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Northeastern officials cite safety concerns in efforts to vacate, protect artists

Local artist Silvia López Chavez installed a mural on the MBTA wall outside Ruggles Station in May 2018. Her mural is the latest piece in President Joseph E. Aoun’s Public Art Initiative. Photo by Matt Modoono/Northeastern University
Serious safety concerns have led Northeastern University administrators to step up ongoing efforts to persuade members of an artists’ collective to vacate a warehouse owned by the university, where the artists have occupied free space for decades.
In recent weeks, senior university officials have met with—and sent detailed correspondence to—leadership of the African American Masters Artists in Residence Program, (AAMARP), which has been loosely affiliated with the university since the 1970s.
The university had originally requested that the artists vacate the building by July 13, but has extended this deadline to July 31 and offered to assist artists with moving their supplies and artwork. While several artists have complied with the request, some—including the collective’s leader, Gloretta Baynes—have insisted that they will continue to occupy the free space.
“The Artists are not moving out, nor are we scheduling to move out,” Baynes wrote to Sonya Ross, Northeastern’s director of risk services.
The university is primarily concerned—as outlined in multiple letters and meetings—by the hazardous conditions created by the occupants. These include makeshift walls constructed out of flammable materials, unauthorized alterations made to electrical wiring and plumbing, as well as the use of padlocks to restrict access to sections of the building, which Northeastern, the owner of the space, cannot unlock.
These conditions, coupled with the storage of combustible art supplies, prompted the university to dramatically step up its efforts to vacate the premises.
University officials have also expressed concern that the warehouse has been used as a residence for several artists, despite the fact that the building is not zoned for residential use. According to Boston Police Department records, over the past 15 years nine people have listed the warehouse as their place of residence.
“Your concern for the welfare of the artists is both evident and admirable,” Northeastern officials wrote to Baynes in a July 18 letter.  “Therefore, we can only assume that you would not take any actions—or engage in any intransigence—that would put their health and safety at risk.”
In the same letter, the university pointed out that AAMARP artists are not the only occupants who need to vacate the building so that necessary inspections and safety upgrades can be made. Two Northeastern professors, who are not members of AAMARP, will also need to leave the building during this time.
The overall risks to safety in the building have been identified by several parties, including the university’s facilities department, fire safety officer, and insurance carrier, as well as a third-party professional engineering firm that the university contracted for a more in-depth assessment of the conditions.
Despite these months-long efforts, leaders of AAMARP and allies of the collective continue to dismiss the safety concerns. “I think Northeastern’s list of grievances is greatly overblown,” Boston Globe columnist Adrian Walker wrote in support of AAMARP.
Ultimately, university leaders would like to turn the current safety concerns into an opportunity to reimagine and strengthen AAMARP, bringing it closer to the university’s students and faculty at a time when arts are thriving at Northeastern. The university’s College of Arts, Media and Design houses a Center for the Arts, which frequently showcases both local and globally renowned artists. President Joseph E. Aoun’s Public Art Initiative has received extensive media coverage. In the spring, local artist Silvia López Chavez (pictured above) painted a 5,000-square-foot mural on campus outside Ruggles Station.
“The university remains committed to furthering our historic relationship in line with the mission and program of AAMARP,” wrote professor Jose Buscaglia, a co-signer of the July 18 letter. “Once the space has been fully vacated, we will gladly continue our ongoing discussions geared toward strengthening, expanding and reimagining our historic partnership.”

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