Art Failure

One day this spring, I was in Downtown Crossing, by the shell of the former Filene’s, when a man walked by carrying the kind of giant ghetto blaster you stopped seeing after the mid-’90s, unless you frequent ironic college parties, or maybe dance-offs featuring b-boys from Germany. A ground-down-looking character, he nonetheless had some style to him, and strutted along blaring a Parliament song. It was a sunny Saturday afternoon, and the din added a little life to what can otherwise be a tired part of town that only really appeals to vermin and failing businesses. Against that backdrop, this guy was a good detail, a bit of atmosphere, one of those small incongruities that make living in a city worthwhile.

All of which meant he had to be stopped immediately. This is Boston, after all, where bursts of unsanctioned or inconvenient expression tend to be frowned upon. A cop on a bike materialized and told the guy to turn off his radio. The guy, recognizing that raging ghetto blaster seldom trumps cop, did. And relative silence once again returned to this stretch of Washington Street. Surely the nearest residents, living four blocks away in large, hermetically sealed glass towers, were grateful to the fine officer for restoring the peace.

That scene popped into my head when, in May, the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) released a study that ranked Massachusetts third in the nation in artists per capita (fourth if you count DC), and Boston fifth among metro areas in terms of the total number of artists. It’s been said again and again that creative people are important to the future of the local economy since, unlike the rest of you clammy, bloodless cogs, they engender an aura of innovation that will ultimately prevent our economy from getting crushed by places like North Carolina. But that’s not what was interesting to me about the study. What’s interesting is that it seems to run counter to everything I’ve been hearing about the city’s creative class. Far from being a place that welcomes and nurtures its artists, Boston continues to have a reputation as a place for many artists to leave, hastily, before it renders them incapable of creating anything but cat paintings, community theater, and worn-out lounge jazz.

Indeed, a closer look at the NEA numbers shows that while we do have a lot of people who call themselves artists, we’re also posting huge losses in some of the key individual categories. Since 1990, we’ve lost 45 percent of our actors, 30 percent of our fine artists and animators, and 20 percent of our photographers, for example. Meanwhile, the categories we’re stronger in are decidedly bourgeois: architects, authors, and designers. What we have is a gentrified arts scene fit for a gentrified city.

It’s telling that the new ICA rose right as the legendary hardscrabble Fort Point artist community collapsed. Because it’s those artists, the independent ones, unaffiliated with the major institutions, living in Boston not because it carries a paycheck but because it inspires them—the street-level artists—that we’re losing. And it’s far more illuminating to consider why they’re leaving this city than it is to sit back and congratulate ourselves, as we’re prone to do, for being the Athens of America. The Pottery Barn of America might be more apt.

Once a cutting-edge DJ at Boston College’s WZBC and producer at WBUR, Benjamen Walker decamped for New York a couple of years ago. He had moved to the Boston area in 1995 from Montana. "I was going to go to New York," he says, "but I thought, Wow, this is pretty great." He had a place in Central Square. His friends lived five or six to an apartment, worked in cafés or comic book stores, played in bands. But when rent control in Boston and Cambridge was lifted in 1997 and the cost of living started to climb, the bohemian life became next to impossible to sustain, and people began moving away. College radio stations, which used to maintain a balance between student and community DJs, started featuring the former almost exclusively, as the latter skipped town. "It got to the point where the most interesting people I knew were grad students," Walker says. "And I couldn’t take that anymore."

Even for those who manage to afford to live here and still make art, Boston presents another formidable problem. It’s not just conservatism of taste, or provinciality, as a lot of people would say, but something much more complex and frustrating. It’s a complete inability to be honest with ourselves, as a city, about what we think about art. On one hand, we need art in a generic sense, because it’s critical to our self-image as a cultured metropolis (if we didn’t support it, we would be no better than those ignorant cud munchers in, say, Kansas). On the other, I’ve always had the feeling that we don’t really like art. We may think some is attractive, but all told, the impulse behind its creation is a little unfettered for our Yankee tastes. That’s why we throw bales of money at larger institutions like the MFA and the ICA, which tend to play it safe, and most of the city’s galleries (those that aren’t shutting down) maintain a safe distance from the cutting edge. And it’s why we don’t ever seem to get terribly upset when the ungovernable independent artists, like those at Fort Point, get pushed out. At least then they won’t be getting their grubby fingerprints all over the Monets.