JP Observer: Local man promotes and defends artists, arts

It was while Stephen Baird was studying chemical engineering that he began to transform himself into an arts impresario and advocate. While a student at Northeastern he opened a coffee house on campus that featured live music.

In one way or another, Baird, a Jamaica Plain resident since 1989, has been providing nourishment and arts for community—local to international—ever since.

For 30 years, Baird, a folks singer/songwriter, toured the country playing guitar, singing, and doing political satire drawing crowds at more than 500 colleges.

These days Baird spends two days a week taking fantastic pictures of birds and other wildlife, mostly in Boston and especially in the Emerald Necklace.

Also working with Friends of Jamaica Pond and the Jamaica Pond Project, he uses his photos to support green space in the city—exemplifying his duel roles as artist and community resource.

Baird’s office in his Parkside apartment is a hub of support for all arts and artists—from local to international levels. Over his long desk, different separate clipboards hang from shelves for each arts effort the nonprofit he formed in 2002—Community Arts Advocates (CAA)—manages. They include Jorge Arce &Humano and MusiConnects, among many others. He produced Jamaica Plain Open Studios and directed the Jamaica Plain Arts Council from 1999-2001. Many interns from local colleges and volunteers have assisted him over the decades.

“Nothing is more radical than an active artist scene,” Baird said in a recent interview. “Dictators imprison artists.”

He and his work have been covered in documentaries and articles in various places, including People magazine.

Baird has been a well-known advocate of the First Amendment rights of street performers since 1973. Streets Arts and Buskers Advocates is a key organization under the CAA umbrella. People doing academic research consult him. He has created several websites that are helpful to the public, including one with extensive information about laws, performances, locations, workshops, and referrals for the next generation of street artists to use.

Fifty subway performers crowded into Baird’s apartment for an emergency meeting in 2003. The MBTA had announced it was banning amplified music in subway stations. The performers only had four weeks to stop the ban. Baird recounted the campaign.

He advised the performers to contact law clinics and law schools. He and colleagues taught them how to do research and chat with elected officials and media.

“The power of the grassroots” was clear, he said. Each performer had a list of about 50 fans they informed about what was happening. The campaign was one of the first to use computers, and they collected 16,000 signatures in their support in two days. People lobbied their city councils as well as their state legislators.

Articles about the effort appeared here and in Chicago and Miami newspapers. It was covered by NPR. The general manager of the T came back from vacation and rescinded the order.

“Street performing is the foundation of cultural history around the world,” Baird said. “Each generation claims the street” with new art that then “becomes cooked” and moves into the mainstream. He has done so much to make sure that process continues.

[Sandra Storey is founder and former publisher and editor of the Jamaica Plain Gazette.]




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