I have been to Boston more times than I can count, but I have never been able to tap into the local art scene. That’s always struck me as odd—dense and bustling Boston is noticeably full of young people, cultural resources, and the type of wealthy people who seem like they would be ecstatic to throw money at the arts.
When I was visiting last week, there was a sentiment I heard echoed by nearly every artist I spoke with: Boston has great schools and museums, but outside of established institutions it can be a challenge to locate an art community. Gentrification moves at New York speed without as much of the sheer critical mass of artists and artist-run spaces.
But while Boston’s notorious housing shortage and high prices might preclude new organically occurring artist enclaves, one developer is proactively striving to incubate an arts district from the top down.
In the early 2000s, around the time the new bus rapid transit line, the Silver Line, opened on Washington Avenue in Boston’s South End, developer Mario Nicosia and his company GTI Properties rebranded the industrial area on the neighborhood’s southern edge as [cringe-worthy] “SoWa.” Today, GTI Properties’ holdings have been redeveloped as a mix of housing, studio, retail, and office space. According to one artist I spoke with, the developer offers below market-rate rentals for artists and galleries in his converted warehouses and mills—presumably boostering the neighborhood’s “cool factor” for the tenants willing to pay higher rents in the increasingly upscale area.
I’m usually suspicious of developer-driven support for the arts, and here there’s no guarantee that the spaces will remain affordable. No laws mandate that the arts district—which is more or less owned by one landlord—has to maintain cheap rents for artists and galleries once the property values rise. But there is pretty solid work on display in the area. And in a city that’s rapidly running out of room thanks to expanding universities, a booming tech industry, and a NIMBY-friendly zoning code that makes it difficult to grow upwards, finding any space for artists’ studios and galleries is a win.
The shortage (and consequent priciness) of real estate in Boston might explain the near total absence of artist-run galleries, DIY venues, and alternative art spaces in the city. When I walked around SoWa and chatted with artists and gallerists, almost no one could recommend an artist-run space. At Carroll and Sons, a gallery in a large converted warehouse complex at 450 Harrison Avenue, gallerist Joseph Carroll summed up his take on the scene as a dozen galleries involved in what he described as “the commercial discourse.” Of those twelve, only one of them, kijidome, is a cooperatively-run art space.
The group behind kijidome—named after its founders Lucy Kim, Carlos Jiménez Cahua, Sean Downey, and Susan Metrican—has been selected as a recipient of the 2015 James and Audrey Foster Prize. Although kijidome didn’t seem to have gallery hours while I was in town, I got to check out the collective’s curatorial ethos at the ICA, where they organized a really solid exhibition as part of the award.
I’ll go into more detail about kijidome’s show here, but below, here are some highlights from SoWa’s galleries. The area seems to have attracted a big contingent of furniture stores and design showrooms—which is definitely reflected in the decor-friendly (but still mostly conceptually sound) offerings on view at the commercial fine art galleries that line the pedestrianized zones between the neighborhood’s old industrial buildings.