Saturday, December 20, 2003  
 Clubs TonightHot TixBand GuideMP3sBest Music PollSki GuideThe Best '03 
Food & Drink
Editors' Picks
New This Week
News and Features

Food & Drink


Stuff at Night
The Providence Phoenix
The Portland Phoenix
FNX Radio Network

  E-Mail This Article to a Friend

The beat goes on? (continued)


THE SOBRIQUET was, in a sense, a joke. The Utne Reader — noticing the glut of cool coffee shops and bars with hip clienteles, and the fact that Somerville was home to two young novelists in Granta’s 1997 fiction issue — made the Paris comparison. Miller opted to recycle the slogan for the SAC. "We used that term in a playful way for a fundraiser at the Tufts Art Gallery," she recalls. "The invitation read, ‘Is Somerville the Paris of the ’90s?’ It had a little Eiffel Tower graphic on it. It was shorthand for, ‘Wow, we have a really exciting, culturally rich place here and maybe the next Picasso does live here.’" But, she says, the motto wasn’t intended to be taken seriously. "People would sneer, ‘Why does Davis Square think it’s the Paris of the ’90s?’ They were kind of missing the point. I didn’t really ever want to say that Davis Square was the Paris of the ’90s. I really meant ‘Somerville,’ because when you say Davis Square, then you’re starting to market the restaurants and gentrification."

The nasty G-word. It’s an irony of contemporary urban life and an old story: artists move into a cheap neighborhood, rejuvenate the area, and then get priced out, along with the natives in lower-income brackets. Former mayor Capuano agrees that the city’s artist population definitely had something to do with Davis Square’s development. "Some of us tend to live our lives on one block and that’s the end of it. Artists tend to have wider-reaching connections; they’re less parochial," he says. "That brought the word about Somerville. It helped drive up house prices and rents, and that helps everybody. On the other side of the coin, you drive those things up, you also drive a lot people out."

Even some local business owners, who benefited directly from the Davis Square buzz, recognize the irony. "They got my business going," says Redbones co-owner and Somerville resident Robert Gregory, who opened his Davis Square barbecue joint in 1987 and still donates to the SAC. "The artists were the early pioneers of the Square, and they were my customer base when I first got going. Once my business grew and we had some money, I tried to reciprocate. But, of course, some of them couldn’t afford it anymore."

The cluster of Boston-based chains that have relocated to the Square over the last few years — Anna’s Taqueria, CD Spins, JP Licks, the Someday Café’s new ownership by Toscanini’s — illustrates that, indeed, Davis Square isn’t entirely representative of Somerville. These days, Davis Square not only looks an awful lot like Cambridge, but like an extension of Boston.

"Union Square is more representative of Somerville," suggests Louise Vrande, who’s lived in Somerville for 23 years. "I wish it had better transportation, but then more people could get there, and that might ruin it." During the last few years, the SAC has also worked to initiate arts projects in other neighborhoods besides Davis; this September, the Windows Art Project will move to Union Square. Vrande points to the ethnic diversity of Union as more emblematic of the city’s character. "I want there to be more attention paid to [Union], but I also don’t want it to turn into Cambridge, like Davis Square has."

But Somerville isn’t Cambridge. Nor is the Somerville Arts Council the Cambridge Arts Council. For starters, the staff is smaller: the SAC employs two full-time staff members and one part-time office manager, while the CAC has six full-time employees. And the SAC tends to dabble in more experimental art than its Cambridge counterpart: the SAC booked Kaiju Big Battel for ArtBeat before the locally based live-monster spectacle ever got press from MTV2; in March, the SAC held a fundraiser at Johnny D’s in conjunction with Kimchee Records, featuring local names like Pee Wee Fist, Blake Hazard, and Seana Carmody; and at July’s ArtBeat, there was even a post-event "Pajama Soul Dance Party" DJ’d by local burlesque dancer Ms. Firecracker.

"I do believe that the current staff at SAC are exemplary in the sense that they truly do get out there and support local art," e-mails Lilli Dennison, who invited the SAC to spin at Central Square’s ZuZu as part of Lilli’s Local Celebrity DJ series. "I have noticed many arts councils to be somewhat out of touch, sort of sequestered in ivory towers, sort of invisible. In my mind, art comes from the street (and not just the one called Newbury!). SAC recognizes that and for that I tip my hat!"

SOMERVILLE IS the kind of place where it’s not wholly surprising to read the police-log headline COP ASSAULTED WITH GIANT BELLY in the community paper, followed by a blurb that describes how a man found in his underwear at a local Star Market attacked an arresting officer with "a very large belly." But it’s also the kind of place where an anonymous citizen would phone the Somerville Journal’s SPEAK OUT line, a voicemail box for citizens to air their complaints, asking "how the city could pay for ArtBeat’s ads [in the Somerville Journal and other publications] while it was laying off workers."

In fact, the ArtBeat ads were printed in exchange for event sponsorship; the newspaper’s logos went on banners and appeared in the program guide, with no money actually changing hands. But the larger point is that Somerville citizens are wary of giving money to arts types who perform "nonessential services" — especially when there are cops’ jobs at stake. "I didn’t advertise how much of the city resources I put into the arts — that could’ve been politically dangerous," admits Capuano. "Remember, the first year and a half I was there was the last time we went through the round of municipal cuts in 1990 and 1991. We were increasing the arts budget — it wasn’t much — the same time we were laying people off." Capuano says his decision to increase the SAC’s resources was rooted not only in the assumption that the arts ultimately bring money into the city, but that support of the arts is undeniably "good for the community."

It’s not as if the Somerville Arts Council lives lavishly — Miller remembers her time at the SAC as plagued by "scarcity issues." Last fiscal year, state legislators slashed the Massachusetts Cultural Council’s budget by 62 percent — which, on the local level, means SAC’s funds for project, education, and individual-fellowship grants dropped from roughly $70,000 to around $30,000. During the last fiscal year, from July 2002 through June 2003, the SAC’s operating budget (not including the MCC re-grant money) was around $207,000; the previous year it was about $248,000. Only $62,000, or 30 percent, of that $207,000 came from the city of Somerville; the rest came from sources such as businesses (19 percent), self-produced fundraising efforts like the Kimchee showcase (14 percent), private foundations (11 percent), and individual donations (2 percent). "We sort of straddle this line between nonprofit and city agency," says Greg Jenkins, the SAC’s current executive director. "I think a lot of people think of us as nonprofit — they view us as being very flexible and very innovative and all that. But the city does provide us money. They provide us office space. They provide us electricity, which other nonprofits would have to pay for."

For an arts council that does much more than redistribute funds to local working artists, the SAC manages to do a lot with a little — like the Windows Art Project, the Illuminations Tour, Books of Hope (a creative-writing program for youth living in the Mystic Housing Project), the Mystic Mural Project, and ArtBeat. And this year, despite the reductions in its bottom line, the SAC is largely responsible for initiating and organizing the premiere of "3: Boston, Somerville, Worcester" a visual-arts show featuring the work of LCC fellowship winners from those cities. Jenkins is quick to point out, though, that he and the rest of the SAC are not the only essential elements involved with bringing art into the community. "It’s not one person," he says. "If there wasn’t an amazing arts community that wants to be civic-minded, that wants to volunteer, it doesn’t matter how great we are. We wouldn’t be able to get anything done."

Even ArtBeat, the SAC’s highest-profile event, has felt the economic burn. Back in the early spring, Jenkins considered cutting ArtBeat from three days to one because local business and corporate donations — the major sources of the festival’s funding — were down drastically. To keep ArtBeat at two days, the SAC trimmed between $10,000 and $15,000 from the event’s budget and relied on donations for the rest. "We’re also not paying the artist as much," Jenkins adds. "Like say if somebody had a $600 fee [before], it’s like, ‘Oh, we’re down 40 percent. Can you do it for $400 or $350?’ And they’re mostly being very generous."

Despite its decreasing financial support, the SAC is still trying to move forward and implement new projects, even if it means enduring some false starts. Over the past year, for example, the group spent months trying to refurbish a 16,000-square-foot building near Union Square, to be used as artist workspace and living quarters. But after the SAC collaborated with architects and developers who offered their services pro bono, the property owner decided to sell the structure. The SAC planned to hold an "Art Prom" fundraiser in the old Somerville Armory building, but that fell through, too. Now its focus is on broadening the individual donorship base of its support and tallying an "Artists Census," a survey the SAC hopes will help fundraising by providing potential benefactors with exact figures on the local artist population.

Although current Somerville mayor Dorothy Kelly Gay continually expresses her support for the SAC publicly, and Jenkins describes her as being "as supportive as she can be," it’s fair to wonder just how strong Gay’s commitment to the arts will be if the economy doesn’t improve and more budget cuts ensue. Should Mayor Gay be defeated this November, the SAC could be stripped down to nothing or eradicated entirely, depending on how "nonessential" the arts seem to her successor. Regardless, this much is certain: with drastic cuts to the MCC’s budget and with the economy in the dumpster, the statewide trend seems to be shifting away from support for the arts — which could be devastating for a place like Somerville, where the arts have helped reshape the city.

"The arts are definitely at this defining moment," says cartoonist Jef Czekaj. "It’s been kind of good and now it’s getting bad — it’ll be interesting to see what happens. But it’ll also be important now to stand up before it’s too late."

page 1  page 2 

Issue Date: August 22 - August 28, 2003
Back to the News & Features table of contents
  E-Mail This Article to a Friend

about the phoenix |  find the phoenix |  advertising info |  privacy policy |  the masthead |  feedback |  work for us

 © 2000 - 2003 Phoenix Media Communications Group