In Fort Point area, studio spaces at risk
David Wildman - Boston Globe
Boston has a flourishing artists community and a booming economy. But the two do not necessarily go hand in hand.
Fort Point, one of the largest and oldest artist settlements in town, is finding the very foundation of its neighborhood culture shaken by the sudden rise in local property values.
Formerly abandoned warehouses that artists had turned into thriving studios and lofts are now being bought up by developers and converted into ritzy offices and pricey condominiums. In this community, some of the artists own their spaces, but most rent.
The Fort Point artists are fighting back the best way they know how: With their art.
To make their voices heard, Fort Point's 450 artists are rallying around the upcoming Open Studios festivities. Open Studios - Fort Point's is the oldest, dating to 1979 - happens in nine Boston neighborhoods on different days between September and November.
''We only have a year left on our lease here,'' said Jerry Beck, artistic director of The Revolving Museum, a showcase for risk-taking conceptual art and theater that also provides studio space for over 50 artists.
''This building was semidonated to us by Boston Wharf back in 1983,'' he continued. ''We were trying to create an idealistic institution that could cater to the underserved artist community and maintain a connection to local youth at risk. But we've seen what's been happening with gentrification and people losing studio space all over Boston, and it is something we've been very nervous about.''
In Boston, the open studio festivities are an annual one-day or two-day event in which the public can tour studios and look behind the scenes at the creative process. Some artists count on it as a financial boon, this being one of the few times during the year that the public comes directly to them.
This year, however, Fort Point artists are hoping not only to sell their wares, but also to impress a serious point on the visitors: That this vibrant art community is in danger of disappearing.
''There's billions of dollars of development coming down here and a shortage of buildings,'' said Jane Deutsch, president of the Fort Point Arts Community (FPAC), which runs the open studios each year. ''Plus you have small startup companies that come in and want to build. The result is that there is a lot of pressure on the artists.
''We've got over 300 artists here [who rent] and there is no guarantee that in a couple of years we will be able to maintain their buildings as workable studios,'' she added. ''So Open Studios this year is our way of showing why this particular community is important, and why having an arts community in your city in general is important.''
Problems with artist displacement have not been confined to the Fort Point area. The problem is citywide.
''It is actually just basic economics,'' says Kathy Bittetti, executive director of The Artist Foundation, a nonprofit organization in Boston that advocates for artists. ''When you have a shortage of housing stock or office space and a booming economy, plus a population that has a limited amount of money, it seems like artists and seniors are always the ones that lose out.''
In Jamaica Plain, which recently held its own open studios in September, Joe Wardwell, a painter who formed a cooperative at 59 Amory St. with nine other artists, has suddenly found the floor pulled out from him.
''The building we are in was just sold, and none of us really have any idea what is going to happen now,'' says Wardwell. ''I don't really know of anyone anywhere with studio space that feels very secure these days.''
At Fort Point, Wendy Bergman, a jewelry-maker and designer whose studio is in an endangered spot on A Street, has been in the neighborhood for 20 years, and has been actively involved in the FPAC Building Search Committee.
''There are only two artists buildings here that are still going to be here in a few years: 249 A street and 300 Summer Street,'' says Bergman. ''Those artists own their spaces. The rest of us rent. My building has just been purchased from Boston Wharf by the Beacon Capitol Company. If I lose my studio, then I will lose my ability to make money. In the search committee we talk about appropriate buildings we might have found that can be bought by artists. So far, we haven't had much luck though.''
Mobius Artist Group is another endangered group. Its lease runs out a year after The Revolving Museum's. Mobius is negotiating to relocate somewhere in the area.
''Things look positive in our current discussions,'' said Jed Spear, director of Mobius. ''We've been talking with Beacon Capitol, who bought buildings at Midway and A Street from the Boston Wharf Company, and also with the city and with Gillette.''
Gillette Corporation, whose building is nearby, likes the artists community because it tends to tolerate more noise and machinery, Spear said.
Gillette spokesman Eric Krause agreed. The artists ''could live and work with the noise and traffic,'' said Krause. ''We have been at that location since 1905. Our concern is that we don't want to have operations impacted by residential housing.''
Special events surrounding the Fort Point Open Studios will focus on the problems that artists are having with displacement.
Beginning on Saturday, Oct. 21, the Fort Point performance art space Mobius will sponsor a special outdoor presentation at 1 p.m. of City For Sale, a piece by the San Francisco Mime Troupe about similar artist displacement problems that are going on where they live. The performance will take place at the spot where A Street meets the Summer Street overpass.
Following the mime company's performance, there will be a 3 p.m. Public Forum sponsored by the Fort Point Cultural Coalition (FPCC) - which includes FPAC, Mobius, The Revolving Museum, New England Foundation For The Arts, and Volunteer Lawyers for the Arts - to address issues of neighborhood development and displacement. Its moderator will be Ted Landsmark, president of the Boston Architectural Center.
The forum is part of a two-year initiative being launched by the FPCC called The Public Art Series, and it will consist of at least 12 other public arts events that are being planned. The discussion will take place in the parking lot adjacent to 249 A Street.
There will also be theatrics by Mobius members Mari Novotny-Jones and Joanne Rice on the corner of Congress and A Streets. They will perform a work called ''Valve'' that will involve different forms and manifestations of water.
Also on Oct. 21 at noon, there is a public art project by The Revolving Museum dubbed Tunnel Vision, inspired by the huge tunnel being built for the Big Dig that can be seen directly behind the 249 A Street artists studios and across from The Revolving Museum.
Exhibits will include Big Head, a huge interactive sculpture fitted with video monitor eyes; Dig Buggies, creative carts designed by artists and youth groups; and huge banners that will be displayed on fences in front of the Fort Point tunnel sites.
In addition, Revolving Museum artist Danny O has mounted a sculpture of a boy constructed out of balls of all kinds that the artist has collected. The ball boy wears a hardhat as if he were a Big Dig worker, and beside him is the message: Save Our Studios.
On Sunday, Oct. 22, at 5:30 p.m. the mobile sculptures will line up for a procession behind the Revolving Museum building, which will include rolling works of art such as Jeff Smith's The Yellowjacket, a bizarre looking safety vehicle; Emily Gibson's Cloud Caravan, and Jerry Beck's Ship Of Tools.
Ironically, say the artists, it is often them and not the developers who do the work of moving into crumbling neighborhoods and injecting life into them. Then they are forced out by the high rents once the property values go up.
Deutsch believes that developers who ignore the benefits of an artist community do so at their own peril.
''They want to build a convention center on the Seaport here, but if there is nothing in the Fort Point area but two stand-alone artists' buildings and offices where everyone leaves at 6 p.m., where are all the people who are visiting the area supposed to go?'' she said. ''Developers have to realize that you need to have a cultural area for people to go to. I would hate to look up in five years and see that this neighborhood is gone.''