Joel A. Janowitz's studio in Boston's South End.
Joel A. Janowitz's studio in Boston's South End. By Kathryn S. Kuhar

Looking Local: Boston and Its Contemporary Art

Boston's contemporary art scene is often perceived as a backwater, simply a little sister to New York's. Yet the city has a cultural ecology all its own, one that benefits from a concentration of universities and a strong sense of local community, but that may now be threatened by rising costs of living. The Crimson takes an in-depth look at the area's artistic environment.
By Rebecca H. Dolan

When considering Boston’s contemporary art scene, it’d be easy to call the city a little sister of New York. But describing Boston only in terms of its rival metropolis obscures some of the subtleties of the city’s cultural ecosystem.

Apples and Oranges

Most obviously, the vast gap in the population sizes of New York and Boston contributes directly to some of the differences in their art scenes. It’s not surprising that a city of 8.5 million sells more art than one just shy of 700,000.

Randy Kennedy, a writer for The New York Times who covers national art news, spoke to some of the distinctions in magnitude that impact art production in these two cities. “I think that no city in the United States, besides maybe L.A., has the kind of concentration of galleries that New York has, and I think probably in the world, only London rivals it,” he said. “Even if artists are not particularly commercial, the presence of 200-some odd galleries in Chelsea is still a lodestone. And New York is still a place where artists from a lot of different cities can come and know that they’re in this very dense web of artists and what’s happening now.”

Andrew Witkin, the director of Barbara Krakow Gallery on Newbury Street, estimated New York’s total number of galleries at roughly 450, and Boston’s at around 30.

The owner of Gallery Kayafas in the South End, Arlette Kayafas, was realistic about the logistics of operating in a smaller city. “It’s about numbers,” she said. “When you put us proportionally next to New York, we have less visitors, we have less collectors.”

Backwater Boston

At least some of Boston’s status as second-class art city seems to be a matter of perception. Cate McQuaid, a correspondent for The Boston Globe, has been writing about the city’s art world for over 20 years. “There’s this long history of the identity of the Boston arts community as being the ‘country mouse’ cousin to the ‘city mouse’ of New York,” she said.

But McQuaid acknowledged that some of this stereotype is in fact based on an older Boston. “Bostonians were very conservative about contemporary art. When I started writing, they were just more interested in Impressionism, and that has really changed. Boston is a place where you can go to see really great contemporary art now, and 20 years ago, that wasn’t the case.”

Byers also noted Boston’s historically conservative tastes. “Boston historically has had a less experimental audience, and New York is sort of famous for its almost even jaded audiences because they’re so used to pushing it so far all the time,” he said.

Even as Boston’s art scene has matured, New York continues to enjoy its status as the vital hub of contemporary artistic practice. Kennedy commented on how an existing network is an attraction in itself. “New York, even though it’s so difficult and expensive for younger artists, it probably still is the place that, if you’re a contemporary artist born in Boston, you’re looking toward New York to want to live in New York, or now Philadelphia or L.A. or Detroit, places where there are large communities of artists,” he said.

Perceptions and Pressures

A relative lack of artistic activity—or even just the impression of such—snowballs into tangible impacts for the valuation of Boston’s art, according to Byers. “It’s always been a kind of issue for the few local galleries that they may even be showing the same artists, but the purchase and conversation that a collector might have in New York can be considered as more validating,” he said.

Kayafas confirmed that introducing new artists in a Boston gallery can be problematic. “It’s difficult to show new artists, because a majority of the collectors like to have an artist that’s validated,” she said. “And so if you’re showing somebody for the first time, their prices are going to be at a lower price point, and so you have to build their reputation. So I think in a way that’s challenging for galleries, and they don’t take on a lot of new people for that reason—because our rents are going up too.”

McQuaid said that local artists accordingly felt underrepresented by their local galleries. She spoke to how she thought artists in Boston might interpret this phenomenon. “I think Boston artists would complain that the commercial galleries don’t show them enough,” she said.

Janowitz said that he felt this issue of recognition was due in part to a lack of full institutional support for local artists. “What I’ve felt like for the past 40 years is that the institutions do a disservice to the artists here, because they segregate Boston artists 90 percent of the time from their big shows.” As examples of shows and prizes that tend to highlight Boston’s artists only in a local context, he cited the deCordova Sculpture Park and Museum’s recent New England biennial, the Maud Morgan Prize at the MFA (honoring a Massachusetts woman artist), and the Foster Prize at the Institute of Contemporary Art (which highlights Boston-area artists working at national or international level) to demonstrate this point.

“The curators are choosing the New York artists, because the curators in every other city are choosing the New York artists, and they’re the same artists,” Janowitz said. “I think the curators are scared, and the collectors, everyone is scared—if you’re going to spend 10,000, 20,000, or 100,000 on an artwork, you want to have a stamp of approval.”

Witkin, for his part, said that he tried not only to show Boston artists but to also put them in conversation with other works at his gallery. “There are plenty of different amazing artists in Boston, some of which we show, many of which other of our colleagues show. There’s a tremendous amount of the type of work that’s being made and shown here,” he said. “I’ve been here for 18 years and the diversity of people collecting has really increased. There’s always more to be done and there’s plenty more to be done in terms of making it more and more diverse.”

Shellburne Thurber, a photographer who has been working in Boston since the 1980s, has exhibited work in many local galleries. She herself has felt the frustration of trying to show new art in a city that has been traditionally less receptive to contemporary work. “It makes it hard if you don’t have support,” she said. “Then the work doesn't sell and the galleries have a hard time staying in business, and the artists have a hard time making a living. It’s all about perception really. I would argue that there are some really amazing people working here.”

Art and Academics

As Deitsch spoke in her office, a rehearsal was taking place right next door, in the lobby of Harvard’s Carpenter Center for Visual Arts. Members of Futurefarmers, an artist collective, were getting ready for their performance to accompany new exhibition “Errata—Brief Interruptions.”

Student art hangs in the halls of the SMFA in Boston, where students can pursue undergraduate and graduate studies in arts.
Student art hangs in the halls of the SMFA in Boston, where students can pursue undergraduate and graduate studies in arts. By Kathryn S. Kuhar

“Most every artist in the room next door to us has a teaching job. So these people are connected to an academic institution, generally speaking,” Deitsch said. “If you’re thinking about what makes the Boston art community, the universities are the driving factor. Most of the artists who live here and have careers here are usually employed by one of the schools as adjuncts or full professors.”

There seemed to be a widespread agreement that the concentration of academic institutions in Boston has an impact on its contemporary art scene. Byers saw this as an asset for the city’s art dialogue. “What this area really offers is an incredibly rich institutional culture, between the museums and the universities, the really strong and really interesting group of art historians, art curators, and art administrators, and artists who are teaching and affiliated with the universities,” he said.

Witkin suggested that this academic mindset might set the tone for some of Boston’s artmaking. “If you’re going to have that much research, investigation, academic learning, certainly you’re going to have interesting things going on and interesting conversations,” he said.

And in this way, Boston may posses some unique advantages for training future members of the art world. Witkin pointed out the number of curators now holding major positions in New York who spent time during their careers in Boston. Witkin cited as examples Jessica Morgan, who was a curator at the ICA and now serves as director at the Dia Art Foundation; Nicholas Baume, who was a curator at the ICA and is now the director of the Public Art Fund; and Kathy Halbreich, who was the director at the List Visual Art Center at MIT and is now assistant director at the Museum of Modern Art.

In addition, Kennedy pointed out how an academic atmosphere might impact the type of art itself that is conceived and produced in Boston. “Because of the number of schools in Boston, you’ll always have, attached to Harvard or MIT, artistic experimentation,” he said. “MIT, in particular, is the fit between science and art. There’s a lot of money and support to be had for artists who are really trying experimental things.”

To illustrate his point, Kennedy mentioned recent coverage he had done on “The Enemy,” a new work at the MIT Open Documentary Lab by photojournalist Karim Ben Khelifa. The photo exhibition-turned-virtual reality installation uses VR to bring the audience into contact with soldiers from opposite sides of longstanding global conflicts. “It’s unlikely that a gallery or the commercial art world would have supported something like that,” Kennedy said. “It comes out of institutional support from universities that are really interested in art.”

Byers mentioned similar examples of interdisciplinary practice in describing the process of putting together the Foster Prize Exhibition at the ICA. “In organizing the Foster Prize Exhibition, I was struck by the number of conversations I had with artists about a kind of interdisciplinary interest in and influence by disciplines and fields outside of art,” he said. “And that may have to do with the fact that all of them are faculty at universities, at Harvard and Brandeis, and so there are collegial conversations with other professors and other departments contributing to that.”

One example of the close connections between Boston’s art institutions and universities is the recent partnership between the School of the Museum of Fine Arts and Tufts University. The agreement between the two institutions now puts SMFA under the Tufts banner. Nancy F. Bauer ’82, who now serves as the dean of SMFA, noted that the nature of Boston as a university city might make it more appropriate than New York for training younger artists. “It may be a better place to get an education. Just at the level of the lack of pressure and the fact that we’re living in a city with this incredibly high concentration of excellent schools. There are a lot of students around, a student culture—it’s a little bit more of a navigable city,” she said.

The Crimson sat down with Nancy F. Bauer ‘82, newly appointed dean of the School of the Museum of Fine Arts.
The Crimson sat down with Nancy F. Bauer ‘82, newly appointed dean of the School of the Museum of Fine Arts. By Kathryn S. Kuhar

A Collegial Community

Over the past 20 years, a large number of Boston’s galleries have moved from their locations on pricey Newbury Street to the South End’s SoWa district, short for south of Washington Street. Low rents, easy parking, and pedestrian-friendly First Friday events have made this area a central hub of Boston’s art scene.

Kayafas, whose gallery is located in this district, noted that the concentration of galleries creates a collaborative atmosphere. “There are over twenty-five galleries on this street, we’re all totally different. We all have a different aesthetic, but we’re cooperative in how we try to promote things as a group. And it’s collegial, more so than other places,” she said.

Byers echoed her impressions of a community mindset. “I think there’s much more collaboration between institutions,” he said. “There’s a real sense of collegiality and friendship amongst traders and museum directors, and that has meant that there’s much more conversation between collectors and patrons and a less factional environment.”

Speaking from her own experience as dean at SMFA, Bauer corroborated this sentiment. She spoke to multiple types of collaboration that the school participates in with other art schools in the area. “There’s a lot of collaboration among art schools. We have a consortium of art schools in the Fenway area, with us, MassArt, the Boston Architectural Center, the New England Conservatory, Berklee College of Music, Boston Conservatory, and Emerson College. We get together and we talk about the kinds of issues and problems we have. There are issues like, people are worried about having their child get a BFA, for example—is that going to get them a job? It is as expensive as getting a BA or BS,” she said.

Making Space for New Art

Regardless of its real or perceived past, Boston has in the past 10 years undoubtedly seen a rise in the visibility of and support for contemporary art. “Institutionally it’s exploded,” Deitsch said. “I would say in the last five years there’s been an enormous uptick of institutional support of contemporary art. I don’t think Boston has ever really been known for embracing contemporary art.”

The Crimson visited local artist Joel Janowitz’s workshop in Boston’s South End.
The Crimson visited local artist Joel Janowitz’s workshop in Boston’s South End. By Kathryn S. Kuhar

In 2006, the ICA opened its new waterfront building, much larger than its previous Back Bay site. The Rose Art Museum at Brandeis narrowly escaped closure and the sale of its collection in 2011, and instead revived itself with a $1.7 million renovation. In 2011, the Museum of Fine Arts opened the Linde Family Wing for Contemporary Arts. Now, under the new direction of director Matthew Teitelbaum, the MFA has been making efforts to immerse some pieces from its contemporary collections into some of its modern and classical galleries. And in 2013, the Isabella Stewart Gardner museum opened its new contemporary wing.

In this effort to bring Boston’s art scene into the 21st century, many museums have also turned to programming to bring traffic through the doors. The ICA, for example, has a new series of events titled “ICA After 5” on Friday evenings, when gallery viewing is accompanied by tastings, demonstrations, and workshops. The Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum has a Third Thursdays event offering music and a cash bar in their courtyard, in addition to artist talks. This fall, the MFA started a series of “Overnight” parties, four after-hours events celebrating contemporary exhibitions.

“They’re doing good marketing to younger people,” said McQuaid. “There’s an element to the museum going public that is retirees and collectors who have taken time to accumulate wealth. These museums really have to be strategic in developing their audiences, and one way to do that is through contemporary art, and party because a lot of contemporary art is a different experience from a museum. It’s not just about looking at a painting, it’s often interactive, it’s often immersive, it’s often about performance art that is just happening that one night. So it becomes more of an event, and more something that you want to share on social media. It’s a completely different approach than museums were taking 20 years ago.”

More than just museums, the city of Boston itself has shown an interest in promoting local cultural activities. In 2014, Mayor Martin J. Walsh appointed Julie Burros, Boston’s first Chief of Arts and Culture in more than 20 years. A year later, the mayor announced Boston Creates, a cultural planning process focused on supporting the arts in Boston. The mission statement reads: “We want to understand the creative capital of Boston and create a plan that will prioritize, coordinate, and align public and private resources to strengthen this creative capital over the long term.” New public art on the Rose Kennedy Greenway in downtown Boston, for example, offers temporary sites for visual arts and installation.

Kayafas cited Burros’ new role as an effort on the part of the city to pay more attention to artists, but said that she thinks more remains to be done. “That’s visibility of caring about the arts. But if there were space that could be subsidized in some way, so that artists could afford studio space, that would be good.”

Indeed, space seems to be a significant issue for artists in the Boston area. Deitsch spoke to some of the issues she had seen impacting artists in the area. “Studio space is very difficult for artists to maintain here,” she said. Thurber also mentioned the scarcity and expense of living and working space in the city. “I think it’s so exorbitantly expensive here,” she said. “If you’re going to be an artist in Boston that’s a big part of it—where are you going to live?”

Kayafas had seen artists she’d interacted with struggle with similar space issues. “I think that studio space prices are getting so high. And if there’s a building that has been studio space for a long time, it starts to look really good to somebody in the area who wants to tear it down and turn it into high end condos,” she said. “Especially in the South End, there’s very little space left, and it used to be a space where you could find studios. Now, I think there’s a waitlist for most studios.”

Joel Janowitz motions to his painting inspired by construction work in his local Cambridge, part of his latest series of local protected trees.
Joel Janowitz motions to his painting inspired by construction work in his local Cambridge, part of his latest series of local protected trees. By Kathryn S. Kuhar

Janowitz explained that the building in the South End that his studio is located in, where 40 or 50 artists have studios, has only remained because of an eccentric landlord who refuses to sell to developers. “It’s like an island of old Boston amidst luxury condos going up all around. It’s not going to be here forever.”

It’s not a fix that’s easily remedied. A report in Standard and Poor’s last year predicted that Boston home prices will rise 24 percent by 2020.

A City of Possibilities

Many believe that more space in Boston needs to be devoted to artists. Deitsch pointed out two positive examples that could be a model for the city going forward. One way to secure more space is through universities. “I think people who are connected to universities sometimes can get that,” she said. “You know Harvard’s wonderful, it gives faculty studio spaces, but not everywhere does that, and either the universities need to step up and they have to start getting spaces for their faculty, or for visiting artists, to bring more artists here, or the city has to figure something out.”

She added that the city may have a responsibility in this matter as well. “Chicago for example has a different model, there’s a big apartment-gallery model and there’s different generations of artists that stay there and they usually bring up the next generation. Here, it’s more transient. People will stay, but more people will leave.” Keeping artists in Boston—who in turn, breed more contemporary art activity—may be largely dependent on making it more attractive for them to work in the city. While New York is a difficult city to compete with as an artistic hub, Philadelphia, Detroit, and Chicago may be less so.

But government initiatives aren’t the only ways to enact positive change in Boston’s arts scene. Local collaboration also may be able to help strengthen the artistic community moving forward. Kayafas sees this as continuing to benefit the city. “I’m a member of the Boston Art Dealers Association, and we’ve been working hard the past several years to try to unite everybody into one group, because we have amazing artists in Boston and amazing institutions, amazing galleries and lectures,” she said. “But we’re now always aware of what each other is doing, and so we’d be much stronger if we in some way could coordinate activities.”

Byers also spoke of the opportunity to give greater attention to art coming out of the area. “I would absolutely stand up for local galleries and say they need that kind of support,” he said. “Often a gallery might show artists here in Boston before they’ve had any kind of national exposure, and so if you’re a collector and in conversation with them, it’s only going to benefit you in terms of your access to that kind of art.”

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