Art Houses Elsewhere

Other cities and countries have provided for their creative class in many different ways. Some other cities are engaged in unusual projects right now, attracting the people who can no longer afford to live here.


Detroit, for all its financial problems, has recently organized a project for writers, Write A House. It trains people to renovate abandoned properties, and when the houses are made livable again, the city gives the renovated houses to writers rent-free. If a writer stays in a house for five years, it becomes his or her property. The program also works at building a strong community for its resident writers and promotes their work in several ways. Of course we don’t have a wealth of abandoned houses; aside from struggling creative types, it’s perhaps the one thing we don’t have a wealth of.


Other American cities have repurposed buildings to house artists for decades. One notable example is Westbeth, in New York’s West Village. This multi-storied building was, at one time, a telephone company building, and later it was the headquarters for the Manhattan Project. The city transformed the office spaces into artists’ studios, each about 2000 square feet, adding open kitchens and bathrooms in each unit. Tenants pay rent based upon their income; they pay a percentage of what they make each year. If they had a bad year, as many of them did throughout the ‘oughts, their rents decreased for the following year.


In Berlin in the 1970s, artists squatted in a huge derelict building in the old Jewish quarter and formed the art collective, Tacheless. They opened a café and gallery on the ground floor and used the open space behind the building for construction of large sculpture projects. The city, rather than evicting them as illegal tenants, permitted them to use the building until 2012, when the quarter had been thoroughly gentrified, and room was needed for more high-end stores.


Berlin also has an art program for each city district, which hires artists to produce works, community projects, and events for the public. One project in the Prinzlauerberg district sent a theater crew and director to Tegel Prison to help the inmates produce a play, an experience that changed the lives of many prisoners.


Dutch artists and musicians transformed an old commercial building in Amsterdam into a 3-story entertainment center, Melkweg. It doesn’t house artists, but it contains two concert venues, a bookstore, gallery, and tearoom. Artists in Amsterdam get a stipend from the government for their living expenses, as long as they can demonstrate each year that they’ve produced a body of work.


Norway offers grants and stipends to all artists, including those who are already successful, to insure that they always have enough income to devote their complete attention to their work. Stipends are also given to emerging artists, those wanting to complete an arts education, or those who wish to travel to other countries for inspiration. Stipends for travel give artists $1.500 Euros a month, plus more if they are going to a place where rents are notoriously high… like here… for periods of three months to a year.


There are other examples, but the point is clear: other places see artists and writers as assets and encourage their talent. In this city that professes such an interest in the arts, shouldn’t we be able to welcome and support the people who create them? If we can’t give them stipends, like countries with much smaller populations and fewer social problems, perhaps we can find a way to at least give them space they can afford.


When artists in Leipzig, Germany took over an enormous former cotton mill, and filled it with artists, galleries, and artisans, they made their city a Mecca for the current hugely inflated international art market. We could do that here as well, in a series of art houses that encompass all the creative disciplines, coming together to produce a scene of amazing vitality—and that would only bring the international art market to the Golden Gate.



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