Act now to save at-risk art in Cambridge, before city streets are emptied of vibrancy
The Out of the Blue Art Gallery is in crisis again, seeking crowdfunding to make sure it can pay its rent in Central Square, and citizens should help – not just because it provides a gathering place for the arts and a way for local artists to make money, but because it’s an important venue for starter bands and all-ages rock shows.
Central Square itself should want the gallery where it is, helping draw more tourists to its Cultural District. Though a cohesive sense of place hasn’t come together around the district, Out of the Blue could and should be integral.
The city has a role to play in saving the gallery too. Not the gallery specifically so much as the arts in general, about which our officials have shown, at best, a fitful sense of urgency. Efforts by city councillor Nadeem Mazen to introduce even a pittance of revenue into the arts economy last year was bogged down immediately by concerns about how directly the public would benefit from the grants he proposed; talk about giving artists a small boost toward affordable housing was polluted by the idea it pitted one group of people needing help (artists) against another (teachers, for instance, or firefighters – never mind that being an unsalaried, unrepresented artist is very different from drawing a weekly wage protected by collective bargaining).
Artists are fleeing for cheaper, more supportive cities. “I don’t think we have to imagine it. It’s incredibly hard for people to live here, and we know artists have had to leave,” said Jason Weeks, executive director of the Cambridge Arts Council, in July, testifying to the notion this exodus will hurt the city. “There’s no question. The arts create a sense of belonging, the arts bring us into a public space.”
In terms of sheer dollars, the impact of our lost arts won’t be known until the spring, when the research period ends for “Arts & Economic Prosperity 5,” a report by Americans for the Arts that includes Cambridge and 329 other communities with detailed breakdowns of the money generated by their creative classes. Previous work by the group has found 32 percent of all arts attendees live outside the county in which an event takes place, and that those nonlocal spend twice as much as locals (around $40 vs. $17) when they come to an event, “demonstrating that when a community attracts cultural tourists, it harnesses significant economic rewards.”
“Of course it contributes to the economy,” Weeks said. “We’ve known in a soft sense that every time people go out and buy a ticket to see a show they’re likely also buying a meal – and might be coming to the city and staying in hotels.” But no one in the city has ever bothered to pin down a clear answer on the actual economic impact, and with the ongoing loss of everything from T.T. the Bear’s Place (closed as rent demands surged) to the Deborah Mason School of Dance (slipped over the border to Somerville as rent demands surged), it might be too late to get a real sense of, or stop, the damage.
As Weeks suggests, as fewer artists of all sorts can live and work in Cambridge, the city will get increasingly duller. The loss of vibrancy felt in Harvard Square will become a citywide pall.
One way to counteract this is to not just blandly acknowledge the value of the arts, but act now to protect it.
City officials are too prone to say no to the challenging and creative; Somerville is looser, quicker to experiment, nimbler and more fun, so while Cambridge is sinking poetry into sidewalks at a glacial pace, Somerville is putting on BeardFests and Pity Parties. The annual summertime dance party at City Hall shows Cambridge can do it too – but typically does not.
Weeks’ council should have a bigger budget, and Weeks and his staff should be encouraged to seek out more (and more daring) things to fund, as well as to push back against city officials as fierce advocates for a freer spirit.
Loosen up on buskers and other street performers. In fact, pay them in certain cases. (For instance, to ensure there’s music on the streets of Central Square.) We need them back.
Enlivening our sidewalks and ensuring the continued presence of creative people should be treated as an emergency no matter what is shown by the likely muted results of the Americans for the Arts study (which will likely not be seen by the summer anyway) in ways that match exactly and quite literally with the oft-stated goal of a lively streetscape.
Out of the Blue is already in a storefront that was long-empty, and because it’s only a single story, will eventually be torn down anyway; give the gallery a permanent home where it can do more good for everyone: the 3,580-square-foot retail space on benighted Carl Barron Plaza in Central Square, perhaps the most-bemoaned public space in Cambridge. Since opening nearly three decades ago, the retail space’s longest-term renter was an AT&T store, and real estate agent Annette Born of Urban/Born Associates said that was for only about five years. With the city not budging on allowing fast food uses (and venting ovens from a serious restaurant being impossible with a residential building overhead) and because the space cannot be subdivided, there has been no viable tenant for the gaping space in years. Furthermore, the city does not want an office moving in, let alone another AT&T store, when the Central Square Cultural District badly needs attention, tourism and vibrancy at street level.
The city should move Out of the Blue into that space, providing proper compensation to the landlord and a home for city arts.
It should also act on other long-empty dead spots in the cityscape, seeking possibilities more aggressively. The former American Express Travel building at 39 JFK St., a prime location in tourist-jammed Harvard Square right across from its Winthrop Square park has been empty for more than two years, save for a single pop-up art event in December. The former AMC Theater on Church Street in Harvard Square has been empty since July 2012. The ground-floor retail at the First Street Garage by Lechmere has been shuttered for more than a half-dozen years, and the city has rejected activation of its own property for a winter farmers market and pilot program space for “clean tech” startups; since 2013 it’s been earmarked for use as a grocery store as part of a plan to redevelop the former Edward J. Sullivan Courthouse. A two-story showcase space in Porter Square has been empty since Walgreens closed in July 2015.
There are more spaces better off in the grubby hands of artists than the effete coffers of land-banking property owners, and there are far more things Cambridge can do to enliven the Central Square Cultural District and other quiet spots citywide. Don’t wait until the data arrive to show us how bad things can get – we’re well on our way to a duller, poorer city already.