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In Lowell, an artful reawakening

By Kathleen Pierce
Globe Correspondent / August 16, 2012
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LOWELL — A buffalo on skis stands in the window of a former deli. Around the corner, a long-gone ice cream shop gleams with new floors and splashy outsider art.

Walk a block south or west and construction crews hammer away, turning relics from the city's industrial past into soon-to-open art spaces.

“There is a groundswell happening right now,” said Susan Halter, executive director of the Cultural Organization of Lowell and Cultural Affairs office. “This feels like Boston 20 years ago.”

Or perhaps, Brooklyn five years ago.

Long the butt of many jokes (see “The Fighter”), this hard-scrabble mill town is riding a wave of reinvention led by a steady stream of artists and a string of new galleries and venues that have opened recently to showcase their talents.

“This is need-based,” said Lindsey Parker, codirector of Uncharted Studios and Gallery, a youthful art collective settling into a highly visible storefront on Merrimack Street.

Upstairs, 24 artists, writers, and filmmakers work in threadbare studios that rent for $75 to $250 a month. The median age is 27.

One of them is Parker, who instead of lighting out for New York to “follow the herd,” decided to “build a gallery in a place that needed one.”

Running a gallery at 24 “is seriously a dream,” said the sandy-haired printmaker, who recently graduated from Montserrat College of Art in Beverly.

That free-wheeling, anything’s possible spirit is what lured Alan Nidle and Karen Boutet to open the Zeitgeist Gallery around the corner.

Reinventing their bohemian Cambridge outpost that closed in the mid-2000s into a sprawling storefront on Market Street for the same price they would pay for a tiny spot in Inman Square was hard to resist.

The couple, who have ties to the area because Boutet grew up here, feel they have arrived right on time. “If you want to really ride the wave, you have to wait till it’s cresting,” said Nidle, who has a reputation as an iconoclast.

In the ’80s he transformed an ATM booth in Cambridge into a studio apartment and invited homeless people to spend the night. “I enjoy being on the fringe where I can be gloriously different,” said Nidle.

Both the Zeitgeist and Uncharted usher in new urban energy to the city’s downtown art scene that is raring for renewal.

“We are starting to reach critical mass. Nobody is going away,” said Maxine Farkas, who as the director of Western Avenue Studios, has witnessed the change firsthand.

The mill-turned-art-complex that opened in 2005 with 31 studios will reach 300 by year's end. Recently owner Karl Frey continued the conversion to include Western Avenue Lofts: 50 artists’ live/work apartments that rent for an average of 94 cents a square foot.

“People walk in and fall in love with the space,” said Farkas, who was one of the first to move into a one-room loft with concrete floors and communal slop sinks in June.

Located in an industrial cul-de-sac, just beyond the city’s newly sketched cultural district, Western Avenue Studios has been a creative beacon for years. Now that the downtown is waking up with artist-established galleries, the bootstrap ethic (“If we can’t get commercial galleries to come to Lowell, we will start our own, damn it”) is stronger than ever, said Farkas.

It’s that do-it-yourself attitude that’s made artists like Michael Dailey Jr. jump in with both feet. “It’s not uppity. That’s the best part. People are willing to collaborate and are open to new ideas. It doesn’t feel so establishment,” said Dailey, codirector of Uncharted.

That Uncharted Gallery opened in July with a five-band blowout featuring groups from Northampton and Brooklyn on the city’s main thoroughfare, instead of off the beaten track, is significant.

“It’s exciting that these people were able to crack the downtown,” said Walter Wright, cofounder of the 119 Gallery, about a mile from the city’s core. Wright, an arbiter of the avant-garde, and his wife, Mary Ann Kearns, scoured derelict buildings downtown for years before opening their Lower Highlands gallery in 2005.

Part of what’s driving the downtown renaissance is landlords and developers who finally seem to understand what artists want: affordable places to create. Marshall Field, owner of the Wyman’s Exchange building, is a perfect example.

He struggled for years to find someone to move into the fifth floor when Lahey Eye Clinic moved out. Five years later, he found Uncharted.

“Downtown is hurting for tenants in the upper floors. It used to be filled with insurance companies, doctors, and law firms, but they all moved out,” said Field, who gave Uncharted a 75 percent reduction in rent to turn former exam rooms into studios. “It’s good for the downtown because they attract people. The art crowd is more sophisticated and educated and they fit in with the college scene,” said Field, who would like to rent to more artists. “The downtown is going through a transition right now. The artists groups will help.”

Longtime developer Nicholas Sarris had the same hunch. After a half century renovating churches, courthouses, and medical buildings in Lowell, he is working on his first art studio conversion.

This spring, construction began on the 1800s Gates Block. The manufacturing building, home to a rug shop recently and a Greek newspaper press decades ago, is being transformed into three dozen art studios with the possibility of a gallery and arts center.

“Artists are making an impact in the downtown area. I think they will be good for this piece of property,” said Sarris, who plans to price these light-filled studios affordably and rent them by January.

Across town, in the city’s growing JAM (Jackson, Appleton, and Middlesex streets) area, another developer is working furiously on a similar concept. Although details are being kept under wraps, Mill Number Five, a retail, art studio, café, and theater space, has the potential to be “an atomic bomb for economic impact,” said Mauricio Cordero, its director.

To Cordero, the former executive director of the Revolving Museum, “This is Lowell 3.0.”

The Revolving Museum, which came to town in 2002 under the leadership of artist Jerry Beck, struggled to stay afloat, seeing itself as a nonprofit education center. It closed in late July. Lowell’s new art scene is looser, freer, and as Nidle said, will “react to the status quo.”

According to John Wooding, who teaches political science at the University of Massachusetts Lowell and chairs the Cultural Organization of Lowell, the city’s creative revival is timely. “It’s a very exciting place. It’s come out of the dark spot of the last couple years,” he said.

Wooding said he suspects Lowell's creative economy could one day drive the city’s economic development and create jobs, as outlined by Richard Florida’s 2002 book, “The Rise of the Creative Class.”

To Wooding, the pillars of the downtown — the University of Massachusetts Lowell, the National Historical Park, and Middlesex Community College — give Lowell an edge over other post-industrial cites, such as Haverhill, that look to the arts for reinvention.

But what happens the next few years will be crucial, he warned.

“There is a new creative class, but what does it look like? Does art create jobs and a better life for people?” said Wooding. “If you have art galleries downtown, it doesn’t mean you are Paris.”

Kathleen Pierce can be reached at kmdpierce@gmail.com.

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