Storm Damaged Their Art, and Now It May Take Their Studio Space

Christina Maile has lived at Westbeth, a massive artists’ complex in the West Village, for more than 40 years. For about half that time, she worked out of the building’s sculpture studio, a yawning space with whitewashed brick walls and a soaring ceiling that sits just off a large interior courtyard. There, Ms. Maile and a dozen other sculptors used table saws to slice wood and pipe benders to manipulate metal, creating large-scale pieces for galleries and museums.

But the tools have been cleared away, and the only indications that this once was a working studio are a half-peeled sticker on the window and an iron winch hanging dejectedly from the ceiling.

“This was such a magical place,” Ms. Maile, 69, said as she stood outside her former work space, peering wistfully through the glass windowpanes. “With artists, it isn’t just the affordable apartment; you also need an affordable studio — a place to call your own, to misquote Virginia Woolf.”

Ms. Maile and her neighbors at Westbeth, a rent-regulated building whose tenants are required to be practicing artists when they move in, had used the sculpture area and the adjacent labyrinthine basement as subterranean studios and rooms to store their art.


A man walked past Westbeth, a large artists’ complex in the West Village, where basement space used by artists for studios and storage may be rented commercially.CreditAshley Gilbertson for The New York Times

During Hurricane Sandy, these spaces were submerged in as much as 16 feet of water, destroying nearly all of their contents. Over the past year and a half, the landlord closed off much of the area as part of $5 million in repairs, leaving artists who had worked there unable to gain access to their spaces and anxious over their fate.

After months with little news, the tenants learned recently that the building owners had hired a real estate broker to rent out the basement and sculpture studio to a commercial tenant.

“It is devastating,” said Nasheet Waits, a drummer who grew up in Westbeth and still lives there with his family. He inherited the lease on a basement studio from his father, the percussionist Frederick Waits, who played with the likes of Ella Fitzgerald and Stevie Wonder. “We have had the lease so long, I couldn’t even tell you what the terms were,” said Mr. Waits, 43, who paid $1,325 a month in rent.

He had outfitted the large space, which housed a recording studio, a practice area and enough room for a baby grand piano and several of his father’s vintage drum sets, with $25,000 in soundproofing and recording booths. The flooding caused some $100,000 in damage, and Mr. Waits now rents a much smaller space in Williamsburg, Brooklyn.

“The mission of Westbeth is to promote the creation of the arts, and that is what was going on in the basement,” Mr. Waits said. “For that not to be honored, it just doesn’t sit well.”

Westbeth, which spans an entire city block, opened in 1971 on the site of the former Bell Laboratories at West and Bethune Streets. A city landmark, it was designed by a young Richard Meier and was one of the first complexes in the country to convert obsolete industrial buildings into legal live-work spaces for artists.

The early days were filled with “endless parties, consciousness-raising sessions, group sex and rock music floating through mile-long halls,” as described in Patricia Bosworth’s biography of Diane Arbus, who lived (and committed suicide) at Westbeth. The building is much tamer now; since the 384 apartments are kept affordable (Ms. Maile pays less than $1,400 for a three-bedroom duplex), a number of those endless partyers are still there, now going to bed long before midnight.


Artists once used this space as a sculpture studio to create large-scale pieces for galleries and museums. The landlord, the nonprofit Westbeth Corporation, may rent 70,000 square feet, including most of the basement and the sculpture studio, to raise money for repairs.CreditAshley Gilbertson for The New York Times

The units were intended as live-work spaces, but for many artists they proved too small for the work, so the basement studios became an ad hoc solution. Legally intended only for storage, the basement was dark and damp, cluttered with ceiling pipes and lacking natural light. The artists, who often punched holes through the cinder block walls to install air-conditioners for ventilation, paid little rent or, in some cases such as the sculpture studio, no rent.

The building is not awash in cash, so the landlord, the nonprofit Westbeth Corporation, sees the emptied space as an opportunity.

To raise money for numerous repairs, including a new facade, it hiredDenham Wolf Real Estate Services to gauge interest in leasing 70,000 square feet, including three-quarters of the basement. A major draw is the former sculpture studio, with its 23-foot-high ceilings, and demand has been strong. This includes inquiries from several “major arts organizations looking to create a building within a building,” said Stephen B. Powers, a broker at Denham Wolf, who estimates Westbeth could make up to $2 million a year in rent.

To address the lost space, the landlord is considering setting aside 6,000 square feet in the basement to create about a dozen new artist studios, said Steven Neil, the executive director of Westbeth Corporation. There would still be fewer studios and storage spaces than before the hurricane, and rents would be higher to account for reconstruction costs, he said.

As for the new commercial tenants, the Westbeth Corporation is not required to limit its search to arts organizations, but it will give them preference and offer discounted rents for businesses that have an arts focus, such as acting, film production and media companies. “It isn’t like this is a traditional landlord just out to make as much money as possible,” Mr. Powers said.

If large studio spaces are no longer available, several artists said they would be forced to change the type of art they create. Karen Santry waited 20 years to secure an apartment at Westbeth in 1990, and ever since she worked out of the sculpture studio. There, she cut and painted 16-foot Japanese Kabuki figures from rosewood. Since the storm, Ms. Santry, 65, lost $500,000 in work to water damage, and she now rents a much smaller studio in a neighboring Westbeth building. “I am just shocked. If I can’t get back my space, I will start creating tiny paintings like Vermeer,” she said.

Jane Klein, 43, a photographer who grew up in Westbeth and ran a popular flea market out of the basement before the storm, said she would like to see a new tenant “lease the basement and then turn it back into affordable studios for artists.” Yet she recognizes that this is unlikely.

“We know that we are blessed to be here,” Ms. Klein said. “But we are poor people living in an extraordinarily expensive neighborhood. Most of us go outside the neighborhood to do our grocery shopping. And many of us won’t be able to afford these new studios, if they are ever built.”