From 2001 to 2003, Boston Wharf Company (which had held nearly all of the real estate in Fort Point Channel since 1836) sold its waterfront real estate holdings — most of which had been occupied since the 1970s by artists. Developers like Tishman Speyer, a New York company with a Boston office, purchased the Fort Point wharf buildings from Boston Wharf. During the '80s, as many as 350 artists had studios there, estimates Jero Nesson, who was the first executive director of the Fort Point Arts Community and is now president and executive director of the non-profit ArtSpace Inc. in Maynard.
The neighborhood's longtime artist residents complained that developers capitalized on Fort Point's reputation as an artist community by marketing the neighborhood, rebranded as the "Seaport District," as an arts district, while simultaneously destroying long-standing artist studios and booting countless artists. In their places came profitable office space, condos, and a multitude of chain and upscale restaurants.
The neighborhood still exists, as do some of its artists, but for Perry, who saw friends and colleagues evicted from their studios and living spaces, it's a shadow of what it could be. And though the city has since tried to develop formalized artist housing, the community value and creative vibrancy that Fort Point represented hasn't been re-created. "As long as the city puts development over culture, then it's just going to keep happening," Perry adds. "There's no prioritization of it [cultural production] at all."
Boston's idea of value is something Novotny-Jones sees as a key disconnect between the city and its contemporary artists. Contemporary art-making "isn't about possessing an object," she says. "It's about the experience that the viewer or audience has. It goes totally against consumer culture." That, she believes, makes contemporary artists less appealing when they go up against big-ticket urban development projects like those at Fort Point. "How do you commodify the notion of being a vital part of a culture?", she asks.
If the root problem is indeed that Boston doesn't see the value in nurturing, funding, and promoting a healthy and diverse artistic ecosystem, then how can it entice more of its artists to stay or attract more artistic communities?
For Neelon, one answer comes in the form of public art. Public art communicates, he says, "that this is a city where your idea will get heard and where risks can be taken . . . but, more importantly, that this is a city that will accept fun and spontaneity and new things." Neelon is helping to install what will likely be two of the city's liveliest pieces of public art. They just weren't commissioned by the city.
The ICA commissioned the Brazilian graffiti and urban art duo, Os Gêmeos, to install two large-scale murals — one on the side of the Revere Hotel and one in Dewey Square on the Rose F. Kennedy Greenway. And while it's fitting that the ICA — an institution with the international tastes of most contemporary art museums — is raising Boston's contemporary profile by commissioning leading edge artists with a global reach, it raises the question: if the city supports bringing international contemporary artists to Boston, why wouldn't it better support the international contemporary artists already in Boston — artists such as Neelon himself? Why isn't the city regularly commissioning similar large-scale work by its own network of graffiti artists? (All this is notwithstanding the controversy that embroils the Dewey Square mural as we go to press; see Greg Cook's article.)
There's no doubt that other cities have prioritized local urban visual messaging. "When I go visit my friends, who abandoned me, all the way in San Francisco," Perry says, "I'm inspired by graffiti and street art, and visual and contemporary art, too, but I feel like that culture is ingrained in the city." Perry also points out that cultural diversity exists in the very fabric of place, resulting in an art scene that prides itself on cross-pollination and visibility. "Everywhere you turn, there's something interesting to look at and something inspirational."