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In MoMA’s shadow, LIC artists fear future

No one doubts that the imminent opening of MoMA QNS in Long Island City will instantly heighten the neighborhood’s cachet as a venue for the arts.

But for the hundreds if not thousands of independent artists who have settled in the area over the past two decades — people for whom Long Island City became an art mecca long ago — the implications of the internationally renowned museum’s arrival remain to be seen.

The Museum of Modern Art is opening June 29 on Queens Boulevard for a three-year stint while its Manhattan home is renovated. In 2005, museum officials plan to close the exhibition space in Long Island City while continuing to use the site as a permanent storage facility.

Concern is high among artists that the MoMA name will encourage more aggressive development and drive up rents, producing the fundamental irony that the museum which secures Long Island City’s place on the arts map may push out the very artists who staked first claims.

“Once MoMA comes in people are going to view real estate differently, and they’re not going to be able to go back to view it the old way,” said Karen Fitzgerald, an artist who has had a studio in the neighborhood since 1982. “I think it’s going to become increasingly more difficult for artists to stay.”

Although such fears are widespread, her prediction is by no means a certainty. For years Long Island City has inspired ambitious promises of development that ultimately proved to be more wish-list than reality.

Until recently, the growth of Long Island City has moved forward at a pace closer to a slow simmer than an explosive boom, with the opening of the Citibank tower in 1989 followed by an unremarkable decade in which little was built.

But even before MoMA fever hit, development started picking up at a more promising rate. Thirty-seven blocks were rezoned last year to transform the neighborhood into the city’s next major business district, and the MetLife corporation has already moved into a renovated industrial building on Queens Plaza.

Although many artists anxiously compare the future of Long Island City to the history of SoHo, an industrial Manhattan neighborhood first settled by artists but later overrun by more upscale tenants, the parallel may be a flawed one.

“I don’t think that’s going to happen — the artists getting pushed out — simply because Long Island City and SoHo are two different areas,” said Hoong Yee Lee Krakauer, executive director of the Queens Council for the Arts. “You will always have artists that will be able to be happy working in raw spaces, which there are an abundance of in Long Island City.”

Krakauer said Long Island City lacks the high density of both residential and commercial space that made SoHo so inviting for retailers and brought rents to levels unaffordable for artists.

But space still abounds in Queens -- a scenario that will likely remain intact for decades.

“It’s a very soft market right now,” said Margie Seaman, president of Seaman Realty & Management Company Inc. “There’s plenty of space for everybody in Long Island City.”

Seaman discounted the notion that artists may be pushed out of the neighborhood by rising rents because there is simply so much space available beyond the three areas pegged for business development — Queens Plaza, Court Square and Hunters Point.

“There are countless — and I don’t mean that exaggerated — countless side streets, endless blocks of industrial buildings that have space for rent in Long Island City ... and they’ll always be available to artists,” Seaman said. “And they’re everywhere.”

But artists tell a different story.

“I think rents are going up as we speak. I think it’s inevitable,” said Melissa Wolf, executive director of Women’s Studio Center, housed at the Wills Art Deco Building on 21st Street, a few blocks south of the Queensboro Bridge.

Wolf is fortunate, because her landlord, Daryl Wills, expects to transform his building into an exclusive home for artists’ studios, a goal he has already partly reached with about 40 such tenants.

But other popular artist enclaves do not have as promising a future. Jerry Wolkoff, the owner of the Crane Street Studios on Jackson Avenue — a building noteworthy for its colorful facade of aerosol murals — currently leases space at subsidized rates to dozens of artists, but he expects to tear the structure down once he secures a tenant for an office tower.

“I love artists and I saw artists and I think that they’re great, so I subsidize artists. I give back to the community,” Wolkoff said. “Eventually, I want to take that building down and build a high-rise,” in which he would still reserve space for artist studios, he added.

Despite the inevitable changes sweeping the neighborhood, many expect the artists’ characteristic resourcefulness will preserve their spot in Long Island City for years to come.

“In our lifetime you’re not going to see it all developed anyway,” Wolkoff said. “They’re very creative people — they’ll be around here.”

Reach reporter Dustin Brown by e-mail at or call 229-0300, Ext. 154.

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