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Artists live here

Three years ago, Boston LISC launched our Resilient Communities, Resilient Families comprehensive community development initiative. The program asked residents, community organizations and other stakeholders in the communities where we work to engage in a deep planning process to answer the question, “What’s next for the neighborhood?”

Melissa Jones

As community developers involved in comprehensive quality-of-life planning, we have learned a lot from neighbors. And an important set of neighbors emerged in Roxbury that has helped frame our work there: artists.

The participation of artists helped articulate the importance of culture and other intangibles in community revitalization planning, and they helped to encourage creativity in planning.

For example, as we begin meetings, we now all share our most important quality-of-life moment during the month. In these sessions, we hear about graduations, a family member’s return from away, how a new pet has connected neighbors that had not really spoken to each other before.

For community developers, artists offer an interesting articulation of the heart and identity of a community. They move us to an understanding beyond the census data, crime statistics, and real estate prices through vibrant storytelling and depiction about who lives in the neighborhood, why they love it, what matters most for quality of life there. They help deepen our understanding of what things should change, what should remain the same.

Indeed, they helped answer an age-old question for community developers: What, beyond the numbers, matters for community development success? Today, as Roxbury moves forward with its Resilient Communities, Resilient Families program, arts and culture are being woven even deeper into the neighborhood’s revitalization. 

Planning in Roxbury

Roxbury is a historically African-American neighborhood that borders downtown and the South End, communities that have seen new investments and dramatic cost increases. Displacement of existing residents as Roxbury grows and improves is a big concern for the community.

Roxbury is also a neighborhood with an arts scene and a notable number of local artists with deep neighborhood roots who care about their community. The artists shared our interest in finding ways to celebrate the neighborhood’s culture, elevate artists as entrepreneurs, and plan early to mitigate risks of displacement.

The artist presence helped frame and articulate the importance of culture and other intangibles in community revitalization planning.

Local artists formed an arts and economic development action group during the six-week action planning process conducted by the local Mission 180 coalition, which capped data analysis and more than 100 in-depth one-on-one interviews on Roxbury’s redevelopment.

The action group tasked the community to ensure that local artists can earn a living from their craft and that the culture of the neighborhood be preserved.

For Roxbury, the artist presence helped frame and articulate the importance of culture and other intangibles in community revitalization planning, and they helped to encourage creativity in planning.

And when artists advocated for themselves as small business people, they helped shape advocacy for local entrepreneurship of every stripe.

Economic Development Options for Local Artists

The arts and economic development action group in Roxbury is now testing strategies to ensure artists remain part of the neighborhood’s future, including business plan training for artists, increasing access to capital, and expanding venues for art performance and display.  

There are several great examples of other options in and around Boston for arts in the community, including in Roxbury itself, where local CDC Nuestra Communidad and the Massachusetts Smart Growth Alliance hosted Bartlett Events, a summertime event series last year at a vacant bus yard slated for redevelopment.

Artists Mark Paulo Ramos Matel of Nuestra CDC and Jason Turgeon and Jeremy Alliger of Alliger Arts standing in front of Thank You Artwork painted by Deme5 for Bartlett Events.

For Bartlett Events, the walls of the to-be-demolished buildings became a canvas for amazing murals from local artists, and the events included African dance, a potluck and art swap, and a good old-fashioned Boston lobster boil.

The process reawakened the community’s imagination for the space and tested which events and topics drew thousands of local residents together. It also raised the profile of local artists and helped make clear how many are producing art and operating as their own small businesses in the neighborhood.

ARTMORPHEUS has been providing business support to Boston artists for years. Liora Beer, the director of the nonprofit and an artist herself, knows that artists thrive when they find a mar­ket for the work they cre­ate. But connecting with opportunities and audiences for their work is very challenging for artists. For the most part, the cur­rent sys­tems for pro­mot­ing and sell­ing fine art are exclu­sion­ary and intimidating—they dis­cour­age the types of inter­ac­tions that cre­ate true con­nec­tions between artists and art lovers. 

Determined to solve this big problem, Beer co-founded a social enterprise initiative under ARTMORPHEUS, called New Art Love, which creates mobile art applications that allow art lovers to discover art they love and connect with artists in new ways. The plat­form allows artists to increase their vis­i­bil­ity, build their fan base and grow their sales.

For art enthusiasts and aspir­ing col­lec­tors, New Art Love pushes through the elit­ism and exclu­siv­ity asso­ci­ated with today’s art mar­ket, and offers new oppor­tu­ni­ties for users to dis­cover, access and con­nect with art and artists they love.

First piloted in the South End for that community’s Open Studios event, the app got more than 10,000 hits over several days and resulted in many new connections and sales. Cambridge and Allston Open Studios apps followed. The intention of the project is to build strong authen­tic com­mu­ni­ties between artists and art lovers, both online and off.

Pairing the training program with access to capital and follow-up technical assistance enables ready entrepreneurs (including artists) to take advantage of the rising tide in neighborhoods.

In Boston, LISC Resilient Communities, Resilient Families Programs have partnered with the Center for Women and Enterprise and several nonprofit lenders to help ready residents launch businesses. We’ve paired the training program with access to capital and follow-up technical assistance programs to enable ready entrepreneurs (including artists) with the means to take advantage of the rising tide in neighborhoods.

With modest start up funds, Discover Roxbury has established a pop-up store during the holidays that showcases local artists and encourages purchasing of local arts. And a collaborative of local artists and community development organizations in Boston’s Uphams Corner Neighborhood have created UpMarket, an outdoor artisan marketplace with crafts and art pieces.

Keeping housing affordable for artists is another great way for community developers to ensure local arts and culture remain in their neighborhood. AS220 in Providence and Nuestra Communidad in Boston both have successful models of long-term affordable artist housing.

What’s Your Arts Profile?

We all know that every neighborhood is unique. What worked in Roxbury and the other examples above might not be the right match for your community. To get an idea of what kind of role arts and culture can play in a neighborhood’s future, however, it helps to know what role they play today.

Based on our experience with Mission 180, I’ve developed a series of questions to inform future neighborhood revitalization planning, focused on the intersection of arts/culture, economic development, and community development without displacement.

Established Artists

  1. Who are the established artists in the neighborhood?
  2. How/do they currently earn a living from their craft?
  3. How well connected are they to the artist institutions and to the regional arts markets?
  4. What contribution do they make to the culture and development of the neighborhood?
  5. What role do they seek to play in community development planning?

 Up and Coming Artists

  1. Who are the up and coming and young artists in the community?
  2. How are they mentored? What are the generational differences in their art and aspirations?
  3. How/do they currently earn a living from their craft?
  4. How well connected are they to the artist institutions and to the regional arts markets?
  5. What contribution do they make to the culture and development of the neighborhood?
  6. What role do they seek to play in community development planning?

 (Informal) Artisans

  1. What are the cultural products produced in homes that are part of cultural or community identity?
  2. What do informal arts teach us about the cultural experience and identity of the community?

Including and incorporating arts and artists into community development can happen “by accident” or for a one-time, specific project. In Boston, though, we’re working to make it a consistent, ongoing relationship. We know that for the artists and for their communities, that will pay dividends for a long time.


Melissa Jones is the Senior Program Officer for Resilient Communities, Resilient Families & Economic Opportunity at Boston LISC.


See the whole Thinking Out Loud series on creative placemaking here.

Posted in Planning, Arts & Culture, Commercial and Economic Development, Thinking Out Loud

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