Forum: Boston Sculptors

Sculptors in Boston have a precarious existence. For a long time collectors had no idea what to do with three-dimensional objects, and galleries were indifferent to them. Public projects, notably the Red Line subway extension through Cambridge, spawned some public works, although most of them were executed by out-of-towners. In the early 1990s, a feisty group of artists took their fate into their hands and formed a gallery dedicated entirely to sculpture—their own. It was the sole sculpture-only gallery in Greater Boston.

For a decade, Boston Sculptors at Chapel Gallery in West Newton, Massachusetts, was a quirky but much-needed presence in the suburbs west of the city. Now it’s the end of an era for West Newton and the beginning of something new for Boston Sculptors. The cooperative group left its spacious, low-rent space at the end of last year and is in the process of relocating downtown in Boston’s South End. Although the new quarters look more like a white-box art gallery, the artists say they will miss the cavernous ceiling of the chapel.

While the move was necessary—the church’s new pastor wanted to have a say in what was shown—a couple of members, fearing increased commercialism, have dropped out. But the majority, as well as some supporters, think the change will be beneficial. Nick Capasso, curator at the DeCordova Museum and Sculpture Park, says, “They’re going to be much more noticeable on the art map. And, it will free up their work. While there was something very wonderful about the [chapel] space—it challenged them to great effect—overall they’ve had to pay too much attention to it.”

“Most of us finally came to terms with that space,” said the group’s founder, Joyce McDaniel. Some artists never did work large enough and tended to wall the chapel off into smaller rooms. But others—primarily McDaniel, Beth Galston, and Laura Baring-Gould—exploited it; Baring-Gould’s installation of lighted boats hanging in the dark space brought her to prominence in Boston art circles.

By 1992 the space had already been a typical gallery for 10 years, showing mostly paintings. When McDaniel, a member of the church, discovered that it was closing, “the idea that it could become a sculpture gallery really grabbed me.” McDaniel remembers taking her sculptor friends and others into the chapel for the first time: “Everyone saw the space. Until then we had been looking at it from the waist down.” McDaniel recruited Murray Dewart, a woodcarver, and they made a proposal to the church. “The church was very supportive. They saw it as part of their outreach,” she recalls.

Dewart and McDaniel assembled the core of the cooperative from a group of sculptors who had dinner at Dewart’s house once a year. They filled out their optimum number of 18 (later to rise to 20) by invitation and jurying. McDaniel, who had been the only woman in Dewart’s dinner group, insisted on gender balance, and that has remained a policy. “Joyce was essential,” said Peter Lipsitt, who works in various metal media. “There was a tendency for the rest of us to let things slide, because we knew it would get done.” McDaniel admits, “I took the lion’s share. Nobody asked me to. I loved it. I wanted the gallery to succeed.”

Every two years, each artist had a one-person show lasting four weeks, a tight schedule that left less than three days of turnaround time. “I felt that a regular schedule and regular hours were important if it was to be run professionally,” McDaniel noted. “We each had to staff it once a month. I don’t think anyone felt it was too onerous.”

Their bold gamble paid off in attention from curators. Dewart, now making large timbered “gates,” has snagged commissions as far away as Beijing. Galston did a public works project in Arizona; Robert Schelling was tapped for a multi-part work at one of Boston’s transit stations. Joseph Wheelwright was selected to mount a year-long show on DeCordova’s Sculpture Terrace. Ken Hruby, an Army veteran, joined fresh out of art school and generated critical acclaim for his anti-war pieces. The sculptors all agreed that knowing they had to mount a biennial one-person show spurred them on.

Over their decade together, the artists have not had much stylistic influence on each other. “We were all pretty secure in our visions,” McDaniel says. “What did influence us was that space—so demanding, so large, so present.”

Of the founding members, a dozen remain. Some have left town, one finds the new location inconvenient, and McDaniel and Hruby have decided to move on. The move “is going to change the dynamic,” McDaniel thinks. “The issue downtown, meeting that rent, is different and huge.” The group decided to recruit more sculptors by advertising, rather than by personal invitation as in the past. Thirteen new members have been vetted to join the 15 veterans who remain. The format in the new gallery involves two concurrent one-artist shows, rather than one solo show at a time.

Renovation of the new space has taken longer than expected, Dewart reports, and as of early summer no opening date had been set. In the meantime, Boston Sculptors has mounted a fall exhibition at the New Art Center in Duxbury, Massachusetts, from September 21, 2003 to January 11, 2004.