Artists rally to save their workspace on Humphreys Street

Humphreys Street Studios' #ArtWorksHere #ArtStaysHere campaign is a bid to raise awareness and save the artist collective's property, which is set to be sold to an outside buyer.

Artists and community advocates are continuing to sound the alarm about the situation at their Uphams Corner-based workspace Humphreys Street Studios, the fate of which is hanging in the balance after the property’s owners agreed to an offer from an outside buyer in May.

They used a Zoom meeting last Wednesday to update attendees on where things stand.

The former dry cleaning industrial site at 11-13 Humphreys St. is home to 42 artists and small businesses, many of whom have worked onsite for the last ten to twenty years. After the founders of the studio, the artists Joe Wheelwright and Neal Widett, passed away in recent years, ownership of the property passed to their widows, who decided to sell.

In the past year, a preservation steering committee developed by the Humphreys Street community of artists came up with what they saw as a viable solution: The studios could be preserved as affordable workspace by having an artist-led nonprofit develop a vacant lot on the property as affordable housing. To the architect Joshua Rose-Wood, who works in office space at the studios, that was a proposition that would be a “win-win” for everyone.

“In April, we submitted our competitive offer to the owners. As soon as we submitted, they signed an offer with someone else, without talking to us or negotiating,” said Rose-Wood. “Since then, we’ve asked to speak with the owners and with the potential buyer, and we’ve had no communication back from them.

“So what we’ve done in response is start a campaign called #ArtWorksHere, #ArtStaysHere to raise awareness about the situation, and we’ve started a petition to rally community support and show how many people value this space...So many of these types of buildings have disappeared from the city and are gone forever. Making one of them from scratch is almost impossible at this point, so we’re trying to preserve something that a lot of time, effort, and sweat has gone into.”

Bill Hardy, the owner of the affordable housing developer New Atlantic who has worked with the Humphreys Street crew on their proposal, told the Zoom audience that his company has had success in similar past endeavors to save artist spaces— offering Brookside Artist Studios in Jamaica Plain and the Walter Baker Lofts in Dorchester as examples— but that it is “not easy” to do.

“It takes a real collaborative effort from the artists themselves, support from the community, and commitment from people at the city and offices like DND,” he said, the last a reference to the city’s Department of Neighborhood Development.

However, early indications and a look at previous moves by the buyer, Weston resident Mai Luo of Kendall Realty, LLC, don’t paint a rosy picture for the potential of retaining any studio or affordable housing space on the site.

“From what we’ve seen, this buyer tends to buy property and sit on it,” said Hardy. “Given the nature of the site and the costs to develop it, there’s no chance that what’s redeveloped on that site is anything other than market housing...the only economical solution for a for-profit developer is knocking those down and building condos.”

One hope for preservation is having the buildings designated as historic structures by the Landmarks Commission. 

“They are significant, late 19th-century industrial buildings with a lot of history,” said Rose-Wood, who has spent time digging through Dorchester Historical Society records and appealing to Historic Boston for more details.

That process is ongoing, but in the weeks left before a targeted July 5 sell date, advocates have few options besides signing the petition, mustering support through municipal channels, and discouraging the buyer to go through with its offer. After an initial offer of $2.75 million in April, the artists submitted a subsequent offer of $3 million, a figure they learned was higher than the sum put forward by Mai Luo.

“We’re kind of just hoping that this buyer walks away,” said Rose-Wood.

Added Ami Bennitt, an arts administrator and marketer based at Humphreys Street Studios: “For the last handful of years across the country, artist workspaces have been mowed down, resulting in all kinds of displacement of all kinds of people.

“Before this buyer, this situation was teed up as a model going forward for development without displacement...the real gut-wrenching thing here is that if this project, which was teed up to work doesn’t work, what kind of hope is there for future artist studios? We want to honor the legacy of the founding owners, and it would be a huge shame after all this work and all this support it didn’t work out.”

To learn more about Humphreys Street Studios’ proposal and to sign the petition, visit humphreysstreetstudio.com.

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