Rent is rising, galleries and studios are vanishing and the Dorchester arts community marches on

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By Marja Koos 

Boston University News Service 

While many studios and community art spaces are closing around Greater Boston, one Dorchester community is working to keep the art scene alive. In an unprecedented collaboration between local artists, developers and city officials, the artist workspaces at Humphreys Street Studios will remain an affordable, artist-owned space. 

Mayor Wu proclaimed Nov. 19  “Art Stays Here” day in Boston, a slogan used by the artists while advocating to save their studios. Artists of all disciplines and mediums work together in the same space, including blacksmiths, silk screen printers, carpenters, sculptors and textile artists. The openness and the affordability of the studios is almost unheard of in the area, said resident painter Franklin Marval, which is why he has rented his studio there for 10 years. 

A development project is underway in the back lot of the studios. For years, the owners of the property discussed the idea of selling, and the land officially went up for sale in 2019, said Marval. 

The artists banded together and created a tenant union, led by Ami Bennitt, a longtime community organizer and arts advocate.

 “She was the glue for these meetings,” Marval said. “But it was the whole building inspiring each other. It was a group effort.” 

They held meetings for two years to discuss any possible solutions to the problem. The artists teamed up with two development companies and posed the idea of an artist-run co-op and affordable housing. Bennitt and other board members reached out to members of the community, people that worked for the city and the Mayor’s Office of Arts and Culture, which was particularly influential in the process. 

“The city was very receptive from the beginning and up to now,” said Marval. “They are very connected with this project.”

“When you start looking at the connection that every artist at this building has to this neighborhood,” said Marval. “You will find how important this studio is to the neighborhood.” 

Dorchester held their Open Studios event, which is a two-day collaboration, in mid-October. The event was sponsored by the nonprofit Brain Arts Organization and included studio spaces across the area. Dozens of residential artists displayed their work, with opportunities to sell and network. 

Marval took the opportunity to sell posters and other prints to raise money for children to take art classes in Venezuela, his home country. He raised over $500 over the Open Studios weekend.

“The people who are running those spaces are barely making it too,” said Sam Potrykus, the founder of the nonprofit Brain Arts Organization. “It’s hard to run a studio space.” 

The Dorchester Art Project, another studio and gallery space in the area run by Brain Arts, has also been dealing with the changing landscape after its storefront closed at the end of last year. 

“The city is trying to find a way to support us more with funding,” said Potrykus. “There’s bureaucracy that prevents people from just giving funds away.” 

The organization is largely a volunteer-run, part-time operation, with many artists working one to two other jobs to pay for studio space, but Potrykus said this is not a long-term viable option. 

“Wellness is a really important part of that,” said Potrykus. “People shouldn’t have to work for unfair compensation, but we don’t always have the funds to pay that. It’s an ongoing conversation.”

Since the COVID-19 pandemic, Potrykus has been running things differently, with a focus on the emotional and mental health of the workers. This means cutting back on the almost 200 events held in previous years and lighter involvement in some projects. But the benefits far outweigh the cost. 

“We can’t get opportunities into the hands of artists in a sustainable way unless we ourselves are taken care of,” he added. 

Aside from the Dorchester Art Project, the organization also puts out the Boston Compass Newspaper each month, highlighting Greater Boston happenings in arts, music and culture. But, the main focus of Brain Arts surrounds equity in the arts. 

Money and resources are often withheld from artist collectives and small businesses. They have to jump through hoops to secure grants and funding. 

“Ultimately the system has not been built to support us,” said Potrykus. 

Even so, he thinks there is plenty of money out there. “If all these institutions actually matched their claim to want to help the community with their budget, we would see a lot more support and stability in these arts communities,” he said. 

According to Marval, the artists and sponsors are planning another Open Studios event in May — only this time, on a bigger scale. The artists will also be hosting a Winter Holiday Market in December. 

“One of the things we want to do is create a market so more people can sell art and connect during the event,” Marval said. “Art as a space is not in danger. We just need to ask for it.” 

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