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ARTS ON THE EDGE

With no eviction moratorium for studios, Boston continues losing artist spaces

Set designer Cristina Todesco has worked out of Humphreys Street Studios since 2004.
Set designer Cristina Todesco has worked out of Humphreys Street Studios since 2004.John Tlumacki/Globe Staff

Almost every day since 2004, set designer Cristina Todesco has retreated to her modest workspace in Dorchester’s Humphreys Street Studios. Now that the privately owned property is for sale, though, she believes her days there are numbered. Todesco is almost certain the building’s 40 artist studios will disappear.

And the threat of COVID-19 makes it difficult for tenants to keep organizing, to work to save their studios — let alone to search for new workspaces.

“Would this have happened without a pandemic? I’m sure it would have,” Todesco said via phone earlier this month. “The displacement of artists is something that’s been going on for a long time, and it’s not getting any better.”

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Months ago, just before the pandemic shut down swaths of the state’s creative economy, Humphreys artists wanted to buy the old warehouse near Uphams Corner, but they determined it was unfeasible. Other prospective buyers quickly jumped in, ones with “a long-term view of the property,” the current owner told the Globe in an e-mail. “They will leave things as they are and do not intend to kick out any of the artists, but at some point in the distant future they will reassess.”

It’s a familiar story for the Boston arts community.

Greater Boston has been losing commercial studios with an alarming frequency for years. Piano Craft (in the South End), 128 Brookside Ave. (in Jamaica Plain), and EMF Music Community (near Cambridge’s Central Square) are just a few examples of buildings out of which artists have been booted since 2018. Most of these properties were bought by developers who repurposed them into offices or apartments. At other buildings, artists were pushed out as Boston rents continued their steep climb. And a handful of other creative communities fell prey to institutional or legal entanglements, generally a byproduct of a tight real estate market in and around Boston.

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In interviews with the Globe, more than a dozen artists said the pandemic has exacerbated the Boston area’s record of pushing out artists. And the situation is especially dire right now, since many creatives are surviving on little to no income.

Humphreys is one of at least seven buildings in and around Boston where artists and arts organizations face the prospect of eviction. The fallout from the virus has either caused or threatened displacements at Joy Street Studios in Somerville; 119 Braintree St. in Allston; and both ImprovBoston and Studio@550, nonprofit performing arts organizations based in Cambridge. Meanwhile, longtime tenants at Boston Center for the Arts and the Jamaica Plain building that houses Northeastern University’s African-American Master Artists-in-Residence Program also face uncertainty regarding studio access.

“The pandemic threw us off kilter,” said Callie Chapman, director of Studio@550. “It changed everything.”

Kara Elliott-Ortega from the Mayor’s Office of Arts and Culture in Boston agreed that the coronavirus crisis plays a special role. “I’m not sure [the pandemic] is actually making it worse, but it’s definitely making it harder,” she said via phone recently. “How are artists supposed to organize or find new space when everyone is struggling to make ends meet?”

Because most commercial arts buildings operate privately, city governments can take only limited action. Elliott-Ortega said her office may facilitate conversations between artists and building ownership, or provide resources to tenants. Then it’s up to artists to rally to buy the building themselves, forge relationships with management, or try converting their commercial space into affordable artist housing units.

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Sadly, these actions often come too little too late.

“It’s really challenging to turn something like that around, particularly if artists are finding out very late in the process about building sales and such,” Elliott-Ortega said. “An artist sees someone touring the building in a suit and [with] a tape measure, and that’s how they find out. That’s really late to suddenly gather a bunch of people and see who’s paying what.”

“Would this have happened without a pandemic? I’m sure it would have,” said set designer Cristina Todesco. Todesco and other artists were unsuccessful at buying the Humphreys Street Studios building.
“Would this have happened without a pandemic? I’m sure it would have,” said set designer Cristina Todesco. Todesco and other artists were unsuccessful at buying the Humphreys Street Studios building.John Tlumacki/Globe Staff

Affordable housing units for artists or live/work spaces have fared better through the crisis. They’re subject to the various rent-relief programs and eviction moratoriums enacted since March. The evictions moratorium in Boston, for example, protects artists in live/work spaces until Oct. 17.

Multiple artists said they hoped to see similar government-enforced rent relief, specialized financial aid, or an evictions moratorium for the converted warehouses and old factories that house most commercial studios and artist workspaces.

Josh Garneau, managing director at ImprovBoston, said this kind of action might have allowed him to keep staff on payroll while fighting for the survival of his nonprofit. Instead, Garneau is piecing together funds to cover rent while all five full-time ImprovBoston staff members are furloughed and operations are suspended indefinitely.

“I wish that there had been some conversations with the landlords and the banks to say, ‘You need to stop collecting rent,’” Garneau said over the phone. “I understand our landlords’ point of view, but the banks could have easily said, ‘For any Phase 4 business, we’re not collecting the mortgages.‘”

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In Massachusetts, businesses covered under Phase 4, including bars, nightclubs, and large entertainment venues, are not allowed to resume operations until there is a treatment or vaccine for COVID-19.

Chapman of Studio@550 is in the same situation. She used to regularly rent the nonprofit’s Central Square dance studio to other artists. That was until early this year, when she found out the building would soon be converted into 29 micro-studio apartments. Her landlord gave her an extension through September as she looks for a new space — so long as Chapman continues paying rent. But in order to do so through the economic hardship of the pandemic, she needed a financial boost from Cambridge’s Disaster Relief Fund.

When Cambridge City Councilor E. Denise Simmons postponed the vote to distribute those grants to Sept. 14, it put Studio@550′s very existence in jeopardy.

“Getting notified by the middle of September is not helpful at all to me since I have to pay rent at the start of the month,” Chapman said. “I don’t know what to do.”

Somerville’s Joy Street Studios, on the other hand, faces a different issue. Artists there battled the property’s previous landlord and then its new owner, North River Co., over setting up a rent relief program during the pandemic. The previous owners offered tenants a 10 percent discount on May’s rent. But both landlords have refused to issue blanket rent policies and instead said they would be willing to speak with individual leaseholders about adjustments.

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All the while, North River Co. has not released details about what the future holds for the building, and whether that future includes the artists currently working out of Joy Street. The company’s vice president, Andy Dulac, said via phone that North River Co. has no imminent plans for redevelopment.

“It’s all a waiting game,” said artist and Joy Street tenant Jason Polins. “But instead, it’s about our livelihood.”

A handful of artists at 119 Braintree St. rallied for rent relief this spring with little success. Then early this month, the building’s owner unveiled plans to redevelop the building into an apartment complex that includes retail space, recreation, and some vestige of the current artist studios.

“Artists need to have protection in the event of another shutdown,” said Karen Moss, who has leased on Braintree Street for four years. “But I’m not optimistic any kind of help like that’s coming.”

At other buildings, the pandemic piled onto previous problems.

For tenants at the Boston Center for the Arts, the crisis simply added uncertainty to an already challenging situation. Most of the 50 artists in the South End spot will be evicted next summer to make way for a new residency program. Applications for that program were supposed to be distributed in May, according to an e-mail sent to tenants in December by BCA co-executive director Emily Foster Day. But the applications never arrived, according to two BCA tenants — perhaps due to a pandemic-induced delay.

BCA management announced that a renewed public application process will now begin on Oct. 1. The timeline for BCA artists to vacate their studios is also “being revised,” per an email sent to tenants this week.

And the Black Artist Collective at Northeastern, also known as AAMARP, have been locked out of their Jamaica Plain studios since the university changed the building’s locks early in the summer. It’s the latest development in a long journey that began when Northeastern first told the creatives to vacate the building in 2018.

Marlon Forrester stood by the building that houses Northeastern University's African-American Master Artists-in-Residence Program.
Marlon Forrester stood by the building that houses Northeastern University's African-American Master Artists-in-Residence Program.Josh Reynolds for The Boston Globe

In a statement from Northeastern’s general counsel to WBUR in June, the university said it had closed the 76 Atherton St. warehouse, like all other campus buildings, for safety reasons during the pandemic.

The artists may now book 30-minute time slots to access the space. “We are working artists, and we need access to our building,” said painter Marlon Forrester. “What’s 30 minutes going to do?”

Many artists pointed to one local studio, the Dorchester Art Project, as an example of an organization handling the pandemic in a way that benefits artists. The nonprofit raised $17,000 through a fund-raiser in late March to protect artists who work in the building’s studios. With that money, it’s covered rent at the privately owned building for any of the 14 tenants who request relief — no questions asked.

“Our approach is really different,” said DAP gallery director Emma Leavitt. “We prioritize accessibility for our artists. No one has had to leave because of COVID.”

The problem of saving and retaining commercial artist spaces is sure to outlive the pandemic.

“Boston isn’t alone in this,” Elliott-Ortega said. “Every other major city where it’s expensive to live and buy property — like San Francisco and Seattle — is experiencing this. And no one has figured out a good answer because the amount of money that has to exist to help make these projects happen is really big. So what does that solution look like here in Boston? I’m trying to figure that out.”

Diti Kohli can be reached at diti.kohli@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter at @ditikohli_