Dorchester native Arnold J. Kemp, now a well-respected artist in New York, found himself beaten back by this mindset in the ’90s, before he left town for San Francisco. "I was not going to be an impressionist painter, or maybe not even a painter," he says via e-mail. "And I felt that was the only kind of work that Boston really supported. I was outside of the Boston art system from the start, because I felt I had not studied with the right people at the Museum School. In fact, I got the greatest encouragement from a man who was a security guard at the MFA." Kemp says it wasn’t until he went to San Fran that he found his stride. At the time of this writing, his subversive mixed-media works were being exhibited in three New York galleries. An earlier show had received a glowing notice in the New York Times. "I would not be the artist that I am today if I had stayed in Boston," he says.
Ben Sisto came up against this conundrum, too, only on the music side. For years the promoter was Boston’s foremost champion of local music, and absolutely tireless in bringing both new and obscure bands to light. His philosophy was simple: "I want to see things get more artistic and get more interesting, because I want to see young people stop leaving the city." Now he’s leaving himself, going to New York, a place where he can mount an experimental music show that isn’t guaranteed to lose money. Beyond the Boston listening public’s general reluctance to check out new acts, Sisto’s also leaving behind what he calls a fractured and cliquey cultural scene. He had been pushing music venues to work with galleries to introduce more visual art into their performance spaces, in the hopes of creating connections between two communities that have little to do with each other, and foster some mixing of creative juices and mutual support. The venue that had been most open to his efforts was the Milky Way in J.P.—which is slated for closing, after having its rent nearly doubled. Other clubs, he says, are just too set in their ways. And many music fans like things as they are, resisting, in classic Boston-begrudger fashion, anyone who tries to change how things work within their respective scenes, a routine complaint among musicians in town. "If you’re established in a way that you don’t want to change anything, then everyone loves you," Sisto says. "But if you’re established and you’re energetic and you want to change things, it’s not worth the headache."
The funny thing about Boston, though, is that when arti
sts finally quit for more hospitable environs, it’s rarely with bitterness. The people interviewed for this column all generally agree that Boston was good to them, that it’s gorgeous, but could only take them so far. There’s a certain wistful acceptance that comes along with leaving town. You’ve recognized that you can’t change it. It is, ineffaceably, what it is: a nice place for college students and twentysomethings for whom there’s a kind of contentment in being broke and raising hell in hallway parties in Allston, and for well-heeled people who are older and looking for a quieter and more comfortable existence.
But the makings of a vibrant arts scene lie between those two worlds, with people who are able to do creative work and still stay in the city long enough to forge a commitment to it. "I think Boston’s really awesome if you’re under 25 or over 35," Sisto says from his cell phone as he stands outside the Bunker Hill Monument, doing a final lap of the tourist sights. "I’m like a proto–tourist dad, and I’d be totally content doing the Bunker Hill Monument with my kids someday. But for this next decade, I don’t know…I got to get out."
That ambivalence is as old as the town itself. Boston is famous for its strange ability to simultaneously attract and repel. Jonathan Richman of legendary Boston band the Modern Lovers once sang, "I’m in love with Massachusetts." Now he lives in San Francisco. Dicky Barrett of the Mighty Mighty Bosstones, a ferociously local band, wrote an anti-tourist, anti-student song called "They Came to Boston," with the refrain "I was here before they came / I’ll be here long after / Don’t want to share, but it seems clear / that I’m gonna have to." Today he lives in L.A. Andrew Bujalski, the terrific young filmmaker who never missed an opportunity to sing the Hub’s praises, has decamped to Austin, Texas (though he says it was personal circumstances that sent him packing). Going further back, novelist William Dean Howells, the "Dean of American Letters," was a hard-core Hub loyalist who once decreed, "The Bostonian who leaves Boston ought to be condemned to perpetual exile." He relocated to New York in 1891, and had one of his characters, making a similar move, liken Boston to a living death.
Of course, the irony is that Howells wound up not caring much for NYC, either, and spent a lot of time looking longingly back at Boston, as many who have followed in his footsteps do, and will continue to do indefinitely, or at least until rents get cheap enough to again tilt the balance away from our native reserve and standoffishness long enough for an arts scene to cohere, as it did in the ’80s and early ’90s in a big way. And that’s the great frustration. This city has the makings of a dominant cultural force: physical beauty, compact size, reliable institutions, a constant inflow of new blood, and the kind of cruel and capricious weather that drives artistically minded residents inward for long stretches, making self-reflection a fixture of life, or anyway surely less of a horror than it would be in Southern California. We’re just unable to make it all come together.
So in the meantime, we must content ourselves with the scene we have: some fine bands and artists, valiantly sticking it out in the face of economic pressure and general disinterest, and a bounty of designers and architects, the bulk of whose work, by its nature, gets done elsewhere. Most notably, though, we’ll always have the large transient populations of Berklee, MassArt, the Museum School, and the universities, who will bound around town making art and consuming culture for a few years before one day deciding, for complicated reasons sure to be left mostly unexamined by the broader public, that while Boston’s a beautiful city, it’s just not for them.