Creator of AAMARP, A Life-Transforming Program for Black Artists

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“I wasn’t only thinking of myself when I began planning AAMARP back in 1974. I wanted a space for African American artists to come and do the world-class art they’re known for producing. I also wanted a space open to the Boston community, especially the black community since there weren’t spaces for us.”

Chandler’s Studio Destroyed But Not His Vision

In 1973, Dana Chandler, an art history professor at Simmons who also taught drawing and painting, was already was a nationally-recognized–and controversial–black activist artist. He was gaining respect in the international art scene. He’d been interviewed in the April 1970 edition of Time magazine which featured another controversial black figure, Jesse Jackson, on its cover. He’d fought to help bring the first black artist’s exhibition to the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. 

The Afro-American Artist: New York and Boston got co-organized by the National Center for Afro-American. The show was one of the first major art shows in American history exhibiting all black artists at a white institution. It was an effort to show the power and professionalism of the black art aesthetic to what was still a blindingly white art world. It featured his work alongside some of the most prominent African American artists of the time, including one of his closest friends, Benny Andrews.

All this recognition brought attention to the young artist with black nationalist leanings from both art patrons and rabid racists. Consequently, Chandler returned from a trip to the Caribbean to find his South End studio ransacked and destroyed, along with any art and art supplies that weren’t stolen. A few weeks later, the artist’s space got gutted by fire. While the experience angered Chandler, he refused to be disheartened and set about making an art world comeback. He also chose to see the experience as decisive turning point rather than a career-ending disaster.

The opportunity for a professional resurgence came in the form of a boarded-up structure on the Northeastern University campus. The building was centrally-located in the community to which Chandler remained committed, despite having been betrayed by the destruction of his studio. That still was a predominantly African American community in 1973, and the building sat across the street from the Jamaica Plain and Mission Hill public housing developments.

“I went past this building on the corner of Leon Street and Ruggles Street in Boston every day on the way to work at Simmons,” he recalls. “It was a large, old abandoned factory that I knew it would make great studio space for me.” But, as 1973 became 1974, he’d develop an even broader vision for the space.

America’s First Black Artist-in-Residence

Chandler convinced Northeastern University officials, including the Kenneth Ryder, its future president, that having an African American artist in residence in a studio space adjacent to the Roxbury and Mission Hill neighborhoods would benefit the institution. The artist could attract people from all walks of life to his studios and art exhibitions, people the university was interested in making part of its community.

In exchange for the studio, he’d agreed to teach a class at the university. Dean Gregory Ricks, Romana H. Edelin, Chair of the African-American Studies Department, and future Northeastern the University approved the idea. They worked with Northeastern to outfit 8,000 square feet of the space into an artist’s studio for his use.

He would turn that empty space into a program that would fill a void in the black art community as well as for local African Americans. AAMARP would change Chandler’s art career, the art world, and the Boston community where it sat.

Chandler’s studio on the second floor of 11 Leon Street in Roxbury, which he moved into in July of 1974, was a portion of the 40,000 square feet that was vacant and in Chandler’s mind, the remaining 32,000 square feet was available.

“I wasn’t only considering myself when I began planning AAMARP back in 1974,” says the artist of his unique vision. “I wanted a visual artist complex with studio spaces for more African American artists than just me to come and do the world-class art they’re known for producing,’ continues Chandler.

He experienced the positive effect using the space had on him as an artist and by allowing the community to use the location for events. He began to develop his concept of an artist and community spacea visual artists’ complex and performing arts center.

The Birth of a New Program

Chandler knew no other program existed in America like the one he envisioned. He saw art shows, community events, performances and cultural activities that people from all over the Boston area and country would flock to experience. Master black artists would work there and open their studios regularly to the public, most of whom had no concept of what black art was or how it got created.

But, he wanted the space to be a genuine community complex where residents of the Mission Hill, Jamaica Plain, and other nearby housing projects, who had little cultural connection with the University, got welcomed to visit and use, too. The idea for what would become the African-American Master Artist-in-Residency Program Visual Artist Complex (AAMARP) began to form in his mind.

“I wanted a space open to the Boston community, especially the black community since there weren’t spaces for us in Boston at that time,” he adds. Chandler saw a space where people from across the globe could see black art but also see women’s, Latinx, Native and LGBTQ art in exhibitions in an on-site gallery. Both visual and performing artists of all backgrounds would be welcome there, especially local artists.

“It also would be a community organization meeting and fundraising event space, a spot for Northeastern and other college and grad school students to visit and meet for class projects, and school kids to visit and make art.” Chandler also saw this program as a model for others around the country.

He brought the concept to the university and others around the country as well as to federal, state and local grantmaking agencies and foundations nationally. He diligently worked to turn that space filled with old industrial machinery harkening back to its days as a textile factory into a program that would fill a void in the black art community as well as for local African Americans. The process and the program that emerged from it would change Chandler’s art career, the art world, and the Boston community where it sat.

A Black Artists’ Haven and Community Space

In November 1978, with the help of then-president Ken Ryder and city officials, Chandler’s vision became a reality, opening as the Afro-American Master Artist-in-Residence Program (AAMARP). As Chandler imagined, the new program launched with 13 artists in residence and featured an enormous gallery and community space.

While they’ve always been prohibited from making the program their residence, artists could come to the space and work as artists do. “Artists don’t have hours,” Chandler laughs, remembering times when he’d come to paint after classes ended at Simmons and remain in his studio working until dawn. “We would set up a place to lay our heads, where we could take naps and bring meals in to eat,” the celebrated artist muses.

But it was a space to make museum-quality art in peace away from the challenges of outside life, something all professional artists need. Artists could store the art supplies paid for by the university as part of the program’s budget and lock their art safely away from the harm his had experienced in past studio spaces.

In the late 70s and early 80s, the art world still got dominated by the white male art aesthetic where all art got evaluated by how comfortable it made white patrons, especially male ones. So, the program’s gallery space provided opportunities for artists who might otherwise struggle to get invitations to formally exhibit their art with other equally gifted artists, especially white male ones.

A World-Class Artist-In-Residence Program

The program earned world renown as artists from around the country and the world, of all races at every level of experience from children to master artists, exhibited in AAMARP’s gallery space.

As Chandler planned, the artists occupying the program’s ten studios opened their studios to the public. That meant area students of all ages visited regularly. Dignitaries from every level of government, from local to international, were guests in their studios and attended AAMARP’s events. It wasn’t unusual to see famous performing artists, athletes, and luminaries attending exhibitions or events or entertained as guests in Professor Chandler’s or another artist’s studio.

Most artist-in-residence programs limited the time an artist could occupy studio space at an institution. But, once accepted at AAMARP, the studio spaces artists held were theirs for an indefinite period and also were among the largest anywhere. Moreover, in the early years of the program, artists received financial support from the University for their endeavors.

While running AAMARP, Chandler continued to travel, lecture and exhibit worldwide. He taught at Simmons and accepted teaching residencies at other institutions. Most importantly, the “Prolific Professor” as he came to be known, produced increasingly masterful and controversial, message-oriented art. But, he maintained an unassailable commitment to AAMARP and its community of artists and supporters.

He worked diligently to make AAMARP into a department at the university, which it remained for several years. That meant significantly more access to the top administration and university resources as well as more virulent detractors as determined to ensure the program’s demise as Chandler was its survival.

AAMARP’s Constant Battle for Existence

From its beginnings, AAMARP experienced what most institutions that get started by and for the benefit of African Americansenmity from those who resented its existence. Despite attracting renowned visiting artists and other figures during its heyday between the mid-1970s through the late 1980s, Chandler warred with those who wanted the program gone.

Chandler and his co-director, James “Jim” Reed, who was one of AAMARPs artists, had regularly fought to prove its value to the university. There were detractors both on the campus and off, many who didn’t like an African American artist having so much influence.

It was difficult for African Americans to get access to the resources anywhere in Boston that Ryder made sure Chandler’s AAMARP had. As a Pulitzer Prize finalist series by the Bostons Globe in 2018 proved unequivocally, Boston was and remains among the most racist and racially segregated cities in America.

Ken Ryder, determined to change the university’s reputation for epitomizing Boston’s racism and segregation, supported the program as ardently as any one man can. But, he faced opposition from those in his administrationlike Jack Curry who was climbing the ranks at the institutions during AAMARP’s zenith.

Curry and his tribe didn’t share Ryder’s enthusiasm for either AAMARP or the artist who founded the program. In fact, he wasn’t known to support initiatives that benefited African Americans unless they were ones over which he could act as a patriarch.

There were others who made themselves enemies of the program, too. Most unfortunate was the number of African Americans envious of Chandler’s position and a desire to assume his position. They backed Curry’s plan to remove the artist as the program’s head, though not necessarily to end the program.

They saw AAMARP as a way to advance their careers while getting the salary and perks they imagined came with the role. Those folks didn’t recognize that Chandler was getting battle pay.

AAMARP Declines and Virtually Disappears

The university developed its own expansionist goals in the early 1980s, which coincided with the Boston’s MBTA and Southwest Corridor redevelopment. AAMARPs location became a target as prime real estate nearest the new Ruggles Street “T” station.

In its bid to become a national rather than regionally-known institution, Northeastern began an aggressive physical growth and renovation campaign. Chandler’s denigrators also heightened their, by then, public crusade to rid both AAMARP and Northeastern of his presence.

Chandler recognized that as Ryder planned his retirement, Curry and his supporters were was numbering the program’s days. Chandler fiercely battled to keep the program’s doors open at 11 Leon Street, but in 1986 AAMARP got moved to a significantly reduced space at 590 Huntington Avenue on the outskirts of the campus.

While Chandler got some office space and the program some studio space at the original location after it got renovated, the space never regained the artist’s vibe. Renovation stripped AAMARP’s spirit away like it did the colorful spatterings of artist’s that once graced the floors.

As of this writing, the university is attempting to shutter AAMARP, evicting the current 13 artists from the program citing “code violations.” Whether the artists will be allowed to return to the space after purported ‘repairs’ is unclear.

Moreover, with Republicans in White House at the time like they are today and Democrats in state and local power fighting for the party’s life and their careers, the political environment in the city was changing. As it often does under national GOP rule, support waned for programs that valued primarily the contributions to society and culture by non-Republican women and people of color, especially blacks.

Many supporters retired from their roles in community programs, and city government and others at the university got removed or began moving on, and AAMARP was hemorrhaging community defenders.

Then the university’s administration changed after 1989 Ryder’s retirement putting Curry in the president’s office. He all but defunded the program, slashing its budget to nearly non-existent.

He had the program moved to 76 Atherton Street in Jamaica Plain to a building shared by the school’s public facilities department. Exacerbating Chandler’s woes was that those who’d once cheered his successes stepped aside to protect themselves from the rapidly advancing blitzkrieg against him. Shortly afterward, Chandler, by then in his 50s, got ousted as the program’s chair in 1993.

The programs artists began in-fighting to decide who should replace Chandler in his role, believing it was AAMARP that was responsible for his fame and the program could do the same for them. With its founder’s tenure ended by the university, it became increasingly more difficult to marshal the resources to fight against forces determined AAMARP wouldn’t survive. The program, once a vibrant part of Boston’s social and cultural scene, began to decline.

Chandler maintained a studio at AAMARP until 2004, when he retired from his professorship at Simmons where he’d been 33 years. He left the program he’d started 30 years earlier permanently and moved to New Mexico. The remaining artists have been unable to sustain the program at the level Chandler once had.

As of this writing, the university is planning to shutter AAMARP, evicting the current 13 artists from the program citing “code violations.” Whether the artists will be allowed to return to the space after purported ‘repairs’ get completed is unclear. The university has made no commitment to allow the artists to return.

Chandler’s AAMARP Legacy Ensured

What the remaining artists and others failed to recognize is that AAMARP was a concept uniquely gifted to Chandler as his purpose for that time in his life. It could not prosper under another leader. The fact that it nearly has been removed from institutional memory, no longer even found in a search of Northeastern’s website proves that truth.

Moreover, a search online for the program shows that few acknowledge Chandler’s contributions to their art careers, the program, and university. A look at most biographies of those who were heavily involved in the program don’t identify it as part of their lives, even if they mention the artist. It’s as if he’s gotten erased, too, except for the SEO value his name might bring to someone’s website.

But, regardless of attempts to remove Chandler’s imprimatur from either AAMARP or Northeastern, the unique visual arts complex will live in the hearts and minds of those it touched. We continuously receive messages from people sharing their fond memories of the program and personal stories about the profound influence Chandler had on their lives and careers.

So, while the program is in its nadir, Chandler’s career is seeing a resurgence. That’s because AAMARP wasn’t entirely responsible for making him the artist he is and he has continued to thrive without the program. It’s unfortunate that is not the case for the program without him.

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