Believe there were unspoken reasons for the move to Harvard’s Allston-Brighton campus
Jacob LaRocca is a prop engineer who had been a member of Somerville’s Artisan’s Asylum for over eight years. He volunteered that whole time and managed two separate shops at various points; he even created a new shop and taught classes. LaRocca served on the board of directors as the member liaison for one-and-three-quarter terms. His dedication to the organization ran deep.
“I called the Artisan’s Asylum my home before I called my apartment my home,” LaRocca said. “So it was a really big deal when we started talking about needing to move.”
Conversations about having Artisan’s Asylum, a nonprofit makerspace dedicated to the practice of fabrication, relocate from the SomerNova campus near Union Square, began even before the group’s current executive director, Lars Hasselblad Torres, was brought on. According to LaRocca, talks started around 2018 or earlier, because “we knew, at that point, the first round of our lease was going to be expiring.”
LaRocca was not particularly excited about the idea of moving, knowing that many fellow makers would not participate if the organization left Somerville. But when he joined the board, he became active in helping to look for new locations. While members initially showed support for some spaces that they considered, such as one by the old Powderhouse school, it became apparent that they needed more help, and Hasselblad Torres was brought in. Finding a new home was “one of the main goals that he was hired for,” LaRocca said. “Because before he came in, our main understanding throughout the membership was that the landlord, Rafi Properties, was planning to either tear down or not renew our lease, once it expired.”
In December 2020, Artisan’s Asylum signed a lease with Harvard University for a new location in Allston. This decision forced many members to leave, due to a change in convenience, pricing issues, and perceived problems with leadership. Some, like jewelry maker Ilana Krepchin, expressed sadness and disappointment, calling the move a loss to the Somerville community. Hasselblad Torres gave the Boston Globe his account of the story, describing what the newspaper painted as his own dissatisfaction with the transition, saying it was “a blow to his organization, severing ties to its history.”
At the end of 2018, Hasselblad Torres added, he had submitted a letter of intent to Rafi Properties, offering approximately $900,000 a year for the makers to stay on the SomerNova campus for longer. Rafi subsequently offered a two-year extension at the current terms, but with a deposit that Hasselblad Torres said Artisan’s Asylum could not afford. Because they could not find a reasonable path forward towards renewal or a new space in Somerville, which many members wanted, Hasselblad Torres moved forward with the decision to move to Allston.
“We’re disappointed to leave a community where we have deep roots, a long history, and we had a strong business proposition. So that’s one side of the equation,” Hasselblad Torres said in an interview for this article. “The other side of the equation is, I couldn’t be happier that we found a new landlord who understands who we are as an organization and values what we bring to the Allston-Brighton community, and is willing to work with us to achieve those outcomes in the long term.” He added, “We absolutely stand by our decision to relocate to Allston-Brighton, but that doesn’t mean it’s not without tradeoffs. That doesn’t mean it doesn’t come without loss.”
Member and former member artists have expressed confusion over the true reason why Artisan’s Asylum had to leave the SomerNova campus. Many cited a tenuous relationship between the organization and Rafi Properties as a possible source of tension—with Ryan, a member who spoke anonymously and whose first name was changed for this story, saying that there may have been animosity between Rafi and Hasselblad Torres. The process was not particularly transparent, said Sasha, another member who spoke anonymously. Asked whether the decision was made due to pressure from the landlord or because Hasselblad Torres was in control of the move, as has been suggested by some members, Sasha said, “That we don’t know.” Ryan added that many members felt that they were not told the truth.
“It was my belief that he [Hasselblad Torres] had the intention of moving anyway,” Ryan said. “There was a point when it might have been as long as a year where we were actively looking, and we saw things at different locations—Malden, Medford. … We would ask questions like, Well, why can’t we stay? … We weren’t given a good answer.”
Ryan and others contend there was a lease offered that required a deposit upfront, which they thought would have been manageable, in light of the effort required in the end to move, but they said the document was left to sit on the executive director’s desk.
Kristin Phelan, a spokesperson for SomerNova, clarified that in negotiations between Artisan’s Asylum and Rafi Properties, the latter did not display a lack of “enthusiasm,” as described in the Boston Globe article, but said the landlord did demand additional documents.
“I think there was a number offered to Rafi Properties, and in response, we asked for some supporting documents that showed that their offer number had the finances behind it—what they were offering was significantly above their current rent,” Phelan said. “They were not able to supply the documents and or a business plan that backed up the offering, therefore we could not move the long-term lease conversation forward. … Rafi then offered a two-year extension with the same rates as their current lease, [but] the nonprofit was not able to provide a guarantor. There was a significant amount of time, and they did not move on a decision quickly, on the two-year extension.”
Anna, another artist who spoke anonymously, said she witnessed the organization changing from a more horizontal group, where members had a voice and power, to become more top-down under Hasselblad Torres. For many people, Artisan’s Asylum was like a home, but she saw the group moving in the direction of a different vision, one that did not align with the hopes and concerns of all the makers.
Many members stated that they felt that Artisan’s Asylum has changed, with LaRocca adding that it seemed like startups were becoming a more integral part of the organization’s business plan. In this sense, said LaRocca, the makerspace seemed to be catering more towards the business side of making, rather than the community aspects. In response to Artisan’s Asylum’s plans to move to Allston, a splinter group of resistant makers even began to form, with the intention of maintaining space in Somerville. According to Sasha, the goals of the organization were not reflecting the views and feelings of the makers.
“There was no interest in preserving the Artisan’s Asylum, as what it was, and more an interest in banking on its reputation and the people, what we did to build it up, and to make something different and new,” said Sasha. “I guess that’s what businesses are. That’s what businesses do.”
Many of the makers are currently dealing with the change, deciding whether or not they will follow the Artisan’s Asylum to its new location in Allston.
“I am a little bitter, I am sad, and it has significantly affected my ability to make art,” LaRocca said. “I have now found a new place to make that art, but it is no longer nearly as convenient or as large of a community as the Artisan’s Asylum was.”
Shira Laucharoen is a reporter based in Boston. She currently serves as the assistant director of the Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism. In the past she has written for Sampan newspaper, The Somerville Times, Scout Magazine, Boston Magazine, and WBUR.