From “Momentum” at Kayafas Gallery | Photo by Nathaniel J. Fink
Inclusivity (finally) hits Boston’s art scene, plans for longevity
BLAA’s planning committee meets, as many of Boston’s most interesting (read DIY) arts organizations do, in the living room of one of its members. May’s monthly meeting gets underway at dusk and by candlelight. Tone is what makes the gathering feel different than the usual board or collective meeting: it’s businesslike but intimate at the same time.
BLAA (Boston LGBTQIA Artists Alliance—see the BLAA site for a further unpacking of the acronym) is a volunteer, artist-run organization “that seeks to elevate the visibility of and provide resources to LGBTQIA-identifying Boston-area artists.”
In doing so, BLAA is modeling a way of being a creative community that is sorely needed in Boston if artists are to consider staying here after finishing school. Let’s face it: in addition to being an expensive city, there are limited opportunities for local artists which often get distributed repeatedly to the same few people by the same few decision makers. The result has a demoralizing and stodgy effect on Boston’s art scene.
Enter BLAA, with a name campy enough for queer people to recognize as a beacon, but a dead-seriousness about challenging Boston’s arts culture’s status quo.
BLAA was initiated by Sean M. Johnson. Originally from Rhode Island, Johnson got an MFA at the School of the Museum of Fine Arts at Tufts and then a German Academic Exchange Service (DAAD) award to go make artwork about Berlin’s queer culture.
As he grappled with severe culture shock, Johnson found himself forging connections where he felt vulnerable in a more authentic way than he ever had before. “It changed a lot of how I see the world and how I see myself … broke down all of these desires I had to be an art star. It was very humbling.“
On returning, Johnson craved this kind of community in Boston.
“I was hosting Fur & Gold at The Alley, which really tried to break with stereotypical queer nightlife. It always had an art element but I wanted more of that.” Post-Berlin, he felt a strong passion for connecting people and helping to build an atmosphere where they could flourish, and also sensed that Boston’s existing art institutions were not reaching out to the queer community, so he gathered friends into what he describes as “a queer artist meetup group.” Collectively, they worked their social networks to see what they could make happen.
What happened first was a dynamic, performance-focused SOWA pop-up show spanning three galleries (Samson Projects, Gallery Kayafas, and Anthony Greaney) aptly called Momentum. The success of Momentum got the group amped up.
A volunteer at the Male Center at Fenway Health, Johnson talked his boss into letting a storefront conference room act as BLAA’s meeting and exhibition space from 2012 through 2014, when the center got absorbed into another organization.
An itinerant version of BLAA—at that point, pretty much four people: Johnson, Dave J. Bermingham, Alex Mancini, and Allison Maria Rodriguez—kicked around a bit, but Johnson was ready to move on from Boston and the others were overwhelmed by the responsibilities of their day jobs.
The group researched incorporating, but the cost and complication helped them recognize that becoming more formalized didn’t matter to them. “Our main priority was just to continue putting on shows and to be a resource,” explains Alex Mancini. Without a space, a leader, or much free time though, BLAA was on the cusp of slowing these activities down to a crawl. Instead, they ramped into high gear.
“Really Dylan was the driving force,” says Mancini.
Dylan Hurwitz attended a few meetings in 2014 in an effort to find a queer community that resonated with his interests as an artist and community activist. (Hurwitz studied painting, but business as well—and while in school had run an Amnesty International group and a queer men’s group.)
“I probably seemed like this over-eager new guy” he admits, “but when I heard the uncertainty of the group, I just wanted to stand up and take the group forward. It just seemed like a very unique organization for Boston, doing unique work, bringing people together in a way that other organizations weren’t.”
“Dylan has done so much, individually, working with people to expand opportunities and community connections,” explains Allison Maria Rodriguez. He’s brought increased diversity to the group and has amplified public awareness of BLAA. “In the early days,” says Mancini, “we were lucky if there were 25 people at an opening. Now there are often 150 plus people.”
However, Hurwitz is about to step down himself, so much of the May BLAA meeting focused on the group’s adjustment period.
Dave J. Bermingham, recently returned to Boston from Chicago, makes a gentle offer to step in as an interim executive director (but expresses a lot of hesitation about being “yet another white, cis-gendered, male inhabiting the role”), while the search continues for someone with enthusiasm for the volunteer position who isn’t all of those things.
This discussion intertwines freely with other issues at the forefront of BLAA’s collective consciousness: keeping the opening of their upcoming show, Hydra Effect, from either competing with the annual Dyke March afterparties, or having too much affiliation with Boston’s mainstream Pride Week activities—a culture all committee members present find decidedly alien. They decide on a closing rather than an opening, and then discuss the next show on the horizon.
The meeting has an agenda, but it doesn’t feel imposed or carved in stone. Those who’ve been attending meetings since BLAA’s beginnings don’t have any more of a right to give input or propose ideas than those showing up for the first time.
Meetings are open to anyone with even remote curiosity about the group’s activities. If your ideas involve the intersection of queerness and art, they are welcome and considered. Being a committee member just means attending three meetings within a year. All shows are open-call based, and pitches for shows can be brought to meetings or submitted through BLAA’s website.
BLAA is diligent about reducing barriers to entry, both real and perceived. Bermingham says openness was baked in from the beginning.
“We had this goal of creating a sense of flow—knowing that Boston is a transient place, people come and go—establishing this network that could survive multiple identities and absorb the ideas of newcomers, but still maintain some kind of semblance of what it was before.”
Rodriguez puts the approach in context: “Arts communities in Boston are hard for people to get access to. We have a social and political agenda that’s right out there. We pull strategies from other types of nonprofits and function in a way that’s completely open and transparent. We’re creating a scene not an institution. We make things broad on purpose.”
BLAA members describe their attraction and commitment to BLAA similarly.
“When you look at queer groups and organizations in Boston,” says Mancini, “most of them are focused on specific parts of the community… I identify more with the overall queer community, with all kinds of sexualities and genders included, so for me it was important to find something that serviced everyone, and it included art! The two parts of my identity that are most essential to me are my queerness and my creativity.”
Lenny Schnier connected with BLAA in 2015, as a participant in the exhibition Makeover. They started attending meetings, and then curated a show last year. Lenny cites BLAA’s commitment to “privileging and amplifying queer voices” as a major draw. Seeing the art world as a place of cis white male dominance, they appreciate BLAA’s thinking about “ways to represent a diverse array of experiences.” Experiences, Lenny points out, “that are relevant to more than just queer people.”
In the time that BLAA has been formally tracking its impact, it reports having shown 165 artists, and engaged over 1300 people. BLAA currently has 12 committee members, but there’ve been 30-plus over time.
Moving forward, the group is not resting on its laurels. BLAA shows far more interest in expanding its community than in landing a fairy godfunder or an exhibition in a museum.
“We don’t have any money,” Lenny explains, “so there’s no bottom line to preserve.” Instead of lamenting the limitations this implies, Lenny and others recognize the freedom from formula. “We’d like to work with other groups … There’s this round table discussion on queer—including trans, non-binary—women’s health at Fenway [Health], and I’ve been attending some of these meetings … Thinking about health is a great way to think about what BLAA can be doing—focusing on [the] wellbeing and health of queer experiences … Also, always looking for ways to support and help more marginalized communities.”
Mancini wants to maintain a space that encourages budding queer artists to express themselves with their queerness in the foreground, and also to make sure that people always feel they can reach out to someone if they want to know more about BLAA. “We’re just other people, in the same community, doing this work because we care about it.”
Rodriguez wants to bring in more differently-abled artists and sees BLAA’s work as “a cultural happening rather than an aesthetic movement,” and as being more “about people and access than about the art itself—it’s about the people behind the art.”
As Hurwitz steps down, his immediate wish is for the exhibitions to remain “high quality and challenging, but also accessible.” He’s not afraid to dream bigger though. “We have three exhibitions a year, but if we had more capacity, we’d want to be doing monthly crits; open mics; curated exhibitions as well as open calls; and ideally a queer biennial—a larger scale, survey exhibition of Boston/New England queer artists—every two years.”
But BLAA’s happy, for now, to just be inclusive and welcoming. It seems simple, but having a place, as Mancini puts it, “where you’re accepted and celebrated because of who you are … where there is no rushing to judgment about an idea” is actually no small thing.
This article was produced by the Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism and published in DigBoston.
Disclosure: Though not affiliated with BLAA, the author has had artwork included in past BLAA exhibitions (which are all curated via open calls).