“Where are the keys? Give us the keys!” protesters chanted outside the African American Master Artists In Residence Program studios building at 76 Atherton St. in Boston’s Jamaica Plain neighborhood on Saturday, June 27. “Black artists matter!”
The 14 artists involved in the program at Northeastern University said the school had again locked artists out of their studios in the two top floors of the building the four-decade-old program for Black artists has long occupied, and is trying to push the artists out of the facility.
“This is the promise they made to the artists,” Dana Chandler III—the son of artist, teacher and activist Dana Chandler Jr. who founded the program in 1978—told the crowd. “You were going to support the community of color. You were going to support AAMARP. What did you do during covid, during riots, during murders? You locked the doors. So guess what? We want the keys. Give us the keys.”
Protesters stood on the steps of the building with banners reading “Black Artists Manner.” The statement was also painted onto the wall of the building.
“Northeastern at the beginning of the pandemic had closed off campus per the quarantine order,” Shea Justice, one of the resident artists, told me via email. “Some of the artists had to get materials from their studios and discovered the locks to the building had been changed with no communication from the school of their intentions.”
The result, artists said before the protest, was they could not get into the building and Northeastern did not respond to their communications. Before the protest, Renata Nyul, Northeastern’s vice president for communications, said via email, “Due to Covid-19, the facility is closed. There should be a sign on the door with information about how to get temporary access.”
This new standoff between Northeastern and the resident artists echoes a dispute two years ago. On June 28, 2018, Maria Cimilluca, a Northeastern vice president for facilities, sent a letter to artists in the program ordering them to move out of program studios at 76 Atherton St. by that July 13 “because of hazardous conditions” in the building. Artists said the school changed the locks and didn’t issue them new keys. At the time, Northeastern spokesperson Renata Nyul wrote, “access to the artist space has never been revoked.”
Under pressure that summer and fall from Boston Mayor Marty Walsh, Northeastern University repeatedly pushed back the deadline for when it said the artist residency prorgram must vacate a school building. The artists and school have been in private negotiations since.
On the day of the recent protest, Ralph Martin, general counsel at Northeastern, emailed me this message: “We do not understand the purpose of today’s protest. Due to the Covid-19 pandemic, and in compliance with public health guidelines, Northeastern University closed its Boston campus on March 17. All university buildings—including the warehouse at 76 Atherton Street—were closed and access was made available only upon special request.
Martin went on, “It is important to note that the artists associated with AAMARP do not pay rent to Northeastern and have never paid rent, despite occupying space in Northeastern buildings for more than 30 years. The university has been working with AAMARP leaders on a mutually agreeable plan to relocate the artists this fall, at significant cost to the university. Because the pandemic effectively put these discussions on hold for a period of time, the university will extend its plans to relocate the artists until the end of the 2020 calendar year.
Martin wrote, “We are grateful to the artists—and all in the Northeastern community—for adhering to public health guidance and moving to remote work during the pandemic. By doing so, they have helped combat the effects of Covid-19, and enhanced the safety and well-being of the entire community.“
“He states NEU was closed due to COVID-19 on March 17,” photographer Don West, one of the resident artists, writes me. “We have had access until the beginning of June when the locks were changed on the front door without any notice or communication with us and we used various forms of communication to NEU to correct the situation to no avail, prompting our public outcry last Saturday. Ralph Martin and others in leadership who characterize our occupancy in the 76 Atherton St. building as ‘rent free’ entirely miss the point that we have had a ‘quid pro quo’ relationship with them for the past 42 years ~ NEU has offered working space to AAMARP, a cultural institution, in exchange for being the community component they needed to purchase the building, as well as the various programs, exhibits and grant programs we participate in with the university. … ‘Free space’ is a gross mis-statement.”
A couple days after the protest, Marlon Forrester, another of the resident artists, told me, “They scampered over there as quickly as they could. Their lawyer was emailing us. … One of the vice presidents arrived there. … They’ll now respond to our calls.”
“We’re not back in the building,” Forrester says. “They open up the door, which they weren’t doing before. They put up a bunch of signs,”
“Why are we being escorted, watched while we’re in for 30 minutes and then escorted out of the building? This is unacceptable,” L’Merchie Frazier, one of the program’s resident artists, told the crowd at the protest.
“You have to go through their security. We used to have keys to get in,” Forrester says. “Give us the key. Why is it we don’t have keys? Why is it we have until December to leave? … We’re still really locked out because they have the key and holding the key is the power dynamic.”
Forrester tells me, “All these institutions are in the process of putting out a selective narrative in terms of racial equality. These are to seduce people into thinking these are actualized. … Given these factors we have to keep pushing forward because people want real change. They deserve it.”
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