scorecardresearch Skip to main content

Performance art is thriving in Boston

Artist Vela Phelan of Gang Clan Mafia.Jonathan Wiggs/Globe Staff

On March 27, Raphael Montañez Ortiz will probably not take a hatchet to a piano on stage at the Museum of Fine Arts. But he might do just about anything else. Ortiz, a pioneer of performance art with the group Fluxus, and part of a movement called “destruction art,” famously destroyed a piano on Johnny Carson’s “The Tonight Show.” Now in his 70s, the artist will oversee a destruction concert at the MFA.

Liz Munsell, assistant curator of contemporary art and MFA programs at the museum, is coy about exactly what will happen at the event, “WHAT DOES FLUXES HAVE TO DO WITH IT.” Local performance artists who do vocal work will participate. Otherwise, all Munsell lets on is this: “It involves paper bags and paper shredders.”


Munsell has been tasked with developing the museum’s first-ever performance art program. Her mandate: to integrate performance art into the museum via exhibitions, one-time events, and acquisition of performance art works.

For years, artists have staged performances in basements, lofts, and alternatives spaces – principally, the Mobius artists’ space, the standard-bearer for performance art in Boston for more than 35 years.

Now, area museums and commercial galleries are catching on. March 22 the gallery Anthony Greaney will host “Tactic One,” the first of a proposed series combining electronic music and performance art.

Performance art, rooted in visual art and not theater, emerged a half century ago. Marilyn Arsem, the founder of Mobius and a longtime professor of performance art at the Museum School, defines it this way: “An action designed and executed by an artist that takes place in time and space with or without an audience.”

Although the Institute of Contemporary Art doesn’t have a curator specializing in performance art, it often stages performance art events tied to their exhibitions, for which programming staff work hand in hand with curators. Last December, as part of “Ragnar Kjartansson: Song,” at the ICA, Kjartansson and a group of musicians from the Boston Conservatory performed the same Franz Schubert song over and over again for hours. That was a performance art piece dressed as a classical music concert.


Performance, or the body’s role in making art, is live and unpredictable, and it often involves an audience.

Social media, among other things, has sparked a passion for art you can participate in. When the artists’ collaborative Plotform invited viewers to a crocheting bee as part of Boston University’s “System: ECOnomies” show now at 808 Gallery, that was a type of performance art known as social action.

Artist and curator Sandrine Schaefer cofounded The Present Tense, which fosters performance art collaborations between Boston artists and others around the world. Last fall, The Present Tense facilitated “Rough Trade,” a performance artist exchange with Chicago. She describes performance art this way: “Instead of being a product of the creative process, it is the creative process.”

Art dealer Anthony Greaney started hosting performance art in his eponymous Harrison Avenue space two years ago. Now he’s enlisted Philip Fryer, the other founder of The Present Tense, to curate “Tactic One.”

“It’s a challenging city to have a gallery in,” says Greaney, who is known for showing edgy, conceptual art. “But if you pay attention to what’s going on here, the artists who are good, the ones who are unique and individualistic . . . [are the ones who] offer performance art and electronic music.”


The Boston performance scene has been percolating underground for decades. Along with the stalwart Mobius, now-defunct spaces such as Oni Gallery and Meme briefly offered venues. Meme, which was open from 2009-2011, represented a new generation of active artists, such as Schaefer, Fryer, and Vela Phelan, who have spearheaded projects beyond Mobius.

Phelan and partner Dirk Adams comprise Gang Clan Mafia, a music-video duo who will headline “Tactic One” tonight. On April 21, Phelan will stage “Near Death,” an eight-hour performance art event featuring local and international artists at the Boston Center for the Arts Cyclorama. Phelan’s works, in which he uses toys, bones, and more, are akin to shamanistic rituals. He’s invited artists, including Arsem, to create pieces about approaching death.

“To be near death is revitalizing. That’s the irony,” Phelan says. “It makes you exist stronger.” The evening will be dedicated to Bob Raymond, Arsem’s husband, who died last year. A photographer of Mobius events, Raymond was beloved in the performance art community.

Phelan came to the Museum School in 2000, after getting hooked on performance art in Mexico City. Performance artists gravitate to Boston the way painters gravitate to New York, he says. Phelan knows plenty of performance artists who, after leaving Boston, “come to a complete stop pretty quickly,” he says. “But here, there’s always a new place, a new activation.”

“Boston is a smaller city, and there’s a dedicated community to help artists move through their work and get it out there,” says artist Creighton Baxter, 22, who performed with partner Hayley Morgenstern at Anthony Greaney for “Momentum,” a performance event sponsored by the Boston LGBTQIA Artists Alliance in three Harrison Avenue galleries in January. “It’s an exciting place to be.”


That’s thanks to the abiding presence of Mobius and the community it has fostered. At the center is Arsem, whom Munsell calls “the godmother of performance art in Boston.” As an artist, she’s known for site-specific and durational pieces, such as “I Scream,” which she performed in 2011 within earshot of a freefall ride in Sweden, where participants regularly shrieked. For several hours, Arsem stood in the courtyard of a the nearby Museum of World Culture, letting 30 liters of peppermint ice cream melt in her arms, screaming in unison with the plummeting people.

Arsem sees cycles in performance art’s visibility over the years. She says institutions have been shy about presenting it since 1990, when National Endowment for the Arts defunded grants to performance artists Karen Finley, Tim Miller, John Fleck, and Holly Hughes, individual artists who became known as the NEA Four.

Presenter Anthony Greaney (left) and performance artist Vela Phelan right at Gallery. Jonathan Wiggs/Globe staff/Globe Staff

After that, if you were going to perform at an institution, Arsem says, “the rule was, you had to have a signed contract explaining what you would do, three years in advance.

“A lot of alternative spaces lost their funding,” she adds. “The demise in the funding is ongoing. Younger artists now organize activities and don’t go down the nonprofit or tax-exempt route.”


For institutions, performance art can be risky. “I’ve been curating for 10 years, and for a long time, [institutional] people said no,” Schaefer says. “Now, they say ‘Let’s find a way to make it happen.’”

It’s easier for an art dealer like Greaney, who doesn’t have to vet his decisions with anyone. Baxter is thrilled to get the attention of a commercial gallerist. “It’s a huge risk he’s embarking on,” she says.

Baxter and Morgenstern’s piece, “It Might Get Better,” responds to writer Dan Savage’s “It Gets Better” campaign aimed at LGBT youth. In it, they bellow and scream the lyrics to five broken-hearted love songs, as the tracks play beneath them, for up to two hours.

“I’m a hunchback, and that comes into my work,” Baxter says. “The way my body is seen is a major aspect of the work.” Performance artists use their bodies the way painters use paint. The body is where all the action is, all the eyes are, and all the viewers’ projections.

Earlier this month, Greaney took a group of performance artists recently sprung from the undergrad program at the School of the Museum of Fine Arts to a mini art fair in New York, including Baxter and Morgenstern. They didn’t perform – “the space did not want them to perform,” notes Greaney – but they did exhibit relics of performances. Piles of clothing. Drawings.

Because it’s such an ephemeral experience, performance art is a hard sell.

“A painter, as underground as he is, will dream that [his work] will sell for a lot someday,” says Phelan. “It’s part of the work to consider money. With performance art, you just don’t.”

Instead, it’s all about collaboration and the creative process. “You find people you like to work with and trust, and you give them some rope, and they give you some rope back,” says Greaney.

Maybe that’s why performance art thrives in Boston. With the big money factor removed from making art, any sense of competition ebbs, and community thrives. This city, with all its art schools, has always had a strong, nurturing network of artists.

“That’s why I’ve stuck around so long,” says Schaefer. “The community of artists here. They’re committed. They challenge me. They’re active. That’s something you can’t find everywhere.”

Cate McQuaid can be reached at

Correction: Because of an editing error, a caption in an earlier version of this story mistated the artist’s involvement in “Near Death.” He is curating the show.