PLACING VALUE Contemporary art-making "sn't about possessing an object," says artist Mari Novotny-Jones, seen here in a street performance in Brooklyn.
For example, Boston's MFA, one of the largest privately funded museums in the world, was able to raise $12.5 million for its much-anticipated Linde Family Wing for Contemporary Art, which features only a few New England artists on the first floor. However, the Massachusetts Cultural Council, which re-grants its funds directly to artists and smaller arts organizations across the entire state, fought a hard-won battle for its anemic $9.5 million budget this year.
So while the MFA boasts a wing dedicated to world-renowned contemporary artists, the state itself is giving less money, with little public outcry, to its own artists making contemporary work. It's a vicious cycle, ultimately reducing the likelihood of home-grown MFA-worthy contemporary artists.
Beyond sheer economics, though, Neelon sees Boston's lack of financially and publicly successful contemporary artists, or "art stars," as having a trickle-down effect on the overall morale of the artistic community. "That's a tricky predicament for young people here," he says. "It's a city where you've got tons and tons of education, but very little mentorship." For Neelon, 35, education imparts institutionally sanctioned knowledge, while art-star mentors guide young artists, introducing them to gallerists and collectors, and providing moral support. They're also beacons of local artistic success, giving young artists an incentive, in the form of example, to stick it out. Boston is no stranger to the production of world-class artists, however. The list of art-star alumni from the School of the Museum of Fine Arts alone is staggering — Ellsworth Kelly, Cy Twombly, Nan Goldin, and Richard Scarry, to name a few. Some renowned artists like Gerry Bergstein, Mari Novotny-Jones, and Maria Campos-Pons toughed it out, but the majority migrates elsewhere.
So why aren't rising art stars sticking around? Perry chalks it up to an unfortunate cycle. "People aren't getting the cultural inspiration that they want, and they leave [Boston] to find it elsewhere. And I think that that is all tied to the identity of the city."
Boston's arts identity is perhaps best illustrated, if only anecdotally, by the city's "Resources for Visual Artists" Web page. If you click through to it, you'll find an elderly white woman painting flowers on a wall. A paltry list of three resource sites, none of which involve funding or exhibition opportunities, encompasses the entirety of the page's content.
And though the Massachusetts Cultural Council does have a comprehensive Web site that leans toward Boston when it comes to resources and opportunities, other major cities such as San Francisco (and at times minor ones, as is the case with Boston's neighbor city of Somerville) boast dedicated city arts commission sites loaded with city and private funding resources, exhibition opportunities, and artist interviews to highlight what's happening on both the state and city level.
"If you're always beat up about not being able to connect with other people and ideas, you just end up going somewhere else where it exists," Perry says. "Particularly if you're trying to do things that are more avant-garde or challenging."
And yet, performance artist, SMFA professor, and Mobius member Mari Novotny-Jones — who has lived and worked in Boston since 1974 — says that it hasn't always been this way. As she notes, Boston in the early '70s had a vibrant contemporary art scene. "There were so many experimental theatres, Boston performance artists, and creative, risk-taking projects happening," she says. "There was so much energy; the city was so much different."
"There were plenty of spaces," Novotny-Jones remembers. In fact, until the early 2000s, Boston possessed one of the oldest and most dynamic artistic communities in New England, an artistic community that played a large role in the greater arts ecosystem of Boston, nurturing experimental venues like Mobius, and providing inexpensive studio spaces for artists at varied points in their careers.