Perfecting the Art of Frugal Living in NYC A Columbia University study examines how artists manage to live in high-priced New York City on salaries of less than $30,000 a year. The artists, all older than 62, have spent their careers learning how to live well and cheaply.

Perfecting the Art of Frugal Living in NYC

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From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.


And I'm Melissa Block. New York City was once a place where artists could, well, live like artists. Rents were cheap, and neighbors tolerant. Well, those days are gone. Still, a few artists have managed to stick it out. Most still make about $30,000 a year. But as NPR's Margot Adler reports, that's more than enough.

MARGOT ADLER: It was as if I had entered a very Zen place. The artists I talked to ranged from their late 70s to their mid 80s. All seemed to need little outside of some food, a place over their head and their art. I visited Hank Virgona, who is 78, in his tiny studio at the edge of Union Square. His paintings and drawings are on the walls, stacked in rows. He opens several drawers.

HANK VIRGONA: Now these are filled with drawings that I did.


VIRGONA: These are all new.

ADLER: Virgona has had more than 30 one-man shows. His drawings of satirical public figures have been published worldwide. But last year, he only made $17,000 from his art. He's averaged 25 to $30,000 a year. His studio has fabulous light, but its only 300 square feet. His first studio in 1960 rented for $35 a month.

VIRGONA: I don't want to tell you what it is now.

ADLER: You got to tell me what it is now.

VIRGONA: Well, it's 1,635.70.

ADLER: That's a lot.

VIRGONA: That's a lot of money. Yes. And next year, they already told us, it's going to be another 20 percent.

ADLER: Can you afford to stay?

VIRGONA: Well, this is my life.

ADLER: If he has to, he says, he'll get an even smaller studio in the building. Virgona lives with his brother in Queens, in a two-family house that was bought for $16,000 many, many years ago. He cooks for himself. He says he manages to spend about $30 a week on food and nothing on entertainment.

VIRGONA: The last movie I saw was "Fahrenheit 911." Before that, it was "Shakespeare in Love." What was that? Fifteen years ago? Maybe more than that, you know? The last vacation was 1980.

ADLER: But when you talk to Virgona, his is a world where money has very little meaning.

VIRGONA: No one has ever heard me say, well, listen, would you like to buy this? I never do that. I talk about art. I talk about my love for it. I talk about, like, what you can get from it. You know? That walk down a quiet street - especially (unintelligible) - is as good as going to Caracas, Venezuela or anywhere. You know what I mean? It's nourishing. That's what art - that's part of this purpose.

ADLER: And you feel he means it. Joan Jeffri is the director of the Research Center for Arts and Culture at Teachers College, Columbia University. The Center interviewed 213 visual artists between the ages of 62 and 97 about their life, their work and their income. Jeffri says 44 percent live rent-controlled housing. Most of the rest, the majority own their own homes or apartments. That's one reason they can live on so little. Jeffri says for most of them, being an artist is an identity that transcends everything else.

JOAN JEFFRI: They don't ever think of giving up being artists. They simply, if they get arthritis, change their art form, and they don't retire. So there are lessons here.

ADLER: What I saw in the artists I interviewed: Their health may not be perfect, they don't have lots of money, but they are often joyous about life.

PAT DILLARD: You don't stop. And there's no depression if you don't stop.

ADLER: Pat Dillard lives in a third-floor walkup. She does wood blocks and illustration. Her small apartment rents for about $700 a month. Her income is $29,000 a year. Despite being 81, she supplements Social Security by caring for people's pets.

DILLARD: Mostly cats, now.

ADLER: And what do you get paid for taking care of...

DILLARD: You get $10, which is good.

ADLER: Ten dollars an hour, yeah.

DILLARD: You can make, like, $50 on the weekend, and that's good.

ADLER: As for living cheaply, she says buy stuff at the $.99 store.

DILLARD: Sometimes, I make chili for the week, and it only gets better. If you want to have a pizza, you don't tip. You go pick it up.

ADLER: And she has more advice on being happy.

DILLARD: The first thing, I come out of the building, I look at the sky: white clouds and a blue sky. Oh, my heart goes pitter-pat.

ADLER: Hank Virgona says something similar. Seeing the light fall on something and then perhaps you can get part of that into a piece of work, that's miraculous.

VIRGONA: To feel that you're part of what it really means, you're part of the light.

ADLER: You might think getting older with relatively little money in a city so focused on wealth and consumption would create bitterness and depression. Joan Jeffri says these artists show how lifetime engagement and passion is a model for health and well being.

Margot Adler, NPR News, New York.

BLOCK: If you want to read the full study on aging artists, you can find a link at our Web site:

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