As Sam Fish took his first step into the abandoned storefront that would soon house his art gallery this summer, his heart started racing. The place was in shambles, and Fish had only a few weeks before his public opening. Valued at over $4.1 million and positioned perfectly in the heart of Downtown Crossing, the apocalyptic remains of what once was a Liberty Travel agency covered three floors and 10,000 square feet.
“I was trying to play it cool, but on the inside I was flipping out,” said Fish, sitting on a tattered couch in the middle of the finished gallery. “I was with some friends, and we just immediately got to work ripping up the carpeting, getting rid of the sad looking cubicles, and peeling off the weird décor from the walls.”
This pop-up space is the latest home to EXIT Galleries, a project Fish founded in 2018 as the product of his complicated history with the city he calls home. It’s an idea that “crystallized from rejecting the feelings of leaving Boston as necessary to grow as an artist, to move to a more established and current creative economy,” said Fish, 27. “Why leave when you can make it happen where you are?”
Born and raised in the Fenway area, Fish started skateboarding at the age of 7. He recalled the rush of gliding down a steep hill and immediately falling on his face. It made him feel alive, he said. As a freshman at Brookline High, he picked up a passion for all forms of contemporary street art: graffiti, portraits, photography, illustration, tattoos, you name it. Later, while studying marketing at Emerson College, Fish found a community of friends and artists who shared these interests.
Once he graduated in 2015, though, people dispersed and things started to change.
“College, high school, that all gives you a social life,” Fish said. “But once you’re out of there, it’s up to you to find your new circle. And if the city you’re in doesn’t foster the kind of community you’re looking for, then it makes things really hard.”
Fish viewed Boston as a quieter, more conservative city when it came to the creation and distribution of art. All of the city’s art galleries and institutions, he said, refused to entertain the kind of art he and his peers made — colorful, in your face, bold, raw, direct reflections of what was on their minds. “New York, Los Angeles, San Francisco, on the other hand — those cities have an extensive history with streetwear, art, and skateboarding,” Fish said. “It’s their cultural backbone.”
Faced with the possibility of leaving home after college, Fish decided to take time to travel. He hitchhiked across Central America, lived with a farmer on a French island, and spent time working in LA. But throughout his journeys, Fish found himself drawn back to Boston.
When he returned from Central America, he picked up a job as the marketing director for Janji, an up-and-coming running apparel company based in Somerville. Much time was spent opening pop-up shops and planning events, skills Fish now puts to use in his role as a curator.
Eventually, he felt ready to turn a new page. He left his job in 2017 and picked up traveling again. But he never forgot his dream of establishing a creative space in Boston. So when he wasn’t surfing or helping a farmer make homemade jam on the French island of Oléron, he spent time reaching out to all the Boston-area property owners and managers he could find.
One of those people was Zachary Baum, who was just getting started with a new project in Somerville’s Union Square. After some convincing, Fish landed a 300-square-foot temporary gallery space in Baum’s Bow Market and founded the first EXIT Gallery in November 2018.
“I definitely nagged him quite a bit,” Fish said with a smile, remembering his international pleas to Baum. “I was young and hungry to get started and I’m sure he picked up on that.”
Things got harder once Fish left Bow Market in January. He set up shop in the basement of his friends’ Cambridge tattoo shop, but it didn’t generate enough buzz. He came close to finalizing a deal on an abandoned 7-Eleven in Lower Allston, but that fell through once the real estate company got a better offer. So he spent the next several months pitching the City of Boston, which put him in contact with the Downtown Boston Business Improvement District (BID). After hours of phone calls and what seemed like an endless flow of e-mails, Fish landed access to his current space in Downtown Crossing in July.
Because he doesn’t pay rent, Fish knew EXIT Gallery was a placeholder until the owners found a permanent tenant. But he still treated the place like home. And soon enough, it was full of energy and life. Its featured artists are all young, all entrenched in the sparse New England street art scene. Somerville-based Katie Lane contributed her colorful mixed media to flank the stark white walls. New Hampshire’s Mikey Gallant provided a series of collages, grouped to form one massive work of art. Allston’s Chris Sageman has a massive Basquiat-like portrait hanging front and center.
Rosemarie Sansone, who previously served as a city councilor and is currently the BID’s president and CEO, said Fish’s project fit perfectly with what she and her colleagues hope to achieve in neighborhoods like Downtown Crossing. “We all loved Sam’s vision and wanted to do something unusual with the space that spoke to the downtown setting,” Sansone said by phone. “The public was fascinated with his gallery from the moment he started constructing it. People were so curious to see what was inside even before it was ready.”
Another fan of EXIT Gallery’s work is Gazit Horizons, the real estate company that owns EXIT’s current building. “[It’s] such a highly visible, vacant storefront,” said Chief Investment Officer Alison Lies. “Our goal was to contribute to a very vibrant pedestrian experience, and EXIT accomplishes just that.”
Fish remembers how dark and empty the space looked before moving in. It seemed unsellable. But with a gallery like EXIT, the property was given new life, helping Gazit attract possible buyers.
Fish’s original contract for the Downtown Crossing space ended in August, but his stay was extended into September. Now it’s time to pack up and go. With Boston real estate prices on a steep incline, Fish doesn’t see EXIT landing a permanent space anytime soon.
As he walked up the stairs to show off EXIT’s sprawling gallery, Fish stopped to admire the gray walls surrounding him. “I just wish this could be a permanent spot. A communal space that people can come in and out of, with art all over the walls,” he said. “But I won’t let that little dream slow me down. Once this is done, it’s just off to the next one.”
EXIT Gallery’s closing reception will be held Sept. 28 at 6 p.m., 467 Washington St., Boston. exitgalleries.com