Friday, October 16, 2009

Alternative energy - GASP marks five years

Alternative energy
GASP marks five years

By GREG COOK | October 14, 2009

MAKING IT HAPPEN: Half a decade in, Campos-Pons and Leonard's gallery stands out as a rare "alternative space" in a Boston art scene that is dominated by commercial and institutional venues.

At the end of August, the seven-month-old Massachusetts Creative Economy Council released its first report on the state of culture here. “Is MA sexy?” one of its subcommittees asked about the Bay State. “People see us as conservative. This needs to be ‘the’ hot place to be.”

“I think that this is not a true portrait of Boston,” says renowned artist Maria Magdalena Campos-Pons. “I think that intelligence is sexy. Knowledge is sexy. Curiosity is sexy. Research is sexy. And that is Boston. I don’t find frivolity sexy. I don’t. So it depends what you look at.”

VIEW: Photos from GASP's Bag It! exhibit
Note that, though her words fit the city’s intellectual life in general, they don’t necessarily describe the Boston art scene. “I made GASP because of that reason,” says Campos-Pons. “I wanted a little more juice.”

GASP is the Gallery Artists Studio Projects, a Boston workspace/gallery she founded with her musician husband Neil Leonard in summer 2004.

“Whatever we don’t have [in Boston] we make,” says Leonard. “And GASP is one of the ways we do that.”

After the pair moved to Brookline from Jamaica Plain in 2002, she went looking for a studio. She found a two-story building on busy, nearby Boylston Street and hatched a plan to put her workspace on the second floor and launch a gallery on the first.

“My first thought is, ‘This is absolutely crazy,’ ” recalls Leonard. “We have no time in our lives to administer a gallery, much less what I think she was really thinking about, which was an art center.”

Campos-Pons and Leonard met in 1988 when she was studying at Mass Art on an exchange program from her native Cuba and was told that the Boston musician might be able to help her create a soundtrack for a planned film. Today, they’re both busy artists whose work frequently has them on the road. Leonard just returned from performing in Italy. Campos-Pons has shown at New York’s Museum of Modern Art, Minneapolis’s Walker Art Center, the Smithsonian, and in the Venice Biennale. He teaches at Berklee College of Music. She teaches at Boston’s Museum School. They have a teenage son.

“I could see that Magda really wanted to do this,” adds Leonard, “and it was going to go forward regardless of any caution I might suggest.” So together they launched the endeavor, which gave them a forum to reach their respective artistic communities.

On October 23, this lark of a venture will celebrate its fifth anniversary with a benefit gala and “Bag It,” an auction of artist-decorated shopping bags. Half a decade in, the gallery stands out — with Axiom, Proof, and a few others — as a rare “alternative space” in a Boston art scene that is dominated by commercial galleries and institutional venues.

“It’s not really a nonprofit, but she’s not acting like [it’s] a commercial gallery, either — it’s a labor of love,” says Matt Nash, a local artist who has shown at GASP and publishes the online art journal Big Red & Shiny ( “We need alternative spaces, because that’s where young artists get their start and where established artists can experiment.”

For Leonard, who has been performing music and organizing concerts since he was a teen, GASP’s “Sonic Arts” program gave him a regular base of operations, a place where he could pursue ideas that intrigue him — from computer-generated sound and DJs to contemporary jazz and chamber music — without worrying about whether he can find a venue. “The events I produce are events I can’t see [in Boston],” says Leonard, “unless I produce them.”

Campos-Pons oversees the gallery’s artist-organized group exhibitions. They feature local and international emerging artists, particularly people fresh out of local schools, with a dash of art stars, like Kerry James Marshall or Carrie Mae Weems, attracted by or recruited by Campos-Pons’s own stature, persuasion, and sheer will.

Artist and teacher Evelyn Rydz, who came on board as gallery manager before the space opened (she achieved the rank of gallery director before she left in 2006), recalls the night performance artist Pamela Z was scheduled to perform at GASP. It was January 2005, and a blizzard blew in. The staff suggested cancelling, but as Rydz remembers, Campos-Pons insisted on going ahead with plans. “We will do this. It will happen. We’ll make it happen.” Rydz says, “Sure enough, it was packed. Somebody came from the neighborhood on skis.” For Rydz, it epitomized Campos-Pons. “I really think Magda is about making things happen.”

“She’s sort of like a center of gravity,” says Nash. “She seems to attract people to her that give a little bit more than they would otherwise.”

Campos-Pons is currently at work proposing an international art blockbuster in Boston, an event that she hopes will make the city a can’t-miss destination on the circuit of global art biennials and fairs. Inspired by jurying the Boston Center for the Arts annual “Drawing Show” in 2008, she has been quietly forging plans for a Boston Drawing Biennale (though it could end up being a festival or, to start, simply an exhibition). She says she’s formed a small task force that has talked with some potential venues and donors. And they’ve begun circulating a draft proposal.

“I have been thinking for a long time,” says Campos-Pons, “in all my traveling, in all the cities that I have been in in the First World and in the Third World, what could be a moment of currencies, what could be the thing that joins together and then brings this city together with force in the visual arts? The idea is to bring together all these institutions, to bring together the forces that are separated between the Harvard Museum, the Museum of Fine Arts, the ICA, MIT, Isabella [Stewart Gardner Museum], all the colleges, and find the way that the entire city becomes a force with some kind of umbilical cord — the umbilical cord could be drawing — and really make Boston a destination.”

At this point, the idea remains at the level of conversation. “But a serious conversation,” says Campos-Pons. “I just want to be sure that it happens. I want to keep talking. I don’t want any other road except the road that it happens.”

“Bag It” will take place at the GASP Gallery, 362–364 Boylston Street, in Brookline, on October 23 from 6–9 pm. Admission is $50, or $100 to become a “friend of GASP.” Read Greg Cook’s blog at

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