“This is Boston Not ___________” discussion at Montserrat

“This is Boston Not ___________,” a panel discussion on “the creative culture of Boston and the surrounding areas,” was held at Montserrat College of Art in Beverly, Massachusetts, yesterday. Panelists included (from left in picture above) artist and author Caleb Neelon, Boston Museum of Fine Arts curatorial research associate Liz Munsell, The New England Journal of Aesthetic Research’s Greg Cook (who also teaches at Montserrat), artist Raul Gonzalez, and Samson gallery owner Camilo Alvarez. Below are some excerpts.

Neelon: “One of the dirty secrets of the area … I don’t know that I can name a single self-supporting visual artist who supports themselves on their work. … The big challenge here is mentorship. … The hard part is connecting with the people who lead you to the next steps.”

Munsell noted that competition isn’t so cutthroat in Boston as it is in, say, New York. “There’s kind of just a sense of supporting each other.”

Cook said it was hard not to be discouraged by the limited opportunities in Boston, which is why artists need to pursue out-of-town opportunities in addition to working here. He said Massachusetts government health care is a great help to artists and freelancers at the bottom of the economy, and one of the reasons he’s stayed around Boston.

Alvarez noted that Washington, DC, is known for politics, New York for business and Boston for academics.

Neelon: “Boston is about the academics. … I find that a lot of Boston art really goes too hard into the academics because it’s there. We don’t need to be the smartest people in the room. … One things artists have to do is bring joy.”

A student said, “My concern about Boston is that it’s not spicy enough.”

Gonzalez: “I think it’s our responsibility to make the situation spicy. That’s why you have to develop your own group of friends” that makes things more spicy. “I myself have said Boston’s lame many times.”

Neelon said Boston is an old town with many old institutions. “A lot of them, like a lot of older people, are desperately trying to be cooler.” And young artists can find opportunities in that.

Neelon: “There are more venues in this town than you might think.”

Munsell” “I think it takes a really long time to feel that you are at home in Boston … You really have to have ideas and propose things yourself.” She suggested artists try working collaboratively, read a lot, and go to lots of things.

Cook said perhaps Boston isn’t seen as spicy because the most prominent art made here, that stuff that tends to be celebrated locally, is often cerebral. There’s little lowbrow. The art is not sexy—as in literally, like naked people getting it on. There’s not much crazy, rebellious or guerilla work. Providence had artists creating a secret installation in the mall downtown; Boston rarely has that sort of thing.

Neelon: “It’s not particularly cool to go out to art openings here. … It’s not something here that people your age go to looking to hook up.” He said when he’s shown in San Francisco, folks attending his openings have found others there to go home with afterward. “When that happens other people come.”

Boston 10 years from now?
A student asked panelists what they thought the Boston art scene would look like 10 years from now.

Cook: “Rocket backpacks, Internet in your head, talking dogs.”

Alvarez said the Boston Museum of Fine Arts’ new contemporary wing and renewed commitment to collecting contemporary art is “incredibly hopeful and fruitful for the Boston contemporary art scene. … They just influence a lot of people.” Then he quipped, “In 10 years, I forsee they’ve hopefully acquired the Rose collection … and Frank Gehry has built a building on the waterfront that’s the MFA contemporary.”

Neelon noted the many museum building and expansion projects across the region. “On an institutional level, almost all the building’s been done. … This was more than a $2 billion investment. … Now these deep local pockets are going to turn to artists that live here—which, of course, is not going to happen.”

Cook said we often underestimate the influence exhibits have on artists. He predicted that with all the new contemporary museum galleries across the region, we’ll see local artists produce more art inspired by or knocking off what’s exhibited. He said he hoped all the new museum infrastructure would mean more room for local museums to showcase more local art, giving local artists small shows early in their careers and then large shows later on, but that he was skeptical that this would happen.

Asked about how travels had benefited the panelists, Neelon said, “If I hadn’t been traveling [around the world] since I was a teenager I would have jumped off the Tobin Bridge years ago.” He said he’d made connections that have allowed him to paint anywhere, and as his career has developed, people now pay him to do projects that he used to pay to do.

Munsell said she went to Chile on a Fulbright Scholarship to study art in public spaces and learned how the dictatorship there in the 1970s and ‘80s created a division between museums and artists. So artists did more work in the streets, and have passed that tradition down to artists there today. “I just learned so much about the reasons for being anti-institutional … and how necessity inspires creation.”

Cook said his experiences growing up in Chicago, then being part of the Highwater comics gang in Boston, and a recent trip to Philadelphia remind him of what he misses in Boston. He talked about artists in Chicago renting a truck, filling it with art, and parking it in the gallery district on opening night; a guy who displayed his art inside his trench coat; and artists who made floating sculptures and parked them next to a pier where a big art fair was being held. He noted that Philadelphia has many of the too-close-to New York issues that Boston has that limit commercial galleries, and has sprouted many alternative and co-op galleries in response. But he noted a number of projects that have sprouted around Boston in the past few years: Hallway Gallery, Sprout, Ninygo Editions, Artists in Context, ArtMorpheus, Lufthansa Studios, Howard Art Project, HarborArts, 17 Cox, UForge Gallery, Yes Oui Si, Design Studio for Social Intervention.

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