the winter holidays. But can’t we dream? Then request, persuade, urge and if necessary demand that action be taken? Isn’t that how things get done today? Or do citizens have to commandeer lobbyists?

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  1. says

    Case in point: it is always the artists who make a neighborhood “fashionable,” and then they get kicked out because the high rents they made possible aren’t friendly to their wallets.
    In addition to such projects being incumbent upon authorities to underwrite on account of this fact, they (the authorities) should plainly see that it is the artists who quite literally “clean the city up,” and make it livable.

  2. says

    I did a shoot for a JFA fundraiser last week and it seems as if the musicians housing is not off the table. But I am always left wondering why visual artists, especially those who have not had commercial success, but have contributed much to the Encylopedia of historic imagery, have no organization helping them. Many are also teetering dangerously and precariously on the edge of financial ruin. The one housing option, Westbeth, is, like you suggested, virtually impossible to penetrate. As a jazz photographer, I was summarily rejected from Manhattan Plaza, although I inadvertently support Jazz artists by working for fees that are not much better than when I first began shooting in 1979. Yet I know people who live there under false pretenses and are NOT artists or supporting staff of artists, paying obscenely low rent. The bottom line is that in addition to the many deserving musicians who need help, are many visual artists who would like to continue to document them for posterity, history and the love of it.