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Forget Tiny Houses—It's Time for Tiny Artist Studios

It may also be the future of affordable creative workspace in big cities.

The ArtBuilt Mobile Studio near the Queens Museum. (Courtesy Esther Robinson and Guy Buckles)

The little building with corrugated tin siding and brown wood accents sits on a trailer hitch in the shadow of the Queens Museum in Flushing Meadows-Corona Park, right near the magnificent World’s Fair Unisphere. The door is open, revealing a tidy, welcoming space filled with screen-printed textiles and photographs. It’s a hot and humid day, but the interior is cool and inviting thanks to an air conditioner that only has to run a few minutes at a time, because the little structure is so well-insulated.

In the doorway, broom in hand, is Esther Robinson, one of the people responsible for this appealing structure. “Come on in,” she says. “We’re just sweeping.” It’s an impossible invitation to resist. And that is part of the point.

You’ve probably heard of the tiny house movement. This petite studio on wheels, designed by Robinson’s collaborator Guy Buckles, is the first iteration of what they hope will be the tiny studio movement. The ArtBuilt Mobile Studio represents a joint effort of their organizations, ArtHome and ArtBuilding, which have both been working for many years to help artists achieve two elusive kinds of stability: financial independence, and space to live and work.

The ArtBuilt Mobile Studio is a very small step—150 square feet, to be exact—toward a new way of reaching those goals. The materials that went into it cost $13,000 off the shelf. It can run on grid power, biodiesel, or solar, and its ultra-efficient heating and cooling systems are integrated. It can be towed by a regular pickup truck. And, as Robinson points out, it can be easily moved out of the way of a natural disaster, such as a flood, and just as easily brought back.

Esther Robinson and Guy Buckles on the steps of the ArtBuilt Mobile Studio near the Queens Museum. (Reya Sehgal)

Obsessed with tiny houses

Robinson says the idea for the nomadic studio came from two intersecting preoccupations of hers. First, like a lot of people, she is obsessed with tiny houses and spends hours online looking at different models, fantasizing about the possibilities they present. Second, she is regularly thinking about how artists are displaced from their workspaces, especially in a hotly contested real estate market such as New York’s. The spark of the mobile studio concept arose when she learned that a group of artists were being kicked out of their studios in Industry City, the enormous complex in Brooklyn’s Sunset Park that is now being developed for “21st-century businesses.”

She and Buckles also drew inspiration from the food trucks that are proliferating around the world. There are lots of people, they realized, who can use flexible, mobile spaces—to create artwork, to deliver social services, to start small businesses. So they decided to build a prototype themselves.

They made it happen with help from the Philadelphia-based Village of Arts and Humanities, in a vacant lot in a tough North Philly neighborhood. “People liked it so much, it didn’t even get tagged,” says Buckles. Then, this summer, they partnered with the Queens Museum and got permission from the New York City Parks Department to bring the studio to Flushing Meadows-Corona Park, putting the concept into action.

“You can have an idea of something that’s in conversation with the built environment, but you can’t know what’s going to happen until it’s there,” says Robinson. “It’s been an incredibly moving experience to have people in our space.”

The People's Paper Co-op Residency in Philadelphia. (Courtesy Esther Robinson and Guy Buckles)

Artists in tiny residency

At the Queens Museum site, two artists were granted residencies in the mobile studio this summer. The first, who finished up his stint on July 15, was Patrick Rowe, who works with a multigenerational collective called Mobile Print Power. Rowe used the ArtBuilt studio to create what he calls the People’s Design Laboratory, inviting passersby inside to draw pictures of the things they care about inside the sprawling park, which is one of the city’s most-used and least-funded.

The pictures and the ideas that flowed from them were turned into screen-printed designs, which will be incorporated into wayfinding signs to help people navigate the park—pointing toward destinations as mundane as bathrooms and as ethereal as the rainbow that appears in late afternoon at the Unisphere’s fountains.

Rowe says the turnout has been incredibly gratifying, with people of all ages entering the space to share their ideas and knowledge of the park. His group usually operates from a pushcart in public plazas and other outdoor spaces, and this experience is very different. “We don’t get to engage with people on a constant basis,” says Rowe. “In this room, we found our interactions were a lot more intimate.”

Making opportunities like that possible is the whole idea behind the ArtBuilt enterprise. “We’re trying to find effective and affordable ways for artists to work,” says Buckles. “Being here has been completely amazing. It has so exceeded our expectations.”

At the Queens Museum studio, Patrick Rowe created the People’s Design Laboratory, where passersby could draw pictures of the nearby sprawling park. (Courtesy Esther Robinson and Guy Buckles)

Not a project—a movement

The next artist to inhabit the studio is Matthew Jensen, whose work focuses on reinterpreting the urban landscape. In the fall, the ArtBuilt studio will be heading back to Philadelphia for more adventures.

Robinson says she hopes cities can facilitate the permitting process for structures like this, so the idea can be scaled up. Mobile studios, she says, can easily take advantage of small, vacant pieces of land in two different kinds of urban environments: those where real estate is extremely valuable, and those where disinvestment has led to abandonment.

In high-rent places like New York, she says, the forgotten spaces under elevated highways and train tracks are one possibility. Even the most enterprising developers can’t build there. And in cities with lots of vacant lots, the mobile studios could be a quick and easy way of bringing services, businesses, or art into a neighborhood with few amenities.

“Our strongest belief is that artists will innovate and make things possible,” says Robinson. “I really see this as more of a movement than a project.”

About the Author

  • Sarah Goodyear
    Sarah Goodyear is a Brooklyn-based contributing writer to CityLab. She's written about cities for a variety of publications, including Grist and Streetsblog.