By Kris Wilton
June 20, 2012
BOSTON - One of my favorite recent documentaries is Bill Cunningham New York (2010), which turns the camera on the New York Times’ irrepressible, octogenarian, all-analog, bike-riding fashion photographer for an infectious celebration of inextinguishable spirit and creativity.
In that film, we see Cunningham returning home on his Schwinn after long days shooting around town to what seems an odd domicile: Carnegie Hall. There, perched above the storied New York landmark, he lives in a tiny, cramped space filled not with furnishings but with rows and rows of filing cabinets, packed with decades of creative work. Apart from one oddball neighbor, 90-something portrait photographer Editta Sherman, it seems a lonely existence.
That wasn’t always the case. A new documentary screening at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston this week, Lost Bohemia, shows how for decades Carnegie Hall housed more than 150 similarly obsessive creative spirits in a complex of thoughtfully designed artist studios, serving as an incubator for some of the nation’s most treasured cultural output. Jerome Robbins worked there as did Leonard Bernstein. Marlon Brando, Kirk Douglas, Grace Kelly, and Marilyn Monroe all studied there, at the original Actors Studio. Ballerina Isadora Duncan lived there with her mother, sleeping on the floor.
The 170 studios were added to the famous concert hall in the late 19th century, thanks to Andrew Carnegie’s wife, who was thrilled by the arts she saw on their honeymoon to Europe. No two were alike. Painters got the best light, dancers and choreographers had wide spaces, musicians were grouped together. One space housed a massive pipe organ.
Rent was cheap, and artists remained in the de facto artist colony for decades. As of the filming, Cunningham and Sherman, who feature prominently in Lost Bohemia, had both been there for 58 years.
But times change. Despite extensive protests and legal actions from residents, Carnegie Hall reclaimed the spaces in 2007, filling the storied studios with office equipment and cubicles. Only a few rent-controlled inhabitants, like Cunningham, managed to stay on.
Director Josef Birdman Astor, himself a former resident, paints the move as no less than a crime against humanity. “You can't have people who have stayed here, lived here, paid rent, for 60 and 70 years, and then suddenly throw them out when they're 96 without some consequence,” says Cunningham. “There is a moral obligation, I think, of the management to realize that they could be causing the death of these people.”
Indeed, by the end of the film, some of the unforgettable characters, like the colony itself, are no longer with us. But they’ve certainly left their mark.
Photo: Editta Sherman in the film Lost Bohemia.
Museum of Fine Arts, Boston
Opens Thursday, June 21, 2012
4:00 pm - 5:20 pm
(various screening times through Wednesday, June 27, 2012)
Remis Auditorium, 161
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About the AuthorKris Wilton
Kris is a freelance arts journalist who has contributed reported pieces and reviews to outlets including the Huffington Post, Slate.com, Artinfo.com, Modern Painters, Art+Auction, Art New England, New England Home, Entertainment Weekly, the Village Voice, Bostonist.com, ARTnews, Philadelphia Weekly, Emerging Photographer, Photo District News, and RL Magazine.