Financial strains, limited options for artists push powerhouse creatives out of the area
Arts couple Sophia Cacciola and Michael J. Epstein are joining the exodus of creative talent out of Cambridge and Somerville, Epstein announced Wednesday on Facebook and in a post on the Medium platform.
“We feel like we’ve hit a sort of creative ceiling here,” Epstein wrote, referring to the difficulties of pursuing projects in the arts without broader community support, given wages that are slow to rise compared with the cost of living and soaring property taxes.
“We personally just can’t rely on crowdfunding and accumulating debt forever, and we can’t work under those financial restrictions to do better than we are now. We are just killing ourselves to pull off anything serious on tiny budgets,” he said.
Move into film
The couple has most recently focused on film, having released the murder thriller “Ten” in 2014, the science fiction-themed “Magnetic” last year and now at work on a thinky take on ’70s lesbian horror flicks called “Blood of the Tribades”; but they made their reputation as musicians in a series of overlapping bands such as The Michael J. Epstein Memorial Library, Darling Pet Munkee and Do Not Forsake Me Oh My Darling. With the band Space Balloons they ventured into children’s programming, and they have specialized in shows employing a variety of arts, such as the Kickstarted “Bring Us Your Women” and the monthly “Encyclopedia Show.” Epstein, a professor at Northeastern University, also is a prolific social media presence.
While growing health care costs and hard winters are factors, it was the move into filmmaking that led to a key moment in the decision. In Epstein’s words:
“I spent time helping to found the nonprofit Somerville Makers and Artists with the goal of obtaining a building to make a space for a strong, commercially subsidized creative community. Specifically, for our part, we planned to create an affordable film studio to allow filmmakers in the area stretch their creations beyond their budgets. A big opportunity came up with the former Powder House School building in Somerville. Despite a strong proposal presented to the city, when held up against other plans, we lost the bid for what was likely the only building that will come up in the near future that could work for this project (unless someone wants to donate $10 million). Ultimately, the city selection group opted for a condo project instead of an arts hub.”
“The cities love the benefits of the ‘cool factor’ from the presence of amazing artists and arts projects, but are willing to ride on the breaking backs of creatives working without substantial compensation,” Epstein said. “I don’t blame the city, really. It’s always easy to overlook arts in favor of just about everything else, and if you take any public opinion poll, a tremendous percentage of people think arts has no positive impact on their community.”
In fact, every dollar invested in the arts has a roughly $5 return to the local economy, said Julie Hennrikus, executive director of the StageSource theater resource and an instructor at Emerson College, in an article for WBUR’s The Artery posted Tuesday. She cited a study by the Massachusetts Cultural Council and pointed to another by The Boston Foundation addressing how the area’s 1,500 arts and culture organizations were getting the resources they needed.
The council found that Greater Boston arts organizations got by far the least amount of government funding among 10 top U.S. arts cities. Government contributions in Boston were 6 percent, compared with cities ranging from Baltimore (the most, at 35 percent of arts organizations’ estimated total funding) to Philadelphia (the next least, at 11 percent). Other cities in the study, all contributing more financially to the arts than in Greater Boston, are Chicago, Cleveland, Houston, Minneapolis-St. Paul, New York, Portland, Ore., San Francisco and Seattle.
There is a steady flow of comedians and musicians from the area to New York and Los Angeles to take the next step toward stardom, to the extent that long ago the musician and comedian Rob Potylo launched a Web-based show called “Quiet Desperation” to prove Boston could be as supportive and creative a place as those other cities. “I don’t want to leave – and I don’t want to work at fucking Staples,” Potylo told Chris Faraone in typical comments in a 2012 article in The Boston Phoenix. “We’re all so cynical and hipster that we’re ashamed to admit that we want to do something we actually like for a living, but not one of us is telling ourselves that we just want to do shows at Great Scott for 10 years and then settle down in midlife crisis-land with the wood-panel Caravan.”
Potylo, though, went on the road with the wrestler Chyna last summer and wound up moving to Los Angeles.
The reaction on social media to Cacciola and Epstein leaving was strong and sympathetic. Along with many personal comments wishing them well – or welcoming them to California – there was additional commentary from area artists.
“Let this serve as a wake-up call to the City of Boston: Do not take your artists for granted, or they will leave you. The city cannot keep calling itself an ‘artist hub’ to attract industry and tourism, then jack up property taxes, allow condo developers to take over and not pay artists or invest in art spaces. Losing powerhouse local filmmakers/musicians Sophia Cacciola and Michael J. Epstein to L.A. is heartbreaking,” said Katrina Galore, a performer and producer in local burlesque and cabaret.
“Ah, Boston, you’ve done it again,” said Catherine Capozzi, who collaborated with the couple on the multimedia “Bring Us Your Women” project.