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Update July 10, 2018: In a letter to the African-American Master Artists-in-Residence Program, Northeastern University said the artists have until July 31 to vacate the building — two and a half weeks more than the original notice.
Black artists affiliated with Northeastern University gained access to their artist studios on Monday morning, a day after they said the university locked them out.
The university has said it did not block access to the building over the weekend, but on Monday morning, a university administrator apologized to the arts group as it gathered outside the building, calling the weekend incident a mishap and misunderstanding.
Members of the African-American Master Artists-in-Residence Program (AAMARP) showed up at the building at 76 Atherton St. in Jamaica Plain on Monday morning to pick up access keys to the university-owned warehouse the group has occupied for more than three decades.
AAMARP is a 40-year-old black arts collective under the umbrella of Northeastern’s Department of African American Studies that promotes arts about the African diaspora. Last week, the group received a letter from the university notifying it that it must vacate the building by July 13.
The university had instructed artists to report to the warehouse on Sunday morning to receive new key cards to access the building. But once there, the security guards did not issue keys to the artists, saying they were “following orders,” said L’Merchie Frazier, an AAMARP artist, who is speaking for the collective.
“This is not accurate,” said Michael Armini, Northeastern’s senior vice president of external affairs, in an email on Sunday afternoon, referring to Frazier's statement that the university had restricted access to the building. He said the AAMARP provided a list of artist’s names who required entry so that the university could issue new key cards on Sunday. "Those on the list who present photo ID can receive keys from Northeastern University police who are on site."
He added that WBUR producers “need sources who tell the truth.”
In a follow-up interview Monday morning, Armini told WBUR that safety remains the university’s motivation for requiring AAMARP to vacate. "We hope there's no tension. I hope everybody on all sides can agree that we have to put people's safety first. And that's just non-negotiable for us."
In the letter from the university to AAMARP leader Gloretta Baynes, the university's vice president for facilities, Maria Cimilluca, spells out a lengthy series of code violations and hazardous conditions. They include "false walls" of flammable materials, unauthorized padlocks the university does not have keys for and that could entrap people in the case of a fire, rigged electrical and plumbing and evidence that the building has been used as a residential space.
"We understand that this news may disappoint you and others, but given the deteriorated condition of the building, and the derelict way that some of the users/occupants have abused the space, we have no alternative to the planned approach," Cimilluca wrote in the letter.
Frazier said AAMARP members did have 24-hour access to the building, but never abused it. “That is absolutely not true. There are no artists who reside in the building. I can speak for myself and others who have homes, who are paying mortgages elsewhere in the city,” she said. "The studios are only used for the purpose of making, producing, creating and displaying our art.” On Monday, several other AAMARP artists said the University's letter contained false accusations.
Frazier said the group hoped to resolve the space issue with Northeastern “as amicably as possible.”
"I think that this has to have some protocol that is fair and procedural. We are willing to negotiate. However we have not been invited to the table prior to discuss this," she said.
Armini said that university officials have raised the safety issues with AAMARP several times over the last year and a half. "Nothing has changed. Your listeners may remember a case two years ago in Oakland when an artists collective caught fire and 36 people were killed. We just can't have that. And so while we hope there are no hard feelings we can't compromise on safety."
The notice to vacate comes as Boston artists face, what has been called by the city, a “space misalignment” — referring to a shortage of affordable and adequate spaces for artists to create, rehearse and showcase their art.
This segment aired on July 3, 2018.
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