On Saturday, several dozen supporters of Northeastern University’s African American Master Artists-in-Residence program (AAMARP) rallied outside the collective’s studio space in Jamaica Plain. Artists said the university had changed the locks earlier that month without notifying them.
AAMARP artist L'Merchie Frazier led the crowd in chants of "give us the keys" and "Black artists matter." "This lockout denies artists who are critical to this community and who need access to their art supplies, materials, tools and our artworks," she said. "Much of our livelihood depends on having this access."
In a statement from its general counsel, Northeastern said the studios were closed in March in response to the pandemic. "[A]ll university buildings were closed and access was made available only upon special request. The university’s warehouse at 76 Atherton Street was treated the same as all other university buildings."
When asked why the locks were changed in June, a spokesperson for Northeastern said that, because the building was off-campus, "the best way to secure the building was to change the locks." She added that people could be let into the studios by setting up an appointment with the facilities department, and that the same policy applied to all university buildings.
But the artists saw the move as an acceleration of an ongoing campaign to push them out. AAMARP and Northeastern have been in negotiations since July 2018, when the university gave the collective two weeks to vacate its studios. In response to public outcry, the city of Boston announced it would facilitate conversations between the two parties. The deadline to vacate has since been extended several times.
The photographer Reginald Jackson attended the rally. He was one of the original artists to occupy studio space at AAMARP when it was founded in the late 1970s. "It's been very, I think, disingenuous," he said of the university's recent interactions with the group. Jackson said the artists had not been permitted to hold events, like open studios, in the Atherton building for the past two years. "So all our community folk have not been serviced, because they can't meet here, they can't do anything here. Which was a big thing with having the space."
At the rally, Dana Chandler, the son of AAMARP's founder — who is also named Dana Chandler — read from a letter from Northeastern president Joseph Aoun pledging to take action to combat racism within the institution.
AAMARP artists questioned the sincerity of that promise.
"The university has to address this question of institutional racism," said AAMARP member Tony Van Der Meer. "We’ve been partners with the university for ... over 40 years. So where’s the respect, and why are you treating Black artists like this?"
AAMARP, which occupies the studios rent-free, was founded by the Boston artist Dana Chandler to provide affordable studio space for Black artists shut out of the mainstream art world. Over time, the program's budget was slashed and its relationship with the university frayed.
In its statement, Northeastern said that due to the pandemic, AAMARP would have until December to vacate the building. The future of the program remains uncertain.