(Jeremy C. Fox for Boston.com)
East Boston’s harbor views and affordable studio spaces have attracted artists for years. But two locals hope to make the neighborhood a can’t-miss spot in the local arts scene by creating a new museum.
Pamela Sienna and George Kougeas, residents of the neighborhood’s Eagle Hill section since 1995, are proposing to create a Museum of Realist Art inside the old East Boston Branch Library on Meridian Street, which will be vacant after a new branch opens in Bremen Street Park next year.
Since the two built a website in the spring, hundreds of artists from more than 20 countries have expressed interest in the proposed museum, and more than 900 people have clicked “like” on its Facebook page. People are already asking about planning visits.
Kougeas and Sienna have to explain that the museum, so far, is just an idea.
“It’s like everybody has been waiting for something like this.” Kougeas said in an interview.
From 1996 – 2000, the two operated the Kougeas Gallery, which they said drew artists to East Boston from all over the city and from almost every US state. The gallery had the same focus they plan for the museum, which would include subsets and offshoots of realism such as illusionism, visionary realism, surrealism, and magic realism.
“People won’t just come in and see fruit bowls,” Sienna said. “There’s such a great, wider vision than that.”
With surrealism and magic realism being important currents in Latin art, they believe the museum’s collection would be of natural interest to East Boston’s large Latin American population. They hope the museum will appeal to members of all ethnic groups in this diverse community.
One of the values of realist art, Sienna and Kougeas say, is that it is accessible, so that one doesn’t need an education in art or a shared language to appreciate it. They believe it’s also important that realist art documents peoples’ lives in a way that abstraction cannot.
“That can speak to you and you can like that, but what does it say about the culture?” Sienna said of Abstract Expressionist art. “There’s no depictions of who we are as a people. This is my interest in realist art, is because it does show people in 100 years the things we’re interested in — what we wore, what we eat, what we see, what we read.”
Sienna is herself a realist painter. As an art student during the ascendency of conceptual, video, and performance art, Sienna sometimes found herself the only representational artist in the room.
“And to be a painter was considered insanity,” she said.
Kougeas works behind the scenes, building frames and installing art in museums, galleries, and private homes.
When he’s not doing that, he’s working with Sienna to build community support for the museum, so that when the city eventually puts the building up for bid, and condo developers start eying it, their neighbors will already see it as the neighborhood’s new museum.
They believe a museum could help with the ongoing process of changing public perception of the neighborhood, to show that it has a lot more to offer than just Logan Airport. They also think it could be an attraction that will draw people to the neighborhood and boost the economy.
Sienna and Kougeas envision Meridian Street lined with vertical banners advertising the museum, much as banners line Huntington Avenue around the Museum of Fine Arts. Because museum-going is often social, with friends meeting for a meal or drinks as well, they believe it will provide a boost to some of the 67 small businesses Kougeas counted between Maverick Square and the branch library.
With the new branch slated to open in fall 2013, Sienna and Kougeas hope they can take over the old library building and transform it into a museum in time for 2014, the centennial of its opening. They think the building is perfect for their purpose and want to preserve it as it is, adding only signage and temporary interior walls for exhibitions.
“We really like the classical, elegant architecture,” Sienna said. “It suits the work that we’re showing just like the glass cubes of many other contemporary art museums suit the work that’s in them.”
For a photo gallery of works by some of the 60 “inaugural associated artists” selected by Sienna and Kougeas for inclusion in the proposed museum, click here.