Some 46 years ago when David Addison Small was convinced, or rather begged, to locate his studio at 551 Tremont St., it was a dicey proposition.
The South End then was not the South End of today, and just walking out the door could easily lead to muggings or assaults. It was an arts community he lived and worked in, and with the support of other artists, built up over the years to thrive along with the current neighborhood.
Now, under a new plan by the Boston Center for the Arts (BCA) – who leases the building under a 76-year agreement with the City’s Boston Planning and Development Agency (BPDA) – he said he and several other long-time studio tenants feel like they’ve suddenly lost a life’s work through what they say is an eviction.
“It’s part of my life,” he said. “I had come to the studio because they asked me to come here. The South End wasn’t the kind of neighborhood it is now. There were two liquor stores across the street and there was one place called Ann’s. I partly moved here because I am gay and if I’d have gone into Ann’s, they would have beat me up. I made my career here and I live across the street. We built this place up. I don’t understand why people come in and destroy this diamond. They want to come in and take the diamond, and then throw the ring away.”
Ruth Ginsberg-Place, another artist who has been in the building for 46 years, said she felt the same way. She and others like Small remember having Artist Balls in the Cyclorama to raise money for things like doors with working locks. They would do things like scrub the Cyclorama floor by hand, then invite the whole community in to see their work. It was a magic time, but it feels like it has been taken away now, she said.
“I moved to Boston in September and the only person I knew in Boston had a studio here,” she said. “I came right here. At the time, this was a loosey-goosey operation. The artists here built it. There were no locks on the doors…We would put on Arts Balls and everyone from the city and suburbs would come. We felt we were part of the BCA community. It wasn’t an ordinary space. We were part of a community. Then the money came in and took it all away.”
The situation unfolded back in September when the BCA announced a new branding for the building at 551 Tremont, now known as Studio 551. It was announced by then Director Greg Ruffer, who has recently left his position after allegations of past impropriety in another state. Even so, the BCA said this week it intends to pursue the plan, and that none of the artists have been pushed out. They will have to leave their studio spaces next year, but they can re-apply for them and potentially return under the new program. Originally, they had to be out rather quickly, but Spokesperson Paula Dixon said the timeframes will be adjusted.
“As we plan to roll out our new residency program, the Boston Center for the Arts leadership team has received useful feedback from our artist community,” she wrote in an e-mail. “As a result, we are currently considering a revised timeframe for implementation of the new program and will announce an updated timeline on December 2. We believe that this approach will allow us to positively realize the Studio 551 residency model in a way that respects and supports our current artist tenants.”
The BCA intends to implement a program that is an evolution of their current artist residency program, and will continue to offer 52 workspaces to artists at all stages of their careers. The program will not generate any additional revenue for the BCA, Dixon said, because it will offer the workspaces subsidized at 68 percent off market rate.
“Studio 551 was developed to offer a critical resource (artist workspace) in a more equitable fashion and provide accessibility and professional development resources to a far greater number of Boston artists over time,” said Dixon, noting that the program would allow for about five years residency. “Studio 551 criteria and application are still in development, under the advisement of the Studio 551 Advisory Council. BCA is revising the timeline for current tenants to remain in their space, and more information to be shared on Dec. 2.”
In an interview on the matter with Ruffer on Sept. 27, before he left the position, he told the Sun that the idea was to help artists develop professionally, and also to develop business acumen. Once they become more self-sufficient, they would move on to the private market to lease new spaces.
The plan, he and Dixon said, was in response to the City’s Arts Facilities Report from a few years ago that documented the need for more diverse artist workspaces.
All of that, the current artists said, sounded suspicious.
“You have to understand the grotesqueness in which they made us aware of this,” said artist Beverly Sky. “We had no idea what they were doing. On May 1, we all had to sign a 15-page lease agreement, becoming month-to-month tenants at will. I remember thinking they were getting more official. I had no idea what was in store for us a few months later.”
All of the artists assembled for an interview last Friday said the day after the 50th anniversary celebration, on Sept. 25, they were called into a meeting. In the meeting Ruffer and others talked about the re-branding of the BCA and other matters.
“Then he said we had to be out by May 1, 2020,” said Sky. “We all sat there in such complete shock that someone even yelled out, ‘What did you just say?’”
Within the artist community at the building, there is a substantial amount of suspicion about the new program, and what they think might be unspoken motives behind it. Some have wondered about what role Urban Renewal plays in the matter. The BPDA, which owns the property, is in the process of evaluating every Urban Renewal area right now, and the South End is one of the largest and most complicated. Across the City, in that process, the BPDA has been looking to “shed” properties that they no longer need or don’t collect rent on. The BCA Campus was a major outcome of Urban Renewal, and there are some suspicions that the building could change hands from the City to another entity during the Urban Renewal re-evaluation. That was done a few years ago at the BCA already, when the City sold the Calderwood Pavilion playhouse to the BCA.
“We are suspicious and curious why this new plan for residencies at Studio 551 is a five or six year plan,” said Ginsberg-Place. “In other words, what is the other plan behind it.”
Beyond the suspicions, there’s the loss of place, and for some of the artists like Aileen Erickson – who has also been there 46 years – that means a major breaking-off from the creative process.
“Older people can do their best work in their last years as an artist,” she said. “But when you get taken away, you’re not doing your best work. I love this building. This building is part of my work. When you’re dislocated, it’s not only picking up your stuff and trying to find another place. You are cut off from where your work is going. This is really going to kill an interesting artistic journey I was going on.”