Reflections on a new grassroots political movement in formation
Another Cambridge arts institution is being pushed out of its longtime home by a greedy landlord. And once again, local artists are mobilizing to “discuss and organize for meaningful political action to support the arts” in that city—as the Facebook event page of Monday’s Emergency Organizing Meeting: Cambridge Arts and 2019 Elections put it.
Green Street Studios may soon be no more. According to the Cambridge Day, “The dance space announced its closing Oct. 2, naming Oct. 27 as its last day in operation after Peter Givertzman, president of the Oriental Furniture shop and owner of the building as of April, nearly tripled the organization’s rent, according to the studio’s board.
“It joins such recent closings in Central Square—a state designated cultural district—as the Out of the Blue art gallery and Mobius performance art space and the EMF music community and its New Alliance Gallery. Cambridge has also seen the departure of the Deborah Mason School of Dance, Comedy Studio and Bridge Repertory theater company in recent years.”
Over 50 people showed up to the meeting at the soon-to-be-shuttered dance studio. Former Cambridge City Councilor Nadeem Mazen ran the hour-and-a-half presentation and provided the diverse crowd in attendance with perhaps the finest and most succinct explanation of how politics works in the City of Squares that I have ever seen. He was joined by Nate Fillmore of Cambridge Bike Safety—who related lessons from his organization’s successful campaign for more bike lanes—and democratic socialist city council candidate Ben Simon of the Cambridge Artist Coalition… who was slated to review the failed fight to save the EMF building, but mainly focused on the uphill battle artists face when trying to push back against capitalist landlords and real estate developers. Points that were well-received by the clearly distressed attendees, and echoed by city council candidate Nicola Williams from the audience.
All in all as good a start as any incipient grassroots political movement could ask for. But now the hard work must begin. With the 2019 Cambridge City Council election just three weeks away, the artists have little time to affect the composition of that body in ways that will improve their chances of winning funding for the new public arts spaces that could ease the financial pressure on the area’s remaining independent arts organizations.
So, as Mazen indicated, they’re going to have to launch a well-organized campaign to lobby the city’s byzantine political apparatus to get the desired result—whether they have a friendly council and city manager or not. Without getting mollified or marginalized along the way.
Given that, as a longtime community and labor activist, I thought I should offer the new formation some relevant reflections. And as an artist. Specifically a visual artist, if not a very active one (what with the whole being a journalist and running a weekly newspaper thing). Moreover as a principal in a short-lived effort (2014-2015) to effectively restart the Boston Visual Artists Union of the 1970s in broader form with a membership organization called Mass Creative Workers. I wouldn’t go so far as to call my meditations here anything so grand as advice—considering that the activist artists group that I helped organize fizzled out shortly after its launch—but I hope it is received in the spirit it is intended nonetheless. As food for thought.
First point: If organizing any group of humans into any kind of political formation can rightly be likened to the sisyphean task of “herding cats,” organizing artists is more like herding a far-ranging group of particularly ornery and single-minded mountain lions. An activity, therefore, not for the faint of heart. While I think that increasingly tough political economic circumstances are going to force artists to work together in their own collective interest more and more, it’s going to be tough going no matter what shape a new organization takes. So activist artists should try extra hard to be kind to each other as they undertake any such endeavor. It will make a difference.
Second point: Activist arts organizations often assume that they provide some intrinsic value to the community they work in (saying things like “the arts benefit everyone!”). But other community members may not see it that way. Which can lead to trouble in any political campaign when hoped for community support doesn’t materialize. And the political establishment—seeing no air beneath the arts movement’s proverbial wings—then feels it is free to ignore artists’ entreaties. A good way to forestall such an outcome is for activist artists to make sure that their first order of business is really doing stuff to directly help local neighborhoods and other communities of interest in tangible ways. Be it a nice public arts effort with neighborhood kids, or simple acts of human solidarity like pitching in en masse at a holiday food drive. Then when push comes to political shove, community members will be much more likely to turn out in support of local artists. Because they’ll agree that artists really do provide value to their community.
Third point: Strongly related to the previous point, activist arts organizations have to take great care not to fight for gains just for themselves. This issue came up right at the end of Monday’s meeting. If winning more public arts spaces is an important goal for the new group—and I agree that it is—the fight for those spaces should be linked to ongoing fights that benefit all working people in Cambridge. Not just artists. The logical struggle to undertake in this case being the battle to get the city to leverage its own funds plus state and federal money to build desperately needed social housing. When such new publicly funded housing complexes are finally built, they would be excellent places to site new community arts centers. Because the people that will be among the most likely to use them will be living right there. And because the number of people that need decent government-run housing are legion. Yet the number of artists are relatively small. Though many artists are also people that need proper housing. So linking the smaller movement to the larger one makes all kinds of sense. Understanding that coalitions between people with divergent interests can be tricky, and that I wouldn’t suggest activist artists build such coalitions willy-nilly with any random political activist campaign that happens to be around.
That’s enough from me for now. Fellow Cambridge artists should know that I am watching this new campaign with interest going forward. And allow me to reiterate my brief statement at the meeting indicating that my colleagues and I at DigBoston are very interested in publishing opinion articles from artists working to win city funding for public arts spaces in the so-called People’s Republic—and for the arts in general. Since we believe that the best representatives of social movements are always the people who bring them into being—keeping them going against the odds, in the face of often-stiff resistance. Good luck to all.
Apparent Horizon—recipient of 2018 and 2019 Association of Alternative Newsmedia Political Column Awards—is syndicated by the Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism. Jason Pramas is BINJ’s executive director, and executive editor and associate publisher of DigBoston. He holds an MFA in Visual Arts. Copyright 2019 Jason Pramas. Licensed for use by the Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism and media outlets in its network.