Central Square has had many a building stand empty for years, 541 Massachusetts Ave. being one of them. The building used to house a Blockbuster Video, but for the last six or seven years it has been vacant, aside from the occasional pop-up. Every once in a while rumors about the location would become the topic of local gossip: At one point it was slated to be the site of the much anticipated return of ManRay, a beloved Central Square nightclub that was replaced by condos in 2005, and, when that fell through, a location of the national pet store chain, PetSmart.
When Out of the Blue Gallery reopened there last October as Out of the Blue Too, neighborhood residents immediately took notice. The once empty picture windows have been filled with large, brightly painted canvases, and the sandwich board in front of the door proclaims “OPEN: ART.”
“We’ve had people coming in off the street, literally thanking us for being here,” said Hope Zimmerman, one of the gallery’s co-owners. “The first day that we were open, we got more traffic than [we would have in] a month at the old place.”
Zimmerman, wearing a lip ring and glasses, with green and pink streaks in her otherwise brown hair, exudes a combination of an artist’s freewheeling sensibility with a down-to-earth pragmatism that perhaps refl ects her many years of experience in retail. She recounts the gallery’s early days and how she became involved with its original owner, Tom Tipton, a musician and poet.
“According to him, he just looked at a couple of his friends—[painter] Sue Carlin was one of them—and was like, ‘I think I’m going to start an art gallery!’ And then she laughed at him. And here we are 17 years later,” Zimmerman said. Tipton opened the original gallery on Brookline Street, but the gallery has spent most of its history on Prospect Street just outside of Central Square.
“I’m a leather crafter myself, and I was looking into Brookline to open up my own shop,” says Zimmerman. “It was going to be smaller scale, not necessarily an ‘art gallery’, but it was going to be all handmade things and whatnot. And then everything went down with Tom over at the old gallery, and I realized pairing up made more sense.”
TJ Edson, also an artist, played a key role in the move as well. “I was a full-time volunteer ever since [last] January and kind of shifted into the role of being important to Tom just by being useful,” he says. “I heard that Tom had to move, and I offered to help organize some events.”
These fundraisers helped make the move financially possible. Edson also helped revive the gallery’s online presence. He and Zimmerman wrangled a team of volunteers to, among other things, repaint the inside of the building and fill the expansive space with art from more than 70 artists, most of whom are local.
Tipton “wanted a sanctuary for artists, a place for creative types to collaborate.” said Zimmerman. The gallery always felt like it was bursting at the seams at its previous location, but with twelve times the floorspace the new location provides room to showcase many more artists while also providing studio place—all while maintaining a homey atmosphere.
“He’s really trying to foster culture, arts, creativity,” Edson adds. “His passion is that he really wants to give people a chance.” Zimmerman says that they’ll give everyone at least a month. The gallery’s motto? Don’t turn anyone away
It takes only a glance through the gallery to see that opening their doors to all artists has yielded a diverse range of media and subjects. Along with paintings and photographs on the walls, there are handicraft s like knitted hats, earrings and greeting cards on tables around the gallery. Larger sculptures and furniture are located throughout the area, and there’s even a wall covered with graffiti and a section under black lights. The mirrors that cover the columns and tops of walls are a holdover from the building’s former life as a video rental store, and they intensify the gallery’s already colorful, patchwork feel. The coowners’ dogs roam freely, and there’s a section for children to play, located in the front. The overall effect is more than a little bohemian and decidedly Cantabrigian.
The gallery has had a long tradition of performances as well. They’ve hosted Stone Soup, a poetry open mic, for about a decade. They also host The Story Space, a similar series for storytellers that has been going for more than 20 years, as well as music events, craft fairs, board game nights and more unusual events like burlesque shows and the Boston League of Women Wrestlers (B.L.O.W.W.).
Zimmerman has even more plans in store for the gallery. “We’re trying to make it a co-op. We’re renting out artist space by the square foot,” says Zimmerman. The space could be used as “a workspace or studio or gallery of your own,” Edson adds. The space provides not just a place to work, but also increased interaction between the artist and his or her audience. “One woman was working on a piece and sold it [to a visitor] before she had even finished it,” Zimmerman says with a laugh.
The gallery relies on a small group of volunteers to run the day-today operations. For these volunteers the gallery waives its usual fee to display their work, and also provides a reduced commission rate for their sales. Katie Coriander, an artist and musician and one of the gallery’s main volunteers, says she is enthusiastic about the gallery’s move.
“The new space is amazing,” she says with a smile. “My sales quadrupled during the holiday season. I was almost worried I wouldn’t have enough to keep up.” Coriander says that the communal aspect of the gallery is something she appreciates the most.
“People walk in and say, ‘I’m an artist too. How can I help?’ We look at what people can give, what we need, what we can give to them,” said Coriander. “There’s a community to support you and give encouragement. Part of our mission is to be a community place. We don’t shut people out. It’s a great place for people without experience to get started.”
The move, successful reopening and subsequent holiday rush have left the gallery little time to do much beyond keeping up with the hectic pace, but the owners and volunteers are optimistic about the future.
“I’m really proud of everybody that does everything and has helped out,” said Zimmerman. The public’s reception has been resoundingly positive, and along with the dramatic increase in foot traffic, the new location provides a host of new and unique opportunities that will help revitalize the art scene in Cambridge and the surrounding neighborhoods.
“We still need to work really hard, save as much money as we can,” said Zimmerman. “Then hopefully we’ll have enough time to make enough money that we can move into a permanent home, build a bunch of studio spaces, and keep the concept going.”