Anya Liftig: In US, It’s OK For Artists To Live In Squalor

Anya Liftig is a 1995 Staples High School graduate. She entered Yale intending to major in political science. Ahead lay law school and a career in public service. But, Liftig says, “I took the liberal arts mission very seriously. I ended up questioning if that was what I really wanted to do.” She graduated as an English major.

She wandered through Asia with a backpack, and worked on a farm. She came back, and became a paralegal for a white-shoe Wall Street firm. She helped set up offshore entities and made good money. Yet she thought all the lawyers with fabulous apartments were “bored out of their minds.”

She quit and signed on with Hillary Clinton’s 2000 Senate campaign. Liftig was a tracker, following Rudy Giuliani around with a camera. Clinton kept talking about the need for health care, but did not provide it to her own workers like Liftig.

Disillusioned, Liftig left politics. She studied with Norwalk photographer Joe DeRuvo. Her photos appeared in the New York Times Magazine.

Anya Liftig

Anya Liftig

She reconnected with her old high school boyfriend and moved to Georgia where he lived. A short time later, they broke up. She enrolled in Georgia State University’s master’s in fine arts program. She earned two degrees and became a conceptual performance artist.

Liftig moved back to New York. She knew if you can make it there, you can make it anywhere. She’s done other things — tutoring, selling books on the street — and she built out an art space (until her building was condemned, then turned into condos). 

In the aftermath of the horrific Oakland fire — which gutted a warehouse that had been converted into a live/work art space, and killed a Staples graduate — Anya posted her reactions on Facebook. She wrote:

Every artist, especially every performance artist I know, has had experience living, staying, creating, and working in a space like this. We know this building and thousands like it in Detroit, Chicago, Brooklyn, Newark, Cleveland, Portland, Queens, Berlin, New Haven, the Bronx, Yonkers, London, Bridgeport, Oakland, Los Angeles, Atlanta, Philly, Pittsburgh et al.

When I moved to Bushwick in 2004 and built out a raw factory space with my partner, this was our reality. The fire exits were padlocked with chains to keep us from using them. No fire extinguishers. There were no fire detectors or working sprinklers. Eventually we were tossed out to make way for another round of artists (read people who could pay more.) Today 17-17 Troutman is a bastion of the Bushwick/Ridgewood art scene — flush with established galleries and artists with the money to pay the exorbitant rent.

This is the legacy that Soho/Tribeca/LES/East Village/DUMBO/Williamsburg/ Gowanus et al is built on. (Lest we forget the women of the Triangle Shirtwaist Fire.)

At Staples High School, Anya Liftig was part of the O Gallery art collective.

At Staples High School, Anya Liftig was part of the O Gallery art collective.

But it’s not only the artists who are at risk, and artists who suffer. When the FDNY eventually raided our building, we spoke with them and appealed our case. They told us that, surprise!, we were living in a former pesticide factory and that our “landlord” had lied about having a Certificate of Occupancy from the city –and that when fire and destruction eventually came to our building (only a matter of time since people were illegally welding, wiring electricity, etc. in the building) that they would be risking their lives to come and save us. That put it in a new perspective for me.

Blame the developers.

Blame a country that thinks it is acceptable and even chic for artists to live in squalor.

Blame a country that claims to value freedom of a expression above all else and forces its real, honest to G-d artists to always live in poverty.

Blame a national culture that fetishizes “creativity” and “thinking outside the box” only when it serves to line pockets with cash and decorate Louis Vuitton bags.

(Hat tip: David Roth)


63 responses to “Anya Liftig: In US, It’s OK For Artists To Live In Squalor

  1. I find it ridiculous that you would blame the Country that has given you and others every Freedom and opportunity to live and succeed in any manner you choose . Your work history seems to attest to that. You made choices that satisfied your needs and wants without interference from the Government. A rare Freedom in this world.
    The terrible fire in Oakland was a direct result of illegal activity. The individuals are responsible. Not the “Country”.

    • “You made choices that satisfied your needs and wants without interference from the Government. A rare Freedom in this world.”

      I am always stupefied when an American makes such a comment. You need to get out more.

  2. Got to say that I am in agreement here with Mr. Goltzer. People who knowingly live in an illegal space, who notice dangerous conditions like locked exits and nothing about it, are negligent. To the extent they recruit others to live there, especially children, they are criminally negligent.

  3. Michael Calise

    Take this to Hartford maybe we can add affordable artist units to 830G

  4. Ridiculous that you do not take responsibility for your own choices. Because people are creative and artistic does not mean they should not be responsible for their own actions or ignorance. While it is a tragedy that lives were lost…those who live and work in these ticking death traps do nothing to change things. I renovated spaces in TriBeCa and Soho and whenever neighbors blocked stairwells with ladders, sheet metal and chained exits I removed them…because common sense as opposed to cluelessness prevailed.

  5. I am in agreement with all the responses above. You had the freedom to choose the road to travel and now complain??? 9 to 5 daily or whatever you need to do to “live comfortably within a safe environment” is a choice. Line your pockets with gold……not after you pay rent or a mortgage, utility bills, ins., and all it takes to not be in your position or those in the tragic Oakland fire. You graduated in ’95 … should have grown up by now or embrace your choices.

  6. Don L. Bergmann

    Michael Calise’s comment was, I think, tongue in cheek. However, I would like to ask the many readers of 06880 if any are aware of what other nations do to support art and artists. For example, do Toronto, Paris, Berlin, Amsterdam, Stockholm. Tokyo, Rio de Janeiro, Santiago, Haifa, Sydney, Jakarta etc. have facilities where artists can live and function in below market housing. If so, there remains the issue of whether or not that is a good thing. First, though I ask the question.
    Don Bergmann

  7. Anya, I was deeply moved by your essay. Thank you for putting the tragic Oakland fire in its broader social contents. Which it deserves. I immediately forwarded your essay to my dear Mother-in-Law who is also an artist and who I knew your words would resonate.

    Only then, after forwarding it on, did I begin yo read the comments posted. Wow! Such strong negative reactions to your heartfelt piece. I don’t agree with those who would “blame the victim” – and remember that the people who died in Oakland and those first responders seeking to save them are all victims. Just as you so poignantly laid out in your wonderful essay.

    Thank you for writing it. Please consider me an ally. I “get” what you are communicating and I refuse to “blame the victim”.

    The artist holds a mirror up to society and seeks to transform the world through their art. Know that, in this piece, you are continuing that artistic heritage.

  8. I’m appalled by the lack of compassion shown in some of the comments. I’m guessing that none of those people has ever made a choice to give their creativity priority in their lives or chosen a less lucrative path in order to be the person they’d like to be. I’m an artist and I have lived in similar circumstances at more than one time in my life. I was lucky enough never to have been evicted or caught in a tragic fire, but life is hard in those sorts of situations. When I lived in a commercial building for several years I had to deal with having no heat on weekends. I’m not sure who is to blame for all of this, but to blame struggling or emerging artists who are victimized by both landlords and code enforcers is ridiculous and callous. There are few options for artists who need live/work spaces or who simply can’t afford to pay rent on a studio and a residence. Many countries have subsidized housing for artists and or grants to help artist to be able to create work without going hungry or living in danger.

    • Do you have any suggestions with respect to others who might be subsidized? Engineers? Nurses? Soccer coaches?

    • You do realize that we are in Westport? One of the wealthiest areas in the country. I am pretty sure that almost no one here has “chosen” a less lucrative path in order to be the person they want to be.

      If you truly value people and art why not just build (with proper permitting) and artist studio somewhere on your property. Why must the rest of us fund these free loaders with tax payer subsidized affordable housing?

      The trick in life is to find something that you love and or can tolerate and do that until you have made enough to step back and enjoy life at what ever level you find comfortable. Then you can go and be as creative as you want to be all the while fulfilling your obligations to society to take care of yourself.

    • Hey Phillip, I can’t speak for all the writers here, but certainly it does not display lack of compassion to be upset at a rant that says: “Blame the developers” … “Blame the country” written by a privileged Westport woman who admits to illegally “building out” a warehouse space for herself and fellow artists, despite being aware of locked fire exits and other hazards.

      I think we are all forgetting that another young person from Westport has tragically lost his life and — unlike the writer of this rant — that young person was not committing an illegal act, and had no way of knowing the hazards in the performance space where the tragedy occurred.

  9. We as taxpayers have subsidized the following:
    1) The purchase of Hummers
    2) Oil companies
    3) Wealthy farmers
    4) Trump’s bankrupt real estate deals
    5) Hedge fund’s carried interest tax rate
    6) The US military – the largest socialist enterprise in history
    7) The Taliban
    8) Football Stadiums

    There are many of us I am sure that would prefer some of that money to subsidize the arts.

  10. Westport is now the land of “Money Talks”. Local Real Estate operatives are quick to capitalize on the fact that Westport is (was) an artists community as some indication of how romantic or cool Westport is. Well, it’s all gone and essentially bullshit. Realtors should contribute a percentage of their sales to local artists associations or the Staples Players so as to keep their ruse alive. Few artists actually find commercial success, yet still contribute to the quality of our lives. What percentage have died in poverty before being “Discovered”? We are so fortunate to have those Westport families who, for generations, have supported the arts. We need to support the arts, create grants, etc.

  11. Bart Shuldman

    Our country FORCES its real……did you WRITE FORCES? Who the hell are you to say that? You were not forced to do anything. You chose to do something where you could not earn enough to have any housing. That was your choice.


  12. It is disturbing when commenters fail to take the time to actually read and process a post and others’ comments (as happened with the Feral Pines story) before replying with a closed mind or with spite rather than respectful dialogue.

    No comment is “ridiculous”.
    (by the way, I see that Dan has removed the name J. from yesterday’s post, which is a good start).

  13. Nancy, thanks for the recommendation to read posts carefully. I just re-read Ms. Liftig’s piece and noticed that she equates the struggle of NY artists priced out their hipster lofts with the victims of the Triangle Shirtwaist fire! To what will she equate the suffering of artists next? Auschwitz?

  14. The horrible tragedy in Oakland – that hit so close to home here in Westport – highlights a serious problem for our creative communities – the availability of affordable, accessbile, sustainable and safe space for artists and artisitc organizations to develop their work – which so many of us enjoy the byproduct of our entire lives. The problem of “Creative Space” is very real here in Fairfield County where real estate is expensive – much like the San Francisco Bay area.

    I work for the Cultural Alliance of Fairfield County, a 501(c)3 nonprofit, which works to serve the artistic & cultural community across the county in many ways ( On November 12th, we convened the areas first “Space Summit” at the Bijou Theatre in Bridgeport where close to 100 artists, nonprofit leaders, business owners, real estate developers, and community organizers gathered for an all-day conference to address this very need. Spaces discussed included not only artist studios but performance, rehearsal, special event and exhibit spaces. Panelists discussed the use of temporary space, connecting cultural spaces to the community, sharing of space and back-office services, policies and incentives to be used to help release commercial space for cultural use, and more. We will be issuing a full report shortly and if anyone is interested in being invovled please contact our Director of Programs, David Green, at David

    In the meantime, I will be hosting a radio program on WPKN 89.5 FM on Monday Dec. 12th, live from noon- 1pm, with three artists who are dedicated to creating space for artists to safely and creatively thrive in Stamford, Bridgeport, Norwalk and beyond. Tune in and hear about their commitment to community and their art.

    Thank you.

  15. Something overlooked by the philistine comments here about whether artists “deserve” subsidized housing: the tremendous impact a robust arts community has on city growth and prosperity. There is something like a 7:1 return for every dollar invested in the arts. Elected officials and businesses have a huge stake in supporting the arts, which means they should be profoundly concerned with providing affordable, safe spaces for artists to create — or at least in regulating the hypergentrification and rampant overdevelopment that disrupts and fragments vital communities of artists. When dozens of charred bodies are piled up because there is nowhere else affordable for creative young people to go, it is society at large that pays the price. Creative fields do not offer the same stability, security and linear path that other careers do, for many this means it will never be a choice as a profession. For the brave/desperate/foolhardy souls who attempt to forge a profession in the arts, being priced out into substandard housing can mean risking your health, your safety, and your sanity to create – all so developers and policymakers can then capitalize on the increased tourism, commerce and desirability of arts-enriched neighborhoods.

    • Jen, according to this piece in The Atlantic – hardly a publication written for “the philistines” – subsidized housing for relatively well-off, mostly white artists is often at the expense of poor minority families.

      The article compares shabby Section 8 housing available to the poor, with trendy, renovated lofts provided to the artists, with amenities including yoga studios, gyms and free wi-fi.

      There’s also the fact that – even without subsidies – when artists start moving into gritty neighborhoods like Fruitvale or Bushwick, the rents start rising and become less affordable to the poor minority families.. The artists may not be making much money, but they are affluent by comparison with the poor, have fewer children and related expenses, and often have Moms and Dads who write them a check from time to time.

  16. Dr Robert Liftig

    You are so silly, some of you residents of La La Land. You worship money; the only time you enjoy art is when you can make a buck off it. “Physician, heal thyself.” I feel sorry for you.

    • What are you talking about?

      • The lack of common sense is appealing. Now we know where Miss Liftig gets her warped values from. If it weren’t for all those horrible money worshipping art lovers, all Artists would be starving. I assume the good Doctor doesn’t charge for his services . It’s the Hippocratic Oath? Not The Hypocritic.!!!

        • Dr Robert Liftig

          Seth. You are big on personal attacks and overly free with your personal and critical judgements about people you don’t know and who don’t know you. So you attack, attack, attack, probably to keep other people at a safe distance so that you can’t be disappointed by them, or them by you. I suspect your anger at the world is a cover for a deeper, more specific anger at someone in your past, because you do not see that you are not being fair to others when you displace your rage and anger onto them. You should find a licensed therapist, Seth, and go regularly, because you need to free yourself from the limitations you have imposed on your emotional growth, your anger management, and your ability to empathize with other people. May you find grace – or may grace find you, during this joyous holiday season.

          • And you criticized people you don’t know.

            • Dr Robert Liftig

              Exactly. I don’t know Seth and Seth does not know Anya; yet he makes a personal attack (ad hominem) which is bad form strategically, logically, and morally. My criticism of Seth is the same, but I wanted him to learn something. Seth is probably a great guy. His argument is cheapened by personal attacks on a person he knows nothing about. You really should be able to make your point about an issue without stepping into the gutter.

    • Bart Shuldman

      Dr. If an artist creates something, do they then want to sell the artwork? Who do they sell the artwork to? Do they sell artwork to other artists? Or do they sell the artwork to those that want to buy it? Beauty in the eyes of the……

      Please, Dr, explain the ‘art’ system?

  17. You know, I’m up at 4 am EST thinking about this blurb, these comments… I can’t congratulate you, Anya, on sharing your CV as credibility, your opinion on why certain living situations came about, or the dropping of another fire with the implication of comparison to the Ghostship, about who to blame for this horrifying tragedy – this very thing, what you have written, repulses me so fucking much. Here’s why: this past summer a fire rampage my studio- attic apartment that had one entrance, the fire was fast moving through – I don’t even no why I woke up at 3 am, but I did. It was a shotgun style place so the fire proceeded from the back to the front of the triplex. It was utterly terrifying – the color, the smoke, that dread, that terror. I went from self indulgent twat to a deep rooted primal being only thinking of life and death. Thinking only of escape. Felt that heat, the kind where yes, your skin is burning off, you can’t see, not because it’s dark and smokey – it is because the heat singes your eyeballs. There is no air – do you know how it feels to suffocate? No doubt that is what these people – and think of them as people, not artists- went through choking, burning, screaming, collapsing, dying – thinking this is it. I am dead, I am nothing. So I speak to you, stop playing this game. Stop trying to interject yourself, this pat yourself on the back style shit because all the while you are saying “this happens everywhere” “artists have to live like this because of a, b, c – this is who to blame. It diminishes what has happened – it diminishes the families and friends – it diminishes their experience, which is far removed and dare I say more significant than anyone looking in – people left in the wake of loss and grief. Just fucking stop – all of you. Stop being so complacent and thoughtless to other people’s pain, so you can shine a light on the problems of artists. Give it some breathing room. Do you think by sharing all this shit that it is somehow making a difference? I don’t – I just see a bunch of people blaming others, I see a bunch of assholes who aren’t giving two shits about the people who have been affected, others outside of it all looking in at the spectacle, just jumping to conclusions and worrying about yourselves and your fucking opinions, who is going to see them, who is going to comment, etc.

  18. not to hide behind wordpress, which I forgot I had, my name is Sara Hopkins, I am an artist. Met Anya when she critiqued some shit photo project I was working on at GSU in Atlanta. I don’t feel like sharing an email, but wanted some transparency since others have shown an identity.

  19. Dima Strakovsky

    I think a lot of the commenters fail to see the point of that Anya is making. There are systemic failures in real estate development cycles that affect populations in urban areas across the country. The fire in question and living conditions described in her comment are but examples of what has been going on for many many years. We the artists are positioned as the likens and mosses in the economic development cycle of urban areas and to get tossed out as soon as we have outlived our usefulness. The living conditions described in the Ghost Ship and other artist buildings are mirrored elsewhere and only point to the fact that we are the transitional white people that can be placed in a poor neighborhood to make it more suitable for more affluent members of the society, like some of the commenters.

    Many of the commenters mention specific simplistic solitions like subsidies. This is absolutely unfair and frankly a knee-jerk Republican troll move. There are much more nuanced solutions that could be proposed but not while people are greiving. This is a hypothetical rethoric for your zip code and not a lived experince.

    The reality is that we have to identify the root causes of this problem before we can even start discussing a solutions. Thank you Anya for beginning this conversation and sharing your particular experience!

    • ” frankly a knee-jerk Republican troll move.” I mentioned subsidies and I am not a Republican. In one short phrase you revealed both your hatred and your ignorance; well done.
      Liftig thinks “artists” deserve a place at the public trough. She made her case clear. If you do not understand the economics of the wealth transfer she advocates, you should refrain from commenting on public policy.

      • Dmitry "dima" Strakovsky

        Rethorically it very much is Republican troll move. I don’t care if you actually are or not. You have to live with the neighborhoods you chose.

        Economic policy-wise you keep using words like “public trough” – not the most neutral of terms. I reject this simplistic casting of what my peers are commenting on. Since art practice at this point is very much intertwined with real estate policy, we do have to consider it in zoning, taxation, enforcement and granting practices. This is absolutely the same type of policy that cities already practice in their relationship to business community.

        We have no coherent cultural policy in US. We use the arts but refuse to understand where and how they germinate. We aknowledge this fact, take some time to grieve, and being a real economic policy conversation on national and municipal levels.

  20. “Blaming the victim” is often the easy way to avoid facing an issue. Keep up the good work, Anya. I remember you well from class years ago…You were then as now motivated by sheer determination…–Karl Decker.

  21. Kirstin Mitchell

    I can imagine that many of you listen to music. It is most likely, many of these artists wound their way through these types of places. I think we can all agree that whatever life path we have personally chosen, we enjoyed an art form that was at some point reliant on these meager beginnings. Sometimes being an artist is not a choice. It is the only way. One in which no type of training or mind-bending can alter. Artists bring an abundance of clarity, comfort and joy to our lives, especially during these times, where we mourn for a community.

  22. Is it just me, or have others noticed how much more mean-spirited some commenters have become since Nov. 8?

    • A mean-spiritedness seems more pervasive than just here on 06880, or perhaps we’re just more attuned to it now? Kindness. Can’t that be a part of spirited discourse?

  23. You’re right, Andy. The new zookeeper left a cage door open.

  24. You right. I’ve seen the streets filled with hateful, violent protesters that were paid to disrupt people’s lives. False and libelous accounts online and in the Media. Is that what you were referring to?

  25. Bernadette Humphrey

    Why are buildings allowed to become abandoned and run down in the first place? Negligence needs to be replaced with compassion for the needs of the community.

    • Bart Shuldman

      There are some old abondoned and once wonderful buildings in Bridgeport. Someone should find out how to use them, with the necessary fire escapes and sprinklers for up and coming artists.

    • Sadly, a city has turned a blind eye, and so have the inhabitants who choose to live in such circumstances.

  26. How was Greens Farms Elementary School set up with the Westport Arts Center before it was reclaimed as a school? I remember quite a few artists, at little cost I remember hearing at the time, maintained studios there.
    The following is from Wikipedia (not vouching for this source, but it sounds about right to me… )

    Due to declining enrollment the school closed in June 1983,[3][4] after which it was leased by the Westport Arts Center.[2]

    In 1996 with increasing enrollment school officials in Westport began looking at options including reopening the Greens Farms School and brought in a consultant in the process.[5] The Westport Arts Center representatives recommended that they stay in the building as the educational needs of Westport’s student could be better realized in a new building. Westport school officials responded that a new building would cost the town $4.5 million more than using the building.[6] In the end the decision was made that reclaiming the building was the “cheaper” course of action.[7] The Westport Arts Center left the building and moved to a location next to the Saugatuck River.[7]

    In 1997, faced with rising pupil enrollments, the town reclaimed the school for use as an elementary school again.[8] The school had to be renovated and expanded, which cost the town $16 million.[9]

    • I’m glad you brought up the WAC. I was a resident Artist there for many years and was involved with all aspects of its existence. Originally it cost the Town 50k a year to keep the closed school maintained. A group was formed to lease the building from the Town and make it an Arts Center. It was given 501C3 status a lease was signed. The WAC restored and maintained the building. Classrooms were turned into Studios. There was no living space allowed. Eventually , the Town wanted the building back and bought out the Lease. This was during the School building boom I the 90’s. The School Board estimated 6.3 million to convert it back. Actual figure was closer to 20 million. Your tax payer dollars at work.
      It was a great experiment on what can be done to support the Arts.

  27. Interesting, Seth. that you actually are an artist, while that angry man who branded you as a capitalist running dog philistine, is not.

    • I’ve been involved in the Arts all my life. I’ve heard all the rankings and ravings about the unique position of artists on the World and how they should be supported. I believe in individual freedom and responsibility .wether you’re an “Artist” or collect the garbage. Each individual contributes something to Society. I don’t think it is the Gov. , meaning the Taxpayers, responsibility to support one or the other. Art is very important, and usually is a reflection of a refined Culture. But I still think it’s not the taxpayers who should support it. The NEA is a great example of what is right and totally wrong with Govs involment . I wonder where the Arts would be without all those money worshippers they so loath.

  28. Re WAC’s current location, there are few suburbs anywhere in the world providing artists with a riverview location befitting a top dollar legal or finance firm. In all sincerity, I think this is great, but I bristle at those who belittle the taxpayers who make this all possible as “philistines” and “money worshipers.”

  29. I should have said: “taxpayers and donors” knowing the WAC works very hard to raise their own funds.

  30. PS, the current WAC is an Art Center without Artists, which is why I was so against selling out the Lease to the Town.

  31. Didn’t know that. So it’s just a gallery space?

    • Just Gallery space. When the building went back to the Town, all artists lost their studios. This, after spending hundreds of thousands to have a new performance space, a small art gallery, and other improvements.