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Artists in South End studios given temporary reprieve

Artists in the city-owned studios on Tremont Street won’t have to leave by May 1 after all.
Artists in the city-owned studios on Tremont Street won’t have to leave by May 1 after all. John Tlumacki/Globe Staff/Globe Staff

The Boston Center for the Arts has told about 40 artists who lease studios at its South End campus that they do not have to leave by May 1, as they were informed in a surprise announcement earlier this fall.

A new deadline will be announced Dec. 2, BCA officials have told the artists, some of whom have worked in the city-owned, Tremont Street studios for decades.

The original May 1 deadline set off a firestorm among the artists, who were startled to learn at a BCA meeting in September that their space would be converted into an ambitious new residency program.

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The tenants have been told they can apply for the program, called Studio 551, but that the criteria have not been set for residencies that are expected to last from six months to six years.

The temporary reprieve did not allay worries about being displaced in an increasingly expensive city. The artists currently pay about one-third of market rate for their studios.

“All we know is we’ve gotten a stay of execution,” said Beverly Sky, a fiber artist who rents workspace at the Artist Studios Building, which the BCA leases from the city for $1. “They’re doing an end run around us. They’re succeeding in decimating our community.”

Sky said the BCA has met twice with about 10 artists and spoken individually with others since the original eviction notice, which the center delivered after a year of hushed planning.

Despite that outreach, the center’s Studio 551 Advisory Council, which is helping develop the program and its admission criteria, does not include any of the imperiled artists, Sky said.

“We’re still invisible,” Sky said. “I want to see what the criteria are. What I do know is I don’t want to leave. I want five more years here so I can make plans for my business, my career.”

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BCA officials told the artists in an email Friday that they had “listened intently” to their concerns.

The new deadline “will reflect your feedback and should address the issues you have raised,” BCA codirectors Emily Foster Day and Kristi Keefe said. In addition, the city’s Office for Arts & Culture has been asked to help compile a list of available studio spaces and resources, they said.

The BCA’s assurances were met with skepticism. Miriam Shenitzer, another artist who rents space in the studio building, echoed Sky’s criticism.

“They continue to actively shut us out of the process of planning the future of our artists building. They want us to sit quietly and wait to be told what to do,” Shenitzer said.

“We have asked to have representation in the planning process but have been ignored. Again, none of us has a problem with the concept of adding residencies to the artist building offerings,” she added.

The executive director of the Massachusetts Cultural Council, a state agency that has long provided funds to the BCA, said the eviction plans came as a surprise.

“The artists at the BCA took a risk when they moved into a neighborhood 30-plus years ago to help redevelop underperforming real estate,” Anita Walker said. “Now that this real estate is highly desirable, their risk and investment is discarded. This is an all-too-common scenario that often leaves artists out in the cold.”

Walker called for “an opportunity to create a pathway to permanence for artists in a community that benefits greatly from the creative capital the artists have generated.”

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Rebecca Greene, a 36-year-old sculptor who has worked in the BCA building for 13 years, said she remains disheartened and has begun looking for studio space in Somerville and other suburbs.

“How can you trust these people who already made this decision? I still wake up at 4 or 5 in the morning, not knowing what to do,” Greene said.

“Even if they say a two-year lease, that’s something; that’s security,” Greene said. “Unfortunately, I’ve disassembled half of my studio.”

The BCA has faced other turbulence since the eviction plans became public. Gregory Ruffer resigned as president in October after a Brighton musician wrote to the BCA board of directors that Ruffer allegedly had sent him sexually suggestive e-mails when the musician studied under him in Florida.


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