Cavallo: “Build or Destroy”

“We can either keep encouraging our thousands of recent Art School graduates that they better run like hell with articles like ‘Gone Begging,’ or we can highlight the reasons they should stay.”

Below Maggie Cavallo, a Boston artist and assistant curator of education for the gallery and visiting artist program at Montserrat College of Art, responds to Michael Braithwaite’s argument in a recent Boston Phoenix article titled “Gone Begging” that a primary reason for Boston’s creative brain drain is the City of Boston’s poor support of the visual arts. [Disclosure: NEJAR custodian Greg Cook writes for the Boston Phoenix and teaches at Montserrat.]

I am experiencing one of those rare, but fortuitous moments, when I took my time. Ignored the urge to let loose an intrinsic battle cry in a flurry of tapping letters flying off my iPhone screen, to be awarded with a couple days’ clarity. I was escaping to Upstate, NY in the passenger seat, Phoenix in hand. Hancock Tower barely out of the rearview, I knew I wanted to immediately enjoy a few days of urban-detachment but that there was no way in hell I was going to last a weekend without diving into “Gone Begging.”

While my initial response was somewhat pained, what occurred to me is that an opportunity to highlight the powerful activity and artistic change that is happening in Boston, is as relevant and timely of a topic, as the areas in which our city needs to improve. It is clear that at the heart of Gone Begging was a call for more infrastructural support for the arts in Boston, an imperative effort that I stand by as well. Yet the bereavement that results from the consistently negative description of the arts and artists in our city is gut-wrenching. One of the largest hurdles for Boston, is battling the constant energy that is invested in maintaining these myths of being second-rate and unimaginative. These claims are not only outdated, but are stories that have been reported again and again. It is publications and institutions with an audience as large as the Phoenix, who have a responsibility to participate and accurately report about our arts community. But in some ways, “Gone Begging,” was a last straw on my meter for negativity, and the ‘you’ that forms in my response is by no means the Phoenix, and surely not Braithwaite but everyone who may not stop themselves from talking down the arts in our city as a habit. If you really want change, and want to help – come to our events, participate, pay close attention and document the opus of change that is taking place.

The story described ‘as old as time’, of artists leaving Boston (in droves?) for greener pastures, is in fact, as old as time, it is blatantly dated. I wonder, how much we are doing, through press and rumor, to enforce this story? How many artists are in fact leaving Boston, and when in their careers? Is someone quantifying this data? How does this compare the the amount of artists who leave any other city? In five years in Boston, I’ve had a maximum of 5 close artist-friends move to other places around the globe. Had I lived in New York or Los Angeles, would I have seen only 1 friend move? Or None? In a recent conversation with Boston-based Curator & Art Historian Leslie Brown, she made mention of the differences between today and ten years ago, citing at that time, she saw friend after friend leaving the city as compared to today, when people just seem to be…”staying.” In the last three months alone, while I was sad to say goodbye to a dear friend who moved to Brooklyn, I have been lucky enough to have three colleagues move from the Big Apple back to Boston. We can either keep encouraging our thousands of recent Art School graduates that they better run like hell with articles like “Gone Begging,” or we can highlight the reasons they should stay.

Braithwaite posts an important question, are other pastures really that much greener? To Montserrat Gallery Director & Curator Leonie Bradbury, the greenest pasture would be one where an artist has the “time and space” to make new work. Friends in NYC are working 70 hours a week to pay for tiny painting studios, that they have no time to work in. While I am trying to help fill a huge studio on Wareham Street right now for $300 (no really, call me). As the article went on, it lead me to wonder what it means to be a successful contemporary artist, and whether it is time to redefine that. Caleb Neelon recited soundbites about artists not being commercially successful and the lack of mentorship, a defeating combination. I feel I have to make the point that we most definitely know an artist or two making their living off their work in Boston. But more importantly, how many artists do you know in any city who are under 50 and making their entire income off of sales alone? And why doesn’t the financial and professional gain that comes from the combination of working with institutions as a visiting artist, teaching, publishing books, and exhibiting and selling work, equate to “success”? It also goes without saying that we are living in the most global economy to date;I am all about buying/selling local from tomatoes to sculptures, but the fact is artists are not selling their work to the city where they reside alone.

When meeting with the Seniors Fine Arts students at Montserrat College of Art, I often remind them that their most important mission is to build a life where they are able to continue to create their own work. They should be knowledgeable and well-versed in the commercial aspects of the fine art world, but that if their expectation is to graduate and immediately sell tens of thousands of dollars worth of art, then they may want to reconsider their profession. The ability to make work is a privilege. The struggle and strategizing to be able to do that, especially in the ‘emerging’ years, is part of that experience.

To Caleb’s point on mentorship, I also question how justified this claim is at the present time. He himself has been a great mentor to me and I am fortunate enough to say that he is one among many in Boston. Similarly, I have been blessed in the last two years to see my role as a mentor to many emerging artists have a distinct effect on the route of their careers. Is it just me? Is my small circle the only place where this type of support from above and below is taking place? Somehow I doubt it…

The history of the development of cultural institutions in Boston that Braithwaite describes is true. Not unlike any other major city, our museums, symphony halls and theaters were built as a narcissistic way for the Brahmins to design their own cultural capital under the guise of education. Yet what we are witnessing now, is a distinct cultural shift. And ironically, if not unfortunately, many of the issues that are mentioned in “Gone Begging,” have just at this moment begun to change. Our development since the Brahmin days has certainly not had the contemporary achievements that have been established in cities such as Philadelphia or Pittsburgh. It was refreshing to finally see a comparison of cities our size, and I would be overjoyed to see more analysis of techniques that Boston can take from these cities, and others. What if the ICA took a few lessons from the Walker Art Museum in Minneapolis? What if a local institution became an educational resource at the level of the Andy Warhol Museum in Pittsburgh?

An increase in the number of professional commercial gallery spaces would be ideal (if alongside them we were actively cultivating new audiences & collectors), and I certainly agree that our large local institutions should find ways to not only celebrate, but contextualize the work being made by Boston-based artists. Especially by enhancing their relationships with even more local galleries, artists and professionals. But it is worth more than mentioning, that while taking the escalator to the second floor of the Museum of Fine Arts I was met by a work by Antoniadis & Stone (first seen at Samson Projects), and within the new wing a work by Boston’s Annette Lemieux. Is anyone documenting the shift in institutional collecting? Further, a exciting precursor to the hiring of Liz Munsell as Assistant Curator of Contemporary Art and MFA Programs was being able to witness GANG CLAN MAFIA (Boston-based Vela Phelan & Dirk Adams) perform within the Museum’s walls. There is more intentional and strategic curatorial work happening in our city, than we are getting credit for. I am saddened to see no mention in this article, or anywhere, for the constant support that Anthony Greaney has offered Boston’s emerging artists. He consistently takes the time to participate in and research the work being made by young artists and has turned out one edgy exhibition after another.

I was both pleased and saddened to see D’hana’s words in the article, as I’ve been fortunate enough to prance around a few of her dancefloors and because I was so excited to read she was also a performance artist. But, dismayed as I feel our worlds seem to nearly overlap, to hear her questioning of the imagination of this city. Everyday I feel as if Boston is my playground, that I am well-supported and one the luckiest people in the world to work with the most imaginative people I’ve ever met. These are not artists alone, but supporters, figures like Geoff Hargadon whose practice (besides billboards) is one of presence, support and promotion.

With the mention of Make/Shift I was shocked not to see a the name of Amanda Antunes, founder and creative director of Spirited Magazine who is a member of the shared workspace. One of the most exciting and well-designed print magazines in our area, Spirited features fashion, visual arts and literature from our region and beyond. Their vision being, “to bring creatives – the artist as more than an individual commodity of producing art – together in the spirit of humanity and the soul thereof.” They are committed to influencing and informing a generation of emerging and established artists and writers, and the cross-pollination of practices featured in the magazine, result in real-life networking and collaboration. It would have been more inspiring to our city to do a three page interview with Amanda Antunes, then to tell us one more time what the hell happened to Fort Point.

In the end, I was most worried about the casual mention of artists in Boston lacking backbone, within the same sentence as a claim as serious as institutions in Boston downplaying local artists. To any arts professional working at the forefront of contemporary art in Boston, the idea that the artists of this city lack strength is blasphemous and proof that we are not getting the type of attention and coverage that we deserve. Mari Novotny-Jones’ thoughts on Boston seem printed slightly out of context as well, as did the photograph of her performing on the street in Brooklyn (?). No, it is not the 70s anymore, not in Boston, or anywhere. But the implication that came across was that there are no artists getting weird in the streets. For the last two years I have been fortunate to have been taken along for the ride by Boston’s performance art community. It is active, healthy and in the streets, galleries and classrooms. Local artist Sandrine Schafer has created a sustainable career out of performance art, a traditionally uncollectable medium – has anyone thought to interview her about how this came to be? Do we want more opportunities and money? Yes of course. But if you needed an image of an artist in Boston working in public, I could have just sent you a picture text from my phone taken on any evening of the last two weeks. Did everyone from the press miss Maria Molteni’s Glossolalia? Offered the opportunity to facilitate events with White Walls Boston, Maria facilitated over 20 artists and a menagerie of events. Stops included lessons in prayer at the soon-to-be-decimated Our Lady of Sacred Voyage (here’s a new and worthy Fort Point story for you!) and a midnight sound performance at the public stage in lower Allston. Yet, what most certainly topped them all was Molteni’s collaborative baptism performance in the shore, docks and depths of the Boston Harbor outside the ICA. Armed with a team of sirens, jellyfish, Pstyles and projections and sound from BATHAUS blaring over the water, this was one of the most provocative works I’d seen this month. Why am I still waiting for someone to review this piece?

If anything, we may need more writers, more critics able and willing to involve themselves in the art & exhibits of Boston specifically. Our city does not need to couch ourselves with all of New England, in order to somehow be “big” enough to compete with the world. I would like to encourage more of our recent graduates to take the time to foster this type of literary thought. Ask hard questions, describe the scene, document what is happening, because in fifty years when someone is writing a book on the Boston Renaissance, they are going to want your archives.

Last fall we held a panel at Montserrat entitled “This is Boston Not _______,” designed to highlight the pros & cons of Boston’s creative culture in order to assist Seniors who would soon be graduating and deciding where their next step would take place. Fortunate enough to have Caleb Neelon, Liz Munsell, Greg Cook, Raul Gonzalez & Camilo Alvarez as guests, the hour and a half was full of useful, anecdotal and often hilarious moments. But what stuck with me the most, was a senior asking what the panel thought about the idea that Boston was not “spicy” enough. The panel and audience all laughed, and Raul took the reigns explaining that – you make your own spice. It is up to each individual to decide how real, how edgy, how true their art scene is going to get. I hope that every grant passes that would get this community more money, and I am equally committed to increasing public works throughout this city, but in the meantime – things are happening. While so many people seem to be telling the same old stories and asking the city to prove that they really want the arts, we’ve had our heads down hard at work making sure some art actually exists.

As best said by Jay Electronica – you either build or destroy, where you come from? Individuals, organizations and businesses in Boston have two options: continue to break apart and nitpick the city or pay close attention to the creative sociocultural change, document and report it. In any case, when you’re done crying about how much everything sucks, you can find the rest of us at Pico Picante.

Rah Rah Rah.

One Response to “Cavallo: “Build or Destroy””

  1. Debbie Hagan says:

    Well said. Maggie makes so many great points. As to her comments about the journalistic coverage in the city, I believe more venues need to exist for art coverage. Much of the present coverage strikes me as limited to the bigger shows, in the bigger venues having the longer runs; thus the smaller, independent, and fleeting art events slide under the radar–they don’t bring in the advertising, aren’t attended by many, and require a little more planning and research to cover.