Looking at Jan Davidsz. de Heem’s Interior of a Painter’s Studio, we find the artist hard at work in a spare but disheveled space, with clear northern light illuminating his half-finished painting. De Heem completed this self-portrait around 1630, in the midst of a major shift in the art market: the transition from a commission-based system to a largely market-based one similar to what we have today. Along with an influx of imperialist wealth extracted from the Dutch colonies came a new merchant class, one with money to burn and an interest in the finer things. These burgeoning collectors had an intense desire to surround themselves with images of beauty: flowers that never died, pastoral scenes of the rolling farmlands they so recently decamped, and images of daily Dutch life that reminded them what it meant to live above the fray.
As artists began to be recognized as critical thinkers and political observers in their own right, a new relationship between the artist and the collector emerged: one that romanticized the artist as an enlightened genius—and by proximity, the collector. Similar to today, art lovers of the time were known for their ability to discover talent that others might overlook. With a discerning eye, and with pockets overflowing, they wanted nothing more than to be invited into the studio, where the work of the genius became illuminated. Entry into this exalted space gave collectors exclusive access to an artist they admired—and an opportunity to buy a work before it landed in a competitor’s hands. To the collector, the studio became as much a creator of artwork as the artist themselves.
This picture by De Heem would have given its owner a view into the studio whenever they wished, no invitation necessary. The scene is largely performative, with the artist’s back to us; he’s so engrossed in his important work that he doesn’t even tidy up before we arrive. The cramped, scantly furnished quarters prompt the visiting collector to wonder: what more might De Heem be capable of if only he had the money? I suppose De Heem’s posturing paid off: just seven years after painting Interior of a Painter’s Studio, he was one of the most famous artists in the land and an important figure in Dutch high society.
In our age, via museums and galleries, art is relatively accessible for public consumption, even if the high end of the market has made the idea of actually buying art seem out of reach for most middle-class Americans. But the fetishization of the artist’s studio and desire to be in proximity to the mysterious creative genius endure. Collectors and curators still covet the chance to “slum it” in artists’ studios, perpetuating the trope of the starving artist and their tortured pursuit of beauty within often neglected, informally occupied buildings.
The myth of the studio is so powerful that it has become commonplace for those with means to completely subsume the artistic lifestyle, going beyond just proximity and instead occupying artists’ spaces entirely. You don’t need to look far in Boston to see former lofts and warehouse conversions transformed into expensive condos. These raw and open spaces carry all the cultural weight and associations of the artistic life but without all that unseemly poverty, now including such luxuries as heat and running water. The actual artists who once inhabited these spaces were pushed out a long time ago, but that does little to diminish the marketability of a “creative” neighborhood.
Shelter in Place Gallery was born out of a need for space. Boston and its developer class have long touted the city’s cultural collateral while simultaneously pushing creatives out to its furthest edges, but COVID and its social and economic ramifications exacerbated this already fragile arrangement, barring many artists from what studio space they had left. I myself shared a studio and didn’t want to risk dividing space during a pandemic, so I was relegated to making art at a desk in a corner of my apartment. This sudden downsizing gave me the idea to offer a miniature space where artists could complete ambitious large-scale projects without spatial and economic constraints.
I modeled Shelter in Place after an idealized urban studio space, a now-familiar setting that allows art to be shown as it lives in the real world. The gallery eschews the intimidating white walls and academic interpretation of modern galleries, acting more informally as an ad hoc display space. Not unlike Interior of a Painter’s Studio, it is pure performance: an illusion that pokes fun at itself and relies on viewer participation to make it real. But for all its cynical jokes about bad landlords and cold winters, its true aim is to expand accessibility for making, viewing, and purchasing art. In both weekly online exhibitions and its upcoming satellite display at the MFA, Shelter in Place is intent on giving everyone a glimpse into the studio. No invitation necessary.
See a satellite display of Shelter in Place Gallery in “New Light: Encounters and Connections,” opening July 3, 2021.
See Jan Davidsz. de Heem’s Interior of a Painter’s Studio in the new galleries of Dutch and Flemish art, opening Fall 2021.