Giving Up the Gallery: A Lesson in Personal Freedom and Vulnerability

SoWa is the neighborhood in the south end of Boston which, in the 90s and early 2000s developed into studios and homes for artists. In the early days, of course, it was rundown and inexpensive. Old commercial buildings with unstructured spaces, lots of light and cheap rent became perfect locations for artists to set up shop. Then, the rest of the world also realized the benefits of living close to downtown and a serge of reconstruction began. Open Studio events which allowed the public to see artists at work started to happen. Food trucks and farmers markets became “de rigeur”.  It was the young, hip place to see and buy art.

About five years ago after unsuccessfully trying to make art in my home (too much distraction) I made the move to rent a studio in Allston, a village of Boston. At the time, it was a major advancement having never thought of myself as an artist. In retrospect, this was a misperception based on the belief that that role had already been filled by my sister. She had always been focused on art making and it was clear to everyone that this is what her life would be about. Partly because she had “filled the position” and also my own discomfort with what I saw as an impractical career choice I floundered around with various professional identities. Mostly, I applied my talent for organizing to marketing, program management and even product development. Eventually, I moved into the world of mindfulness medicine but that’s a story for another day.

Throughout it all I think I had a creative eye which allowed me to make interesting home interiors, arrange flowers, make costumes and party decorations for fundraisers. I could even draw fairly well. Indeed, I spent two weeks of the summer at Haystack School of Crafts trying everything but glass blowing and ceramics.  But I was without focus. Trying everything and committed to nothing.

The move to the studio in Allston felt like a big step up; a beautiful sunny space with room to explore and no kids to invade. Initially, I shared the three rooms with Landscape architects. But when they retired, two painters moved in. We formed a tight bond, taking time out of the week to critique each other’s work and chat about art in general. I felt newly inspired to put my time in and made a schedule that put art-making at the center of my day.

Then, after two years I was offered an opportunity to take over a studio in SoWa.
This felt like a dream come true. Now I would qualify as a “real” artist. But I was torn. I didn’t want to leave my little community. In truth, unconsciously, I think I was afraid of being alone, of the commitment of putting myself on the downtown art map.  Would I measure up to my perception of what being a professional required. So, instead of leaving solo, I got my people to agree to share the SOWA space as a gallery and keep Allston as our working location.

It didn’t take long for me to realize that keeping track of a gallery and it’s occupants was not what I wanted to be doing. I worried about promoting the gallery instead of actually making art. I felt like I was back in my old marketing/organizing role again. I found it demoralizing to spend hours and hours waiting for some unknown person to randomly come in the door and buy something. Letting go of the gallery proved to be an act of personal freedom and an assertion of what is really important to me; being a creative.

What took awhile to get to was why, despite this clarity, did I feel intensely sad. Eventually, from this position of vulnerability, I realized that I had made the wrong decision to begin with. In my irritatingly unconscious mind, I had thought more about what might be good for my studio mates as a group than what would be right for me. Forming a “gallery”wasn’t the right move. Working and showing on my own would have been. Perhaps it would have been challenging to give up the little “family” that we had formed. I would have missed the conversations and communality and, perhaps, the accountability. I think I felt I had let myself down by not having more courage and more commitment to my own personal vision.

In the end, I suggested the “idea” of keeping the gallery to my studio mate. In that moment when he said, “I think I will,” was when everything snapped into focus. He wasn’t thinking about what would work for the group. He was thinking about what he wanted. And he got it. And I admire that!

It has been a hard lesson. Eventually, I would still like to be at SoWa. When that opportunity will arise I don’t know. But when it does, I’ll be looking out for #1.

Mason Gehring