Arts and cultural activities in neighborhoods across the city, including Jamaica Plain, are suffering due to lack of suitable space, according to a survey whose results are reflected in the Boston Creates 10-Year Plan from the City’s Office of Arts and Culture.
“The engagement process revealed a deep and widespread need for affordable cultural spaces for people to gather, create, collaborate, and participate in the arts,” Boston Creates reports. “Participants would like to see the use of more spaces for the arts beyond the downtown core, including libraries, the Boston Centers for Youth and Families, historic buildings, and public spaces.”
“Imagine Boston 2030,” the City’s plan for the future, sets a goal to provide artists “affordable space to live and work.”
The executive summary says, “Boston Creates [part of the plan] outlines a 10-year cultural plan for Boston that allocates new funding for the arts. The plan aims to align public and private resources to strengthen cultural vitality over the long-term and weave arts and culture into the fabric of everyday life.”
Artists report the need for space for studio work, live/work, classes, rehearsals, meetings, performances, recording, photo shoots, and exhibitions in neighborhoods.
A recent follow-up study commissioned by the City indicated that there is space for arts in the city, but much of it is not suitable, too expensive and/or not conveniently located. The study focused on performance space, but it seems the same problems exist with other art space needs.
Meanwhile, owners of historic local buildings are often in need of significant funds to preserve and restore them. One goal of The Community Preservation Act (CPA), which Boston voters approved in 2016, is to provide funds to do just that. In Jamaica Plain nowadays, some of the historic churches, schools, arts buildings and other prominent properties are serving as wonderful sites for arts and cultural uses within their walls and on their grounds right now.
Eight arts organizations in JP, plus First Church of JP, offer space for rent for arts activities in their buildings—most of them historic—through mass.spacefinder.org, a site sponsored by the Arts & Business Council of Boston. JPNDC, headquartered in The Brewery, offers artist work space for rent in a historic complex it owns.
Partners for Sacred Places is a national organization of all kinds of religious organizations that works to include community uses in their buildings. The group has a huge training manual available online called, “Making Homes for the Arts in Sacred Places.”
St. John’s Episcopal Church on Sumner Hill, built in 1882, is a member and hosts arts groups—including Grammy-nominated chamber orchestra A Far Cry and the Open Theater Project—to rehearse and perform there.
The historic building needs further restoration work, Rector Ted Cole Jr. said in an interview last week. For example, two sides of the stone tower have been restored, but two sides are waiting for further capital to be completed.
Historic building owners usually have to charge artists rent. Sometimes arts groups and artists can afford to pay what’s asked. And sometimes not. Finding suitable spaces to either use for ongoing programming or for specific performances are especially hard. And finding enough arts-related tenants whose rents could pay enough to fund building restoration and preservation is virtually unknown.
Until now, people involved with arts and historic buildings in JP have developed partnerships, but there could be more. Most important, access to arts opportunities and arts programming is too limited compared to what it should be for the 38,000 people who live here. Arts organizations that own their own spaces struggle, too.
Individual artists and representatives of more than a dozen local organizations involved with art met with state Rep.-elect Nika Elugardo on Nov. 15 to talk about their space problems.
Courtney Sharpe, director of Cultural Planning with City of Boston Arts and Culture Office, and Jay Paget of the Mass Cultural Facilities Fund and were also on hand. The meeting was organized by the Eliot School of Fine and Applied Arts, which has major space issues itself, and held at its historic schoolhouse on Eliot Street.
People gathered represent “a range of experiences and needs,” Eliot School Executive Director Abigail Norman, who put the meeting together, observed. Individual visual artists, the head of fledgling cultural group for teens, staff of arts groups that own their buildings and those that use space in City buildings, and representatives of a housing rights organization worried about affordability of space for artists were all voicing concerns.
Now enter the Community Preservation Fund (CPF)—which comes from a small surcharge on residential and business property taxes that began in 2017. Boston’s funds are overseen by the City of Boston with a Community Preservation Committee (CPC) setting priorities and making recommendations.
CPA guidelines in state law say one of the four uses of the funds may be “acquisition, preservation, rehabilitation and restoration of historic resources.” In June 2018, Mayor Martin Walsh and the CPC recommended directly giving more than $2.5 million in historic preservation renovation funds to 12 different properties, including seven religious ones; a former public school now being reused for community and cultural uses; a former “convenience station” built to support the streetcar system now headed for commercial use; a former settlement house that holds children’s programs; and two house museums. None is in JP.
What a matchmaker the CPA could be for a combination of arts and historic preservation! First, the Boston CPF administrators could put renovations to historic buildings that offer free or low-cost space to the arts on its list of funding priorities.
Most important, the Boston CPA could create some real, immediate synergy between arts and history. What if rents for arts activities and uses could be paid from CPA funds to owners of historic buildings?
Cole of St. John’s said he liked the idea of CPA offering arts rents so “the vibrant arts in JP” could use historic buildings like St. John’s.
An existing nonprofit organization or agency in Boston, given an administrative fee, could oversee the annually allocated CPA rent for arts funds. Certified artists and arts organizations could make requests of drawdowns of arts rent money, and checks would be issued to the historic buildings’ owners to go toward preservation and restoration of their buildings.
Some research may need to be done and questions answered, including: Can or will government (especially the City) accept CPA rent money for arts uses of its historic and often very suitable spaces with stages, meeting rooms, etc.? Can arts organizations be “certified” eligible by the City without being incorporated, much like individual artists can now be certified? How would buildings be deemed “historic?” What help, if any, can arts organizations that own their own historic buildings get from the arts rent program? Would for-profit historic building owners be eligible for arts rents? How should the arts rent money be apportioned among neighborhoods, artists, genres, and historic buildings, or would it be more like first come-first served? What time and space increments might arts rents cover? The first year would be a pilot project.
The arts rent program would be unusual, but it would simultaneously serve the historic preservation goals of the CPA and give a needed boost to arts and artists called for in Imagine Boston 2030. Developing this unique mechanism for preserving history will be worth the effort. Arts rents would have significant impact on preserving, not only history, but also the valuable community of arts and artists in the neighborhoods.
Sandra Storey is founder and former publisher and editor of the Jamaica Plain Gazette.