Local artists see windows of opportunity
By Yvonne Abraham, Globe Staff | June 7, 2005
On Avery Street, a giant, lime-green smiley face blinks, then goes serious, when somebody passes by. On Bromfield Street, a hi-tech disco ball flashes endless combinations of colors, lighting up the sidewalk. On Washington Street, a dollhouse turns end over end, the tiny furniture flying past little dolls wearing rather alarmed expressions.
It is all part of Boston Art Windows, a collaboration between the city and local artists that aims to fill vacant Downtown Crossing storefronts with art edgy enough to pull pedestrians closer.
Some stop in their tracks, especially at night, when the works glow. Their reactions range from expletive-laden mystification to wide-eyed admiration. Grown men dance in front of the installations. Strangers talk to one another.
The program has an outcome rare in these parts: Everybody seems happy. The artists get to show their works to people who might not normally see them. The neighbors enjoy active, and prettier, streetscapes. The property owners have more attractive buildings, not to mention good will from the city for putting up the funds to pay for the installations. And the pedestrians, who have been leaving their fingerprints on the glass, get a streetside art gallery.
Downtown Crossing, down-at-the-heel for decades, has been the focus of much intense attention in recent years. A new Ritz Carlton hotel and cinema, a refurbished Opera House, and fancified streets are transforming the neighborhood. But even those changes have not filled all of the area's vacant properties, particularly in a sluggish economy.
Boston Art Windows is meant to make the transition smoother, at least aesthetically, as part of the larger Downtown Crossing Economic Initiative, a program launched by Mayor Thomas M. Menino last year to improve the area.
''It seemed silly not to utilize the space," said Cecile Lemley, the downtown resident who came up with the idea of putting art in vacant storefronts on Avery Street, before the Boston Redevelopment Authority took over her initiative late last year. ''Silly for the artists, silly for the people who live in the city. I knew what could be done in these windows, and I love that it has really taken off."
On Avery Street on Wednesday, two young men stopped in front of a work called ''Full Backup," an interactive video installation by artist jackbackrack, the curator of the show, who is also known as MIT scientist Jonathan Bachrach. A camera records the movements of pedestrians and plays them back in time-delayed video loops that eventually cover the screen. The two men danced around a bit, saw themselves replicated in ever-smaller images, and were amazed.
''I've never seen anything like that," said Marcus Strone, 28, of Mission Hill.
''The artist who made that is a -- " he said, stopping to find just the right word.
''A genius," offered his friend Tyquan Cooper, 26, of Lynn, who said the only art he usually sees is graffiti.
''A genius," Strone agreed. ''Got to be."
''I like that," Cooper said. ''I want that in my crib. How much you think it costs?"
What it costs the property owners is $1,000 per window: $500 for materials and $500 for the artist, said Randi Lathrop, deputy director of community planning at the Boston Redevelopment Authority. They also pay for their storefronts to be spruced up with paint and with new glass if the old windows are covered in graffiti.
''It's important for them to have their property look good and for the streetscape to be active," said Lisa Greenfield, an artist who is the project manager at BRA. ''It's also philanthropy."
Lathrop said other property owners have called, hoping to have their ''For Rent" signs replaced with artwork, too.
That pleases the artists.
''People appreciate the city taking the initiative to say, 'Here is a surprise for you,' " said Steve Hollinger, whose work ''Downtown" -- moving, ghostly figures on fabric -- occupies an Avery Street window. ''You turn the corner, and it's there. You can connect with the viewer really directly.
''I hope it can grow, so it's a really clear message about the importance of art."
The exhibition will remain in the windows at Downtown Crossing into July. The redevelopment authority is currently seeking a curator for its next storefront show, to open later in the summer. After that, there are plans to expand the art initiative into other parts of the city, moving the current displays to vacant properties.
Lathrop said the city wants their next stop to be Dudley Square. Her hope is that, eventually, vacant storefronts all over the city will host art exhibits.
On Washington Street on Wednesday, Krystal-Lynn Cudjoe and Christine Kinker noticed the slowly-rotating dollhouse, called ''Homespun," as they were handing out parking ads.
''We were passing out fliers, and we're like: 'What is this? Why is the house flipping?' " Cudjoe said. They stared at the work. Things inside the house were deteriorating rapidly from all the tumbling. A little piano that had been intact the night before was now in pieces.
''Do you get this?" Cudjoe, 18, asked Kinker.
Kinker, 23, read the description of the work aloud: '' 'Homespun' is dedicated to anyone who has ever felt turned upside down by forces beyond their control."
''I was thinking that," Cudjoe told her. ''But I'm just like, what a way to put it. It's cool."
Yvonne Abraham can be reached at email@example.com.