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‘This has been my home’: Artists devastated over impending loss of studios

Artist Rebecca Greene, a longtime tenant at the Boston Center for the Arts’ Artist Studios Building, was overcome with emotion as she stood in her studio that she will have to vacate along with all her many artwork pieces.
Artist Rebecca Greene, a longtime tenant at the Boston Center for the Arts’ Artist Studios Building, was overcome with emotion as she stood in her studio that she will have to vacate along with all her many artwork pieces. John Tlumacki/Globe Staff/Globe Staff

Rebecca Greene looked achingly Friday around her sculpture studio, an airy place filled with bird-themed works hung above paint-spattered planks in a South End space rented from the Boston Center for the Arts.

“This has been my home. These are people I have known for years,” Greene, 36, said of the dozens of artists who work at the four-story brick building on Tremont Street, some of them for three or four decades.

And then Greene began to cry.

The sculptor and other longtime tenants at the Artist Studios Building are reeling after being told this week that they must vacate their studios by May and reapply for admission under an ambitious new BCA residency program planned there. The residents have no guarantee they will be readmitted to the building to work, or if they are, that they would get the same space.

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BCA president Gregory Ruffer said the new program — a broad range of artistic residencies lasting from six months to six years — will create more opportunities for more artists in an increasingly expensive city. But many artists who have called this building home for years see something ominous ahead.

“This is the end of our professional careers,” said Beverly Sky, 70, a fiber artist who rents a studio from the BCA. “Our livelihood, our jobs, our careers are centered here. This is the destruction of our community.”

It’s a diverse and resilient community with a median age in the 50s, according to a dozen artists intervewed by the Globe. Painters, printmakers, collagists, musicians, photographers, and others are in the mix, as well as a wide range of ethnicities and sexual preferences, they said.

There is Darrell Finnegan, a BCA tenant for 19 years who said he operates the only ceramic studio in Boston.

“It’s a death blow to me,” said Finnegan, who makes his living from the studio. “There seems to be an unawareness of the talent in this building.”

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Roosevelt Pires builds and repairs instruments in his studio.
Roosevelt Pires builds and repairs instruments in his studio. John Tlumacki/Globe Staff/Globe Staff

And there is Roosevelt Pires, 56, who builds string instruments in a tiny studio and repairs them for clients ranging from Boston Symphony Orchestra players to superstar musicians such as cellist Yo-Yo Ma.

“Where are we going to go? This is heaven to us,” said Pires, who has rented for 23 years. “Right now they’re choking me. I don’t even know how to breathe.”

BCA officials emphasized that the current tenants are not being precluded from the residency program. But with a limited amount of space, and a desire for regular infusion of new creativity, their future looks tenuous.

“It’s OK to have a great future vision, but that doesn’t mean you pull out the roots,” said Suzanne Merritt, 62, a photographer who has rented space for 25 years. “This is where I came to reinvent myself. Am I going to reinvent myself now?”

Several artists fought back tears during interviews Friday. Contacted later, Ruffer said that raw emotions can be expected at this early stage of the transition.

“It does take a bit of time for people to process change,” Ruffer said. “You’re hearing the early part of that process and the change.”

He insisted that the new residencies will bring broad benefits to Boston’s arts community.

“This opens up our studio spaces to many, many, many more artists. There are many people out there who didn’t even get this far,” Ruffer said, referring to the studios available to current tenants.

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Ruffer said the artists pay about one-third of market rate for their studios, part of a sprawling arts campus off Tremont and Clarendon streets. The building is leased from the city under a 99-year agreement for $1, but the structure costs $550,000 a year to operate and maintain, Ruffer said.

Artist Carol Monacelli will have to remove all her paintings from her studio when she has to leave.
Artist Carol Monacelli will have to remove all her paintings from her studio when she has to leave. John Tlumacki/Globe Staff/Globe Staff

Several of the artists said they do not oppose the idea of a residency program, but they questioned why the change could not be done in phases.

“Had Ruffer involved us in this new process, in his thinking, we would have been glad to help. Instead, he staged a coup,” said Miriam Shenitzer, an artist who does drawings, illustrations, and animation, among other work. “This may be his vision, but it is our lives.”

None of the artists interviewed by the Globe said they had been contacted by Ruffer before he announced the residency program at a meeting with them Wednesday evening. Planning had been underway for a year, the BCA has said.

“My idea is that the BCA has been searching for an identity, and they’re trying to develop something that is sexy,” said Ruth Ginsberg-Place, a fiber artist who has been at the studios for 40 years.

The artists said the meeting had been billed as a celebratory update before the center’s 50th anniversary in 2020. Instead, they said, Ruffer dropped a bombshell: The artists would have to vacate the studios by May.

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“We were all sitting there and didn’t know what to say,” Sky recalled. “The rebranding of the BCA is now concurrent with evicting 42 artists. It’s unbelievable.”

Merritt called the meeting an “ambush.”

Ruffer said at least three current artists were consulted before the announcement, and that the BCA sought a wide range of input.

“It’s difficult to involve absolutely every person in a decision like this,” he added. “We wanted to have full information to give before we had an announcement.”

Days after that announcement, many artists remained stunned.

“Some people are just devastated emotionally,” said Edie Bowers, an 81-year-old painter and collagist who has rented since 1996. “It’s still hard to process. I’m partly just shocked and partly a little angry.”

Pires, standing among dozens of finely crafted violins, said he has not been able to work since Wednesday.

“How can you start again?” Pires said. “I don’t know how to fight back.”


Brian MacQuarrie can be reached at brian.macquarrie@ globe.com.