The long, storied history of the collaborative artist workspace

A solo project can always benefit from groupthink—Imagine Entertainment is banking on it

In the early months of 1998, a group of musicians including Questlove, D’Angelo, and Common found themselves working out of Electric Lady Studios, a Greenwich Village studio at 52 West Eighth St. in New York City. The historic studio was built by Jimi Hendrix in 1970 and has been used over the decades by artists like David Bowie, Stevie Wonder, and the Rolling Stones.

In addition to the history, musicians are enchanted by the freedom of movement encouraged within the studio’s walls. Recording booths were connected by a central lounge, creating a sense of community among artists who might otherwise be working solo; as a result, lots of individual projects became collaborative ones as musicians passed from one recording space into another. Sessions like these in 1998 led to shared samples and song fragments on now-classic albums like D’Angelo’s Voodoo and Common’s Like Water for Chocolate.

The construct of art in the popular imagination often involves a solitary genius plugging away at a piano or a typewriter or a blank canvas in a lonely garret, isolated from the rest of the world. But great works of art are rarely produced in a vacuum. From Electric Lady Studios to the vacation homes of 19th-century poets, from the lofts of 1960s pop-art celebrities to the writers’ rooms of 1990s television shows, the collaborative art space is one in which solo work reaches new heights and group projects demonstrate the power of artistic cross-pollination.

Increasingly, companies in creative industries are looking for spaces in which to facilitate that kind of dialogue. In September 2018, Imagine Entertainment set out to do just that when the production company launched its Imagine Impact program for television and film writers. Inspired by the speed at which Silicon Valley’s startup culture moves ideas forward, Imagine co-founders Brian Grazer and Ron Howard wanted to bring this streamlined creative process to the often-mysterious world of Hollywood screenwriting, giving writers time, mentorship, and space in which to push their pages toward the screen.

“There are a lot of entrepreneurs, like writers, who have great ideas, who have skills—but they don’t have access to people who have done it before, who are experts at navigating the system and giving good notes and creating a constant feedback loop,” says Imagine Impact program head Tyler Mitchell.

Collaborative close quarters have long served as incubators for great writing. In the summer of 1816, Mary Shelley, Percy Bysshe Shelley, and Lord Byron convened in Switzerland for several months of rest and inspiration. The results became legend: Mary Shelley produced a fragment of what would become Frankenstein; Lord Byron and Percy Shelley began work on some of their most influential poems; and Byron’s physician and friend, Dr. John Polidori, wrote “Vampyre,” considered the first vampire story ever published.

Art students at work.

In the 1960s and ’70s, Andy Warhol rented a series of spaces across Manhattan—the first cost just $100 a year—that became known as “The Factory.” Warhol’s famous screenprints were produced en masse by his assistants, who were in turn, cast in Warhol’s film and music projects. Anyone who passed through the Factory could find themselves suddenly part of a work of art. Collaboration was encouraged not just by proximity but by security: All participants, agreeing to share space in pursuit of higher artistic aims, were able to feel invested not only in their own projects but in those of their friends and associates.

In a more recent example of the power of creative collaboration, the writers’ room of David Chase’s groundbreaking HBO show The Sopranos helped launch the careers of Mad Men creator Matthew Weiner and Boardwalk Empire showrunner Terence Winter.

For Imagine Impact, getting writers into the room where it all happens is just the first step. In what might be described as an entertainment-industry boot camp, participants are paired with established screenwriters and showrunners and tasked with readying their work for representation by agents and, in some cases, deals with studios. The program’s headquarters, based out of WeWork’s Pacific Design Center in Los Angeles’ West Hollywood, is a space where everyone can come together.

“In our design process we challenge ourselves to come up with the right mix of common space and individual space,” says WeWork director of interior design Lotte van Velzen, “like our prefab phone booths, meditation spaces, libraries, and writing rooms to get focused work done.”

It’s a design philosophy that draws on centuries of artistic and creative history. “Space that encourages stimulus and interaction is core to the communication process, while calm, stillness, and lack of distraction provide members with the focus they need to develop ideas beyond the intangible,” says van Velzen. “Finding this balance is fundamental to the WeWork spatial experience, and we believe it creates not only better working environments but better work itself.”

It’s the “better work” part of the equation that excites the Imagine Impact team. “Writing can be a very lonely, isolated process,” says Mitchell. “We built a community for writers, so they felt like they have a place to go every day.” That pays dividends for everyone. “It’s a win for writers who want to break into the business, it’s a win for writers working in the industry who want to have a more collaborative process so that they can create their own stories better and faster, and it’s a win for the audience,” he says. “Everybody, in the end, just wants great movies and shows to watch.”

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