Art Failure

We like to think of ourselves as an arts town, and new numbers back that up. So why do creative people continue to flee Boston—and what is it about this city that drives them away?

arts in boston

Illustration by Phil Disley

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.

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 artists 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.