Ideas for a Cheap and Affordable Artists’ Community

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I thought it would be fun to digress a bit from my usual posts. Today I offer my somewhat Utopian idea for an artists’ community based on the all-American concept of the trailer park. Odd, yes, I know. And, of course, that means this post has no new tutorials or finished sculptures, but paper mache isn’t the only thing I’m interested in, you know…

Why I’ve been thinking about this a lot lately…

With the current economic crisis and an increasingly disturbing political climate, it just seems time to circle the wagons. Going it alone works great when times are good, but during hard times it makes sense to band together with others who have similar interests in order to protect those things we value most. And for artists of any stripe, whether they’re painters, sculptors, writers or bloggers, one of the things we value most is the time and security we need to make creative endeavors possible.

With the recession affecting so many people, many of us are already being forced to take roommates just to keep the rent paid. Others are suddenly finding themselves jobless, homeless, and pension-less through no fault of their own. These personal tragedies could be the basis of a strong community spirit if there was a place where people could come together for mutual support. After all, history has shown us that a community is most creative when faced with adversity. And right now, there’s a lot of adversity to go around.

There’s another thing that got me thinking along these lines. I’ve  recently read a book called How the Scots Invented the Modern WorldIdeas for a Cheap and Affordable Artists' Community, by Arthur Herman. There’s one section in the book where Herman describes the community of Edinburgh during the Scottish Enlightenment, when philosophers and tradesmen, professors and waiters – people from all classes and occupations – all lived in such close quarters that their main form of entertainment was an evening at the local bar, rowdily discussing current events, literature, and the arts.

I found this truly inspiring, simply because I’ve spent most of my life surrounded by people who make fun of me because I read books. I realize that I have no-one to blame but myself, since I’ve chosen occupations outside academia, but still – wouldn’t it be fun to have a place where it was common to have enthusiastic discussions about things beyond the latest celebrity’s antics, or what we’re having for dinner?

And to be able to do it in real life, instead of an online forum where the discussions are interesting but there is no real human contact? You may live in a community where that sort of thing happens all the time, but I do not.

(The book I’m currently working on is When Corporations Rule the WorldIdeas for a Cheap and Affordable Artists' Community. It would make a great subject for a good, lively debate at the local pub).

And lastly, I’ve always felt nostalgic over the idea of a commune, even though my own experiences in this form of social organization were total failures back in the ’70s. It just seems like communes should work, even though most don’t.

So I realize that the following idea is Utopian, and probably impossible. But it could at least be fun to talk about it, don’t you think?

Here’s my vision for an affordable arts community:

First, someone, (or a group of people), purchases a few acres of good land near an existing small community. (It’s amazing how cheap land and houses are outside the big cities.)

Next, the new owners get a local permit to set up a trailer park. Yes, that’s what I said – a trailer park.

The land is divided into areas for communal gardens and lots for small well-insulated manufactured houses or hand-made dwellings built on wheels. (In the US, a trailer park is one of the few places where people can choose to live in a small home – most neighborhoods have minimum size requirements that make owning your own home impossible for millions of people.)

I’m suggesting a size limit for the dwellings in order to reduce the amount of land required for dwellings and to  reduce the amount of energy needed to keep the dwelling warm or cool. Couples who can’t share such close quarters could always have two houses – it might actually improve some relationships to have a bit more personal space.

At the heart of the community would be a simple structure, perhaps an inexpensive steel farm-type building insulated with straw bales, that is divided into studios and offices for the use of people who live in the park. This building would also house a community lounge where people can come together to share their artwork or latest writings, and to discuss politics or philosophy or whatever excites them at the moment.

Why set it up as a trailer park?

Most intentional communities tend to end up with people of similar political or social interests. This requires that newcomers be judged based on the purity of their ideas, and this does not appeal to me.

However, I’m definitely drawn to the idea of living cheaply with others who may not have accumulated a lot of money in their lives, but who have lots of interesting ideas and creative energy to share with others. Their religious or political persuasion doesn’t matter to me, as long as religious and political discussions (arguments?) are possible without resorting to violence. To me, it’s the differences between people that make them interesting. How boring to be surrounded by people who all think alike!

We could get that interesting mix by simply renting to anyone who wanted a space for a small home and the use of a studio or office and a small garden plot. This idea might appeal to many baby-boomers who have been dreaming about living “beyond the sidewalks” or becoming full-time artists for most of their lives, but who have never accumulated the money or partners that are needed for homesteading or a purely creative life in the city.

Getting in wouldn’t cost much – and people would have no trouble leaving if the community no longer met their needs.

I know you’ve probably found a number of flaws in my reasoning, but to me it sounds like a wonderful way to live – but it wouldn’t be all perfect, of course. For instance, I think how hard it would be to give up my current home, and I worry that my new neighbors would start having community meetings where rules and regulations are developed by committee, and where laws are decided by those who shout the loudest. (Do I have too little faith in human nature? Can you tell I hate meetings?)

Or the park’s owners would decide it would be more profitable to sell the land for development, as often happens, leaving all of us to scramble to find another place to live. Since the land and park would be the property of the owners, and that ownership could change, there would be an element of insecurity built into the plan. But then, nothing’s perfect.

So now it’s your turn. Have you ever dreamed about creating a community where living is cheap and where creativity is encouraged even if it has no economic purpose? What would such a community look like, and how would it be regulated to protect the independence and creativity of the inhabitants? Or am I just being silly, as usual?

I’d love to hear your thoughts.