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How to keep artists in Boston? The city is looking for solutions

A sign hangs in Wayne Strattman’s studio with six words written in slender glass tubes: helium, neon, argon, krypton, xenon, mercury. Each is illuminated with the gas that describes it. Helium glows a light peach; neon, the most common, glows red-orange. Krypton is white, argon is fuchsia, xenon is a muted blue, and mercury is a bright azure. Although technically mercury is not a gas. “It’s a vapor,” says Strattman.

A sign on the wall of Wayne Strattman's studio shows the different plasma colors of different gases.  (Robin Lubbock/WBUR)
A sign on the wall of Wayne Strattman’s studio shows the different plasma colors of different gases. (Robin Lubbock/WBUR)

Strattman is a glass and light artist. He has designed museum displays, toys and set pieces in films. (The glowing green lights in the Borg regeneration stations in Star Trek VIII: First Contact? Those were his.) His 1,500-square-foot studio at 119 Braintree St. in Allston teems with discarded prototypes and glass sculptures. Strattman is particularly fond of decanters, which he keeps bundled on a shelf. In one is a small figure – a man with an outstretched hand holding a deep red heart.

“I originally made this decanter as a gift for someone I was dating,” says Strattman. “And she broke up with me, and I took it apart, punched a hole through the heart, and put his heart in his hand. It’s called ‘Can I get you anything else?’”

Strattman, as you might have guessed, is not the type to feign optimism.

Wayne Strattman's glass sculpture of a heartbroken man holding his heart is called
Wayne Strattman’s glass sculpture of a heartbroken man holding his heart is titled “Can I Give You Anything Other?”. (Robin Lubbock/WBUR)

He has every reason to be pessimistic at the moment. The building where he rents his studio is set to be demolished and converted into laboratories and offices, meaning that over 100 artists and craftspeople will lose their jobs. Strattman despairs that he will not be able to find an affordable replacement. And it’s not for lack of effort.

“Honestly, there isn’t a community east of the Connecticut River that I probably haven’t been to,” he says. “Sales prices are astronomical — mostly in the millions, and lease rates are high. Also, lab space is taken up from Boston, basically within a radius of about 30 miles in each direction. So they take all the small commercial space and drive the cost per square foot to $30, $35, $40 per square foot. And artists just don’t have the income to fund that.”

Artist Wayne Strattman in his glass and plasma studio in Boston.  (Robin Lubbock/WBUR)
Artist Wayne Strattman in his glass and plasma studio in Boston. (Robin Lubbock/WBUR)

This isn’t the first time Strattman has faced an eviction. He was part of a group of artists who, after a bitter legal battle in the late 1990s, won the right to keep their living/working studios in the Piano Factory in the South End, only to watch the landlord gradually convert the building into luxury apartments converted.

“Over the years, I’ve testified before the City Council, written letters, and participated in online petitions,” says Strattman. “It has largely gone unanswered by the city.”

Strattman believes Boston’s leadership must take responsibility for what happens to artists. The problem, he says, is worse than ever. But his impression is that the city has little power to create or maintain space for artists.

“They do a lot of studies and stuff, and that’s not what we need,” he says. “We don’t need any further studies. The problem is obvious.”

Glass artifacts by glass and plasma sculptor Wayne Strattman.  (Robin Lubbock/WBUR)
Glass artifacts by glass and plasma sculptor Wayne Strattman. (Robin Lubbock/WBUR)

Strattman’s story is in many ways emblematic of the experience of creatives navigating the pressures of Boston’s hot real estate market, where music venues struggle to stay afloat, artists bemoan the lack of rehearsal spaces, and developers gobble up industrial buildings long obsolete have painters, sculptors and artisans of the city.

And Strattman is right that, despite a robust Department of Arts and Culture, the city has few tools to help. The 14-person office has an operating budget of $3 million, which it uses to fund artists and cultural organizations, support public arts, and advocate for arts and culture across the city. But only one employee takes care of the problem of the dwindling cultural space – Melissa Meyer, the head of cultural planning. Meyer is often the go-to person for panicked artists worried about their studios going public. It is usually too late for the city to intervene. “By the time people talk about selling, it’s sold,” says Meyer. “Or it’s about to be sold.”

Meyer hopes that will change soon. The 2023 budget proposed by Mayor Michelle Wu will allow the Arts and Culture Bureau to hire two more staff who can help it deal with the eviction problem. One will be a link to developers and the city’s planning and development agency. “It’s really almost a full-time job, keeping up with the development pipeline in the city,” says Meyer.

Melissa Meyer, Boston's cultural planning project manager, speaks with artists during a visit to Humphreys Street Studios in Dorchester.  (Robin Lubbock/WBUR)
Melissa Meyer, Boston’s cultural planning project manager, speaks with artists during a visit to Humphreys Street Studios in Dorchester. (Robin Lubbock/WBUR)

The other new hire would focus on community engagement, building relationships with artists and cultural organizations before a crisis hits.

“We really have to take our time: Where is cultural work taking place right now? How does it look? What is at risk?” says Kara Elliott-Ortega, Boston’s director of arts and culture. “You know how do we build relationships from the ground up so we understand when a building might come to market?”

The Bureau of Arts and Culture will also get a boon if a proposal from Mayor Wu is approved: $20 million in American Recovery Act funds to be used over three years.

“This would be a historic investment in the city’s art,” says Elliott-Ortega.

The Department of Arts and Culture plans to distribute the majority of ARPA funds directly to artists and cultural organizations in the form of grants. However, the funds are intended to compensate for losses caused by the pandemic and are strictly limited when it comes to capital investments. That means the city can’t use the money to purchase or develop real estate for the arts — a pretty big caveat for a potentially transformative investment.

“I’d like to be able to say that we’re going to buy five buildings with this money, but I can’t say that,” says Elliott-Ortega. But she sees the money as an opportunity to access new resources. “The art department doesn’t have loan officers,” she explains. “We don’t have a room full of engineers and real estate financiers like maybe some other departments do as part of their process because we never had the funding to do real estate related work.”

The grant will also allow the office to reallocate approximately half a million dollars from the operating budget to grants for cultural institutions. These grants could be used to help organizations improve their premises or even invest money in securing property. But half a million dollars does not measure up to what is needed. Buying real estate is expensive – and there is no doubt that the best way to preserve cultural space is to buy it.

119 Braintree Street, a building currently used by many artists, is scheduled for demolition for redevelopment.  (Robin Lubbock/WBUR)
119 Braintree St., a building currently used by many artists, is scheduled for demolition for redevelopment. (Robin Lubbock/WBUR)

In the absence of dedicated public funding for arts venues, the Department of Arts and Culture is attempting to harness the development boom to the benefit of artists and is examining existing programs to adapt.

For example, one section of the South End has a zoning requirement that forces developers to either incorporate affordable commercial or community space into their buildings or to contribute to a community community fund. What if the city expanded a version of this program and developers across Boston needed to contribute to a central fund for preserving and building cultural space?

“If there were no caps on the funding from these projects and we could actually just put them into a citywide fund, that would be a big step,” says Elliott-Ortega.

Kara Elliott-Ortega, Boston's director of arts and culture at the Strand Theater in 2019. (Robin Lubbock/WBUR)
Kara Elliott-Ortega, Boston’s director of arts and culture at the Strand Theater in 2019. (Robin Lubbock/WBUR)

A citywide fund would solve two problems. Currently, the city’s primary tool for creating cultural space is to ask developers to include it in proposed developments. This often results in the space being too small or otherwise unsuitable for artists’ actual needs. “What we see is that in larger projects, these spaces are often exhausted, and it just never really fills the need, does it [making up for] the loss of space,” says Elliott-Ortega.

With a fund for art sites, the Department of Arts and Culture could provide grants to artists and cultural organizations trying to buy space and support them in carrying out development projects. The money could be invested where the need is greatest, not just where development is booming.

But perhaps Elliott-Ortega’s best hope is for the city to build its own arts center to replace the lost cultural spaces — studios, rehearsal complexes, music venues. “I hope it would be a big symbol of the artist community that the city really cares, that we understand the importance and that we’re moving the level of resources needed,” she says.

The city is still a long way from realizing such a project – years, if not decades, which will be too late for many artists. This is the challenge that the Cultural Office now faces when it comes to using the increased funds: to find a way to preserve and replace the rapidly dwindling cultural space – before it is too late for everyone.

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