When we hold PDN 30 seminars at art schools around the country, students sometimes ask me if they should move to a big –and expensive—market like New York or Los Angeles to get work as photographers. I’m never sure what advice to give: Is there a benefit to being part of a big artistic community that outweighs the need to slave away to pay the rent? Imagine my surprise when I heard performer and writer Patti Smith offer a very clear opinion on the matter during a reading and book signing in Brooklyn Bridge Park last night.
As the setting sun turned the sky over the East River shades of pink and gold, Smith read several poems and two excerpts from Just Kids, her award-winning memoir about living and making art in New York in the late Sixties and Seventies with her friend photographer Robert Mapplethorpe. One passage described how they survived by eating at the Horn & Hardart Automat, where 65 cents could buy a chicken sandwich, and how Mapplethorpe cut a deal on a Brooklyn apartment by promising to paint the blood-spattered walls and clean the mold and old syringes out of the refrigerator.
Smith then took a question from a member of the audience seeking advice for artists trying to move to New York. Smith said she regrets that the economy has changed so much, then added that though she can understand why someone would want to live in what she called a “great” city, she recommends that artists keep their eyes on what really matters: “Do the work.” Doing the work, she said, might require moving back with your family and “working out of the garage” for a while. Consider your temperament, she advised. “I always worked 9 to 5 jobs,” and managed to draw and write in her spare time, but “Robert found it harder” to work full time and take photos. Smith, who grew up in South Jersey and lived in Detroit after she married her late husband Fred “Sonic” Smith, said there are cheaper, roomier places to live in Philadelphia and Detroit. But where you live, she said, is less important than what you do. Success, she said, isn’t determined by landing “a big gallery,” it’s determined by the quality of what you produce. “Do the work,” she repeated. The crowd of New Yorkers applauded.
Smith’s reading was part of the Books Beneath the Bridge series, which supports independently owned bookstores – that is, the few that have not yet gone the way of Horn & Hardart.