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A Better Boston: Artists’ Perspectives

Just in case you missed it, this post is the final in a three-part series on the Boston art scene – Part 1: Sourcing Local for Boston Art – Part 2: Rebooting Boston’s Art Inferiority Complex

Boston artists understand that the city’s contemporary art community lacks punch. After all, they’re the ones in the middle of it, surrounded on all sides by curators, galleries and critics. As artists have responded to the problems set out in my series on the Boston contemporary art scene, their comments point towards a working answer for one question: how could the Boston art community be made better for the city’s artists?

One common concern among Boston artists is the scarcity of funding opportunities, including both commercial sales and grants. Brian Knep, a Boston-based multimedia artist, points out that there is a lack of local funding from art institutions and the city government.

“I wish there were an institutional paid residency for artists,” Knep says. “A think-tank where I have a studio, show my work once in a while, and draw a salary.” Notably, Knep has held residencies at Harvard Medical School in 2006 and 2007, which had a large impact on his art. The experiences help spark the development of his frog video installations and more recent photographic pieces.

The possibility of expanding residency programs seems uniquely feasible in Boston’s creative atmosphere. Non-art institutions, like Harvard, could invite artists and support them financially, while gaining the benefit of inspiration, media attention, and cultural capital.

Julie Levesque, Bisecting the American Dream, 2004

Increasingly, artists are looking towards unorthodox venues for exhibitions and sales. Local artist Scott Chasse runs the Distillery Gallery, an alternative space that shows local artists and coordinates exhibitions with area restaurants. In response to my questions, he writes: “I think by carefully seeking alternative venues where my work would show well, I’ve found many more opportunities than I would have if I sat around … waiting for that unlikely moment when some commercial gallerist walks through my studio door.”

Alternative art spaces are well and good, but Boston’s LaMontagne Gallery director Alex Jacobson notes that the “art world in the US is (for better or worse) built on a private capital model. If Boston is going to build a burgeoning art community what it really needs is better, younger galleries and better, younger collectors.” This echoes ICA Boston curator Randi Hopkins’ previous comments.

Artist Julie Levesque points out that ICA Boston has begun collecting local art, and they also focus on young collectors with a membership group and special museum events — all developments that suggest a brighter future for demand for Boston contemporary art.

Tory Fair, a LaMontagne gallery artist and Brandeis University professor, appreciates the accessibility of Boston’s art scene, but writes, “Sometimes it feels that the artists are doing their job, but the folks who create the cash flow and critical dialogue back to the artists are somewhat eclipsed in Boston. Why don’t collectors buy off shows in Boston? Why aren’t there more art critics for the papers? It’s a conservative town, no doubt.”

Optimism-Cynicism-Realism

Hope for Boston’s contemporary art community flows in a few different directions. Alex Jacobson of LaMontagne Gallery focuses on opening Boston up to other influences rather than concentrating attention at home, a move that he says would reinforce regionalism. “The idea that Boston exists primarily to support Boston artists only furthers the notion by outsiders that Boston is not a city worth paying attention to,” he says. “The goal is to find a way to remain critically aware and relevant, and that means caring what happens in New York and LA and London and Berlin.”

Brad Philips, Painting for the City of Boston, 2009 (courtesy of LaMontagne Gallery)

Julie Levesque notes that Boston isn’t alone in its struggle for critical attention and against provincialism. “As for all the best and brightest going to NYC – the lure of NY or LA is there no matter which other city you speak about – we just happen to be on the doorstep so it’s an easy leap.”  Still, the artist feels that Boston art is moving toward a better place. “My take is that things have been slowly changing – it has picked up speed in the last couple of years and I see evidence that it could move along even faster,” she says.

Tory Fair also sees progress. Remarking on a recent William Pope L. performance hosted at the DeCordova Museum, she writes, “[I was] sitting next to some older trustee-types. I think they all hated the performance, but I loved it. And I respect and love the vibe that the DeCordova [and others are] challenging some of the more conservative notions of art in this town.”

Boston’s Universal Problem

In Boston, a balance must be developed between simultaneously looking inward and outward. Boston critics must make more effort to engage with Boston artists as well as art stars, attend gallery openings, and understand where local art is going. Curators must also notice these trends and reinforce successes with museum shows. Boston artists must keep fighting: to better their own work, to find ways to thrive in commercial gallery and alternative settings, and to keep developing a coherent community where art-worlders can always find support and an open mind. This, I think, is the most important piece of the contemporary art scene puzzle: a willingness from everyone to listen in, keep an ear to the ground, and stay attuned to a city’s evolving atmosphere and art.

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