IndieSpace: New Lease on Life for Off-Off-Broadway?

A better deal for indie theater artists in NYC?

“Artists fleeing NYC due to rising costs” is a well-worn mantra; from indie artists to Broadway actors, we all regularly encounter the city’s affordability struggle. Yet a recent study released by Center for an Urban Future (CUF) and highlighted in Crain’s New York Business asserts that despite “skyrocketing real estate costs and lack of affordable workspace,” artists are “still flocking” to NYC. Dig further and the study reveals that some Manhattan neighborhoods are seeing declines in their artist populations; Brooklyn and the Bronx are seeing the increases. (For more details, listen to this interview on WNYC with CUF Executive Director Jonathan Bowles.)

While one could argue that artists migrating to NYC’s outer boroughs infuses culture and vibrancy to new areas of the city, it is also a phenomenon that must be monitored and addressed — for where will the artists live and create their art once those neighborhoods are no longer affordable?

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As it specifically relates to the small and mid-sized NYC theater community, the affordability crisis is well documented and shows no signs of stopping. What solutions are there to stave off the potential extinction of smaller venues and arts groups in the indie theater sector?

IndieSpace to the rescue! It’s a nonprofit organization focused on permanent real estate solutions for what used to be known as Off-Off-Broadway, a part of the arts ecology that remains endangered.

…Through a variety of innovative solutions, IndieSpace will help to keep venues open that are already established; purchase new space for the use of the indie community that will be stable and available despite market turns; and work with developers and owners to carve out new space in a variety of projects. IndieSpace will provide real estate knowledge, expertise and resources typically unavailable to indie theater companies and venues, building connections between artists and the real estate community through collaboration.

Recently, I spoke with IndieSpace Executive Director Randi Berry to find out more about the organization.

There is an assumption that art is here and will always be.

Robin Rothstein: Tell me more about IndieSpace and how it works.

Randi Berry: IndieSpace provides real estate knowledge, expertise and resources typically unavailable to indie theater companies and venues, building connections between artists and the real estate community. The founders are Paul Leibowitz, Erez Ziv and myself. Paul has 20-plus-years experience working in commercial real estate and has been involved in over $30 billion in transactions. Erez has operated The Kraine Theater and UNDER St. Marks in the East Village for nearly two decades. He has over 800 shows in and out of his theaters annually and has won an Obie for one of his outstanding festivals. I’ve been co-artistic director of an indie theater company since 2000; I’m a co-founder of the Indie Theater Fund, which represents 282 companies and venues; and I have a background in commercial real estate contracting and due diligence. We have an interesting cross-section of knowledge that uniquely places us in the position to truly be able to connect and communicate with artists and owners and operators alike.

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RR: What was the specific trigger that made you decide to launch this effort?

RB: Paul, a born and raised New Yorker and culture supporter, had the vision for IndieSpace in 2013. He approached me to start the organization after watching me hop from building to building and space to space rehearsing for shows. As a true champion for young artists, he knew this wasn’t a sustainable way to work and that his expertise in commercial real estate could help.

IndieSpace was officially created at the end of 2015 and launched in 2016. I can’t point to one specific trigger that motivated the launch, but many triggers over the last few years: constant closures, drastic rises in property values, increases in shuttered and empty spaces in every neighborhood. The rise in the cost of living. Young artists starting out with more debt than ever has made NYC feel like an impossible place to start your career as an artist. We are hoping to improve that experience.

Randi Berry. Photo: Benjamin Spradley.

RR: How has IndieSpace grown since it began? What projects and partnerships has the organization fostered so far?

RB: We’ve focused on meetings and building relationships and our consulting program while simultaneously searching for our first property. We’ve been pro bono, assisting organizations in new lease negotiations in the hope of getting them into more favorable leasing relationships. We’ve been meeting with other arts advocacy and service organizations like The Alliance of Resident Theatres/New York (A.R.T/New York), Fractured Atlas and The Field to get critical feedback on our model and the services we provide. We’ve also been sure to sit down with Artspace and Spaceworks to see what is working for them and what holes we can fill. We’ve met with the New York City Department of Cultural Affairs (DCLA) and The Mayor’s Office of Media and Entertainment (MOME) and hope to partner on various initiatives they’re exploring with the New York City Economic Development Corporation (NYCEDC) focused on affordable art space. We’ve been partnering with the League of Independent Theater (LIT) in meetings with community boards and members of the City Council. And finally, we are meeting heavily with artists and also likeminded real estate owners and land-use experts that would consider partnering with arts organizations in a new or existing building.

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New Yorkers are great when they face challenges.

RR: What has the response been from the NYC real estate community?

RB: It is a tough nut to crack. We have an advantage that one of our founders works in the commercial real estate space daily, and the other two are artists and operators. It starts the conversation with legitimacy and an understanding of the perspective of each party. It can be tough to engage the real estate community when there is a lack of understanding about the incredible impact of indie theater on the city and the devastating effect a red-hot real estate market has on artists. There are two drastically different narratives that circulate. On the one hand, there is this assumption that art is here and it will always be here — that with young artists still flocking here, that things must be fine. (The arts are taken for granted as a given in our city because we’ve been considered a cultural leader globally for so long.) On the other hand, every decade someone claims NYC is dead: that it is a museum; a shrine to Duane Reade.

This is a challenge. A moment in time. New Yorkers are great when they face challenges and we need to tackle this one now to retain our vibrancy. I think the most important part of our job is education and also offering up innovative ideas and collaborations to the real estate community. [We need to] present opportunities and then give the artists a leg to stand on when the collaboration is being explored, make sure there is some sort of level playing field. Once we’ve engaged the real estate owners and shown them our plan, they are very responsive. When they realize we often don’t need a ton of space and that we love space that may otherwise not be income generating (dark, quiet, cool) the response has been very positive. It is an opening to start the conversation on a larger scale.

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RR: Have you lobbied local politicians? Have certain local electeds been helpful?

RB: We’ve focused most of our efforts right now on the community boards. As we are figuring out where our first property will be, we think this is the best route. We know that the boards are closest to the needs of the community and have the most insight on what the people actually living block by block want to see in their district. As far as a specific elected official that has been helpful, I would have to say City Council Member Ben Kallos is one that really “gets it.” He has been working on the City Spaces legislation (see below) that we think will have a tremendous, direct impact on artists. We, of course, are thrilled that City Council members Jimmy Van Bramer and Laurie Cumbo have been such consistent supporters of small theaters.

RR: How do you and your team juggle jobs, families and managing and building IndieSpace?

RB: Juggling is just the right word. We are each working on a million different things at any given time to support this work. I have to schedule things within an inch of my life to make IndieSpace and the [Indie Theater] Fund go, to make my family go, to make this rehearsal space program or this school program go. There are so many opportunities that come up that can advance our overall vision — to make creating theater for indie artists in this city doable — that it is impossible to say “no.” So, we just do as all artists and innovators do. We make the day stretch, we focus on the long-term goal and we push forward.

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RR: Do you see yourselves eventually expanding the concept into other major cities where affordable creative spaces for artists are dwindling?

RB: My hope for IndieSpace is that it can be looked at as a leader that changes the game for artists in NYC, [that it] empowers them and eases the burden for them financially and connects two communities that have often been at odds. That made a deep impression on the real estate community and helped us work together more for the benefit of the artists, the community, the residents and the owners. Sometimes the gig feels so tough just in our city, that I haven’t envisioned expanding. But of course! Why not? If the model is there and we were able to accomplish it in NYC with such an aggressive real estate market and tax programs that favor owners, it should be achievable outside the five boroughs as well.

RR: As an artistic leader, what important skills or habits have helped you stay the course and succeed?

RB: I think the most important skills I’ve developed are being a good listener, being flexible and being mission driven. In all of our conversations and meetings the ability to truly and deeply listen — not just to a person’s words but also to the essence of what they are saying or experiencing — is key. I try to listen and respond to where they are coming from and tackle that as the issue. We need flexibility — I thought we would have purchased our first building by now — but we are listening and adapting to what we are hearing. We are being flexible based on the market and, in the meantime, we are using our skill set to fill gaps wherever we see they are needed. Most paramount of all, though, is being mission driven — staying focused on the “Why?” Permanence is key; setting us and other artists up for long-term sustainability is key. That five-year lease that you are offering at below-market rent is tempting because I want to get artists working right away, but it doesn’t change the game. It is only a Band-Aid. Stay focused. Stay the course. Give it time and I know the listening and the flexibility will pay off for all of us.