Abandoned buildings laid the groundwork for Somerville’s artists, but as rents rise and space fills up, what’s next for the art community?
The vibrant arts scene in Somerville, which has defined the modern era of the city and made it a cultural destination, has been nourished over the years by studio communities established in abandoned buildings. Fading industries provided the infrastructure for Somerville’s development into a city that now has the second highest number of artists per capita, following New York City, according to the city’s website.
At a time when new condos are rapidly being built and initiatives like the US2 development in Union Square are poised to transform Somerville, we asked leaders at four landmark arts centers to describe their vision for keeping the city’s art scene flourishing as open space diminishes and rents increase.
Artisan’s Asylum, founded in 2010, occupies a 40,000-square-foot warehouse space in the former Ames Safety Envelope facility. Artisan’s is the go-to place for everything to do with fabrication, from metalsmithing to 3D printing to bicycle maintenance.
Ted Sirota is serving his second term as president at Artisan’s.
“Artisan’s Asylum will continue to exist no matter what, whether we are in this building or down the street in five years. The biggest strength, the biggest thing that is unique, that is difficult to replicate, is the community of artists and makers that we have. And we already have that.
If rent went through the roof, if all hell broke loose, we would still find a way to gather and do these things. Every day there are people who are specialists in their field who talk to other people at Artisan’s Asylum who are specialists in their field, and they figure out how to make amazing things. That’s the combination of industrial designers, electricians, electrical engineers, and artists. But it didn’t have so much to do with this giant open space to do things, it had more to do with bringing those people together in this space.
That said, we are very much focused on raising more money, finding a way to stay in this building, or buy a new building, or build a new building—and ideally everything within in Somerville, ideally not leaving.
That is definitely my job and my goal, to make sure that we can have a place to do these things. Exactly how we’re going to do that is the conversation that all the board members and the staff have pretty much on a biweekly and monthly basis. Odds are it will be cheaper for us to either build something or buy something in the long run. And owning a building, as a long-term solution, is a good thing to plan for.
We are in touch with some of the other folks that create art. Hopefully organizations like Artisan’s can start providing—and this is maybe way down the line—we are hoping to do things with artist-in-residence programs, we are hoping to convince the city of Somerville to help with things like that, because they have talked to us, and they’ve expressed to us what a benefit we are to the community. Perhaps doing artist housing through the city could be an option.
But it’s definitely an issue. It’s almost impossible to afford to live here. But hopefully the culture around art continues to change in favor of paying artists more for their work. I see a lot of mixing of art and technology here, and in the broader world, and I think that’s good, because it’s technology that makes the money, and art is what makes life worth living.
And so the more you’ve got those things collaborating, the more you can have artists survive. A lot of what we do here is try to subsidize art for the sake of art with the technology interests that people have—half of our community is artists, half of our community is different kinds of technologists, like engineers, and so everybody pays the rent.
My hope, in our conversations with the city, is that we can ask for more artist housing, and more low-income housing. Especially with the potential of mega-corporations like Amazon moving into town—it would be good to have a negotiation where, if you do move in, you have to create 40 percent affordable housing, maybe 20 percent designated for artists.”
Washington Street was founded in 1996 in a former school bus depot station that sat in a small industrial complex by the railroad tracks. The Bornstein Flooring Company now owns the building. Lee Kilpatrick, a photographer, has been the director at Washington Street for 15 years. The house where Lee lived in Somerville was sold for a million dollars, and he now lives in Arlington.
“I’ve been to zoning meetings before, and people have talked about different things, and at some point they used to talk about the artist and maker spaces, and then they changed it, and started talking about artists, makers, and start-ups. Start-ups have a potentially different financial model than the other types of places, so there could be a threat from that.
I don’t know if I have a vision for how to keep the arts scene in Somerville thriving. But I do know people that have gotten booted out of artist-type spaces because the rent went up. It’s a concern for everyone in Somerville who doesn’t own their own building. But, you know, I don’t think at Washington Street we have any more reason than anyone else to be worried. We have a good relationship with the Bornstein’s. It’s more like the whole overall changes in Somerville, and the developments, like what’s going to happen in Union Square, that makes things uncertain.
We do engage some with the city. There’s a couple different things that are happening, a couple of city regulations that help with affordable housing. One is, when you have a development above a certain number of units, then 12 to 20 percent of them have to be affordable units. And then there seems to be, and I don’t know exactly how this kicks in, but in many cases when developments are made, they will allocate a certain number of the units specifically to artists. Then you come into different questions about artists versus other people who might need affordable housing, and how that would work.
But in five years, I hope Washington Street will still be right where it is. It would be nice if there was explicit support from these new developers that they wanted to do artist spaces, or maybe an artist building. But that might also be very expensive, depending on whether it’s new construction.
My vision, my basic vision, is that there’s still lots of artists in Somerville, and it stays the same, in that sense.”
Vernon Street Studios
Vernon Street Studios is a mixed-use building—it is still the headquarters of the Rogers Foam Company, even as about 100 artists rent studio space there. Vernon celebrated its 40th anniversary in 2014.
Heather Baluchnas, who is a painter, illustrator, and mixed-media artist, has had a studio at Vernon since 2008 and helps coordinate the group’s standalone open studios in December, as well as its participation in the citywide Somerville Open Studios. She lives in Winter Hill.
“The history of the building itself, before Rogers Foam bought it, is that it used to be the Derby Desk Company, that made roll top desks. When Rogers Foam came on, it was the first company to manufacture Nerf balls. So it has a very fun history.
In 1974, when the artists moved in, Rogers Foam had extra space they weren’t using. They said, “You can use the space, but you have to clean it out.” So there were birds that were inhabiting it, they basically had to clean out the space themselves, and ever since then it’s been artists’ spaces. In the ’90s there was a worry that the building might get sold, but since then Rogers Foam has operations all over the country, and this is their headquarters. So it’s a pretty stable situation, for right now. Hopefully it stays that way.
Having a mixed-use space is very important, and I think doing those kind of collaborations really works very well, because when you partner with builders, contractors, that have an existing space, they’re already doing work, and it’s a very industrial space that’s not going to be well suited for an office building. So having that existing space is perfect for artists, who get messy. Having that kind of marriage works out really well.
So it’s trying to find that particular structure to be able to have it work for artists and also for the developers. If you have a component where the artists have the opportunity to buy a space, that is very beneficial, because then they own that space, and they have more control over it. That, to me, is a very real way to help preserve the arts infrastructure here in Somerville.
I work for the Somerville Arts Council as the office manager. There are definitely conversations to be able to work to preserve the arts, and some of it’s by zoning, and preserving it through infrastructure. So there’s definitely projects along the pipeline to foster and make that happen. And it needs to be a conversation that’s not just from the city, but from the arts community as well. You have to keep having that conversation and try to make that important.
Having my artist hat on, I think it’s important to look for opportunities where you’re working with legislation to be able to have that component, to have “x” amount of money that is being wedded to the arts. How do you make that happen in a way that is beneficial to the community at large, whether it’s the cultural community, or whether it’s the broader community? And how do you create that infrastructure?
Living space for artists is also an issue, and that’s a conversation that I know is happening not only here in Somerville but in the greater state legislation level. Because the greater Boston area is very expensive to live in, but it’s where a lot of people work. We have cultural institutions, we have educational institutions, and the question is, do you really want to live in New Hampshire and commute in?
There is currently a bill in consideration about tenants’ right to purchase, where if a property owner decides to sell a larger apartment building, or even a house, there’s a bill to propose to sell it to the existing tenants.* And if they are not able to purchase that building, then a nonprofit might be able to purchase it for them, so the building can remain affordable. So that is one way. I’ve already testified on behalf of the bill, our mayor has testified on behalf of the bill. So there’s a number of people supporting it. Of course there’s going to be a lot of people opposed to it. But a similar bill has worked very well in D.C.
An important thing is trying to get that information, get the education, to put those policies in place, in order to be able to make things like that happen. It’s having real conversations, and really sitting down to look at the bigger picture, and what’s going to be beneficial, and how do you preserve what you already have, and create the infrastructure to be able to preserve it.
I’m an optimistic realist. But people have to talk to their ward alderman, have to go the meetings. It’s on the arts community to be vigilant and get involved with the conversation.”
*This state legislation did not proceed with a favorable report, but the city is looking at other ways to promote a similar policy.
Brickbottom Studios, founded in 1988 in an abandoned cannery factory, is one of the oldest and largest live/work artist buildings in the northeast. Shannon Humphreys, a dancer, is president of the board of directors of the Brickbottom Artists Association. She has been on the board for two years, owns a live-in space, and became the association’s president last April.
“The building was purchased by a bunch of artists who were based in Fort Point 30 years ago. Part of the story that doesn’t get told is that they didn’t do it alone—they were supported by the city of Boston and by FPAC, the Fort Point Arts Community, who helped them get a realtor and a lawyer and find the building here in Somerville.
When they bought this building, it was a bombed-out wreck. It had been a cannery, a factory for the A&P grocery store. It was completely a shell, just a shell of a building. The artists who bought it worked with an architect to divide it up into these units that you see today. And all of the original founding artists, about 80 of them, purchased their individual units.
There’s now a total of 155 units. Some of them are live/work, some of them are just live, some of them are just work. It’s a catch-all here. It was all artists to begin with, it was a cooperative, but a couple of years in, financially that wasn’t working, so they went to condo. So we have two governing boards. There’s the Brickbottom Artists’ Association, which is a non-profit entity that runs the gallery and supports the artist community, and there’s the condo trust.
What’s happening with development in Somerville is a huge challenge for the arts community. No one imagined 30 years ago, or even 20 years ago, that any unit in this building would go on the market for more than half a million dollars, and that’s happening!
So, how do artists afford that? One of the regrets we have is that we didn’t plan for that, but we couldn’t have seen it—hindsight is 20-20, right? We didn’t form a land trust, we didn’t invest in that future, so part of the strategy, our vision, is telling our story so that people can learn from our success, but also from our possibly missed opportunities to invest in that.
The other piece of it is that we’re a significant voting block, and we all vote here. We have a good reputation for that, and we have a good partnership, a good relationship, with the city, with our alderman, leveraging that. Our alderman right now is J.T. Scott. We had a really close relationship with Mary Houston, and we’re now developing our relationship with J.T. He’s been here, he’s spent a lot of time here since he was elected.
So, we have leverage to put pressure on the city to invest in infrastructure, to invest in affordable housing. I don’t think that we can keep development out, that would be holding back the ocean. And it’s not probably a really good idea to hold back the change. But having a voice in it, influencing the change so that when developers come in, don’t say “No” to them, say, “Yes—but. You have to give back to this community.”
We have to partner with the developers, partner with the city, make sure the infrastructure is here, make sure that people are able to stay here. And the mayor has given us a place at the table. Four years ago when they knocked down the waste transfer station that was right down here, he came here to Brickbottom and said, “You guys are the creative community. You guys are the innovators. Give us some ideas, what do we do with that space.” And out of that meeting came the birth of ArtFarm. That was born here. And then we went out into the rest of Somerville, partnered with all those thinkers, and ArtFarm is now happening.
But if Somerville’s going to stay a creative community, and if this arts scene is going to stay vibrant, the people who make it that way have to be able to afford to live here.”
Editor’s note: These profiles have been edited and condensed for clarity and conciseness.
This story appears in the Arts & Architecture issue of Scout Somerville, which is available for free at more than 220 drop spots throughout Somerville (and just beyond its borders) or by subscription.
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