“There is a career and a lifestyle in art. You just have to learn how to find it and navigate yourself, despite what others say.”
Walk around any Boston museum or gallery, and you’ll see ornate sculptures, fine detailed paintings, and multimedia installations—but you’ll also see that a majority of these pieces are created by established artists, many of them white and male.
At the same time, exciting contemporary and younger works are energizing the arts landscape. Creatives from diverse backgrounds with unique, distinct narratives are attempting to break into spaces where their art has been unaccepted.
It can be difficult for those coming from outside of the traditional art community desperately trying to find a way in. And in looking for a place to exhibit work and make professional connections, it can help to link up with a collective founded by others who have struggled to find where they fit.
“It’s like there is no in-between,” said Jaina Cipriano, founder of Finding Bright Productions. “You are either an emerging artist or you are an old, established artist.”
As one of these emerging artists, Cipriano has found it difficult to find her footing in the Boston arts scene, chalking it up to this lack of opportunities to get her work and name into the industry. Gallery exhibitions, organizations, and grants are just a few of the chances that Cipriano constantly looks for. Sometimes, though, the perfect opportunities finally surface.
Last year, Cipriano was elated to learn that she would be featured as one of the Greater Boston Artist Collective’s Artists of the Month. Part of the thrill came from the opportunity to work with a team of females whose mission is to help artists who are overlooked.
At its core, the Greater Boston Artist Collective (GBAC) was founded to elevate underrepresented creators, both in and outside of the Boston area. Co-founders Jennifer Medrano, Gisell Builes, and Elisa Garcia established the collective in 2018; all Latinas in their field, they knew what obstacles artists like them often face. Whether fellow female creators, BIPOC creatives, or artists coming from lower socioeconomic backgrounds, they wanted to provide resources.
“Something that [GBAC] really aim[s] for is to represent artists who are females of color or BIPOC creators,” Medrano said. “It is not easy being all of that together in a world that is very white and very male.”
There’s data on these trends. A 2019 study published in Plos One, a journal of social psychiatry, found that almost 87.4% of the work displayed in galleries is done by white, male artists. Researchers also found that the average United States museum collection consists of 75 white men, eight Asian men, three Latinx men, one Black man, 11 white women, one Asian woman, and one man of another race or ethnicity. Latinx artists make up only 2.8% of artists featured in these galleries. Of those, female Hispanic and Latinx artists make up less than 1%.
“Art in general has always been seen as elitist, white, and exclusionary,” said Heshan Berents-Weeramuni, senior director of marketing and communications for Boston Center for the Arts.
“You know, we would go to events, and I wouldn’t see people who looked like we did,” Medrano said.
These statistics were lived experiences for the women of GBAC. After years of attempting to navigate the arts industry locally, amidst feeling pushed out of it, the women behind GBAC took matters into their own hands. They did so for themselves, but more importantly, they acted for other artists who had been unable to find galleries that would show their work, grants to support their shows, or collaborators from similar backgrounds.
“Boston’s art community is not as strong as I would like it to be,” said Builes, a creative director and wardrobe stylist. “My goal for GBAC is to create things, whether it’s events or films, just to get content out there that will provide growth and community opportunity for these artists.”
So far, the collective has spearheaded multiple projects. A series called GBAC Stage—inspired by NPR’s Tiny Desk Concerts—features performances that double as fundraisers for the group. They also have their Artist of the Month outlet, through which they highlight the work of standout talents online and through events.
“It is amazing to see where we started versus where we are now,” Builes said. “We are going to reach the success that people have told us or tried to show us we would be unable to reach.”
GBAC’s roots are just north of Boston in Everett, one of the Bay State’s most diverse municipalities. Builes, Medrano, and Garcia lived together for a year after starting the collective, applying for grants to get their work funded, hosting live events like art shows, and crowdsourcing their base funding. At times, they paid out of pocket to make their productions come to life.
Looking back, they say the sacrifice was worth it, and that they hope to help spur a culture of collaboration by any means necessary. Still, they have often struggled to make ends meet. In speaking for this article, Medrano talked about owning a cat, explaining that she barely had time to take care of it. She reflected on times when she would skip meals to save money for artistic pursuits, and recalled countless times when she missed seeing family because she needed to work on art and GBAC.
Also speaking candidly, Builes said she had never even considered herself an artist until after her high school graduation. Art found her, she often explains.
“I’ve been an artist for 11 years now, and I am happy I pursued this path; it was destined,” Builes said. “Art helped me and saved me in a way. GBAC pushes me to do more for the community that gave me this opportunity.”
“There is a career and a lifestyle in art,” Garcia added. “You just have to learn how to find it and navigate yourself, despite what others say. It is possible; it’s all about what access you have to other people in the community and how you connect with those around you and work together.”
Despite their progress, plenty of obstacles remain. For starters, the wall between the Greater Boston art establishment and everything that happens outside of large museums and galleries. [Ed. note: Also read Heather Kapplow’s Woke In Progress series about how those entities have followed up on pledges made in this realm.]
“There is also such an issue with attention on only high art in this city,” said Cipriano of Finding Bright Productions. “We have the MFA, the ICA, and institutions like these that create a sense of disconnect from the more independent scene. … There are all these wonderful, creative people, and it almost seems like there is nowhere to go to be fostered to create. You are just expected to figure it out. That middle ground is nonexistent.”
Cipriano said that in spaces like GBAC, it’s easier to face the struggles she and others endure in their careers. Many top institutions, they argue, are doing little to expand their collections to represent the diverse backgrounds of today’s modern artists.
“Museums are highly cultural institutions that tell us what security guards look like, the type of person who can visit, the type of art being presented, who is at the top of administration, and who is being presented in the artwork,” said Maria Servellon. A professor and filmmaker with Digital Soup, Servellon has also been a GBAC artist of the month.
Others are on the case as well, taking action where it’s needed. The Massachusetts Cultural Council, for one, has called for change. Under the guidance of Executive Director Michael Bobbit, the MCC is implementing its first-ever racial equity plan, a program focusing on integrating BIPOC artists into the center of the council’s work. Bobbitt and his team will reimagine many of the organization’s programs and services provided to their members.
“I have learned that a lot of people and organizations get stuck in the educational phase of racial equity,” Bobbitt said. “People keep learning and learning, and they seem paralyzed in taking action. Every time you learn something, you need to take a step towards action. … We have to look at everything we do, from operations to grant-making, to make sure that there is no bias. If we have enough representation in all the rooms when we are discussing policies and decisions, we will have enough BIPOC people involved in those decisions.”
The Boston Center for the Arts is also doing outreach. “We generally try to encourage artists from parts of Roxbury, Dorchester, Hyde Park, and Roslindale,” Berents-Weeramuni said. “We are very cognizant of the fact that there is a class, while also there is a race component, to being inclusive. There is even a gender component of the application process.”
And then there’s GBAC, fully recognizing the artists who have slipped under the radar.
“I am the type of person that always wants to push out of their comfort zone,” Medrano said. “I think it is important to feed our spirit, mind, and soul by creating.
“It’s about making sacrifices.”