Saving the Golden Moment for Somerville’s Artists

On March 29, 2013, in Latest News, by The Somerville Times

graney_web(1)By Mimi Graney

(The opinions and views expressed in the commentaries of The Somerville News belong solely to the authors of those commentaries and do not reflect the views or opinions of The Somerville News, its staff or publishers.)

For decades Somerville’s underused industrial buildings have provided super cheap spaces for musicians, dancers, theatrical and circus performers, sculptors, painters, tinkerers and every manner of casually creative folk to practice, network and grow their craft in the urban landscape.

In successive waves Somerville’s artists invested their energy in our community, claiming the city as home with the fierce, local pride learned from their blue-collar neighbors.

The creative economy proved itself to be an important partner in the economic development of Somerville.  Reused garages to funky buildings not much fancier than a dog house, from a simple metal shed barely able to keep out the elements to old big brick buildings that evoke a robust manufacturing past, these industrial properties were built for work and Somerville’s artists are doing that with increasing seriousness.  With entrepreneurial energy rooted in an offbeat sensibility, Somerville’s creative workers are building small scale businesses of promise.

For example, we’re seeing significant changes over in the former Ames complex, a business that was once Somerville’s largest employer.  The expanses that rolled out envelopes, manila folders and metal filing cabinets for offices across the country is filled now with an eclectic assortment of thriving businesses from silkscreen printers to guitar builders, collaborative roboticists to acrobats and rock climbers.

While modest from the outside, there’s impressive innovation taking place inside. Just last month one of the companies at the Artisan’s Asylum raised over one million dollars in less than a week to bring their invention into production.

But this golden moment of Somerville’s creative businesses paying cheap money to collaborative or passive landlords can’t last forever. These industrial areas where artists and other creatives work are no longer forgotten corners.

The growing market for new housing and commercial development, along with the new transit improvements, means that proposals to overhaul these properties, once deemed unfeasible, are being marked among the list of wise investments.

Somerville’s crumbling industrial architecture is the nest that nurtures Somerville’s creative class. Studios and workshops in these marginal, quirky spaces fueled our city’s renaissance and as this wave of development grows these spaces are increasingly endangered. Somerville’s artists could very well fall victim, as has happened in other cities, to the gentrification they helped to create.

How might Somerville’s creative class respond?

Get serious about the business of your art so you have the financial means to weather the storm.  Create a business plan. Plan for the future of your creative enterprise.

Get serious about real estate.  Property owners are the gatekeepers of a neighborhood, so Somerville’s artist community needs to get hold of the keys.  It’s too late to start organizing when the For Sale sign appears on the building of your rehearsal space or when the developer submits plans to turn your studio with amazing light into luxury condos. Be proactive and start exploring seriously the formation of artist co-ops to buy land and buildings in the City.  Back in the 80s Somerville’s Brickbottom proved an early example of creative professionals, working together, to reclaim an underused building for live-work.  Today’s artists on Vernon Street, on Joy Street, on Boston Ave, on Central and Washington and elsewhere, couldn’t you do the same for your workspaces?
Create a legacy.  It’s not only about saving this generation of creatives in Somerville but about maintaining the environment that will allow artists and makers to continue to live and work in Somerville. Just as the City of Somerville has a trust for purchase of affordable housing, a similar mechanism could be established to form a cultural trust to purchase and maintain affordable creative workspaces.

Twenty years ago our arts community showed audaciousness when they declared Somerville “The Paris of the 90s” and named Union Square “The New Left Bank.”  It was initially spoken in a self-mocking way because Somerville had more than its share of naysayers.

But working closely together, with lots of pluck, ingenuity and a can-do spirit, this community proved the tongue-in-cheek moniker to not be so ironic.  The same kind of attitude that kept Somervillians from acting like victims when we were down, can serve us well in today’s upswing.

Mimi Graney is Executive Director of Union Square Main Streets


4 Responses to “Saving the Golden Moment for Somerville’s Artists”

  1. mememe says:

    Funded via both your state and local property taxes! Another worthy program the Mayor’s Office has decided to fund over feeding pregnant women and education children. Sounds like a broken record, but while lambasting the sequester as forcing him to cut those programs with one hand, while writing checks with the others, he and his council state their priorities.

  2. art in somerville says:

    Thank you for posting this thoughtful, timely, and well-intentioned call to arms at the Somerville News. I agree with you that it’s urgent for the community to claim itself and define what “development” will mean and to think of this next phase as cultural development, not only economic.

    Cultural doesn’t only mean “art” and farmer’s markets, and in the context of Somerville it means a general address to the diverse backgrounds of the residents with an intention for the type of streetscape we want and how all the feels.

    We need to not dive into the mythology of the “artist” and industrial space. Loft development is almost half a century old and what artists need, in general, is not a warehouse space. Artist’s Asylum is an incubator for a diversity of people, some artists, some not, but it’s the diversity and leadership over there that makes it buzz and will bring them longevity.

    What Somerville doesn’t have, and Boston lacks equally is a solvent cluster of non-profit arts organizations that have space, have access to some baseline funding from (yes mememe) the public, rent subsidies, or as there are for other businesses, some incentives.

    The myth that artists and curators etc should be volunteering their labor and accept financial condescension is over. Also is the time where it was cheap enough to live in Somerville as a full-time artist. Rents here are as expensive as in Brooklyn, so to the extent that the Left Bank was ever a reality in Union, the economics of that time and time to explore art is long gone. I’m not sure what type of art you have in mind when you mentioned a business plan – but we shouldn’t confuse designers and other “creative class” industries with art, nor should we confuse the fact that very few artists will ever make even enough money a year to pay rent in Somerville.

    So let’s get serious. If Somerville wants “art” – I’m sure the City owns property. Put out an RFP for proposals, and get a panel of of people running model contemporary arts centers in other cities to review them. Give them five years free rent and see what can happen.

    Pass an ordinance whereby insurance is paid for by the city for non-profits to do temporary exhibitions in empty buildings where the landlord is fearful of liability.

    Rethink the program of the Arts Council to be broader and more in touch with the larger national and international arts context. There are some incredible artists teaching at the local universities who are traveling all over the world and could be engaged to help make something happen here that could happen nowhere else besides NYC on the east coast.

  3. Resa says:

    Hi Mimi and “art in somerville,”

    Would you two be willing to join me to meet with someone from the Mayor’s office? I’m gathering a group of concerned Somerville citizens to discuss this very issue. We’re meeting at Vernon Street Studios on Monday, May 6th. If so, please email me at


  4. Tim Devin says:

    Hi Mimi-

    Thanks for this great article, and for getting this conversation going. One thing: Brickbottom was founded by ArtistSpace, which was funded by MCC. Which reinforces Artist In Somerville’s point about the need for funding…

    Anyway, great article, and thanks for writing it!

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