The Elusive Live/Work Paradigm

Linda and Tom Blackwell sitting on a sofa in their live-in loft in Soho– 1970.

No sooner do I flee from my adult responsibilities do I learn my new life is an anachronism. Apparently, we are living in a post-studio world in which artists use the whole planet (or their laptop) as their studio. (What? I just got here!!) Well, I did know we were trending this way, but I have to cling a little longer to this ideal, of integrating my life, passion, and work. But I think I’ve found my mistake. Whereas this is becoming common practice for the rest of society, it is more out of reach for artists, especially with the rise of gentrification. Katy Siegel writes about this in her essay, “Live/Work,” part of this great book I’m reading, The Studio Reader: On the Space of Artists, edited by Mary Jane Jacob and Michelle Grabner. Siegel states:

For most people in the United States, even for the midcentury middle class, life meant fifty weeks a year doing something you had to do, and two weeks doing what you wanted to do…Today, the nature of work, particularly professional work, is changing, and our lives are losing this midcentury split nature. More and more people are telecommuting or working “flex time,” or are on furlough, in the positive spin of the day. We are perpetually freelancing, working, not nine to five, but whenever we can: “on demand,” at night, on weekends, in coffee shops, at home.

In response to this trend, new living spaces are being designed to meet the needs of a telecommuters and freelancers in the form of live-work spaces, which were long ago the province of artists. According to Seigel, the term studio apartment literally comes from the type of live-work space used by artists in the nineteenth century, with space to live and a high-ceiling studio with large windows for working. The idea was resurrected in the 1970s in places like Soho, where artists fashioned their own live/work spaces in semi-abandoned industrial spaces.

Today, it is the artists who have split lives. To live and work at home, they must decamp away from the metropolitan areas where their work is more likely to be shown and sold. To live in such an area they might spend time commuting every day to separate work places. Seigel goes on about some of these spaces:

A studio visit with a young artist or an artist with limited or no commercial success in a major US city often still happens in an industrial building, but under very different conditions from those of the 1970s. The event is usually staged in a small room with plywood or sheetrock walls. Pan out to the hallway: a row of doors, one after another, with names on each one, along a wall of un-sheetrocked studs. Pan out again to see floor after floor just the same, a whole building of stacked studios… This environment crosses two unpleasant labor forms of the early and late twentieth century: the sweatshop and the office cubicle.

I have only my experience of the Washington DC area to draw on and it is my feeling that not only is the live/work experience inaccessible for most, but even studio space is hard to come by. Those aging buildings where any space is available are perpetually on the chopping block, especially now that condo development in the region is back on track. But there are a few cases in which buildings with live/work spaces for artists have managed to get off the ground.

So many people live like artists now, freelancing, moonlighting, bringing income in from several different sources. The one comfort in this kind of wild instability is the ability to do it all under one roof. Making this more possible for artists in metropolitan areas is a smart investment… because every community needs to have artists in its midst.

2 thoughts on “The Elusive Live/Work Paradigm

  1. Enjoyed reading this, Heather. My reaction is nothing you hadn’t pondered, but speaking for myself, the other thing I see happening — an ominous inevitability — is our increasing digitization of the artistic process. As you note, anything that liberalizes access to the creative process has good effects, and certainly the fact that I can edit documentaries from a home computer workstation facilitates off-hours duality, paralleling my professional life (where I earn money…while none is to be made from filmmaking without begging for it through grants, foundations and friends — something I won’t do). Yet this liberality sacrifices the formality of a separate workspace and the historical tradition — creative ghosts, if you will — of an artist’s studio. My lack is a persistent nag on my conscience. Clearly it is something you are working through too, but the difference is that you took steps in an uncompromising direction and that is laudable.

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