THE FIELD GUIDE Part III: Non-Profit and Alternative Spaces
Unlike museums and commercial galleries run by suave arts professionals, non-profit and alternative spaces are run by working artists. While museums often complain of being underfunded, their situation is luxurious compared to that of these organizations, which often skim the poverty line in way-out-of-the-way areas and depend on the unpaid labor of friends and artists. All of these spaces have tremendous ideals--some even have manifestos. They propose to help emerging artists and to bring art out of the museum and into the neighborhood. Some have more political agendas as well, such as the strong progressive flavor of Zeitgeist Gallery or the kicky feminism of Bad Girrls Studios.
These spaces are, to varying degrees, children of the alternative-spaces movement of the 1970s, which was a great push on the part of artists to create their own institutions to exhibit their own work just the way they want, without having to deal with stuffy curators or pushy gallery directors looking for the next big-bang art star. Some of the spaces now in Boston, like Bromfield and Mobius, started in the '70s; others have started up more recently, but with much the same spirit. While a few spaces, like Kingston and Mills, resemble commercial galleries, most are more like ramshackle clubhouses for artists. Many are inside artist live/work buildings, and thus function as a kind of extended living room for their residents. The art on the walls is just the beginning: many of these places offer performances, film screenings, live music, community outreach programs, live figure drawing, free vegetarian dinners and other events still more miscellaneous.
For the visitor, the biggest difference between visiting an alternative space instead of a museum or commercial gallery is the kitchen-table cozy atmosphere. The artists running these places must be among the most affable people in the city of Boston. The person looking after the gallery is often the same person who made the art on display, and very often is eager to talk about his or her work.
At the moment, a lot of alternative spaces are feeling shakier than usual about their futures due to impending development in the Fort Point area, currently home to Mobius, FPAC (Fort Point Art Community Gallery and Studios) and the Revolving Museum as well as nearly 500 artists. This part of Boston used to be a decaying area filled with block upon block of abandoned warehouses. Artists, attracted by the cheap rents and wide-open industrial spaces, began moving in in the early 1970s. However, artists are the unwilling shock troops of gentrification, followed into once-gritty neighborhoods by young professionals who drive up the rent. Dot-coms have begun to move into the area in the last several years, and, because of the city's multi-billion dollar South Boston Waterfront project and ensuing private development, these are probably the last days of Fort Point as an artists' community. Of course, this is a story played over and over in American cities; against their intentions and interests, artists work enzyme-style on run-down urban neighborhoods, leading the way for bistros and boutiques. The transformation of Soho from abandoned warehouses to Pradaland is a particularly dramatic example, but not at all unique. Rents are rising in the South End and Jamaica Plain as well, and artists are getting very worried. It looks like we'll have another round of urban hopscotch, after evictions and relocations.
Which brings me to a final point: call before you go. These spaces are lively but unstable and tend to operate improvisationally. It takes a little effort to track them down, but most are well worth the investigation.