For years, Northeastern University has quietly supported an African-American artists’ collective in one of its warehouse buildings off campus. About a dozen artists have thrived in a program, which has been affiliated with the school for decades.
But a few weeks ago — with no advance notice or warning — the university decided to kick the artists out, turning a civil partnership into a roiling community war. The artists claim, quite credibly, to have been blindsided. The college maintains that the program is a sham and something should have been done long ago.
The program is called AAMARP, an acronym standing for African-American Master Artists in Residence Program. It was started in the late 1970s, and has always been affiliated with Northeastern. Though the program has bounced among a few locations, for about 20 years it’s been housed in a warehouse on Atherton Street.
The space has long been considered — by the artists and their community — as part of Northeastern’s outreach to a surrounding Roxbury neighborhood it otherwise often ignores.
One of the artists, Marlon Forrester, showed me around the space last week. He’s a Guyana-born, Dorchester-raised artist. He has degrees from Tufts and Yale and teaches art in the Boston Public Schools. He’s been making art in the space for the past four years — a short time compared with the building’s other artists, some of whom have worked there for 20 years or more.
“There’s no other place like this in Boston,” Forrester said as we walked through the gallery space. “There’s no other place where black artists can show their work and it’s not a footnote for Black History Month.” Forrester has no idea where he will do his work now.
Where the artists see a cultural center, the college seems to see a potential insurance hazard.
Ralph C. Martin II, Northeastern’s general counsel and the former Suffolk County district attorney, launched into full prosecutor mode when I asked him about the abrupt decision to kick the artists out.
Martin claims that it is a program in name only, that the building is in disrepair, and that there is no “accountability” on the part of the artists, who until recently had 24-hour access to the space.
“No one is in control of the people who use the warehouse,” Martin said. “There’s no application process, there’s no time frame for how long you can stay. No entity would allow this to go on.”
But if this is such a crisis, why didn’t Northeastern take any action until now? Martin conceded the school had been slow to address the issue. But now, he insists, they have to go. The artists have been told they must leave by July 31. Locks have been changed; Northeastern guards have been stationed outside. Believe me, there isn’t much to guard.
Mayor Martin J. Walsh seems poised to get involved and is meeting with Northeastern on Monday to discuss the situation. Maybe he can be a peacemaker.
Northeastern has a right to decide what it wants to do with its building — especially in the case of a group with only loose affiliations with the college. Though I think Northeastern’s list of grievances is greatly overblown, AAMARP isn’t owed free 24-hour studio space in perpetuity.
But the way Northeastern deals with the community at its doorstep is appalling. There were a dozen better ways to handle this situation, but the school chose the most incendiary option. Rather than giving the artists a reasonable amount of time to move or looking for another space on campus, they chose the path of greatest insensitivity. Then they wonder why their neighbors resent them.
All this comes as artists are getting tossed out across the city. As Boston booms, a piece of its soul doesn’t fit into the new landscape. I wonder if we understand what we’re losing or how hard it will be to ever recreate it.