Boston Art Review | Making Room: How Boston’s Emerging Artists Carve Space for Themselves

This article originally appeared in Boston Art Review’s premier issue, Notions of Place.

Featured image by Mana Parker.



Boston has a space problem and the artists that call it home are here to talk about it. In the intellectual Athens of America, our world-class art, historical, and educational institutions comprise a narrative of art spaces that is out of sync with the reality of artists living and working in Boston. Host to major art institutions, artist studios, galleries, and DIY spaces at an impressive concentration given its small size, Boston should enable artists of all backgrounds and disciplines to exhibit their art without issue. However, emerging artists—particularly those who identify as people of color and/or LGBTQIA+—for far too long have been denied access to these prescribed ‘art’ spaces.


Off the bat, the prominent art institutions that are synonymous with Boston’s art world such as the Museum of Fine Arts, the Institute of Contemporary Art, and the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum were not founded to support emerging artists. “They’re set up to display precious objects in art history made by people who have been dead for a long time,” artist Noah Grigni opined in a conversation with BAR, “and occasionally to display work by contemporary artists who are already famous and successful.” His opinions aren’t just conjecture, though. While interning at the MFA in the summer of 2017, Grigni asked the museum’s Director, Matthew Teitelbaum, why the institution didn’t do more to support local artists in Boston. “He responded that it just wasn’t their mission,” Grigni explained.


These private institutions do have the ultimate curatorial say as to the art that makes it onto—or is omitted from—their white walls. However, closing museum doors to emerging artists inhibits the ability of Boston-based artists to gain exposure and expand their careers in the art world. Furthermore, the financial oligopoly these institutions maintain in Boston’s art scene makes it challenging for smaller galleries to stay open, for curators to pay for their smaller shows, and for artists to make a living here. After all, what incentive does the average Bostonian have to see a one-night-only indie art show deep in Southie when they could spend an entire day in one section of the MFA?


This centralization of money funneled into formal institutions is exacerbated by a steady decrease in state funding for the arts in Massachusetts. In 1987, Massachusetts Cultural Council (MCC)’s allocated budget was roughly $27 million. Adjusted for inflation, this number should approximate $50 million. Yet, in 2018, the budget sits at just around $14 million. The funding provided for MCC is used to support projects, local chapters, and programs across the state. Without consistent funding, thousands of individuals, communities, projects, and spaces struggle to continue to provide arts programming.


The infrastructure of Boston’s art scene already fails to financially support emerging artists, but those from marginalized communities face institutional obstacles in ways that their white, cisgender, and heterosexual peers do not. “There’s oppression in the very fact that a lot of arts money isn’t in the communities activating art,” said Eddie Maisonet, a self-identified Afroboricua trans boy and Boston-based artist. “That can make the basic act of finding space financially difficult before you even get to the point of potentially missing a connection because of someone’s homophobia, transphobia, ableism or racism, other points where marginalized artists can be locked out of access.”


Furthermore, many members of these communities find their identities inextricable from their art, whether they intend to or not. Olivia Grim, a Boston-based photographer of Thai and Spanish descent, explores her feeling of being caught between two different ethnicities in her work. In her own words, she asks, “am I more Spanish like my mother, or do I take after my Thai father?”  While Grim’s work more directly engages with identity, Korean and queer Boston-based artist Yo-Ahn Hahn takes a more subtle approach. “My work may surreptitiously relate to the LGBTQIA+ and immigrant communities,” he explains. “I cannot help submerging my traditional Korean background and sexual identity in my work.”


Olivia Grim, Untitled, 2016. Photo courtesy of Aviary Gallery and the artist.


Yo-Ahn Han, In the Studio. Courtesy of the artist.


For these artists from marginalized and underrepresented communities, interpretations of their work are impossible to divorce from the viewer’s own prejudices. Even if the viewer’s biases are latent, they are still present—and can manifest in ways as disparate as failing to understand an artist’s work that discusses their identity to unintentionally making artists feel unwelcome.


Artists like Noah Grigni have reacted to these fears of misunderstanding by creating spaces that deliberately seek to include.


Grigni is a trans artist, curator, and illustration student at Lesley University (by way of Decatur, Georgia) who has made it his mission to create art spaces that he describes as “radically inclusive”—spaces that put the needs of the most vulnerable members of Boston’s art community first.


Grigni’s desire to provide access to more inclusive art spaces serves as equal parts social activism and a response to rejection from a space ostensibly created to empower trans people that failed to do so. “While I was attending Hartford Art School in Connecticut, there was an art show entitled ‘Trans’ that sought to showcase art revolving around word ‘trans,’” Grigni explained to BAR. Its call for submissions stated it was open to any representation of the word, including “transition,” “transsexual,” or “transportation.” Grigni naturally thought his work would be a perfect fit for the show—but was met with rejection. “The show ended up being a bunch of cis people with various interpretations of the word trans. It was a very weird experience for me… it was like, [non-LGBTQIA+ curators] are going to title their shows ‘trans’ and actively not include trans artists, or put out a call for submissions that lumps ‘transsexual’ together with ‘transportation.’”


This experience was a major factor in Grigni’s decision to transfer to Lesley University in Boston, which he hoped would hold a more welcoming and forward-thinking community. Upon arrival, Grigni began to search for organizations that advocate for queer and trans artists. His research led him to discover the Boston LGBTQIA Art Alliance (BLAA), a volunteer artist-run organization that seeks to elevate the visibility of and provide resources to LGBTQIA-identifying Boston-area artists. Their site advertised an open call for curatorial submissions—and so, in collaboration with his friend Jae (aka Boon) and support from BLAA, the art show SanQtuary was born.


With SanQtuary, Jae and Grigni sought to create a space for LGBTQIA+ creatives which felt especially pressing in response to their experiences and the current political climate. “[We] started organizing SanQtuary shortly after the [2016] election. We both felt really bitter and hurt that this alt-right government was now in power,” Grigni said. “We wanted to create a healing space specifically by and for LGBTQIA+ creatives, where we could reconnect, celebrate our queerness unapologetically, and lift each other up.” However, It was not just about exhibiting queer artists; Grigni wanted to specifically elevate trans artists, artists of color, and femme artists. He pointed out that these three groups of individuals are not always included, even in queer art spaces. “The groups that have the most power and visibility [within the queer community] tend to be dominated by white, cis, gay males,” Grigni said. “SanQtuary was not only about celebrating our queerness, but also about recognizing that the general queer community does not represent all of us.”


Grigni’s second curated show, “Displaced at Aviary Gallery, sought not only to raise marginalized voices, but also to enable artists from a myriad of different backgrounds to connect with one another. “‘Displaced’ featured Boston-based artists who had experienced marginalization in different forms and who individually advocated for a wide range of causes, while all using art as a platform for activism in their own communities,” Grigni explained. “It allowed artists from very different backgrounds to meet each other, share resources, and work together for mutual benefit.”


Kuresse Bolds, Black and Fem, 2017. Image courtesy of Aviary Gallery and the artist.


Grigni’s work provides artists who often feel disenfranchised in Boston’s art scene with a place to connect and grow with one another. “Any minority group deserves a space where there’s nothing but affirmation from similarly identified folks who understand you through their own experience,” says Boston-based artist Kuresse Bolds. However, Grigni is still forced to operate within the constraints of Boston’s art world. “I have consistently faced challenges with funding,” he explained. “Both ‘SanQtuary’ and ‘Displaced’ [had] no budget to compensate artists or buy supplies for the event [because] the organizations and galleries involved were underfunded. They had no money to give us even if they wanted to.” The shows’ expenses were paid entirely out-of-pocket by the curators—meaning if the curators did not have access to the money to fund these shows, these important exhibitions never would have happened.


When a lack of arts funding is compounded with soaring rent prices due to gentrification, emerging artists lose access to space, full stop. Space to live, spaces to create, and spaces to show their art—with more and more galleries shuttering their doors—dissipate. Devoid of access to space, artists will be forced out of Boston. And without any artists, Boston’s eclectic and brilliant art scene as we know it will cease to exist. The developments the city is undergoing may benefit some of its most affluent citizens, but certainly not emerging artists and their communities—and developers know that. “The City [of Boston] is literally building us out of existence, out of the City’s future blueprints,” Maisonet says. “But we still here in JP, we still here in Roxbury and Dorchester and Mattapan creating.”


With the end of Boston’s rapid development nowhere in sight and governmental change moving at a snail’s pace, it is on Boston’s citizens to support local artists. Purchase artwork from Boston-based artists you admire. Go to flea markets and DIY events that feature local, emerging artists. Get involved in local arts advocacy organizations. But most of all, go to indie / underground / DIY art shows, especially featuring artists from marginalized groups. At least then, when these artists do have space, it will be full to the brim.

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