Residents vent on issues related to arts, artists, and artisans
As a major initiative for 2019, the team at the Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism (BINJ), in collaboration with partners at DigBoston, Somerville Media Center (SMC), and various other outlets, is focusing on identifying and reporting critical stories in the City of Somerville.
To that end, we have been leading journalism workshops at SMC, including some with high school students, and in February BINJ turned out more than 100 Somerville residents and active community members to the ONCE ballroom on Highland Ave to converse with area journalists about issues they think need more coverage. The information these participants provided has already seeded articles and will continue to bear fruit over the coming months.
In addition to our follow-ups, we have transcribed all of the presentations given at ONCE. It’s a lot to chew on, so for the purpose of reporting back we parsed sentiments of the participating Somervillians into the following categories (many of which overlap at multiple intersections):
- Neighborhoods, transit, and accessibility
- Union Square and other development
- Low-income residents and affordable housing
- Immigrant communities
- Trees and the environment
- Arts, artists, and artisans
In addition to reports that stem from the February meetup, over the coming weeks we will also publish words and ideas that stood out at the summit. This week, we get into excerpts from various testimonies related to arts, artists, and artisans.
Ted Sirota, Artisan’s Asylum
Our mission is to enable people to make whatever they want to make, to learn from each other, and to teach each other. And we want to provide space for people to be able to do this and that’s kind of our main goal. … We have a couple of pretty big issues that we’re facing all the time. One of the biggest ones is just access to space for our artists. No two people do the same thing and so we have a lot of diversity in the setups that we need. Somerville has a huge opportunity to kind of help us out with that. There’s schools, there’s old buildings, warehouses that we could inhabit and create things. So that’s our kind of number one concern. Our number two concern is just getting out there, getting people to know who we are, what we do. … We have a lot of creative thinkers, a lot of creative people.
Heather Balchunas, Vernon Street Studios/Somerville Arts Council
[Vernon Street Studios has] been in existence for over 40 years, we’re one of the oldest artist buildings here in Somerville, and we have over 100 artists in the building. It’s very exciting. And some of them are emerging artists and some are working professionals, teachers, hobbyists. … We participate in open studios twice a year; one is on our own, and one is as a greater collective of all the wonderful artists that are here in Somerville. … One of [the] dilemmas artists’ buildings are kind of facing right now is there’s so many open studios. There’s an open studios every single week, and Somerville’s special, we have a lot of artists’ buildings. … I think there’s an oversaturation with the open studios kind format … We have over 400 artists here in Somerville and each artist is doing unique wonderful work and I think that really kind of needs to be showcased, not just here in my building, but again just throughout the community. … It’s not just pretty paintings, but some of them are also doing community activism too, they’re engaging the public through the social response to the political landscape. … I think this is the start of a really wonderful conversation about how we can make not just our creative community more dynamic but also our social-political landscape too.
Robert Goss, Brickbottom Artists Association
We started this back in ’86; we had two years of construction and demolition before we moved in on April Fool’s Day 1988. A good number of the original members are still living there. Something that we’ve tried to explain to [Green Line Extension] people and others is that there are families there, there are children who’ve grown up there and there’s a whole new group of children being born there … It is live work space, which everyone is not aware of. I remember talking to a GLX rep at a meeting and saying, “We have families here, we have children,” and he said, “Oh, we had no idea, we just assumed it was a bunch of artists hanging out there.” These are people’s homes. If we were 150 houses, we would be treated very differently by the city than [we are as] a vertical community.
I think part of the concern is that a lot of the other spaces are rentals and people are going to get evicted. Several of us lived in and had studios in the Fort Point area [in Boston before moving to Somerville]. I paid $3 per square foot for studio space. The same building, the same floor, a 2,000 square foot space recently sold for over $3 million dollars. That’s what we don’t want to happen here. Who can afford it?
Jo Guthrie, Theater@First
We are Sommerville’s community theater. … We are 100% volunteer run. … In general, let me specify, Somerville needs more affordable rehearsal and performance spaces that are handicap-accessible. We also need affordable and accessible outdoor productions which can include outdoor bathrooms, actually that’s one of the problems we have. We have a lot of folks who are interested in doing outdoor performances but nowhere for our audiences to pee.
Jay Sekora, Post-Meridian Radio Players
We are a live staged radio drama group. We’re a sibling organization to Theater@First, but instead of fully staged stuff, it’s people at microphones often in costume. … Obviously we’re looking for publicity. Not just to get audiences to our performances, but also to get people to our auditions and to get proposals submitted and scripts submitted and stuff like that. That’s not as important in the grand scheme of things as poverty and affordable housing and equitable development, but we are affected by the same changes in the media landscape that are affecting everyone in this room. As newspapers consolidate and there are fewer and fewer of them and they’re more centralized and nationally oriented, it’s harder for independent voices to get out and it’s harder for us to get in touch with our neighbors. As attention gets more focused on online forums and places that might be echo chambers where you already have like-minded people and that are not geographically organized, it’s often easier for us to communicate with radio theater aficionados in the Twin Cities or California than it is to communicate with our neighbors who can actually come to our shows and who we want to serve.
Transcription by Spencer Walter.