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The new art neighborhood

Open Studios showcases SoWa gallery boom

Sculptor Leslie Wilcox moved into an old piano factory on Harrison Avenue in the South End in 1978, fresh out of the School of the Museum of Fine Arts. It was a dicey neighborhood, the kind you wouldn't want to walk through after dark, filled with empty alleyways and abandoned mill buildings populated by squatters.

Back then, Wilcox recalls, Harrison Avenue was a mess: "The street was dirt because they never filled it in."

Today, Harrison Avenue and the streets surrounding it are not only paved, but well trafficked by artists and art lovers alike. In recent years, the neighborhood -- dubbed SoWa (for South of Washington Street) by developers, if not residents -- has become a destination rivaling Newbury Street as the hot spot for galleries in Boston.

This weekend, no fewer than 20 galleries in this part of the South End will welcome visitors for South End Open Studios, one of the oldest and largest events of its kind in the city. More than a dozen galleries have opened in the area in just the past two years. Of those, eight threw open their doors in the past year alone.

There is more to come, says John Kiger, leasing director for GTI Properties, which owns 12 buildings in the neighborhood. One, an old mill at 450 Harrison Ave., stretches the length of Thayer Street and houses a dozen galleries and a bevy of artists' studios. The developer aims to open another 14 gallery spaces there next spring.

"The overall quality of the art is so high," says Bill Arning, curator at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology's List Visual Art Center and a regular gallery-goer. "Plus it's a very enjoyable gallery experience, because unlike Newbury Street, the other businesses are not shops. Newbury Street, on the whole, is more conservative. [In the South End] the conversations in the hall and on the street are about art."

Harrison Avenue offers both a higher concentration and a greater mix of art than Newbury Street, and the reasons are in large part financial. Though some fear that climbing rents might eventually drive artists out, the cost of doing business in the neighborhood is still markedly cheaper than in the Back Bay. That means cooperatives, such as Bromfield Art Gallery and Kingston Gallery (both at 450 Harrison Ave.), and the Boston Sculptors Gallery can afford to set up shop, making the neighborhood the place to see work by local artists. It also means gallery owners and artists are more willing to show edgy art -- works that might not be easy to sell.

"The economics of being here allow us to take more risks," says Jim Smith of Clifford-Smith Gallery. Indeed, Caroline Taggart of OH+T Gallery, which shares a space with Clifford-Smith at 450 Harrison Ave., points to a month last spring when both spaces exhibited video installations, a type of work most collectors don't think to buy.

"We knew going into it that nothing would sell," says Rob Clifford of Clifford-Smith Gallery.

"But it was work that needs to be seen," counters Taggart, whose gallery opened the week before Sept. 11, 2001. As with any new business, the future is uncertain, she says. "We're hoping we can hang in here long enough so that the shows that don't sell do sell."

Whether they're selling or not, there's no lack of artists of international renown exhibiting in the neighborhood. This month, osp gallery has a show by the drawing master Jacob El Hanani. Big-time painter Jeremy Gilbert-Rolfe exhibits at Genovese/Sullivan Gallery. Conceptual sculptor Roxy Paine and Op-Art painter Susie Rosmarin, both heavy hitters, have shown at Bernard Toale Gallery, 450 Harrison's anchor art venue.

But there's also a welcome here for untried artists. Drew Katz, 24, opened Gallery Katz in May 2002 to show young artists. He now has an exhibition of industrial landscape paintings by Jessica Hess, 22. "It's a friendly, fun environment," Katz says of the Harrison Avenue building that houses his gallery, boasting of the mix of artists and their media. "At the opening reception [for El Hanani's show], I was walking around and I met Jacob. He does incredible work. Then I came back and talked to Jessica, who just graduated from college."

Many of the galleries in the community stage their opening receptions on the first Friday of each month. It's a giant, arty block party, attracting hundreds of visitors who sip wine, view the art, and then pop over to the Red Fez or Cafe Umbra for dinner.

"The energy during those opening nights is really important for the scene," says Arning. "It's an enthusiastic audience for cutting-edge contemporary art in Boston."

A gradual transformation Though individual artists had been squatting in ramshackle warehouses in the neighborhood for decades, only one gallery was willing to stake its claim as far back as the 1980s.

Camellia Genovese of Genovese/Sullivan Gallery opened a print shop on Albany Street in 1984 and a gallery in 1987 (today, two of the area's newest galleries, Gallery AA/B and NAO Project Gallery, are in that building, at 535 Albany St.). Genovese and her husband, David Sullivan, became the first art dealers to open up shop at 450 Harrison Ave. when they moved the gallery there in 1997. Kingston Gallery followed, and in April 1998, Bernard Toale signed a lease, moving from Newbury Street to Harrison Avenue. Soon after, the floodgates opened.

"I think it's lovely that we have a lot of galleries now," says Genovese, though she acknowledges that she has reservations. "I always liked it when it wasn't so many. There's something about the mysteriousness of having to come someplace out of the way, the sense that you're on an adventure. Because art is a scary thing. It should be mysterious."

Toale's move to Harrison Avenue put the stamp of respectability on the neighborhood. He'd run a cutting-edge, high-end gallery on Newbury Street for years, but in 1998 his rent there tripled. Taking a gamble, he signed a lease on Harrison Avenue and settled into a cramped, dark space, with the developer's assurance that it would be expanded. It took GTI Properties 4 1/2 years to do it.

"The blueprints were turning yellow," Toale jokes. "But what we see now is the space I was promised." His layout includes two exhibition spaces and flat files for the Boston Drawing Project, an archive of work by local artists.

Many dealers speak with both admiration and frustration about the developer, GTI's Mario Nicosia, who has been in Italy and unavailable for comment. They admire his commitment to art, but they scratch their heads over perpetually delayed timetables, workmen showing up at the last minute, and ongoing construction. Indeed, for much of the past year, Thayer Street was an uninviting construction zone as workers drilled down 2,000 feet to install a geothermal heating and cooling system for the building. The dealers may have grumbled, but this summer they were thankful for the central air.

The gallery boomlet has occurred despite the sputtering economy of the last two years, thanks to the housing market, which has been white hot in the neighborhood, drawing artists and people who want to put art on their new walls. Sheila Grove, executive director of the community organization Washington Gateway Main Street, counts 1,500 new and rehabbed residential units in the area in the past three years. The Laconia Lofts, Rollins Square, and planned Dover Lofts buildings all allot a number of units to artists at below-market rates. Of the 70 units at Laconia, 28 were sold to artists at below-market rates, and eight more went to artists at market rates. The Laconia Gallery and the Arthur Hill Gallery have spaces in Laconia Lofts.

Kiger sees more residential buildings on the horizon. "We still have a number of vacant mill buildings, and we intend to populate them," he says.

But the new sheen on Harrison Avenue does give some artists pause. Liesel Fenner, a Laconia artist who put together the Laconia Gallery's current exhibition, worries that artists will ultimately be priced out.

"I hope the grit will still be retained," she says of the neighborhood. "I hope the diversity and texture remains. It's crucial that artists remain working in Boston. I'm concerned that if we experience another boom economy that doesn't value art, we'll see a repeat erosion of the neighborhood. You see it in Fort Point. Artists are being pushed out to Chelsea and Lynn and Lowell, communities that are laying out the red carpet."

As for the art dealers, they've found a place they can call home, for now.

"This is the last rough end of the South End," says Toale. "It's the same as it has always been. There was a time when artists moved out, but now artists are moving back in. And as much as we [complained] about the water and the mud, we also recognize the importance of what's going on here."

Sitting in corner gallery office, Toale smiles.

"And look at how fabulous the space is. I never knew it would turn out so beautiful."

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