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New York City's Unequal Housing Becomes a Stage for Public Art

The “Month2Month” residency project will explore real estate and public art in private homes—both luxury condos and affordable apartments.

Month2Month

Late last October, a developer threw a Halloween party in the South Bronx with a peculiar theme: “The Bronx Is Burning.” The now-famous happening was curated by Lucien Smith, a Forbes-anointed artist, and scored celebrity guests such as Baz Luhrmann, Carmelo Anthony, and Kendall Jenner. Kool Herc performed. But some of the thematic appointments—bullet-riddled cars and burning trash-can fires—sparked outrage among residents.

The #BronxIsBurning party coincided with a new South Bronx development deal by Somerset Partners, the party’s host, and followed on the heels of a Somerset Partners billboard declaring a new name for the Port Morris neighborhood: the Piano District. Bronx residents responded with a hashtag: #WhatPianoDistrict. Four months later, the hashtag still serves as a Twitter flagpole for discussions about everything from luxury condominiums to Bernie Sanders.

The #BronxIsBurning flap is one illustration of the often unsettling relationship between fine art and real estate. But that coupling doesn’t have to be entirely problematic, according to William Powhida and Jennifer Dalton, two New York–based artists. The intersection of art and living is the subject of their latest collaboration, ”Month2Month”—a residency of sorts that will place attendees in either luxury or affordable housing, and feature public-art events that include a dinner party for doormen and a karaoke night with real-estate professionals.

“In this case, we’re trying to approach housing and affordability and class and race and gentrification—all the reasons that living can be fraught in New York City,” Dalton says. “We want to have that discussion in a heightened and, simultaneously, more open and maybe more confrontational way.”

Jennifer Dalton and William Powhida. (Month2Month)

For Month2Month, the artists have arranged for two classes of homes to be available to applicants for a series of four-night weekend stays over the month of May. One series will take place in a “luxury” setting (newer, finer, larger units). The other series will be conducted in an “affordable” setting (older, smaller, no-frills units). One of the apartments on the affordable track, for example, will be a pre-war tenement building in the East Village. It’s like Airbnb, but for a mixed-up artist-residency and apartment-gallery production.

Applicants who win this lottery will get free accommodations and meals, courtesy of More Art, a nonprofit public-art incubator and Dalton and Powhida’s partner for the project. (The apartment’s permanent resident will get to stay elsewhere as well.) There’s only one condition: Residency attendees must agree to participate in two programs over the course of the stay. Oh, and applicants don’t get to pick between luxury or affordable.

Two tracks, two events, four weekends, for a total of 16 total programming slots. So far, the listed public-art programs run the gamut: Sharon Butler, a painter and blogger, will introduce a resident to her $50 Stock Club, an investment collective. Felix Salmon, a finance journalist at Fusion, will host a night on “bubbles and bubbles”: champagne and housing. Mildred Beltre and Oasa DuVerney (artists who, as Brooklyn Hi-Art Machine, make work in one another’s Crown Heights homes) are planning a “Gentrifiers’ Anonymous” meeting.

A luxury dwelling in Gramercy, where one of the Month2Month residencies will take place. Other residencies will be hosted at similarly luxurious units—or, alternatively, in more humble apartments. (Jemma Koo/Month2Month)

“One of our mottos has always been, ‘This is not that,’” says Dalton, referring to the pair’s previous collaborations—namely two talk-y curated gallery programs called “#Class” and “#Rank” in 2010. Taken in its entirety, “Month2Month” is a project that perhaps corresponds with a debated category of art known as social practice. At the very least, this is not a panel series. Nor is it a live-in artist-in-residence program designed to flatter 19-roommate co-living concepts in Crown Heights. That’s what typically passes for art within real estate.

Most of the “Month2Month” events will center on dinner parties or other social settings. Seung-Min Lee (a video and performance artist) is assembling real-estate professionals for the karaoke event, for example, while Dalton and Powhida are hosting the dinner party for New York doormen. While the programs will take a variety of forms—absurdist but critical, in two very different kinds of spaces—they all target the intersection of real estate and contemporary art. Even the website has the air of a luxury condominium ad.

“The way in which real estate tends to use art to whitewash development projects or equate luxury in the housing industry with the rarity and luxury of fine art is something I wanted to push back on with the project,” Powhida says. “A lot of people associate art with gentrification, whether it’s artists as pioneers or artists supporting luxury development in some way.”

“Month2Month” is still accepting proposals from interested parties—artists, curators, writers, comedians, organizations, and others—to host public art(–ish) programs at each of the sites over the course of the four residency weekends in May. The lottery window for the residency itself has already closed; Dalton says that most of the applications they received are from outside New York.

That was the goal, according to Dalton and Powhida. They want to hear from residents from other places—not all of whom will be artists—about their own housing experiences. They want to subject them to a taste of New York’s housing madness (plus, a free stay). And they would like to reclaim for art a role in the city beyond the one that is typically assigned to artists by developers.

“We would like not to be those pawns,” Dalton says. “We’re having a discussion of art’s relationship to real estate in a way that we hope will undo some of that association of art being real estate–friendly.”

About the Author

  • Kriston Capps
    Kriston Capps is a staff writer at CityLab. More

    Kriston Capps is a staff writer at CityLab, where he writes about housing, art and design. Previously, he was a senior editor at Architect magazine.