Federally Subsidized 'Artists' Colony' Is Spending Run Amok

Bill Hobbs
By Bill Hobbs | November 23, 2011 | 12:17 PM EST

Only days after the national debt soared past $15 trillion, the New York Times treats its readers to the wonders of life at Westbeth, an apartment building in New York City that the paper describes as "the first federally subsidized artists' colony in the country."

It's a description that begs two questions.

The first question: The what?!

The second question: The first?! Are there more?!

Sadly, the New York Times doesn't bother to answer those questions, or even acknowledge them. This article isn't about such boring, mundane banalities as that. Oh, no. This is about the wonder of cheap apartments in an expensive part of the Big Apple, filled with all sorts of eccentric artists. It's historical and hip at the same time.

A documentary filmmaker who lives there got in thanks to a recommendation by Norman Mailer! Diane Arbus committed suicide there! Vin Diesel's parents still live there! And Hillary Swank lives nearby!

A little digging - okay, a quick trip to Wikipedia - finds that Westbeth was subsidized by the National Endowment for the Arts:

"Westbeth is among the first examples of adaptive reuse of industrial buildings for artistic and residential use in the United States. It is a complex of 13 buildings in Manhattan's West Village, comprising an entire city block ... The complex was originally the site of Bell Laboratories (1868–1966), one of the world's most important industrial research centers and home to many inventions, including the vacuum tube, the condenser microphone, an early version of television, and the transistor. The complex was vacated by Bell in the middle 1960s, and remained empty until the Westbeth project started later in the decade. Using seed money from the J.M. Kaplan Fund and help and encouragement from the National Council for the Arts (which has since become the National Endowment for the Arts), an ambitious renovation project designed to create live-work spaces for 384 artists of all disciplines. ... Westbeth opened in 1970 for artists, dancers, musicians, actors, writers and film makers. Artists of all disciplines are admitted as tenants in Westbeth after review by a committee of tenants in their discipline. They must also meet certain income requirements at the time of admission."

Judging from the article, the money the government invested in rehabbing the building appears to have paid off in terms of its positive impact on the renaissance of the surrounding neighborhood. And a building from which a slew of amazing life-changing new technologies emerged to help power the American economy for nearly a century was saved from the wrecking ball.

And it's for artists "of all disciplines," so that's fair. Though I doubt the poet laureates of Harry Reid's government-subsidized Cowboy Poetry Festival were going to be invited to apply for space at Westbeth any time soon.

Not that there are any vacancies. The waiting list was closed in 2007. The artists currently occupying Westbeth don't planning on leaving any time soon.

But, as the NYT reports, the artists weren't supposed to stay there forever.

The Times visits with Westbeth artist/resident Barton Lidice Benes, whose apartment is described as "a strange alternate universe of taxidermied animals; found objects, which he calls relics; and collages."

Benes moved to Westbeth when it opened in 1970, paying $99 a month rent. Today, he pays $640 a month - chicken feed in New York City - but he was supposed to move out by around 1975:

"His generation of artists were so grateful for cheap rent and a place to live and work that they thwarted Westbeth’s original vision of being an incubator for artists for five years or so, until they were ready to fly the nest. In New York, with its perpetually overheated real estate market, Westbeth was Never Never Land, and like Peter Pan, they never left. Only unlike Peter Pan, they grew old, and many are now in their 70s and 80s."

And thus does another government program intended to give struggling folks a temporary hand up get turned into another entitlement program, perpetual subsidy for people whose career choice renders them perpetually unable to afford the lifestyle they want to live.

The NYT's description of one of Benes' collages sums it up pretty well:

"Money from around the world has been torn up, twisted and pasted into replicas of plants and flowers."