Studios in the Sky: A Home for Emerging Artists in 4 World Trade Center
In the spring of 1982, Budapest-born environmental artist Agnes Denes planted two acres of wheat in ten inches of topsoil spread across a Battery Park landfill in New York City. The location had been a dumping ground for the many tons of earth excavated during the creation of the World Trade Center. By August, amber waves of grain undulated in breezes off the harbor, and visitors to the field walked down golden rows of waist-high wheat grown from North Dakota seeds, backdropped by the glass and steel Twin Towers.
“People from all the office buildings came down to visit us and prayed for gentle rain. It became their field,” Denes told Today Show host Jane Pauley in a TV interview shortly after the wheat was harvested with help from a donated combine.
On the day of harvest, the artist said, “Manhattan is probably the richest, most congested, most professional … island in the world. To grow wheat on it … [creates] a powerful paradox.”
While it might not be as surreally incongruous as a patch of the High Plains mere blocks from Wall Street, the Silver Art Projects initiative performs its own inspired recontextualization.
And just as the field of wheat drew professionals working in the Twin Towers, employees of the companies and entities headquartered in 4 WTC, including Spotify, Morningstar, the Port Authority, and the City of New York, come to the studio-filled floor to see the art, meet artists, and take in the creative ferment high above Greenwich Street.
Fostering such interactions—bringing together artists poised for career breakthroughs with more traditional denizens of downtown skyscrapers—is central to the nonprofit’s mission. But turning over some of America’s priciest square footage to studios purpose-built for making art cuts against the grain even at the conceptual level, let alone when it comes to execution. So who dreamed it up, and why? And how did it take shape?
“The first kernel of the idea happened when Cory and I were having lunch in the Financial District in 2018,” says Silver Art cofounder Joshua Pulman, 26, who met Cory Silverstein, also 26, as an undergraduate at the George Washington University School of Business.
“We were brainstorming naively about how to bring emerging artists into this neighborhood,” the San Antonio native recalls, “and that first lunch and a few more naive lunchtime conversations turned into 18 months of pitching and doing research.”
Both founders are passionate about art. Pulman joined Arthena, an art investment firm, after a post-college stint with Goldman Sachs. Silverstein, grandson of World Trade Center developer Larry Silverstein, an art collector himself, is an analyst for Tishman Speyer Properties.
During their research phase, the New Yorkers traveled to Paris to learn about Manifesto, an organization that helps cities and companies integrate arts and culture into development projects. “They’ve worked to create artist communities in different urban neighborhoods,” Silverstein notes. “We also focused on Hong Kong’s K11 Art Foundation. They’ve set up residencies in high-rise buildings with similar models. We learned about their selection process for the artists they support and how they make commercial space usable for artists.”
From Complications to Community
The pandemic delayed (by three months) a planned March 2020 start for the first group of artists to start creating in their “studios in the sky,” to borrow a phrase from Silverstein. Silver Art adapted by gathering their artists, some of them still abroad, digitally.
“During the spring and summer, we expedited our Zoom professional development programs,” says Pulman. “We had speakers from the art world and relevant industries give presentations online. We also pursued a co-venture with Carnegie Technologies to develop our digital platform Portal, a showcase for the artists and their work. Collectors can watch videos of the artists, take virtual studio tours, view photos of the art, and buy straight from the artists.”
Though COVID-19 complicated the launch, this innovative artist-support organization proved timely, given the pandemic’s impact on emerging artists. Some lost day jobs, or lost representation when small galleries shuttered, or struggled to pay rent. Along with industry talks (how to access emergency grants was one topic), mentoring, Portal, and relationship-building with floor peers and potential collectors from other floors, Silver Art offers eight months of free studio space in an office tower of stunning design and technological advancement.
The founders hoped it might benefit Silver Art members to cultivate an arts community in a soaring citadel in a district that young artists had been priced out of decades ago. With multiple artworks sold, one artist securing a gallery and future show, and organic conversations between artists and professionals working in the building frequent, that aspiration has been realized.
“We’ve hosted many exciting studio visits,” Pulman says, “because it’s so convenient, and the building is pandemic-proofed. An artist can be in their studio, which range in size from 500 to 1,500 square feet, wearing a mask, and a visitor can peer in and hear about the artist’s practice and then move on to the next studio. If you work in the building or nearby, or live in this neighborhood, whose population has tripled, you don’t have to spend time researching emerging artists and traveling at length to their studio. You just schedule a visit here. Our model could work in other commercial high-rises, too. We have a blueprint.”
Inspired & Empowered: Lighting the Creative Spark
The space and the building seem to agree with the Silver Art cohort.
Artist after artist mentions the panoramic views through floor-to-ceiling windows, the natural light, the large space, which includes an open lounge area, and the building’s exterior—its coated window glass marvelously reflective, the tower’s design a trapezoid atop a parallelogram atop a podium, with a 46-foot-high ceiling in a lobby of black granite and white marble.
Last summer, as artist Natalie Birinyi walked or rode her push scooter across the Brooklyn Bridge to 4 WTC from her Clinton Hill apartment, the 72-story tower, with a skin of glass given a matte metallic finish with a dark mirror’s sheen, was like a “beacon calling to me,” she recalls. A painter of skyscrapers as seen through the satellite eye of Google Earth, she’s currently working on a diptych of the building itself and says the daily photograph she takes of her view from the same 28th-floor vantage might evolve into a piece, too.
Artist, activist, and filmmaker Tourmaline, named to Time magazine’s 100 Most Influential People of 2020 list, recalls a recent moment looking down at her studio perch from the 1 WTC observatory and appreciating the distinctive environment. “I feel so alive,” she says of working in a space filled with gifted artists creating across many disciplines.
Ethiopian-born, Los Angeles-raised painter and installation artist Tariku Shiferaw, who likes to work late at night in the always-open building, took to riding his bike back and forth from Harlem when he knew he might be heading home after 1 a.m., since the pandemic led to the city ending overnight subway service. Of the 28th floor, whose “raw” look is closer to an industrial loft space than a swank Financial District corporate floor, Shiferaw says, “The space has impacted me in a way to make much larger works than I’ve ever made before.”
As for Iraq-born Maryam Turkey, a painter, sculptor, and furniture designer who arrived in America with her family as political refugees in 2009, she recalls instant inspiration.
“There’s a spark about this space,” Turkey says. “It became part of my identity right away.” The artist adds, “The shadows of buildings on other buildings are a detail apparent in my new series, and I recently launched a piece called Still, which is my reflection on changes to NYC commercial buildings during the pandemic.”
In early March, Silver Art Projects will announce their open call for 2021 residents. With “studio space and resources needed more than ever” during the ongoing crisis, Silverstein expects the 500 applications they received in 2020 to be tripled at minimum this time around.
And the upcoming residency will be rooted in a mentorship concept and have a theme: Social Justice and Activism. Artists will be selected by six jurors, three of them resident-mentors.
Tourmaline will be back on the floor, as a mentor this time.
“I love the sense of perspective it gives me,” says the artist and activist of creating in the Silver Art space.
Her personal perspective, as a Black trans woman “speaking uncomfortable truths,” as Janet Mock wrote in Time, will surely be part of the mentoring vision shared with the next group of artists to set up shop on the 28th floor of 4 World Trade Center.
Author of the book Life After Favre, Phil Hanrahan is a Milwaukee-based writer and editor working on a book sharing the story of a pioneering art college in rural Ireland.