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The Arts Issue

Where have Boston’s artists gone?

With rents climbing and live/work space in short supply, creative types are looking elsewhere.

Artists Robb and Emily Sandagata in their live/work space in the Western Avenue Studios in Lowell. Dina Rudick/Globe Staff/Boston Globe

HULKING OVER FAN PIER, the Institute of Contemporary Art is more than a museum. Set at the water’s edge, where the city begins and ends, it would have been hard to build a more striking reminder of the important role that art — not the old masterpieces hanging all over town, but the kind of vital, energetic work that is happening right now — has played in shaping Boston’s past and present.

But as more and more gleaming towers rise around the ICA, the symbol becomes harder and harder to see. From nearby Fort Point — a neighborhood once thick with artists drawn to its open industrial spaces and bargain-basement rents — the building, open to the public since 2006, might as well be invisible now. And the artists who once did precisely the kind of exciting things on display in the ICA’s galleries and exhibition halls? Many of them are long gone.

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Ten years later, the art is still here. In December, an installation by three Iranian artists opened at the ICA. Ramin Haerizadeh, Rokni Haerizadeh, Hesam Rahmanian: The Birthday Party is an electrifying, bizarre combination of painting, sculpture, video and more — the kind of inventive project that comes from close, long-term collaboration among artists working and even living together. The Haerizadeh brothers and Rahmanian do live and work together — in Dubai. Could work like this happen in today’s Boston? The talent is here, of course, but rents are rising and in many cases new towers have taken over the places artists could once afford to live. Boston boasts the country’s second-tightest rental market, leaving few options for new and emerging artists. Many have decamped for places where the notion of starving for one’s art isn’t quite so literal.

WHEN I WAS IN COLLEGE IN PITTSBURGH, my apartment senior year was alleged to have once been rented by Andy Warhol, when he was studying commercial art at Carnegie Institute of Technology. The staircase was narrow and unlit, ready to give out at any moment, and the unit’s floors were about as sturdy and level as the Joker’s lair. The freezer was so impacted with frost that the peas we eventually discovered during a thaw may well have been left behind by Warhol himself. Sadly, there was no canned soup.

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In Boston, as in many cities around the country, many of the hovels that young artists adore and complain about and adore complaining about have either been torn down or gutted, newly refurbished with granite countertops and stainless steel appliances and listed for prices that only the army of tech workers taking over the city could reasonably afford (not that there’s anything wrong with tech workers).

That was the state of affairs when Sandra Negron moved to the area for a job at Converse in January 2014. She had posted a plea on Yelp months earlier, seeking a place where she could both live and, in her off hours, paint. She looked at Boston first and tried to take advantage of a Boston Redevelopment Authority program called ArtistSpace (soon to be taken over by the city’s Arts and Culture office, according to a BRA spokesman), which aims to add live-work and studio space exclusively for artists. The few buildings that have such set-asides for artist space rarely have vacancies. The ArtistSpace website lists a total of about 150 rental units in all of Boston, but Negron soon realized there were waiting lists for the handful of available spaces. After missing the deadline to apply, she looked into areas outside Boston.

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Artist Sandra Negron commutes from her home in Pawtucket to her day job in downtown Boston.Dina Rudick/Globe Staff/Boston Globe

“For me, it was too expensive,” says Negron, 39 and now living in an old industrial space converted to artist lofts in Pawtucket, Rhode Island. Negron, like so many artists, struggles to find time for her own projects while working full time and sacrificing so many hours to her commute. “I really did want to live in Boston. I just couldn’t,” Negron says. “When I think about Boston now, it’s more conservative and about history — not cool arts stuff.”

That’s not entirely true. Even in Fort Point, there are holdouts. The Fort Point Arts Community represents some 300 artists, about half of whom either live and/or work in the area, according to Emily O’Neil, its executive director.

Joanne Kaliontzis, a visual artist and founding member of the Fort Point Cultural Coalition, likens attempts at getting an accurate count of artists in the old days to an exercise in herding cats. For decades, artists occupied warehouse spaces of dubious legality, sharing bathrooms among a half-dozen people and cooking dinners on plug-in hot plates.

“Wherever artists go and set roots and make it a cool neighborhood,” Kaliontzis says, “then development moves in.”

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Kaliontzis has called the neighborhood home for more than 20 years. As a child, her father dragged her along on sales calls to the same building where she now lives and works. It housed a printer and some other businesses then, but today it is one of three buildings in Fort Point controlled by artists. Two of the three — at 300 Summer Street and 249 A Street — are co-ops, purchased and developed by arts groups decades ago and devoted to visual artists.

The third, Midway Studios, was famously purchased by artists in 2014 and maintains all of its 89 units as rentals for artists of all disciplines. The apartments are priced on a sliding scale, with some units’ rents well under the now-stratospheric rates in the area. Unsurprisingly, its waiting list can get quite long.

Billy McClain and his identical twin, Bobby, hip-hop dancers who perform as the Wondertwins, have lived at Midway off and on for about a decade, leaving briefly before moving back when their names came up on the waiting list a couple years ago. The smaller duplex they shared in South Boston in the interim didn’t create the same vibe as living in a community of artists, where designers, writers, and musicians are all around them and collaboration means knocking on the door down the hall.

“A lot of people did exactly what I did,” Billy McClain says. “They move out, and they end up trying to come back.”

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But that took luck, he says, and a second source of reliable income for both. The McClains came up on the waiting list just as their lease in Southie was ending, allowing them to leap at the chance to get back into Midway, where they have enough room to rehearse in their home. But making the rent each month might be difficult, Billy says, if he and his brother weren’t also public school teachers.

For those who aren’t able to live in one of the few buildings with space for artists, finding a way to make Boston’s neighborhoods livable amid shrinking options has not proved easy. “It’s hard to get back an artist, a building, or, in a larger context, the neighborhood,” says Jim Grace, executive director of the Arts & Business Council of Greater Boston. Grace, whose offices are on the first floor of Midway Studios, says that fewer than half of the several hundred artists who once lived in the Fort Point area now remain. “This neighborhood is sped up in time,” he says. “It happened so fast.” Urbanism was suddenly hot: Even people with palatial homes in Newton and Brookline began to daydream about downtown lofts and a life free from traffic jams. “Every city has the same issue: Minneapolis, Boston, New York,” Grace says. “But if you know it’s going to happen, how do you help?”

The Millbrook Lofts development in Somerville has some units designated for artists. Dina Rudick/Globe Staff

IF ANY CITY IN AMERICA IS TRYING TO FIND AN ANSWER, it’s Somerville. Wary of the way artists have fled Boston ahead of the latest wave of gentrification, Somerville is attempting to save its vibrant arts community while it still can. Keeping that culture, after all, is easier than building it.

“The dynamic nature of what the arts community brings in is multiple-fold,” says Gregory Jenkins, executive director of the Somerville Arts Council. “It’s very different from a tech worker who’s pulling down $150k and spending 60 hours a week in the lab.” That’s no slight to tech workers, Jenkins says: Artists typically work day jobs, too — or their partners do — but at night and on weekends, they perform or put on gallery shows or hold concerts that invigorate the city. They don’t just participate in the social fabric of Somerville; they help knit and strengthen it.

Somerville has, so far, been a little bit lucky. Artists with stable situations and benevolent landlords have stuck around, even as rents rise and developers look for places to pack in new condos. The city, Jenkins says, could consider tax incentives to help ensure those landlords don’t suddenly jack up rents. “What we’re finding is that we’re losing some artists, but there’s still tons of them here, and they’re hunkering down,” he says. “I still think the question if you’re a young artist getting out of art school [is] . . . are those folks finding housing?”

Of course, these same problems affect all low-income people, not just starving artists. And those artists whose disciplines make live-work situations difficult, such as dancers, are sometimes a low-income population like any other. They might live in Dorchester or Jamaica Plain or Somerville or anywhere else with pockets of affordable housing and subsidize their work with second incomes. “You need all sorts of resources” to make it work, says Debra Cash, executive director of the Boston Dance Alliance. “I’m a poet. I can sit on the T with paper and pencil, run around the city and write poetry. You can actually do it anywhere with very little overhead. Dance, you need space. You need space to train, to rehearse, to perform. Certain equipment — dancewear, shoes, leotards, mirrors.” In a discipline that typically requires several hours of daily practice just to maintain one’s body, it can be difficult to hold down a job lucrative enough to cover all that.

Jenkins says that because of artists’ visibility — through performances and gallery showings and concerts — and obvious contribution to a community’s richness, their disappearance is felt early and acutely.

An unfinished live/work space in the Millbrook Lofts development in Somerville.Dina Rudick/Globe Staff

To that end, Somerville has taken some unusual steps aimed at making new places for artists to live and work. New zoning requires some developers to commit not just to affordable housing but also to artist-specific units — 5 percent at one ongoing development, Millbrook Lofts — that will be leased only to certified artists. The certification process will resemble Boston’s and be based on applications to a board of peers.

The resulting units might look like the wild, high-ceilinged studios crammed with half-finished canvases, crusty brushes, and curled paint tubes — or they might not. It depends on the artist. Some have partners. Some have kids. And some would rather not spend every hour of every day surrounded by their works in progress.

“You don’t want all of your work right up against you,” says Jenkins. He believes the problem — balancing a city’s growth and the limited mechanisms governments have to dictate who gets priced out and when — is complex and challenging, but not hopeless.

“Down on A Street, those were the industrial loft spaces where people were living and working,” he says, referring to Boston. “That type of situation doesn’t occur anymore. That’s true, and that’s sort of sad. But that’s been gone for 10, 15 years.”

Gone from Boston, anyway.

The Western Avenue Studios in Lowell have some work-only studios and live/work lofts for artists. Dina Rudick/Globe Staff

WHEN ROBB AND EMILY SANDAGATA went looking for a place to live somewhere between his work in Worcester and her new job in Andover nearly three years ago, their only criterion was a place with an arts community. “Lowell was pretty much the only option,” Robb Sandagata says. Both visual artists, they remembered visiting Western Avenue Studios years earlier, as its artists’ lofts were just beginning to be developed. When they were ready to move, the lofts were ready for them.

In the artists’ diaspora that Boston’s hot housing market has helped create, Lowell is the one place people mention again and again. While a lower cost of living has spurred an influx of artists in other places outside Boston — arts communities are also thriving in places like Lawrence and New Bedford — Lowell’s push to lure artists who felt priced out of Boston was obvious and well-timed.

Western Avenue, which claims to be the largest single artists’ community on the Eastern Seaboard, includes 250 work-only studios and 50 live-work lofts where artists like the Sandagatas live in close but comfortable conditions. “It was pretty perfect for what we were looking for. It’s certainly a lot less expensive than if we’d gotten a regular apartment and a studio,” Robb Sandagata says. Being surrounded by other artists provides a psychological boost as well. “It helps you be more focused, keep working, getting things done,” he says. “The building is a little bit like a college experience for adults — there are social aspects, but at the same time everyone understands that if you’re in the studio, you need to be there and nobody is going to see you for a few weeks.”

“Compared to Boston or Cambridge or Somerville,” he says, Lowell’s arts community isn’t as big or as varied, and naturally there isn’t as much to do on a daily basis, “but there’s enough.”

And those who have stuck it out in Fort Point — the closest thing Boston ever had to an artists’ barrio — are well aware of how much good fortune and hard work that required.

“I could never afford to buy a comparable unit in this neighborhood,” says longtime resident Joanne Kaliontzis. The successful collage artist and designer marvels at the micro-apartments that now fill what were once airy artists’ lofts in nearby buildings — 500-square-foot glorified closets that rent for $2,000 or more a month.

If she didn’t already own her live-work studio in the co-op where her father once peddled paper, it’s hard to see how she could have survived 20 years in Fort Point. But it’s not as if she’s sitting on a gold mine: The building’s limited-equity model stipulates that owners must sell back their units at a modest, controlled price.

“We’re getting to live in a great building with people with similar interests and loves,” she says. “It’s really not a financial investment. It’s what I would call a lifestyle investment.”

And for the artists who are left here, that’s good enough.

Robb and Emily Sandagata, who are both visual artists, first visited Western Avenue Studios when its artists’ lofts were just beginning to be developed. Dina Rudick/Globe Staff/Boston Globe

Nestor Ramos is a Globe staff writer. E-mail him at nestor.ramos@globe.com and follow him on Twitter @nestoraramos.