Lowell: The Next Great Arts Hub?

Western Avenue Studios in Lowell, Massachusetts. (Photo by Meghan Moore, Megpix Photography)

As Boston has become one of the priciest rental markets in the United States, it’s no secret that the proverbial starving artists have been feeling the squeeze, from Fort Point to JP to Davis Square in Somerville. And that iconic warehouse studio and loft? Better start buttering up some museum trustees pronto. Of course, Greater Boston has plenty of repurposed industrial space, and towns from Waltham to Malden have been pouncing on luring artists out of center. Perhaps one of the most dynamic places doing this the formerly unlikely burg of Lowell. As everyone knows, this long-struggling city has old mills and more old mills, and for the past several years they’ve been filling them again with ateliers and aesthetes.

Now one of the biggest projects, Western Avenue Studios (WAS) is adding residential properties to its studio portfolio, and you can check it out this weekend. As always, you can peruse the art at WAS’s monthly Open Studios this Saturday from noon to 5 p.m., but what makes this monthly event different is that there will be hard-hat tours for local artists of the new lofts at 11 a.m. — they’re due to be open in May.

WAS is already a success story: Since it was converted from industrial in 2005, its six floors have been filled with 143 studios serving more than 215 artists. In addition to working there and displaying there, many of the artists also teach classes there, ranging from drawing to watercolors to knitting to fashion design. And now the building is adding 50 live/work lofts, with the quintessential high ceilings, weathered brick, and massive windows that every artist dreams about.

Sounds good, yes? Oh, but won’t the painters and sculptors get priced out in the end? If the WAS project stays true to its mission, then the answer is no, as you have to apply for these spaces and provide proof that you’re a working artist. And just in case you’re thinking of donning a messy smock over your Zegna suit — no, you have to actually show copies of the work and document when it was produced and shown, detail your commissions, and get three recommendations from other artists, teachers, or curators. Gaming this system should be too hard, keeping the community what it was built to be.

WAS is hardly alone in this pursuit. For example, there’s Appleton Mills, offering artists apartments over 1100 square feet for less than $1,000 a month. Again, there’s an interview process to certify that you are a working artist, and while there are minimum income requirements, there are also maximum income requirements as well. Say an artist couple wants a one-bedroom for $820 a month — their income should range between $30,754 and $44,640. It’s not starving artist prices for sure, but the maximum ensures that they don’t become Damien Hirst prices either.

And what’s interesting here is that Appleton Mills’s selection board includes artists nominated by the City of Lowell. It’s another symbol of how the city has been behind this gradual process of transforming the center of the city. The watershed moment came in 1998, when Lowell created its Artist Overlay District, which created zoning that specifically allowed artists to live and work in the same space. And that district covers a large enough swath of downtown to include the massive Boott Mills and Massachusetts Mills complexes as well.

“Whatever, man,” say the doubters, “who wants to move to Lowell?” And indeed, some artists won’t, feeling like the Merrimack is too far from the Charles, that Lowell is too slow and still needs work developing more interesting things to do downtown. Others will say that the pace of a city of 106,000 is more their speed; that the post-industrial grit is on the cusp of chic; that the downtown is already coming along nicely with a large number of restaurants, cafes, and events at UMass Lowell; and that they can afford to finally live and work in their dream space, with a built-in community of artistic neighbors to boot. That’s a pretty strong sales pitch, actually. Personally, I work in Boston and live in Somerville, and while I’m partial to both of them, it’s undeniable that these cities had better watch out for their homegrown artists lest they lose them a short drive up I-93.