We Need Westbeth Here

According to the Australia Council for the Arts report, Arts Nation: An Overview of Australian Arts 2015, in 2009 there were 44,000 practicing professional artists in Australia. The annual median income, taking into account all sources, for these artists was $35,900. Even in 2009, that would have barely paid the rent and put food on the table if you lived in a capital city. At around the same time, Australian cultural industries generated over $50 billion in economic activity, or $35 billion in GVA (Gross Value Added). This was higher than the GVA for a number of other industries, including agriculture. I’m not going to go into all the figures, you can read the report here: Arts Nation

The Australian Institute of Health and Welfare website, AIHW tells us that in 2015 almost 200,000 households were on social housing waiting lists. I wonder how many of them were artists.

Last week I watched a documentary called Winter at Westbeth. You can still see it on ABCiview here: Winter at Westbeth The director, Rohan Spong, traces the lives of some of the elderly residents of Westbeth’s Artists’ Housing, in New York City. Westbeth was created in the 1960’s to help solve the severe shortage of affordable housing and studio space for artists and their families. Cleverly, the founders of this project, renovated a complex of thirteen disused buildings and turned them into 384 apartments, which were also work spaces, for artists and their families. As well, Westbeth has commercial, performance and rehearsal spaces. It opened in 1970 and continues to this day, housing visual and performing artists, musicians, writers, poets and filmmakers. It is a thriving community of likeminded people.

Some of the best ideas in life are copied from others. As writer Charles Caleb Colton once said, “Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery.” I think Australia’s cities should copy the idea of Westbeth. Imagine the vibrancy of a Westbeth, where artists can live while they create, rehearse, perform and exhibit their works in one place. A place where they feel secure, both financially and creatively. A place which is open for the general public to experience every artform for free. I can imagine what a thriving, culturally flourishing community this would become.

Granted, the subjects of Winter at Westbeth are elderly, but they are still lively, still creating and still giving so much to the wider community. They were young once and who knows where they would have ended up without Westbeth.

I would love to see similar housing projects for artists created around Australia. The arts provide the soul of every community and we should all benefit from the creation of art. Surely there are enough disused buildings in every Australian city which can be reinvigorated in this way.


Becoming a Character

For me writing memoir isn’t easy, although I do enjoy certain aspects of it, like the research. I get satisfaction from finding out some new fact, or confirming some hypothetical line of thought. Despite this, the fun of research doesn’t quite compensate for the fact that the actual process of writing can be quite tricky. One of the areas I struggle with is writing myself as a character. Then I came upon “An Exercise: Turning Yourself into a Character” an article written by Lee Kofman. It was exactly what I needed.

The sentence which first caught my eye and held my attention was this: “The most important thing is not to shy away from putting on the paper all those things we often hide in social interactions.” This is something I find difficult. Just the thought of exposing those things in myself which I hide away, is enough to make me feel nauseous. I’m only slightly reassured a little later when Kofman explains “We need to craft our ‘I’ with great care, as if we were fictional characters.” I’m breathing slightly easier now, but my heart is still beating quickly and my palms still fell a little damp.

However, I’m willing to see if the exercises Kofman suggests are enough to build my confidence in reinventing myself as a character in my own memoir. She suggests six steps, not all of which I shall list here, as you should read her article yourself. The first and the last were the ones I found the most challenging.

Step 1: “Write a list of your most unique skills and interests.”

I wish I had even one unique skill, let alone a list of them! I don’t collect anything, I don’t make anything, I’m not a contortionist, I can barely keep two house plants alive. I’m not a photographer or an artist or a chef. I don’t feel it is a unique skill, but I can read quickly. So, what would I consider my unique interests? It is an easier question for me to answer. I’m interested in the history of my family and the history of the world in which they lived. I’m interested in books, especially memoir, autobiography and the stories of strong females. I’m interested in keeping myself healthy with diet, exercise, mindfulness, meditation and reducing the stress in my life. I’m interested in renovations, interior decoration, fashion, art and music. I’m interested in spirituality and the history of religion.

Step 6: “Write a list of your secret desires, those that can stop your breath just thinking about them, yet are too uncomfortable to admit.”

Now that is going to be difficult! What do I desire, which of those desires could be termed secret and which of them stop my breath when I think of it? The more I think about this question, the more I realise how uninteresting I must be. The only desire I have right now, and it is no secret, is to retire to some place where I can look at the ocean and write. I wish I had a dark desire. I wish I could think of anything else except running away from the life I’m now living. But any secret desires I might have had years ago, have been long forgotten, buried under the strain of a stressful job and a mindless routine.

But for now, I must complete Steps 2 – 5.