Excitement is simmering in Boston, Massachusetts’s art circles, as beloved Boston Arts Academy looks forward to life in a beautiful new home. The academy has served Boston since 1998, all the while producing many of Boston’s present day luminaries in visual arts, music, dance, theater, and fashion technology.
Boston Arts Academy (BAA) has spent its first 21 years in an old, partially revamped postal warehouse, building a reputation for fostering much of the city’s best artistic talent.
Deservedly, in September 2021, the academy will move to a new, custom-designed home. Anne Clark, the academy’s headmaster and founding academic dean; Brian McLaughlin, chief of staff at the Boston Office of Public Facilities, and its head of strategic initiatives, Carolyn Meadows, talked about this addition to the city landscape.
The historical project was initially enabled by Mayor Martin J. Walsh. As a keen supporter of the school, Walsh procured funding from the city’s capital budget, intent on Boston having a state-of-the-art art school designed to provide for the demands of each of the schools faculties, amply and in a thoroughly up-to-date way.
The next level
“We are very grateful to the Massachusetts School Building Authority,” says Anne, “and the City of Boston, both of whom have funded the project, and also to Lee Kennedy, the construction company. This isn’t just a beautiful building – it will take our teaching and learning to the next level.”
It took 15 years and the leaping of many hurdles before the project got off the ground. First, a lack of funding stopped the project.
“BAA’s supporters worked hard at advocating to ensure that this was not the end,” says Brian, “When funding became available, Mayor Walsh ensured that [the academy] would get a building that would match the school’s program, [and] would marry all the great things that were already happening here.”
Custom learning spaces
A decade and a half in the pipeline, the Boston Academy of Art’s new building is nothing short of fantastic. Built to support the school’s entire curriculum, it comprises 150 000 square feet of modernity that will accommodate 500 students.
It features a 500-seat auditorium designed also to serve as a theater teaching-space where students will perform and direct stage productions, learning to manage lighting and sound, too. There will be a 200-seat black-box theater, a 100-seat lecture / recital hall, four professional dance studios, art studios, and specific spaces for fashion technology.
“The current cost is sitting at USD$124.5 million, and we’re looking at getting $47 million back through reimbursement from the Massachusetts School Building Authority,” Brian says.
As one might expect from a team of creatives, the new building has become an art project in its own right. The architects involved the students in the design process. “It’s been very exciting for them to see these professional architects implementing the same kind of artistic process that they have,” Anne says.
Early – but good – days
Expect a huge difference in both the learning and the teaching experience, after years of making do with what was available. Despite renovations, the original building wasn’t equipped to support comprehensive arts training. And it was also short of the performance space to teach drama and dance.
However, there was no shortage of creativity and so teachers and students used talent and energy to work around the building’s challenges.
“Some of the practice spaces we had were a little challenging. For example, one of the dance studios had a support beam in the middle, which made it hard for students to dance. It was also short on spaces needed to [function as] a high school. Like a gym, for example,” says Anne.
Thomas Edison said that genius is one percent inspiration and 99 percent perspiration. This is the way Boston Arts Academy has been growing young minds for over two decades. Students develop and free their talents the only way there is – through intense, dedicated practice.
“Boston Arts Academy provides students who are passionate about art with a rigorous art and academic education that really connects to their passion and supports who they want to be,” says Anne.
“True artists are very engaged members of their communities. They make the world a better place by using their talents, skills, and gifts,” she says. The school’s motto of “Artists, Scholars, Citizens” itself expresses this focused outlook. This approach makes the school a fertile source of social and cultural growth and renewal within Boston’s local scene, with many of its alumni playing a prominent part in the local art world and other circles.
Its former students are also well known for ‘paying it forward’; involving themselves in guiding and inspiring current students in multiple ways. Many of these alumni attended the groundbreaking of the new building, armed with their own spades. Some big names who often return to the school as guest teachers and choreographers include the well-known Kirven Douthit-Boyd and Belen Estrada, both former dancers with the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater.
As it should be, the students strive to acquire mastery in their disciplines. “Students collaborate across disciplines and push for innovation. It’s really an exciting thing to watch,” says Anne.
She notes that many students say that they were the only ones, in the circles they moved in before they joined the school, to be passionate about the arts, whether dance or fine arts or any other. At Boston Arts Academy they discovered people just like themselves: talented students who found common ground as they were welcomed by teachers and peers into a modern-day tribe of fellow creatives.
The school’s enlightened and non-doctrinaire approach means that students are appreciated for exactly who they are, with gifted youngsters often finding belonging, and support of their talent, for the first time in their lives.
Integrity of process
BAA’s teachers are proud that an education in art at the academy is as comprehensive as any anywhere. Some of the elements in this are teaching students the skills they need to lead and design set-productions; and also to curate and produce exhibitions. The art of collaboration, too, is an important element, and treated as a skill to be mastered.
Anne says that “an art education done right speaks not only of the product but also of the process. We help students to understand that a process needs to have integrity for the product to be excellent.”
Students are supported by a new Science, Technology, Engineering, Art and Mathematics Laboratory, or STEAM-Lab. Students who might have thought that some subjects, for instance geometry, were behind – or beyond – them, instead have come to learn that a grasp of this sort of ‘academic’ subject can often apply to their chosen course, and broadly benefit their art careers, in unexpected ways.
While academic subjects are certainly important here, uniquely, the school admits students solely on proof of their achievements in the arts. This usually takes the form of an auditioning or portfolio viewing. Grades and previous academic accomplishments, attendance and behavioral records or special education requirements, do not enter into the equation at all, allowing gifted, sometimes misunderstood students to find a world in which they have a place.
“We are unusual in that our program is ‘academic blind,’” Anne says. “We do this because we believe that students who are artists come from a wide range of backgrounds. They also may not have been successful previously because they may not have been given an environment that really supports them as artists.” The proof is in the school’s excellent results. “When they find a school that really values their way of being, the whole equation changes for them,” she adds.
Boston Arts encourages students to be unselfish with their artistic talents. Honors students have proposed their own art projects in service of their communities for many years. BAA students can be found teaching in such places as elementary schools, girls and boys clubs around the city, and community-based arts organizations.
The school also supports community projects by bringing these into the curriculum. “One of our first partners in the Dorchester Fields Corner community was the Martin W. Richards Foundation. Students supported its Louis D. Brown Peace Institute by donating their time and art,” says Carolyn. It is clear that BAA students’ caring goes beyond their art to the giving of themselves to make the world a kinder, more beautiful place.
The business of art
Students are taught the business skills they need in any field of the arts. Part of this is helping students understand how to create their own opportunities. Surprisingly this helps drive a lively exploration of the process of creating art.
Brian says, “This is one of the biggest things I have learned [looking at the school] from the City’s perspective. It is not just about the singing, the dancing, and the paintings. Students are creating the posters, the lighting – their curriculum goes way beyond the performances.”
A number of partnerships were created, involving internships and job shadowing programs, with the help of the school’s founding collaborators. These include Boston’s professional art colleges, Berklee College of Music, Massachusetts College of Art and Design, Emerson College, the School of the Museum of Fine Arts at Tufts University, Boston Architectural College, the New England Conservatory, and the local school department.
In addition, these schools share their campuses with a number of the Boston Art Academy’s students, which allows the students access to the study of art at college level.
The school has been recognized twice by the Grammy Foundation for outstanding music programs. It has also won a number of awards for inclusion and supporting students with special learning requirements.
For Anne Clarke, nothing is closer to her heart than the students’ personal journey in art. “Many of them have gone on to be famous, but what I am more proud of is that I can’t go to an arts event in Boston now without seeing our alumni, either on stage or behind the scenes, organizing the event or in the audience supporting the event,” Anne says.
After all, this is the school’s purpose – to ensure a healthy artistic community in Boston. Part of this mission includes expanding its summer and Saturday programs and outreach to middle-school students, offering more of them access to the arts.
The new school also aspires to be a space where students can learn and network alongside the very best active professional artists. In the meantime, this formidable team of creatives and their communities will focus on doing their considerable best in the old – fondly regarded – building until the Boston Art Academy’s fine new school opens its doors in 2021.