How do you keep artists in Boston? The city is looking for solutions

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There’s a sign in Wayne Strattman’s studio with six words spelled out in thin glass tubes: helium, neon, argon, krypton, xenon, mercury. Each is lit with the gas it describes. Helium glows with a light peach; neon, the most common, glows orange-red. Krypton is white, argon is fuchsia, xenon a muted blue, and mercury a bright azure. Although, technically, mercury is not a gas. “It’s a vapor,” Strattman said.

A sign on the wall of Wayne Strattman’s studio shows the different plasma colors of different gases. (Robin Lubbock/WBUR)

Strattman is a glass and light artist. He designed museum displays, toys and movie sets. (The glowing green lights at the Borg regeneration stations in “Star Trek VIII: First Contact”? They were his.) His 1,500 square foot studio at 119 Braintree St. in Allston is full of abandoned prototypes and metal sculptures. glass. Strattman is particularly fond of decanters, which he keeps grouped together on a shelf. Inside one is a small figure – a man, his hand outstretched, holding a deep red heart.

“I originally made this decanter as a gift for someone I was dating,” says Strattman. “And she broke up with me, and I took her apart, drilled a hole in her heart, and put her heart in her hand. It’s called: ‘Can I give you something else?’ »

Strattman, as you might have guessed, is not the kind of guy to feign optimism.

Wayne Strattman's glass sculpture of a heartbroken man holding his heart is called
Wayne Strattman’s glass sculpture of a heartbroken man holding his heart is called “Can I give you something else?”. (Robin Lubbock/WBUR)

He has every reason to be pessimistic at the moment. The building where he rents his studio is about to be demolished and redeveloped into a laboratory and offices, which will cause more than 100 artists and artisans to lose their workspaces. Strattman despairs of finding an affordable replacement. And it’s not for lack of trying.

“There’s not a community, quite honestly, east of the Connecticut River where I probably haven’t been,” he says. “Sale prices are astronomical – they start well into the millions, for the most part, and rental rates are high. And also, lab space is claimed in Boston, basically within a radius of about 30 miles in any direction. So they take up all the small commercial spaces and drive the cost per square foot up to $30, $35, $40 per square foot. And artists simply don’t have the income to support themselves.

Artist Wayne Strattman in his glass and plasma studio in Boston.  (Robin Lubbock/WBUR)
Artist Wayne Strattman in his glass and plasma studio in Boston. (Robin Lubbock/WBUR)

This isn’t the first time Strattman has faced a move. He was one of a group of artists who won the right to keep their living and working studios in the South End Piano Factory after a bitter legal battle in the late 1990s only to see the owner gradually convert the building into luxury apartments.

“Over the years, I’ve testified before city council, written letters, participated in online petitions,” Strattman says. “It’s largely gone unanswered from the city.”

Strattman thinks Boston management needs to take responsibility for what happens to artists. The problem, he says, is worse than it has ever been. But his impression is that the city has little power to create or preserve spaces for artists.

“They do a lot of studies and so on, and that’s not what we need,” he says. “We don’t need more studies. The problem is obvious.

Glass artifacts created by glass and plasma sculptor Wayne Strattman.  (Robin Lubbock/WBUR)
Glass artifacts created by glass and plasma sculptor Wayne Strattman. (Robin Lubbock/WBUR)

Strattman’s story is in many ways emblematic of the experience of creative workers facing pressure in Boston’s boiling real estate market, where live music venues struggle to stay afloat, artists lament a lack of space rehearsals and developers gobble up the industrial buildings that have long served the city’s painters, sculptors and artisans.

And Strattman is right that the city has few tools to help, despite a strong arts and culture office. The 14-person office has a $3 million operating budget, which it uses to fund artists and cultural organizations, support public art, and advocate for arts and culture across the city. But only one staff member is focused on the problem of disappearing cultural space – Melissa Meyer, the director of cultural planning. Meyer is often the go-to person for panicked artists worried about marketing their studios. By then it is usually too late for the city to intervene. “By the time people are talking about selling, he’s been sold,” Meyer says. “Or it’s really about to be sold.”

Meyer hopes that is about to change. Mayor Michelle Wu’s proposed budget for 2023 will allow the arts and culture office to hire two additional staff who can help it anticipate the travel issue. One will be a liaison with developers and the city’s planning and development agency. “It’s really almost a full-time job, following the development pipeline in the city,” Meyer said.

Boston Cultural Planning Project Manager Melissa Meyer talks to artists during a visit to Humphreys Street Studios in Dorchester.  (Robin Lubbock/WBUR)
Boston Cultural Planning Project Manager Melissa Meyer talks to artists during a visit to Humphreys Street Studios in Dorchester. (Robin Lubbock/WBUR)

The other new staff member would focus on community engagement, building relationships with artists and cultural organizations before a crisis hits.

“We really have to spend a lot of time on: where is the cultural work going now? What does it look like? What is in danger? said Boston arts and culture chief Kara Elliott-Ortega. “You know, how do we build relationships from scratch in order to understand when a building might come to market?”

The arts and culture office is also set to receive a windfall if a proposal from Mayor Wu passes: $20 million in American Recovery Act funds to be used over three years.

“It would be a historic level of investment in the arts in the city,” Elliott-Ortega said.

The Arts and Culture Office plans to distribute most of ARPA’s money directly to artists and cultural organizations in the form of grants. But the funds are meant to offset pandemic-related losses and are strictly limited on capital investments. That means the city can’t use the money to buy or develop property for the arts — a pretty big caveat for a potentially transformative investment.

“I wish I could say we’re going to buy five buildings with that money, and I can’t say that,” Elliott-Ortega says. But she sees the money as an opportunity to access new resources. “The arts office doesn’t have loan officers,” she explains. “We don’t have a room full of engineers and real estate finance professionals like other departments maybe do as part of their process because we’ve never had the funding to do real estate work. “

The relief money will also allow the office to reallocate about half a million dollars from the operating budget to grants for cultural facilities. These grants could be used to help organizations improve their spaces, or even invest in securing property. But half a million dollars does not approach the scale of what is needed. Buying property is expensive — and there’s no doubt that the best way to preserve cultural space is to buy it.

119 Braintree Street, a building where many artists currently work, should be demolished to be redeveloped.  (Robin Lubbock/WBUR)
119 Braintree St., a building where many artists currently work, is set to be demolished for redevelopment. (Robin Lubbock/WBUR)

In the absence of dedicated public funding for arts venues, the arts and culture office is trying to harness the development boom to benefit artists and is reviewing existing programs to adapt.

For example, there is a zoning requirement in a section of the South End that requires developers to either incorporate affordable commercial or cultural spaces into their buildings or contribute to a fund for cultural and commercial spaces in the neighborhood. What if the city developed a version of this program and Boston developers had to contribute to a central fund to preserve and build cultural space?

“If there were no restrictions on funds coming from these projects and we could just direct them into a citywide fund, that would be a huge step,” Elliott-Ortega said.

Kara Elliott-Ortega, Boston Arts and Culture Leader at the Strand Theater in 2019. (Robin Lubbock/WBUR)
Kara Elliott-Ortega, Boston Arts and Culture Leader at the Strand Theater in 2019. (Robin Lubbock/WBUR)

A city-wide fund would solve two problems. Currently, the city’s main tool for creating cultural space is to ask developers to integrate it into proposed developments. Often this results in a space that is too small or otherwise inappropriate for the actual needs of the artists. “What we see happening is a lot of spaces in bigger projects, and that never really meets the need, or [making up for] loss of space,” says Elliott-Ortega.

With an arts venues fund, the arts and culture office could provide grants to artists and cultural organizations trying to buy space and support them in carrying out development projects. The money could be invested where the need is greatest, not just where development is booming.

But perhaps Elliott-Ortega’s greatest hope is for the city to build its own arts center to replace the cultural spaces — studios, rehearsal complexes, concert halls — that have been lost. “It would be a great symbol, I hope, for the artist community that the city really cares about this, that we understand the importance of this and that we move the level of resources necessary,” she says.

The city is far from able to execute such a project – years or even decades, which will be too late for many artists. This is the challenge now facing the Arts and Culture Office as it considers how to use increased funding: finding a way to preserve and replace the rapidly disappearing cultural space – before it’s not too late for everyone.

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