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Sound Museum owners cry foul as their tenants secure potential new spaces without them

The Brighton Sound Museum on North Beacon Street. (Robin Lubbock/WBUR)
The Brighton Sound Museum on North Beacon Street. (Robin Lubbock/WBUR)

Update: On Wednesday, Jan. 11, the City of Boston released a statement confirming the temporary space at 55 Morrissey Blvd. in Dorchester. In the announcement, Kim Thai, director of development at IQHQ, said the company is committed to allowing musicians to stay at the Sound Museum through the end of February when The Record Co. plans to open the new rehearsal spaces.

Hundreds of musicians about to lose their practice spaces inside the Sound Museum, a massive rehearsal complex in Brighton, may have a temporary new home. But the evolving saga has raised questions about whether the city could have done more to preserve a business that for decades has provided a critical service to the Boston music scene.

Following a quick review process, local nonprofit The Record Co. plans to open a temporary rehearsal space in March that Sound Museum tenants can apply to move into.

Tenants at the Sound Museum’s 155 North Beacon St. building were notified in mid-December that they must vacate by the end of January. Owned by Bill “Des” Desmond and his wife, Katherine Desmond, the location has provided practice, storage and recording space to musicians for more than 30 years. In 2021, the building was bought by developer IQHQ, which plans to demolish it to make way for a life sciences campus.

A temporary solution

Now, The Record Co. plans to renovate a vacant building at 55 Morrissey Blvd. in Dorchester that the displaced musicians could use for up to two years.

The building is part of a larger parcel owned by local real estate company Center Court Mass. Its co-owner, Matt Snyder, said the company would rent the space to The Record Co. below market rate while it works to develop the properties into a sprawling campus with lab, retail, residential and community space.

Local advocacy organization #ARTSTAYSHERE Coalition identified the vacant Dorchester building as a possible solution for displaced Sound Museum tenants in December and facilitated the deal with Center Court Mass.

To select an operator, the group convened a committee that included representatives from the nonprofit MASSCreative and two Sound Museum tenants in addition to three coalition members. Three entities submitted applications: The Record Co., SUM Studios and the Sound Museum.

“We had to endure the embarrassment of competing at a contest with our competitors to get temporary space for my tenants,” Sound Museum owner Katherine Desmond said of the selection process. She estimated the loss of 155 North Beacon St. would cost the Sound Museum nearly 80% of its revenue. “I want the temporary space for my tenants,” Desmond said. “I deserve it.”

#ARTSTAYSHERE Coalition leader Ami Bennitt said The Record Co. was chosen because it scored highest on the rubric committee members used to evaluate applications.

She explained the The Record Co. provided more information than other applicants. "They gave more detail," she said. "They gave more examples. They gave more, I guess, proof of their work. And that doesn't mean that the other applicants don't have proof of work. But The Record Co.’s application itself, on paper, was stronger."

But the Desmonds believe The Record Co. was a beneficiary of favoritism, alleging that MASSCreative had a conflict of interest because the city’s chief of arts and culture, Kara Elliott-Ortega, chairs its board. Elliott-Ortega is in a relationship with The Record Co.’s executive director, Matt McArthur.

“[Elliott-Ortega] wanted to get my tenants away from me for her boyfriend's business,” Katherine Desmond said. “It's unethical. It's unmoral. And I'm hoping to prove that it's illegal, and litigate against it.”

When asked if Elliott-Ortega was involved in any way in the selection process, MASSCreative Executive Director Emily Ruddock said: “Absolutely not.”

Elliott-Ortega said in a statement, “The City of Boston was not involved in securing the swing space in Dorchester or selecting an operator. This was the result of work done by the #ARTSTAYSHERE Coalition, which is an independent entity. While the city has been supportive of the coalition’s advocacy efforts across the city, we do not have an official role in their work.”

A bid to stay in Allston-Brighton

Meanwhile, the future of another Allston-Brighton building hangs in the balance as part of the proposal made by IQHQ, the developer that bought the Sound Museum. Recently, 290 Beacon St. was identified as another potential solution for the displaced musicians. That’s because under its prospective deal, IQHQ would gift the property to the city to create a new rehearsal space. Down the line, an operator of that space would be chosen through a public approval process.

That possible deal leaves no clear path forward for the Desmonds and represents a reversal of IQHQ’s initial promises in public meetings and letters to the city.

Early last year, the developer pledged to help the Sound Museum secure a new rehearsal space somewhere in Boston. This is what’s known in the development process as “mitigation” — the requirement that developers make concessions to offset the impacts of proposed large-scale projects. The mayor’s office of arts and culture signaled support for the plan, asking that the Sound Museum be assured of “a future commensurate with its legacy as an anchor institution.”

Desmond said the Sound Museum was close to securing a new space in Boston before IQHQ withdrew its support. As a result, the Sound Museum then could not afford to renovate the building it hoped to move into.

IQHQ has not said why it dropped the initial plan; officials with the life sciences developer did not respond to requests for comment. And while the Desmonds say they believe city officials interfered in the deal to instead have the developer donate a building to the city, the city denies any involvement in those negotiations.

As time went on, the question of where new rehearsal space should be located became a point of contention.

For the arts collective’s part, its leader, Bennitt, said many tenants she spoke to wanted to remain in Allston-Brighton. Therefore, the coalition asked IQHQ to make up for lost rehearsal space in that neighborhood. (Bennitt’s husband rents space at the Sound Museum, and she also serves as communications director for the city’s commission for older residents.)

“I really wish that people could see the fact that IQHQ is donating an $18 million building, before build-out, to the city so that it can be affordable rehearsal music rooms forever, is a giant win and people should celebrate and be psyched about that,” Bennitt said. “And the fact that there's swing space to accommodate almost all of the musicians that are going to be displaced from Brighton, at the same rental rate, that’s [near a T station], and has parking, for two years, is also great.”

Desmond sees it differently.

“Ami Bennitt went in and took my business away from me and negotiated it away from me, supposedly for the artists, which is outrageous because my artists said they wanted to relocate,” she said, referring to a survey the Sound Museum conducted that, she said, indicated the vast majority of tenants would follow the business wherever it ended up.

Scott Matalon, a musician who rents space at the Sound Museum, said the city should have done more to help the Desmonds.

“They have been incredibly supportive of the music scene, which is why so many of their tenants are so loyal to them,” he said. “You talk about the great supporters of local music … the Desmonds are at the top of the list, because we wouldn’t have had shows if we didn’t have rehearsal spaces.”

Looking ahead

Despite the controversy, Center Court Mass leaders say they intend to hash out a deal with The Record Co. to ensure the displaced musicians have somewhere to keep playing.

“We’re not changing from this course,” said Snyder. “We’re committed to solving the problem for these … displaced musicians.”

McArthur, of The Record Co., estimated the space — about 90 rooms of various sizes — could be ready by March 1; former Sound Museum tenants could apply online and would be given preference.

He expects there will be enough space for applicants, but plans to run a lottery if too many people apply. Preliminary plans priced the rooms between $525 and $925 per month, depending on their size and how soundproof they are.

On Sunday, Jan. 8, more than 250 Sound Museum tenants and their supporters rallied in front of 155 Beacon St. at a demonstration organized by the Party for Socialism and Liberation. They demanded that IQHQ follow through on its original pledge not to evict tenants until another space was made ready for them.

This article was originally published on January 10, 2023.

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Amelia Mason Twitter Arts And Culture Reporter
Amelia Mason is an arts and culture reporter and critic for WBUR.

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