At public hearing, artists demand more rehearsal space in Boston
On Tuesday afternoon at Boston City Hall, local artists weren’t asking city councilors to address the loss of rehearsal spaces for musicians, they were telling them.
“You will respect artists in Boston,” said interdisciplinary artist Max Seltzer. “You will not starve the artist. You won't run us out of here. We'll go on our own. You won't take away our sense of purpose and devotion to our vocation. You won't scare us out of underground venues … you won't get rid of us. You may as well work with us.”
Seltzer was one of more than two dozen individuals who signed up to speak at the public hearing. The room was filled with artists of various disciplines — from musicians to audio engineers, writers to dancers. The majority said they have been forced to move two or even three times as rehearsal spaces have been turned into housing and condominiums.
The hearing lasted several hours and discussed a number of solutions to the loss of rehearsal space, including a city-wide fund and zoning reform. The data presented by Kara Elliott-Ortega, the city’s chief of arts and culture, painted a dire picture. In Brighton alone, over 120,000 square feet of cultural space is currently at risk as a result of development projects, she said.
"We see time and time again that developers file their projects with no mention of what's being displaced, no acknowledgment of what is on site and what that site means to people."Kara Elliott-Ortega, Chief of arts and culture
This will impact at least 300 artists and creative workers. In the last five to seven years, 100,000 square feet of cultural production space — including studios and rehearsal space — has been lost, along with numerous live music venues, gathering spaces and specialized retail.
“We see time and time again that developers file their projects with no mention of what's being displaced, no acknowledgment of what is on site and what that site means to people,” Elliott-Ortega said. “We at the city, across departments, need to show up for communities that make a cultural space and continue to work together to make that work visible. Without that championing, we'll always be stuck being brought in too late at the point of crisis.”
Other possibilities offered by the mayor’s office of arts and culture include commitments in development projects to provide a comparable amount of square feet for what is being displaced or projects making equivalent contributions to a fund to support the creation and preservation of space. Elliott-Ortega also suggested asking more developers to demonstrate to the community how they're supporting artists and cultural spaces that are being impacted by their projects.
Councilors Gabriela Coletta, Liz Breadon and Tania Fernandes Anderson were the ones who sponsored this hearing in response to the closing of the Sound Museum last month and the news that Charlestown Rehearsal Studios would be converted into self-storage. Artists were given until June 1 to vacate, but at the meeting, it was noted that the city is in conversation with the property owner to guide that process in Charlestown and provide support to the tenants, many of whom were present. Councilors asked many questions of staff and voiced their overall support. Breadon pointed out the inconsistencies in the current development review process.
"Our approach to city planning needs to be integrated with a proactive lens towards sustaining and expanding the arts and cultural industry in our city."Boston Councilor Liz Breadon
“There needs to be a more standardized community benefit and mitigation rubric for development projects that impact the arts and cultural spaces with greater representation of artists and creators,” she said. “Our approach to city planning needs to be integrated with a proactive lens towards sustaining and expanding the arts and cultural industry in our city.”
Duncan Wilder Johnson has lived in the Boston area since 1995. He’s a photographer and videographer as well as a documentary filmmaker, writer and performer.
“I'm asking the city of Boston to commit to a zero net loss arts, music and cultural space,” Johnson said. “Being displaced makes it difficult to make a living. It prevents the development of lessons and activities for my students, and it gives a bad impression to my clients. Art is not made in a vacuum. Therefore, being around other creative people fosters collaboration, inspires new ideas, generates commerce, and ultimately benefits my bottom line. In 2022, over half of my income was generated through the Boston music community.”
Charlie Honig, a guitarist and singer, previously lived in this informal artist housing on Rugg Road in Allston. He remembers there was a screen printer upstairs, a zine library, and a place where the Boston Circus Guild used to practice trapeze. It's now all been replaced by market-rate apartment buildings.
“Housing and art should not be in competition with each other,” he said.
Honig considers himself lucky to be able to find space to make music elsewhere. Others had nowhere else to go. He’s now a tenant at the Charlestown Rehearsal Studios.
"We need to act now before we lose what we have left and have nothing but biotech labs with murals painted on them."Charlie Honig, Musician
“Music, arts and creative uses simply can’t compete with the big money flooding our city,” Honig said. “And we can’t wait until we address the root causes of skyrocketing land values, housing costs and income inequality. We need to act now before we lose what we have left and have nothing but biotech labs with murals painted on them.”
Cristina Todesco of the #ARTSTAYSHERE Coalition read out loud some of the names of communities that no longer exist: The Piano Craft Guild in the South End, 55 Avery Street in Jamaica Plain, the EMF building in Cambridge’s Central Square, 125 Brookside in Jamaica Plain, Central Studios in Somerville, the Berwick Building in Roxbury and 119 Braintree St. in Allston. She also made a list of requests to the city.
“First, to more nimbly help prevent those at risk of imminent displacement and also to create a long-term solution that includes protection policy and funding that actively chooses to prioritize arts,” Todesco said. “We have seen and are currently experiencing what happens without: performance venues closed, workspaces get redeveloped, artists of all disciplines leave our city. We ask that the city council provide a dedicated line item of funding towards arts and cultural workspaces, seed money of $10 million in the fiscal year 2024 city budget and funding thereafter.”
Dave Tree, a local artist and curator, told councilors that attending live music shows in Boston’s punk rock scene revolutionized his life and the city. The talents of artists benefit Boston, he said. Everyone in this room loves this city, he said. Now, they want the city to love them back. Otherwise, the future looks bleak.
“You take away our practice space rooms, our rooms that we make art in – it’s gone, gone. No culture, no songs, nothing. Cultural wasteland.”