With Humphreys Street Studios property on the market, artists may lose their community.
In 2001, signmaker Neal Widett invited his friend James Cooper to join him and two other artists—sculptors Joe Wheelwright and Peter Haines—in a venture: the purchase of an old warehouse at 11-13 Humphreys St. in Uphams Corner, on the border of Dorchester and Roxbury. The building, formerly the Delos Dry Cleaning Company, had been rendered unusable as a residential property by an underground leak from a heating oil tank. Widett and Wheelwright had a vision to turn the building into an artists’ studio space. They recruited Cooper and Haines to invest in the property as Humphreys Street Studios LLC, converted the warehouse, set up their own studios, and began to rent out the other spaces to a growing community of working artists.
“Joe and Neal ran the place. I was their lawyer; that was it,” said Cooper. But after Widett fell ill (later passing in 2019) and Wheelwright passed in 2016, Cooper took over as manager. “I wanted to keep it as close as I could to what it was. That was what Neal and Joe wanted, to keep it as an artists’ space.”
However, a little over a year ago, the current owners—Cooper, Haines, and Widett and Wheelwright’s widows—put up the property for sale. “The property skyrocketed in value over the 20 years that we owned it,” said Cooper. “We were all getting older, and we all wanted to retire, and so we decided to try to sell the building.”
Humphreys Street Studios is currently the work space of 34 professional artists and small business owners. When they heard the property was going to be sold, the tenants became worried.
“Whoever buys the space, we as artists want to have a relationship with them—a relationship that involves preserving the space—and our fear is that it’s not going to be [preserved], because we’re in a neighborhood that is slowly being gentrified,” said set designer Cristina Todesco, who has rented her studio space at Humphreys Street Studios for 16 years.
Cooper says he hopes to sell the property to an owner who won’t evict the artists, but he is not considering including restrictions to that end in the terms of sale. “We are not interested in shooting ourselves in the foot,” he wrote to DigBoston.
However, he has been in conversation with a group of the artists, organized by Todesco and others, to discuss the possibility of their buying the building.
According to Cooper, a broker appraised the property’s market value at $3,500,000. But real estate lawyer David Sterett indicated that the discrepancy between that figure and the value assessed by the city, $1,004,176, is unusual. Regardless, Cooper has asked the artists to raise $3,000,000.
Todesco said the building tenants are currently pursuing many different options, including finding investors, raising money, and seeking a buyer committed to preserving the building as an artists’ space. Kara Elliott-Ortega, the city’s Chief of Arts and Culture, has been working to help connect Todesco to possible investors or buyers—individuals and nonprofits. The Mayor’s Office of Arts and Culture will also be hiring a consultant to help advise the artists on options to finance the purchase of the building and find potential development or management partners.
Elliot-Ortega said she’s excited about the chance to partner with these artists in their efforts to preserve the studio spaces. “We do not usually get to this point in the process where the artists have enough time and an open line of communication with the property owner in order to really get into the details about how to pull this off,” she said.
In the meantime, Cooper’s search for other buyers continues. “We would love to be able to keep the artists’ studio there,” he said. “We’re hoping that we can somehow work it out with the artists, but there’s no guarantees.”
For painter Joe Wardwell and sculptor Nora Valdez, the looming threat of losing their work spaces is all too familiar.
Before renting his space at Humphreys Street Studios, Wardwell rented a studio space at 59 Amory St. in Jamaica Plain, a neighborhood where Wardwell said many artists faced displacement at the time. The property was acquired by new owners about 20 years ago, who decided not to renew the leases of the current tenants—over 50 artists and 20 businesses, according to a 2018 Jamaica Plain News article.
“The building sat vacant for 20 years. They just took it down, just like last month,” Wardwell said. “There were 20 years that artists could have been in that space.”
According to Sterett, there are a range of reasons a building owner might choose to leave a space like this empty, from holding out for higher rent to tax write-offs. Sterett said that while the city encourages owners to use their property by enforcing compliance with building code and fire code regardless of occupancy, the city cannot ban long-term vacancy.
Prior to renting at Humphreys Street Studios, Valdez and other artists were evicted from a studio space at 288-300 A St. in Fort Point. The loss of Valdez’s old studio space was also part of a larger trend in the area. “Fort Point Channel was filled with artists’ spaces, and now there’s a lot of luxury housing,” said Todesco. “A lot of those spaces were gutted. Some were demolished.”
In recent decades, it has become harder and harder for artists to find studio space in Boston. If she had to relocate now, Valdez says she would have to move outside the city.
“There’s a misconception that artists will always find someplace else to go,” said Wardwell. “You cease to have a thriving Boston arts community if all the artists are making art outside of Boston.”
From the get-go, the art created at Humphreys Street Studios has become a part of the city.
“If you go down Charles Street and you see the signs hanging there—if you see a sign with little curved edges that has a figure in it, Neal did that sign,” said Cooper. He also referenced the sculpture of the moon near Ashmont Station as one of Wheelwright’s creations.
Many of the current artists at the studios have continued this legacy, spreading their work throughout the neighborhood and the city. One of Valdez’s public sculptures, Still Waiting, sits in the Boston Harbor Shipyard. Wardwell was commissioned to create a work of art for the Roxbury Branch of the Boston Public Library, to be installed later this year. At Dudley Cafe, you can see printmaker, painter, and graphic designer Franklin Marval’s work: a big heart painted on the front windows with the words “more love is ok.”
The departure of these artists, and others like them, would change the character of Boston.
“How can we, in general, keep artists in the city? And it’s not just this building,” said Todesco. “It’s really about saving other artists from displacement, because it’s happening.”
The city has taken some steps to support its artists, through programs such as Artist Live/Work Boston and the Opportunity Fund. According to Kristina Carroll, communications director of the Mayor’s Office of Arts and Culture, the Boston Planning and Development Agency’s ArtistSpace program has created 279 artist units in Boston.
However, those steps are limited.
“Boston is great for projects and grants,” Valdez said. “Not for space.”
“A lot of what the city has to offer in terms of funding are live-and-work spaces,” Todesco said. “None of us here have chosen that path.” For some of the studio’s artists—like Valdez, whose sculpting creates a lot of stone dust —their medium doesn’t allow for a live-work scenario; for some, the decision to rent a workspace separate from their living space is a financial one; for others, it’s a lifestyle choice.
Carroll wrote to DigBoston that the Mayor’s Office of Arts and Culture is working on “protecting and creating commercial spaces, particularly that are used for studios, making, and small batch manufacturing.”
The issue is not just one of helping artists find affordable studio spaces in Boston at large, but of helping artists remain in their immediate communities. When he heard the studio building was being sold, Marval, who has rented at Humphreys Street Studios for nine years, began looking for other studio spaces in Boston. He hasn’t found anything affordable; however, he worries most about the community ties that will be severed if the artists at Humphreys Street Studios are evicted.
“The hardest part of the process is that you’re going to lose your community,” Marval said. “You’re going to lose Christina. You’re going to lose Frank in the back. You’re going to lose Peter, on the upper floor. You’re going to lose Joshua, the architect. You’re going to lose the people that you work with every day, and that’s the hard part.”
In addition to his other work, Marval teaches art at a high school around the corner from his studio—a relationship with the community that will end if he needs to relocate. Marval stressed that these close connections among artists and with the local community are something of value that can’t be rebuilt overnight.
“If you as a city have the money to build something like [Humphreys Street Studios] in a new place, in a new building, it’s gonna take a lot of years to have a we have here,” he said.
Marie Ungar is a writer, editor, and student living in Greater Boston. You can read more of her work in the Harvard Crimson and Charlottesville Tomorrow. She’s currently studying English at Harvard University, where she’s the poetry editor of the Harvard Advocate.