Essays

Rebooting Boston’s Art Inferiority Complex

Just in case you missed it: Sourcing Local for Boston Art

Is it possible for an entire city to have an inferiority complex over its own art and artists? At times it certainly seems like Boston does. Between ignoring local artists, devoting gallery space to art world stars, and hemorrhaging curators, this city’s scene sometimes looks a lot like a branch office of New York: understaffed, and passing on its best to the mothership.

In my previous article on Hyperallergic, I discussed critic and blogger Greg Cook’s view that Boston’s contemporary art scene lacks a drive to push itself further. I believe that what we need to overcome in this city is not just an inferiority complex, but also the lack of a sense of self for the Boston art community. We suffer from an absence of a solid identity.

Unifying Boston

By a lack of identity I do not mean that Boston’s art must be harnessed to a particular movement to succeed, nor do I hope for the creation of a city brand of art. Rather, I think that by developing a unifying sense of togetherness for Boston’s artists, curators and writers, this city’s art community could gain in confidence and ambition.

Boston doesn’t lack for art institutions. The city is speckled with university galleries, it has a handful of great museums, and it is home to a small but exciting group of commercial galleries. Yet at times it seems that all of these institutions are constantly moving in different directions, pursuing their own programs rather than tuning in to the Boston community as a whole.

Nor do Boston artists seem driven to participate in a group dialogue. There is little social space here for artists to collaborate, commiserate or butt heads. Artist neighborhoods like Fort Point are at risk of destruction by gentrification and only a few alternative art spaces remain outside of the thin gallery scene on Newbury Street and in the South End. Part of Boston artists’ responsbilities to themselves and to their work should be to fight complacency: if our city lacks social space, it must be created. If we lack great art, then great art must be fought for together, inside and outside the studio.

Click for an interactive Boston art scene map

I should also mention that the critical community has yet to step up to the challenge of establishing a coherent identity for Boston contemporary art. Coverage is split between human-interest stories about crazy ‘artist-types’ (See Boston public radio station WBUR’s omgart+robotsLOL coverage) and deeper engagement with high profile exhibitions that often don’t include local art. Online and print publication Big Red and Shiny keeps a close eye on Boston gallery exhibitions, but the quality of its criticism and coverage is uneven.

More critical attention to the nuts and bolts of the local art scene, as in Boston Globe critic Sebastian Smee’s review of the DeCordova Biennial, could help to solidify the idea of a Boston contemporary art identity. In his piece, Smee takes care to describe and analyze the highlights of the exhibition, which features New England contemporary artists’ recent work.

Rumor has it that WBUR is throwing greater weight behind contemporary art coverage as well, participating in the founding of a new community art website that could provide a forum for online discussion and exchange.

ICA Boston's Design Life Now exhibition (via MOS LLC)

The Local Accent

If the city lacks a driving sense of itself, then what is Boston art about? If there’s a personality to the art of the city, I think one would not be amiss in defining it by its embrace of the interdisciplinary and the outskirts of ‘high’ contemporary art.

In my previous article, I referenced the work of artist Brian Knep for his creative re-imagining of digital technology and art. The MIT List Visual Arts Center consciously embraces art that works at the forefront of both of these fields, mounting new media video and installation pieces. The annual Boston Cyberarts Festival also forms a support network for art and artists that embrace social media, web art and the intersection of dance, music, literature and technology.

The Design Life Now Triennial, a no-holds-barred display of architecture, industrial design, video games, software and fashion mounted at the ICA in 2007, felt like a resounding shout out, a celebration of Boston’s atmosphere of creative innovation in all fields. Can we get some more of this enthusiasm?

In essence, Boston’s art thrives in the alternatives. We find contemporary art in parade celebrations of free music, epic works of puppet theater, interactive digital wall murals and tiny performance groups. We should play to our strengths and explore what makes us different rather than what keeps us subjugated to the New York scene.

Driven by the creative flash points of the city’s universities and the production of its technology and design firms, Boston’s art is comfortable between fields and fluent with the culture of innovation in a way that few other places can claim. If we as a city can embrace this ability to dance between boundaries and support artists who practice in such an interdisciplinary way, the Boston contemporary art community could truly live up to the potential of its unique context.

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