The Society of Arts + Crafts will shutter its retail and exhibition space in the Seaport district on Jan. 25. Faced with rising facility costs and dropping sales, the venerable nonprofit will close to the public. But it will not end its mission of advocating for crafts and craft artists.
“We did not have the revenue to support the cost side of things,” said Brigitte Martin, SA+C’s executive director, who joined the nonprofit last March. “We cannot make the numbers work, despite our best efforts.”
“We’re all disappointed and very sad,” she added. “But we’re doing the right thing for the organization.”
Going forward, Martin said, the society will continue to administer its twice yearly CraftBoston expos, which draw thousands of craft aficionados.
“We’ve already signed contracts at the Cyclorama and the Hynes Convention Center for next year,” she said. “We will continue to be an institution in the craft world and in Boston.”
The nonprofit is laying off six of its 10 employees. Only those who facilitate CraftBoston will remain. Other plans for the future are still hazy, but support for artists will remain central to the nonprofit’s mission.
“We need time to restructure and breathe, and to rethink what we do and how we can continue to serve our mission in addition to CraftBoston,” Martin said.
At 123 years old, SA+C is the oldest nonprofit craft organization in the country, and a central pillar in the crafts ecosystem in New England. It was founded as artists grappled with how to adapt in the face of industrialization.
“The society has held a really important role for a very long time,” said Paul Sacaridiz, executive director of Haystack Mountain School of Crafts in Deer Isle, Maine, another cornerstone of the New England craft scene. “It helped spawn a movement.”
He applauds what he sees as a fiscally responsible move. “I’m impressed that they are making this decision to take control of their future,” he said. “The organization and its mission are much larger than any brick and mortar place.”
Denise Lebica, director of the Fuller Craft Museum, agreed. “All of us in small museums and nonprofits have faced similar challenges,” she said. “They are so wise to see the opportunity this change presents them.”
Lois Russell, president of SA+C’s board of trustees, said that while the space is closing, SA+C will continue as a vital presence. “We are definitely not going away,” she said. “We are making this move to make sure we don’t.”
The society moved to its nearly 9,000-square-foot site on Pier Four Boulevard in 2016, after 86 years in two successive spaces on Newbury Street. When 175 Newbury St., its home since 1975, was sold, the nonprofit was forced to move.
Facing a white-hot real estate market, the society availed itself of Chapter 91, the Massachusetts Public Waterfront Act, which requires new developments to set aside a percentage of their square footage for nonprofits at below market rate. Martin said SA+C pays $6,700 a month in rent, plus roughly $6,300 in utilities.
“It was the best location at the best price, by far,” Russell said. “We jumped at it. I can’t say it was a mistake. There were not a lot of alternatives.”
But the second-floor site discouraged visitors. “On Newbury Street, we had way more foot traffic, and we’d been there for decades,” Martin said. “Here, people come and say, ‘We had no idea you were here.’”
Sales in the shop suffered, and exhibitions drained resources. “An exhibition will cost $10,000, and we might make back $4,000 to $5,000,” Russell said.
Construction at the building’s front door last fall was another blow. Although retail sales and the number of visitors had risen from 2018, they dropped precipitously during the 2019 holiday shopping season, when Eversource dug up the plaza in front of the building. November sales dropped 74 percent compared to 2018. Martin and Russell said that more construction in the immediate neighborhood is scheduled for the spring.
Location wasn’t the only problem. More and more people buy art online, and fewer spend time gallery-hopping to build their collections.
Martin knew she faced an uphill battle when she was hired.
“When I came on, we looked at scenarios to stay,” she said. “We looked at partnerships with other organizations. We looked for grant funding. We were able to get some support, but not to the extent we need.”
She and Russell are hopeful about the future.
“This is probably very good for us,” Russell said. “We don’t want to be doing something so location dependent. Boston has become so expensive and so congested. It’s hard to predict the future, but I think we will become more focused on the artists themselves, and more focused on convening instead of selling.”
“We want to stay in Boston, we want to contribute and be part of the cultural fabric here,” Martin said.
Still, she’s aware of the loss.
“CraftBoston will remain a touchpoint,” Martin said. “But after almost 125 years, I think we’re going to be missed.”