By Jenn Stanley for BCN #135
May 31, 2021
As an arts and culture reporter around Boston, I hear repeatedly from local artists that lack of space is among their biggest barriers, forcing many to leave. For those who don’t want to leave or can’t, there aren’t a lot of options. There’s both a dearth of affordable studios and a set of complicated zoning laws and astronomical fees that make it near impossible for small venues to open and puts them on the defensive from both landlords and city governments when they do.
The developers partly responsible for displacing communities are exploiting the very crisis that they’re exacerbating by using artists to distract from their misdeeds. As their buildings sit vacant waiting for the highest possible bidder (and for area median income in gentrifying neighborhoods to increase), developers and landlords offer their empty storefronts to artists for very low, often free rent.
It seems mutually beneficial and in many ways it is. The artists need the opportunities to show their work, and the landlords get buried in good press from arts journalists like myself. But as someone who’s been observing this trend before and throughout the pandemic, what I’m seeing is insidious. Community and artist advocates agree and say the problems go all the way to the core.
“The thing standing in the way of artists having more space is not solely the developers and gentrification. The city of Boston's own rules are made to protect and help the elite, white class,” says Brain Arts Org co-founder Sam Potrykus, adding that the city and its institutions haven’t been recognizing artists as the valuable members of society that they are. “They are in tune with their communities. They're expressing themselves. They bring people together. They're the ultimate community builders.”
Potrykus says it’s time for area elites and the politicians whose pockets they line to stop the lip services about diversity and start redistributing the wealth and power they currently hoard. He laments how hospitals, developers, and universities approach artists and grassroots organizations for advice on how to diversify without compensating them for their expertise. Meanwhile they pay consultants in the bio-medical fields exorbitant fees, further widening the gap between the haves and have-nots.
“These artists are working three, four jobs just to put food on the table,” says Potrykus. “We must advocate for ourselves to not do things for free. We have to stand up.”
And the vacant space takeovers seem akin to unpaid internships. Sure it could boost an artist’s resume and visibility, but they can be evicted at any time, with little to no warning. To make the benefits truly mutual, the power dynamics need to shift. Creative workers deserve to be paid, and there needs to be a pathway for people to reasonably open venues and small businesses.
According to The Boston Globe, developers are hedging their bets in the upcoming mayoral race, making multiple donations even to the most progressive candidates. It’s up to the next mayor to decide whether to prioritize the artists and community builders who still want to live and create here despite all these challenges. Boston deserves an organic arts community with its own spaces, not the precarious scraps of developers who put profit over people.