Emily Foster Day and Kristi Keefe, the new co-executive directors of the Boston Center for the Arts, have taken the helm at an auspicious yet precarious moment. This year, the arts organization celebrates its 50th anniversary, touting the occasion with rebranding and a spiffy new website.
But the BCA, an engine of the Boston cultural community, stumbled into a public relations quagmire last fall. In September, then-chief executive Gregory Ruffer announced a new artists residency initiative in the agency’s Artists Studio Building, telling tenants they would have to vacate by May. At a time when studio space is hard to find, artists, some of whom have worked in studios at 551 Tremont St. for decades, were blindsided.
Shortly after that, Ruffer was accused of inappropriate conduct in a previous job. He resigned in October.
Keefe and Day stepped into the breach. They were already on the BCA staff, involved in planning new initiatives. Day, as chief advancement officer, had been there more than five years. Keefe, who was chief operating officer, started at the BCA as rental coordinator in 2002.
No national search was launched. “We didn’t need to bring a foreign element into a well-run organization,” said John G.F. Ruggieri-Lam, chairman of the arts organization’s board of directors.
“It was easy to choose them. They’re both long-term veterans,” Ruggieri-Lam said. “Given their talents in administration, development, and outreach, we thought it was appropriate.”
“It was a difficult fall for everyone,” Day acknowledged. “We’ve spent a lot of time in the last four months assessing, evaluating, and working with our staff,” she said. “I think we’re all feeling really good about the next steps of the organization.”
Those include the 50th Anniversary Gala in May, developing a strategic plan, and rolling out the rebranding, which was facilitated in partnership with Gensler, a global architecture, design, and planning firm.
“We’re really focusing on our purpose over our place right now,” Day said. That purpose — the BCA’s mission — is to serve Boston artists and the community, and to incubate new art. In recent years, the arts organization has helped establish the careers of artists such as Chanel Thervil, Elisa Hamilton, and Lucas Spivey.
“We’re being unapologetically provocative and experimental with the work that we’re showing,” Keefe said.
In the past, a great deal of the BCA’s focus has been on place. It maintains all the buildings on its South End campus, leasing the land from the city for $1. In 2004, the new Calderwood Pavilion opened as a second home to the Huntington Theatre Company, ramping up the BCA’s staged offerings.
Then there’s the Cyclorama. Built in 1884 to display a panoramic painting of the battle of Gettysburg, it is always in need of tender loving care. It’s a fantastic and peculiar round space, with a copper dome and skylight.
“While we’re very fortunate to have that space as a revenue driver,” Keefe said, “we are constantly looking at ways that we can partner.”
Another special case is the studio building, which has 50 studios, some occupied by artists and others by arts organizations, according to Keefe. Late last year, after Ruffer’s departure and the community backlash about imminent eviction, the new leaders met with tenants about the proposed residency program, Studio 551.
“We all recognize and take responsibility for the fact that the launch of the program was really poorly done,” Day said.
Studio 551 was pushed back by one year — it will now kick off in July 2021 — and they’ve reserved 25 percent of the spots for artists already established in the building, including “emeritus” studios with 10-year leases.
The initiative is supported by an advisory council that includes a host of artist advocates such as independent curator Jen Mergel and art dealer Camilo Alvarez. It will transform a building that is now mostly workspace into a site that generates programming across disciplines. Resident artists, with terms from a few months to several years, will get professional development, with access to BCA stages and exhibition spaces.
Last week, painter Silvia Lopez Chavez, a tenant in the building for more than nine years, was packing to move. She said that tenants had gone through stages of grief about the prospect of losing their studios. “Some people are really upset and angry. Some are sad,” she said. “I think for the majority of people … it just still feels as if the rug has been pulled out.”
Even if Lopez Chavez applied and was accepted to Studio 551, it’s not what she’s looking for. “I’m not interested in temporary spaces,” she said. “I’m looking for a studio I can call home.”
Day acknowledges the transition will have what she calls “pain points.” But she argues that the revitalization of 551 Tremont will be good for Boston and Boston artists. “The purpose is to make way for much more accessible and equitable opportunities for artists across the city, and for those people who haven’t had a chance to benefit from the programs and the services we offer here,” she said.
In the end, the new leaders point to the BCA’s mission.
“As an organization that has this much physical asset, we have the space to give artists to make new work, and to push their practice and take risks,” Day said. “We really want to put the laser focus on them.”