A year ago at this time, seven near-strangers sat in a circle in the Artist Studio Building where Now + There has been incubating since 2015. Katarina Burin, Ryan Edwards, Lina Maria Giraldo, Stephen Hamilton, Ekua Holmes, and Cynthia Gunadi & Joel Lamere (partners in life and business) were there as part of the inaugural Now + There Accelerator, a pilot program generously funded by Joyce Linde. All had been nominated and selected for the program based on their artistic merit and their readiness to scale their work for public display.
And none of them, including me, knew what to expect from this program designed to augment local artists’ practices with the curatorial, technical, and financial support they need to develop new temporary artworks in Boston.
The pressure was on. For me and them. How to, over six short months, transfer the ad-hoc knowledge I’d accumulated from 15 years of serving artists and community with public programming and my few mediocre attempts at the genre?
My approach, as with any new project, was to be honest and transparent. I led off with something like this: “I’m here to help you. I don’t know how this will unfold but we have a robust team of experts who are ready to support you and share their knowledge. And I know if we can build a culture of trust, you’ll receive what you need to make your best work possible.”
But it’s wasn’t all roses. From its inception, the 2018 Accelerator was set up to fund each selected artists’ project on a sliding scale; between $15,000 and $30,000. It recognized that every project would be different and it assumed that not all projects would require the maximum gift amount. It also simulated the real world — you don’t always get the grant or full funding.
What we hadn’t anticipated however was human nature — most people eat the marshmallow right away — and that this real-life simulation would strain the close bonds and the intentional cohort-building we’d fostered over the first four months of the program.
In the end, Katarina, Ryan, Lina, Stephen, Ekua, and Cynthia and Joel presented their projects and project budgets, almost all of which were near the max amount. You can do the math and anticipate the result. Only two artists received full funding and the rest had to adjust their projects and/or hustle to raise additional funds to meet the grant requirement to get a project in the ground by October.
Fast forward to mid-summer. As their projects began to take shape, every one of the Accelerator artists began showing up for each other. Whatever hurt or feelings had arisen from not receiving full funding had been supplanted by great empathy for each other; for the struggles each had been through. (We talk a lot about the trough of sorrow in the Accelerator. It’s real!) I saw it in group email exchanges and in the many likes, loves, and first-bumps shared on social media. And I saw it in real life as they show up for each other’s launches and openings despite their own looming deadlines.
This powerful empathy overflowed in their projects and my experience with them.
Ryan’s HD-BPM recognized my inner rock star for the few minutes I banged on the drums to fill in Sylvia Lopez Chavez’s projected image at the East Boston Shipyard. Dozens of us rocked and swayed to a melody he generated from behind a computer like a DJ of experience intuiting just the right rhythm we needed to complement the summer night.
Of the dozen sunflower seeds I received from Ekua’s Roxbury Sunflower Project, four took root in my urban planter and with them grew a fiercely protective instinct. My Facebook feed exploded with photos of other seedlings, then with sunflower blooms, and eventually with new connections and friends across Boston whom I was grateful to meet in person at the culminating wisdom festival.
At the Father Jack Roussin Center in Egleston Square, I watched Lina Maria Giraldo as she slowly built trust with a hijab-wearing woman, the mother of an energetic young boy. She wanted to tell her story of gentrification but seemed reticent; unsure if it would come back to harm her and also concerned for her son’s attention span. Eventually, the boy was entertained with a balloon, her story was recorded, and it now lives on at http://goldenhome.info/. I hope someday her son will hear her story and know how brave she was to share it with us.
I was taken by the active listening Cynthia and Joel practiced throughout the creation of Lost House — during the community conversations in Four Corners and while successfully negotiating with the Department of Neighborhood Services, a division that doesn’t normally dabble in public art. At their opening, the music, sweet potato pies, and hot chocolate took the chill out of the autumn air and the event held the same generosity that their community gathering space now offers Dorchester.
Stephen Hamilton’s gift to the youth of Roxbury, his 9-piece The Founder’s Project, is a work that will continue to give as it lives on in future locations and as a high-school curriculum. His dedication to teaching the history of the progenitors of African culture was most obvious in his work ethic alone. Around the clock Steven worked, overcoming misplaced textiles, a dye spill, and a decidedly unhurried host site. And true to his generous nature, he handed the stage he’d set at his opening in the Bolling Building over to the youth, poets, and dancers of Roxbury.
Lastly, with We regret to inform you at SMFA@Tufts, Katarina Burin manifested the essence of her project on female mentorship and rejection with a poignant reflection of her struggle to get her project permitted on her preferred waterfront site. A series of rejection letters looking as cast off as the fall leaves call to us in a subtle way to be read, understood and recognized.
We all desire to be understood and recognized. And so, two weeks ago, I sat in a similar circle, in the same room, but this time with the 2019 Accelerator cohort. Again, I started the afternoon by being transparent. I want this new cohort to feel supported and to have every resource possible to make their best work. I’m grateful that this time around there’s more than just me and the workshop providers to guide them. There’s Katarina, Ryan, Lina, Stephen, Ekua, and Cynthia and Joel who have already shaped the process for the better. Thanks to their example of grace and generosity, we added empathy to the list of criteria for the acceptance of this cohort. And you better believe that each artist will receive the same amount of funding to make their magic happen in 2019!
I cherish the opportunity this program has given me to accelerate my own empathy and to share whatever knowledge I have so that more Boston area artists can be armed with the knowledge and self-confidence they need to deliver impactful projects.