Where in New York City are abstract painters, modernist poets, and jazz musicians next-door neighbors? It may not be obvious, but the answer is the historic Westbeth Artists Community, a federally subsidized artist’s colony in Greenwich Village that provides inexpensive housing and workspace for more than 300 artists and their families. Resembling a small town of artists, residents create everything from sculptures to screenplays while living in the largest colony of artists in the United States.
The residents regularly engage with those beyond the walls of the community by presenting exhibits on a rotating schedule. This month, the community will host a music festival in its courtyard on Oct. 4 and 5. This ode to music will showcase the talents of several Westbeth musicians who will play tunes ranging from jiving jazz to pulsating pop.
Although artists may present their work through organized events, the building itself is an attraction as well—the walls are blank canvases for the artists. Karen Santry’s “Dalmatians Jump for Joy” conveys warm feelings toward visitors in Westbeth’s lobby. Resembling giant pasted stickers, the protruding dogs leap across the wall, seemingly ready to greet residents with a sloppy lick on the face. The walls are likewise decorated with posters describing upcoming art exhibitions and poetry slams. Creativity is a tangible force in the compound that boasts a storied past.
In July 1967, Bell Laboratories in the West Village was purchased for $2.5 million, and was redesigned by architect Richard Meier to provide inexpensive apartments for artists. The laboratory had entered into a period of disuse, which in part led to economic troubles in the neighborhood. The rise of Westbeth as a thriving center for the arts produced a renaissance in the neighborhood. Andrew Berman, exeutive director of the Greenwich Village Society for Historic Preservation, believes that Westbeth set the precedent for industrial renewal projects around the country.
“They took an under-utilized industrial space and turned it into live-work space for artists,” Berman said. “This has changed the way that urban areas function when they seem to no longer have a future. It started a new pattern of constructive re-use.” Turning a skeleton of a lab into a sanctuary for artists allowed notables such as photographer Diane Arbus and actor Vin Diesel to live in a village of fellow performers.
The Greenwich Village Society for Historic Preservation recognized the import of the community and nominated Westbeth to the National Register of Historic Places this September.
“This is long-overdue recognition of the importance of the complex,” Berman said. “Any action taken by the state and federal government affecting the buildings would now have to go through a review process.” The addition of Westbeth to the register will help it live to tell its colorful tale.
As both a contemporary attraction and a historic landmark, Westbeth is a reminder of the importance of supporting the arts. A laboratory of art, the commune’s cycle of exhibitions makes it a notable center of artistic production, nearly four decades after the idea for the community was first conceived.