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.


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