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New residency program for artists could displace some tenants

Boston Center for the Arts Studios at 551 Tremont Street.Jonathan Wiggs//Globe Staff

As artists increasingly struggle to find affordable work space, the Boston Center for the Arts announced plans Wednesday to establish a residency program at its South End campus for studio, rehearsal, and exhibition space for dozens of artists and a broad array of art.

Beginning in July, a new program called Studio 551 will offer heavily subsidized work space from six months to six years for artists at all stages of their careers in a wide range of visual arts, dance, theater, and music.

“We are an organization that is very fortunate to have the one resource that everyone is looking for, and that’s space,” said Gregory Ruffer, president of the BCA, which was created in 1970 and operates a sprawling arts complex on Tremont Street.


However, the BCA's ambitious move to provide work space to artists and art organizations might come at a cost. Approximately 40 artists who currently are BCA tenants at 551 Tremont St. — some of them for more than 40 years — will have to apply for residencies if they wish to continue to use their spaces.

Ruffer delivered the news to tenants at a private meeting Wednesday evening.

“Change can be difficult for people, and there will be a need for artists who have been with us for a long time to process what this change is,” Ruffer told the Globe.

BCA officials stressed that the tenants, who are on open-ended leases at the site, will be encouraged to apply. But the new program, which will be paired with professional support for the artists and greater outreach to the community, also is designed to open space to a new, broad pool of creative talent.

“We don’t see a lot of turnover in the building” said Emily Foster Day, chief advancement officer for the BCA. “There is an opportunity to really expand these programs and make them available to a much greater number of artists who haven’t had a chance to be a part of the BCA community.”


The change “is certainly disruptive,” said Jason Slavick, artistic director of the theater company Liars & Believers, as he headed to rehearsal in the studio building Wednesday evening.

However, Slavick said, the move is “a really great, long-term vision” by the BCA.

Liars & Believers already is benefiting from the changes, he said. The company has been given a one-year residency until next August and office space it never had before.

All of this is free, Slavick said, and the BCA will provide marketing for the company’s productions as well as performance space.

“The result, as it plays out, remains to be seen,” Slavick said of the BCA’s overall changes. “It has the potential to be really good.”

The 52 current work spaces at the Artist Studios Building range from 72 square feet to 1,100 square feet. Like the existing setup, the new residents will not live in the spaces.

“We spent the last year looking at what do we want to be when we grow up? We go back to the mission,” Ruffer said. “Our interpretation of mission will be in providing time, space, and resources for artists to do new work, take artistic risks, and expand their practice.”

The largest percentage of spaces at Studio 551 will be dedicated to visual artists, but space also will be available for dance, theater, and music residents.


Kate Gilbert, an artist who has been a BCA tenant since 2014, said a delicate balance exists between finding affordable space and then choosing who works there.

“If there’s limited space and everyone needs it, how are you going to accommodate that and who is going to get it?” said Gilbert, the founder of Now + There, a nonprofit advocacy group for public art.

A city-commissioned study in 2018 on Boston’s performing arts and cultural venues found that “the strain on artists and organizations has worsened in recent years,” according to the TDC consulting company.

Ruffer said the BCA’s plans, developed over a year of discussions with artists and curators, are a big step in that direction.

According to the BCA, artists will receive 24/7 access to private or shared studios, rehearsal and community space, resource materials, and a program of public and private events and activities to encourage community building and artistic collaboration.

Residency applications will be accepted beginning in late fall and are open to artists in all media, BCA officials said.

Brian MacQuarrie can be reached at