A poignant, homemade documentary of corporate “arts” predators tossing artists to the curb, Lost Bohemia renders the recent history of Carnegie Hall Studios as both a painful, personal case history and a metaphor for the power of mammon over the muse. A complex of 160 living and working spaces built atop the legendary concert venue four years after its 1891 opening, the eccentrically angled studios were domiciles or rehearsal rooms for the likes of Isadora Duncan, Agnes de Mille, and Marlon Brando across the 20th century, their occupants the beneficiaries of Andrew Carnegie’s explicitly stated desire to make the building an incubator as well as a showcase for the full spectrum of American creativity. Josef Astor, a tenant since the mid ‘80s, crafted a video portrait over eight years of the studios as a sort of hive and monastery for its accomplished, mostly aged denizens, dwelling amid decades’ accumulation of bric-a-brac and memorabilia, from fellow photographers like near-centenarian “duchess” Editta Sherman and New York Times mainstay Bill Cunningham to a jazz pianist, a drama teacher, and, most affectingly, a homeless, octogenarian dancer seen quietly stretching in a stairwell, using a banister for a barre.
Astor’s gentle group portrait received a sadly predictable infusion of 21st-century drama when the studios’ landlord, the Carnegie Hall Corporation, announced plans to “renovate” the spaces in 2007, putting eviction notices on the doors of 50-year residents and moving to re-carve the historic interiors into antiseptic administrative offices via a crassly destructive interpretation of the institution’s landmark status. As the Sisyphean battle to preserve the tenants’ rights grows increasingly doomed, Lost Bohemia starkly reflects the demolition of the venerated status once given to the artistic life, and the resigned expectation—even by the Carnegie residents—that the forces of maximum profit will always win. Upon the death of a pipe-organ player whose mammoth instrument was promptly set out with the trash by management, another artist marvels at the gargantuan, stripped studio, “She’s lucky they didn’t kill her for this!” Tenant advocate John Turturro shrugs of the Hall’s administrators after a flurry of media attention peters out, “They don’t want this tradition,” and an unseen member of Astor’s bohemian chorus, only heard telephonically as the Poet, declares that across the globe, communities for the inspired “to live somewhat fearlessly” are meeting the wrecking ball of bottom-line rapacity.