When Humphreys Street Studios went up for sale in 2019, the 40 artists and artisans working there knew the old script: A developer could buy the property, evict its tenants, and turn the space into something more profitable. In June, it seemed that fate was sealed when the building’s owners accepted an offer from Weston-based developer Kendall Realty.
But in the interim, the artists had organized. They reached out to the city and to their neighbors in the Uphams Corner neighborhood of Dorchester. They made the subject of artists’ displacement — common in Boston, and especially challenging for commercial tenants like these, who don’t live in their studios — into a social media campaign, #ARTSTAYSHERE.
They also partnered with developers New Atlantic Development and Placetailor and made their own offer.
In August, the script flipped. The deal with Kendall Realty fell apart, and the building’s owners — a group that includes the widows of artist Joseph Wheelwright and artisan Gneal Widette, who developed the space as artists’ studios nearly 20 years ago — accepted the artists’ $3 million offer. Humphreys Street artists and their partners intend to build 10 to 12 units of affordable housing on 11,000 square feet of land behind the studios. Income from that housing will subsidize maintenance of the artist studios, according to Bill Madsen Hardy, owner of New Atlantic Development.
Theater designer Cristina Todesco is on the Humphreys Street Studios steering committee, along with graphic designer Franklin Marval, architect Josh Rose-Wood, and sculptor Nora Valdez, which spearheaded organizing efforts. She credits the pending sale to the artist-tenants’ hard work.
“We have a mixture of disciplines here, plus a diverse group of artists who created a little tornado of activity to reach people and create the opportunities we’ve gotten,” she said. “And there was a lot of serendipity.”
“It was a mix of luck and time and effort,” said Kara Elliott-Ortega, chief of arts and culture for the City of Boston, whom the artists involved from the get-go.
The Mayor’s Office of Arts and Culture provided funds to the artists to organize and to conduct a feasibility study of the building. Hardy, who has partnered with artists to save spaces in the past, conducted the study.
Hardy has seen the plight of artist displacement in Boston up close.
“It’s almost a caricature of the gentrification process,” he said. “Areas where space and rents are affordable, artists move to those places. Then they turn around, property values increase, and owners look to cash in.”
“Artist-tenants have always played a key role in the success of a project,” he added. “That happened here. The tenants are motivated and very organized.”
“Reaching out to neighbors was really important,” said Todesco. “How do we make ourselves useful to the community? How do we make art a critical source of health and well-being for the neighborhood?”
The artists and developers plan to create a community space for meetings, workshops, and a gallery.
Joan Tighe, who has lived around the corner from Humphreys Street for 37 years, said she hadn’t connected much with the artists until they reached out about saving the studios. Tighe is a convener of the Eastman Elder Neighborhood Association, which submitted a letter of support for the artists’ plan.
“It’s really important that the property remain artists’ studios. They’ve been successful maintaining the property. They’re an asset to the neighborhood,” she said. “It’s much better than having some developer come in and build condos. We have quite enough of those around here.”
This month, the artists have mounted an exhibition about artist displacement, “#ARTWORKSHERE, #ARTSTAYSHERE,” at Fort Point Art Community’s Assemblage Arts Space through Nov. 5. It features a floor map of area artists’ buildings that have been lost or are threatened, including the Piano Craft Guild in Lower Roxbury, 59 Amory St. in Jamaica Plain, and Cambridge’s Green Street Studios.
“It all points to the necessity of some sort of centralized system for dealing with the issue,” said Hardy. “It could be a public, government solution, maybe run through the mayor’s office of arts and culture. Or a citywide nonprofit focused on art-related resources in the city — maintaining them, and saving them when they are threatened.”
Elliott-Ortega, who has worked in the Mayor’s Office of Arts and Culture for six years, three as chief, sees helping artists threatened with displacement as central to her job. “How can you address any other problem if you’re not talking about how artists can live and work here?” she said.
Her office has been keeping tabs on the Humphreys Street effort.
“We’re asking, ‘What are the possibilities and the programs? How can we step forward?’” Elliott-Ortega said.
A first step is in the works: The Office of Arts and Culture is designing a pilot program to offer technical assistance to teach artists groups how to run their own spaces — including how to build a business model, raise capital funds, and understand leases. It’s still in the beginning stages, but Elliott-Ortega expects it to launch in the South End by next summer.
“Technical assistance is one piece of the pie. The other piece is having a funding mechanism in place to help with capital costs,” Elliott-Ortega said.
She pointed to San Francisco’s Community Arts Stabilization Trust as an example of an independent agency that helps artists stay in a city with soaring real estate prices.
For the moment, Elliott-Ortega is celebrating Humphreys Street’s apparent success story, which will be more solid once a purchase-and-sale agreement is signed; Todesco and Hardy trust that will happen in the near future.
“It’s awesome to see,” said Elliott-Ortega, “We’ve seen a lot of spaces where artists have tried to organize, and it hasn’t worked. We’ve never gotten to this point in the process, at least as long as I’ve been here.”