Guest contributor Conor MacDonald explores the evolution of Kenmore Square as a gathering place, a social nexus point, and now, an iconic location for site-specific public art.
Now + There selected to participate in the Barr-Klarman Massachusetts Arts Initiative, a $25 million, six-year investment in 29 arts and cultural organizations from across Massachusetts. Now + There's engagement in the initiative begins with two grants totaling $225,000 from Barr and the Klarman Family Foundation over three years – a ringing endorsement of the work we are doing to challenge the city’s cultural identity by taking artistic risks and consistently producing compelling temporary public art projects.
This post was written & contributed by Julia Cseko
I’ve known N+T’s Founder and Executive Director, Kate Gilbert since our days together as graduate students at the School of the Museum of Fine Arts. During our graduate student years, it struck me that Kate had a vision beyond being a studio artist: she had a passion for public art and, at the time, she was managing the Rose Kennedy Greenway Conservancy's public art strategy and planning. Fast forward to early 2018. I was working as the Arts Program Coordinator for the Villa Victoria Center for the Arts. when we received an invitation from Now and There to collaborate in building Stephanie Cardon’s public art project UNLESS.
The Villa Victoria Center for the arts is part of Inquilinos Boricuas en Acción (IBA), one of Boston’s most dynamic community development organizations. IBA is a Latin-led organization, a historic landmark in the South End of Boston, and an example of a successful grassroots organization. In the 60’s the largely Puerto Rican population that lived in the South End of Boston was being forced out of their rundown neighborhood by urban renewal plans.
In the face of eviction, the residents of Parcel 19 stood together, refusing to move, but also presenting a proposal of what they envisioned for their community and their future. With the hard-earned support of city representatives and the invaluable partnership of architects, the South End Parcel 19 residents planned an affordable housing project, Villa Victoria, that would suit their needs while improving and beautifying the area. The project was approved and implemented, and fifty years later IBA and the Villa Victoria community is still thriving in Boston’s South End. The organization has grown to implement a Financial Empowerment Program, the Villa Victoria Center for the Arts, a Youth Program, a Preschool, a partnership with Bunker Hill Community college, as well as offering residents legal advice and a lively, tight-knit community.
In early 2018 Now and There approached us with the desire to engage the Villa Victoria Community in creating a large scale public installation piece discussing climate justice, offering compensation to Villa Victoria residents who wished to join artist Stephanie Cardon in building the piece. She was particularly interested in working with people directly affected by climate change. Cardon’s project spoke directly to IBA’s mission.
Photos taken by artist Stephanie Cardon during the production of UNLESS. Left: Debris netting and plotting charts take over studio space at the Villa Victoria Center for the Arts. Right: A Massachusetts College of Art student assistant pieces together the net tapestry in the main events space at Villa Victoria.
In September 2017, Puerto Rico experienced the traumatizing devastation of Hurricane Maria. Many of Villa Victoria’s residents have family members living on the Island who suffered losses or were displaced by the storm. The effects of Maria are still being felt in Puerto Rico one year after landfall, with power outages and limited access to clean water in some regions. Today the island is still grappling with the fallout, as the death toll continues to rise in connection to precarious conditions resulting from this unprecedented storm (many estimates put the loss of life above 4,500). But, perhaps most problematic, is the continuous exodus from the island in the aftermath of Maria. These mass migration patterns are part of an increasingly familiar, yet largely ignored phenomenon, that of climate refugeeism.
As an organization, IBA is well aware that it is not enough to denounce the issues of our time, it is necessary to engage communities and grassroots movements in order to effect change and search for solutions collectively. Climate change is a challenge much larger than any one particular social group, although its effects will be felt with much greater force by vulnerable populations, making Cardon’s collaboration with Villa Victoria residents even more pertinent. If we are not able to engage and educate the people that are and will continue to be directly affected by climate change, then solutions may be out of reach. It is important that the populations that suffer the most due to climate change are able to organize and demand contingency plans, and that they are allowed to gain representation through voting and dialogue with government agencies and elected officials. Without community organizing, critical thinking, and public debate, we might not be able to act in time to prevent the increasing long-term effects of the climate crisis.
It is not easy to promote engagement. Apathy is a common reaction to overwhelming duress and it can only be overcome by a sense of agency and ownership which call hearts and minds to action. Stephanie was very invested in having the construction of her project be a community affair, providing opportunities for Villa Victoria residents to come together and get to know the project. She formed genuine relationships with participants while being respectful of the level of involvement each person was able or willing to provide. Her project offered a creative outlet and a reflection on the bigger picture, rekindling the spirit of community organizing that led to the creation of IBA. Problems that are created collectively demand solutions within a collective mindset.
Thank you to Now and There and artist Stephanie Cardon for understanding the importance of community engagement and fostering a collaborative mindset within Villa Victoria’s community. We look forward to seeing this project as well as many others come to life in the city of Boston.
Julia Cseko is an artist and curator, born in Colorado and raised in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. For the past year she has been implementing an exhibitions program at IBA’s Villa Victoria Center for the Arts, showcasing contemporary art by artists of Latin American origin/heritage, including artists working within Latin American subjects and aesthetics. Her work as an independent curator and organizer is centered on diversity, inclusion, community building, innovation, political engagement, experimentation and risk-taking. Also a practicing contemporary artist, in May 2018 she was invited to attend the MASS MoCA artist residency program. Her artwork is featured in collections including the University of British Columbia, Vancouver, Canada; the Museum of Modern Art in Rio de Janeiro and Centro Cultural São Paulo, Brazil, as well as private collections in the United States and abroad.
The following post was written and contributed to our blog by artist Ryan Edwards, reflecting on the execution of his Public Art Accelerator project, HD•BPM, which had its debut at the shipyard in East Boston on August 30th and 31st. To read his reflection on the creation of his piece, click here.
A report back from the field on the debut of HD•BPM - as with most creative-tech-based artworks, the first thing we like to share when the piece wraps is: “It worked!” The software ran smoothly, the video feed to projector stayed solid, the drum pads performed beautifully and the LEDs lit with every drum stroke of the public. The few technical bumps we did have were minor and circumvented with quick reboots or a jiggle of a wire harness.
The presentation partners that were involved with the piece all came through - even though there were some scary moments in the week leading up to the events - but what would a public presentation be without a few scary moments in show week!? Kudos to Dan at Coastal Marine Management, Matt at the HarborArts Shipyard Gallery and Max at Downeast Cider. We also had awesome sponsors come through from Boston Harbor Now, the ICA, Zumix, East Boston Main Streets, State Rep Adrian Madoro and KO Pies.
We chose two big nights to present and the vibe each night was high. The first night coincided with the Boston Harbor fireworks and tons of people were out and about for that. There was about 30 minutes where the fireworks were blasting, our piece was up, the ICA was open, Downeast Cider was poppin’ - it just felt like a wonderful nucleus of creativity, color, openness and inclusivity happening. One of my proudest moments to be an artist here in Boston, truly. The end of that night there were still many people participating, while a group of 15 or so tourists from France danced to the music being made, off to one side. I believe they came to the pier to see the fireworks, and afterwards stumbled on the piece, and had their own dance party, just in front of the ICA. It warms my heart to think they head back to France and share about that night, and summarize the wild, playful, colorful, public energy of our city to their family and friends.
The piece itself was fun and it seemed to be a real creative elixir for many. I ended up making DJ-style beats to provide a backdrop for the playfulness of the public’s drumming on the pads. I created sound banks that ranged from synthesizer chords echoing to big hip-hop bass drum sounds, to long reverberant chimes all triggered by the public. Every painting being revealed was like a song, with its own preset beat and sound banks. Through a few unique preparations, I was able to create musical scenarios that were success oriented for the public and still retained expressive agency for each drummer. We had many people walk away celebrating themselves and their friends for their new found musical skills… sharing how they drummed so much their shoulders were tired, or that they always wanted to drum and this was the first chance they had ever had! We had one man come up just as the fireworks started who laid into the drums, clearly having played his whole life. Suddenly this lone elder had an audience and a spotlight - every drum stroke the drum lit him up.
Personally I was excited to see that the public did not need my or my team’s advocacy to play, nor to keep playing. It turns out drums, as I suspected, are a big welcome hello, an invitation in a circular form, a party waiting to happen. As well, I was stoked to observe the many artists whose work was included in the event attend and observe their pieces being projected at a massive scale. One highlight was Cyrille Conan and his daughter Coco playing together, while his piece “Diwezhat Goañv” was drummed into existence. Another was my son and his high school buddies attending and playing for a while, taking turns showing off and alternately being cool and goofy.
Please enjoy the photos and short video, viewable both here on the Now + There site as well as at my studio website www.MasaryStudios.com. Big thanks to Aram Boghosian for the photos (one of his photos was featured in the piece as well! “Swimmer” - the guy jumping into the Charles River) and Ernesto Galan for the video work.
Video by Ernesto Galan.
Ryan Edwards of Masary Studios developed HD•BPM as a fellow of the Now + There Public Art Accelerator. Masary works to awaken the built environment through musical performance, projected video and interactive installations. Ryan is trained as a drummer, holds a degree from Berklee College of Music and spent much of his 20’s playing djembe in West Africa. He has written extensively for dance and is interested in the intersection of sound and physical forms. Ryan is a father and lives with his son in Watertown, MA.
The following post was written and contributed to our blog by artist Lina Maria Giraldo, reflecting on her Accelerator project Golden Home.
When you are an immigrant home becomes an abstract concept. What does it really mean to have a home? A place where your cultural roots are? A place where you identify with others? A place where a community supports each other? Or a place where you feel safe, loved and respected? Since I moved to Boston, and still 18 years later, the question of what home is is persistent. Every time I moved, I created new connections, found different ways to build together, and I created new memories. Sadly, those memories were threatened every time I moved again. My story is just one the thousands of immigrant stories in Boston and around other cities in the USA.
Rapid development in Boston is displacing entire communities and erasing memories. There is not enough affordable housing to keep pace with the huge demand, and the immigrants, minorities, families, small business owners and elders are struggling to keep up with the changes. This is happening too fast and memory, identity, and connections are constantly threatened.
I’m a witness of these changes. I have seen, and experienced my neighborhood’s history erased because of rapid development. Communities are struggling to keep generations together, families that fought for years to fix their streets and improve their neighborhood are suddenly displaced. I’m compelled to humanize this process, to change the narrative and to put a face to these numbers, to collect a story from a passerby, a business owner, a community leader, or the new generations; to create a public art piece built from the collective memory that highlights 13 community member and an interactive map with the stories
Golden Home started as a personal mission. As an immigrant, mother, and Latina I felt the need to create a public art work based on the collective conversations with the Community in Egleston Square and Hyde-Jackson Square. Both communities have changed drastically in the last 10 years and each of them has embraced and struggled differently. For the last two months and thanks to the help of Luis Cotto from Egleston Main Street and Gerald Robbins from Hyde Jackson Square main street, I had the opportunity to be with the community and collect their stories.
I was there before movie nights, before theater Teatro en el Parque, as well as mornings at the YMCA and Community center. We exchanged stories for balloons, each of them representing a conversation, a dream, a challenge, an idea, or suggestion. The balloons are golden with a logo of a house, and the interchange is documented in text, audio, photo, or video.
I’m humbled by the community members that have sat with me under a tent in the middle of the day, under oppressive heat, to share their most intimate stories of love, memories, frustrations, fear, desperation, and hope. While at Hyde-Jackson Square the conversations focus on how to preserve the cultural roots. At Egleston they have a more of a critical approach and focus on the lack of opportunities for housing opportunities, how the developers and landlords are limiting affordable housing, how women are more vulnerable to losing their home, and how organizations such as Urban Edge are helping.
One day, a woman who was driving on Washington Street saw the balloons and stopped immediately. She was looking for housing opportunities and she was hoping to find a solution. She was a kind spirit with an optimistic smile and shared with me how she was one step away from being homeless. She shared her challenges, how she is not eligible to receive benefits from a shelter that are available because she is couch surfing and not sleeping on the street. She and her special-needs daughter have been waiting for section 8 housing for 16 years and struggling to find an opportunity as a single mother. Since she must care for her child non-stop, working is almost an impossible task... every night is full of anxiety because she doesn't know where her next bed is going to be.
Another story is from a business owner on Washington St. How he feels the city is turning its back on him. He told me of how the Dominican community has embraced challenges for 20 years. How this area has gone from a dangerous place to a safe family oriented community and now how the same community members are being displaced because they can’t afford to stay or keep the businesses afloat. For 20 years they created history and cultural roots, now these same families are being displaced because developers prefer to rent rooms to students. It’s more profitable. How suddenly Washington Street’s rich community, with their music, their warmth, and their soul is endangered because of a sordid economy. Stories from other business owners are more decisive on how they are embracing change, hiring fluent English speakers so they can accommodate the wealthy community that is moving in, or just closing the store because it’s too expensive and operating online.
Like these, there are many other stories of hope, despair, and displacement, all of them with different perspectives that will be documented on an interactive map.
During September and thanks to Kevin Brill, I will be working with the High School Students from Greater Egleston High School sharing and recording their stories. The culmination of the project includes 13 portraits of the community accompanied by words installed at the windows on the second floor of the Greater Egleston High School looking out to Washington Street.
I’m thankful for the community from Egleston and Hyde-Jackson Square and others who are sharing so many intimate stories. These are putting a face to the challenges of rapid development, a face of courage, and love.
Lina Maria Giraldo is a Colombian born, Boston-based artist focusing on Interactive Storytelling towards social change. She created Golden Home as a participant in Now + There’s inaugural 2018 Public Art Accelerator.
N+T is thrilled to be one of 29 organizations selected to receive a 2-year grant from the Massachusetts Cultural Council as part of its Cultural Investment Portfolio (CIP) Gateway program.
A year ago Silvia López Chavez and I were dancing on the side of the Charles River as she and her team of all-female mural crew finished Patterned Behavior. Without exception, every hour that I visited her progress last summer, I would hear a “thank you” or “looks great” from bikers, joggers and passers-by who appreciated the facelift Silvia’s patterning and color were giving the dark, constricted pathway. It was an area of the city I never spent any time at, just whizzed by as a fast as possible on a bike.
Silvia, who’d I’d known for years as a talented large-format painter and graphic designer working out of Chelsea, MA, was the perfect artist to take on the challenge of transforming the side of an intrusive auto ramp that took away all but a two-lane path of the Esplanade into a vibrant expression of today’s Boston. (If you don’t know about the destructive history of the Bowker Overpass on the Emerald Necklace and Esplanade and what’s being done to mitigate it 40 years later, check out the Charlesgate Alliance)
Silvia delivered! Patterned Behavior has become a destination on the Esplanade and we’re thrilled that it will be extended another year.
This project encapsulates all that Now + There is doing to build a public art city. We’re curating artists like Silvia López Chavez, partnering with ambitious organizations like the Esplanade Association, and delivering vibrant public art in highly visible areas. Together, we’re building passion and demand for more public art, all of which is evident in the extension of this temporary mural.
What has been most surprising to me is the positive impact our collective work has had on Silvia’s career. Thanks in part to the visibility of Patterned Behavior, Silvia has been commissioned to create eight original murals since completing work on the Esplanade in September 2017, most recently at Northeastern University and at The Barr Foundation.
Building a public art city means investing in artists and engendering a positive cycle in which artistic risk-taking produces more art for all, and makes Boston a place where artists can thrive.
Kate Gilbert, N+T’s Executive Director, is proud to watch Silvia’s career soar and equally self-congratulatory when she, a novice runner, trudges along the bike path and finally makes it to Patterned Behavior.
The Commonwealth Avenue Mall near Kenmore Square is classic Boston. This sliver of green space on the Comm Ave median is lined with iconic 19th century Back Bay brownstones. It’s a stone’s throw away from Fenway Park. It’s practically bathed in the neon glow of the Citgo sign. And now, it’s the site of Liz Glynn:Open House, Now + There’s latest public art project. But not only does this slice of parkland provide an ideal setting for contemplation in an open-air ruin of a ballroom -- it also has a fascinating origin that enriches the Open House’s potent message.
As I discovered, the history of the Mall closely mirrors the history of Boston: a history of a city physically remaking itself, of the contentious legacy of public planners striving for social equity, and the ongoing struggle for truly democratic public space.
The Commonwealth Ave Mall was among Boston’s first planned public spaces. True, Boston had already established the importance of green space with the Public Garden, an immensely popular Victorian-era development. And the Boston Common, initially a utilitarian space, had evolved in its usage to become the oldest city park in the United States. But when construction on the Mall began in 1856, it signalled the very beginning of an urban planning renaissance in the city that lasted through the Gilded Age (1870's - 1900).
Like many cities in the 19th century, Boston was facing the twin crises of pollution and overpopulation. Boston’s political leaders and urban planners viewed the built environment as an important tool for mitigating the city’s environmental problems. In this city on the precipice of redefining its natural landscape, Arthur Gilman, architect of the Comm Ave Mall, was laying the groundwork for a new one.
Gilman’s design for the Mall envisioned a 32-acre strip of green space running through the nascent Back Bay neighborhood. While construction on its eastern portion began before the Bay was filled, the rest of the Mall was constructed concurrently to the massive landfill project that created the Back Bay neighborhood. The Mall was completed in 1888.
Gilman, planning the Mall, took inspiration the elegant tree-lined boulevards of Paris. He envisioned the Mall as a space intended to promote health and wellness. As the Back Bay Commission reported, the Mall existed so that “a reservoir of pure air may always be supplied from the ample sources of health and freshness outside the city limits.” It was also designed to accommodate strolling, a popular 19th-century recreational activity. It allowed residents of Boston’s newest, wealthiest neighborhood a respite from the crowded, polluted city around them.
Indeed, among 19th-century social revitalization efforts, parks, in particular, held the promise of alleviating social ailments of the day; pro-park rhetoric blended the intersecting discourses of class tension and sanitation to assuage perceived environmental and social disorder.
Take the words of Andrew Jackson Downing, the father of American landscape architecture, who believed that “the higher social and artistic elements of every man's nature lie dormant within him, and every laborer is a possible gentleman, not by the possession of money or fine clothes, but through the refining influence of intellectual and moral culture.”
Or, Frederick Law Olmstead, who believed that urban green space could “inspire communal feelings among all urban classes, muting resentments over disparities of wealth and fashion.” (His famed Emerald Necklace, built in the 1870s to connect the Boston’s parks, is the site of another newly opened public art installation this fall, Fog x FLO: Fujiko Nakaya on the Emerald Necklace.)
At a time when contemporary observers decried the mutually constituted social ills of immigration, industrialization, and pollution, 19th-century planners saw a solution in urban green space. They sought to socialize the city’s public to the values of the wealthy classes. Uncovering this facet of urban history complicates the notion that outdoor city space is inherently more egalitarian than privately owned property like shopping malls. It lends a richer understanding of our shared public space and uncovers novel interpretations of Open House.
Glynn’s piece reflects the grandeur of a long-demolished interior, meant for the enjoyment of the wealthiest class and now open to all. Its position on the Commonwealth Ave Mall interrogates the values of an ethos of urban development that sought to both sanitize and pacify while envisioning a more democratic use of space.
Today, ensuring equitable access to public space continues to be contentious. As Glynn stated, the outcry in the 1980s over the state of New York’s parks made her call into question the ways in which we police the use of open space. So we must ask: for whom was public space like the Commonwealth Avenue Mall designed? Whose values did these parks reflect, and how can we move forward as a city while remaining cognizant of our past?
Public space evolves, always responsive to a changing public. It is not the victim to the whims of 19th-century Brahmin architects. Highways become greenways. A public art installation can reimagine an underutilized section of a historic public promenade, reflecting on its past and re-imaging its future.
Puleo, Stephen. A City So Grand: The Rise of an American Metropolis, Boston 1850-1900. Boston, MA: Beacon Press, 2011.
Taylor, Dorceta E. "Central Park as a Model for Social Control: Urban Parks, Social Class and Leisure Behavior in Nineteenth-Century America." Journal of Leisure Research (1999), Vol. 31, No. 4, pp. 420-477.
"The Mall." Friends of the Public Garden. Accessed August 11th, 2018. <https://friendsofthepublicgarden.org/our-parks/the-mall/>