by Tina Manzer
Francis Cabot Lowell, the father of our country’s Industrial Revolution, may be turning over in his grave. His great factories – in 1836, the largest array of textile mills the world had ever seen – are quiet now. The glorious brick buildings still dominate the landscape of Lowell, Massachusetts, but instead of churning out cotton (50 million yards of cloth each year in their heyday) they foster the production of art, one masterpiece at a time.
In 1936, the city looked like a war zone. Mill owners were demolishing entire factory complexes or lopping off big sections of them to save on taxes. In Lowell, the Great Depression started early. Textile production had moved elsewhere, and the thriving industrial center settled into a hard and long-lasting slump.
In the 1960s, a group of citizens came up with a plan to save the buildings, resuscitate their community, and stimulate the local economy. At its core was the preservation and revitalization of the city’s architectural and cultural heritage. With help from urban planners and historians, their efforts produced a renaissance, beginning with the designation of Lowell Heritage State Park in 1974, then the National Historical Park and the Historic Preservation Commission in 1978. By the early 1990s, the city was rebuilding itself with projects that included a local sports arena and two local sports franchises.
But Lowell wanted working artists, if only to live up to its motto, “Art is the Handmaid of Human Good.” The city council adopted a “Convert it and they will come” philosophy; “it” being the brick mill buildings converted into affordable working studio spaces.
The first open studios became available in 1982, followed by the first live/work artist spaces in 2000. In 2004, an ordinance was passed that zoned parts of downtown “the Artist Overlay District” (AOD). The designation, updated in 2016, incentivized developers to create affordably priced live/work spaces for artists through the adaptive reuse of the mill buildings and other structures. The following year, the Western Avenue Studios complex opened. Today, its five-acres-worth of factory buildings is home to 300 artists in 250 work-only studios and 50 live/work lofts. It’s the largest artist community on the eastern seaboard.
According to figures from the Cultural Organization of Lowell (COOL), there are 800 artists at work in the city. Their open studios, quirky shops and special events attract flocks of tourists.
Downtown’s art supply outpost
The Gates Block, a renovated former leather-goods factory, features 36 separate studios ranging in size from 138 to 145 square feet. On the first floor is the Arts League of Lowell (ALL) and Van Gogh’s Gear, the neighborhood’s only art materials store.
The 14-year-old store is owned by Steve Syverson, who opened it “kind of on a whim.” He had just moved to Lowell from New Hampshire, and then was laid off from his tech job. “I had a good severance package, so I spent about a year thinking about what to do; drinking coffee with friends here at a local coffee shop,” he explains. “They asked me if I was going to get another job, and said, ‘You know, we really need an art materials store …’”
He stocked the original store, just around the corner from his present location, based on three factors: there wasn’t a lot of space (1,100 square feet); people buy their art supplies by brand; and he needed materials in artist grade, professional grade and student grade. “I carry only one well-known brand in each of those categories. I didn’t have room to give people a choice,” he explains. “That was my mentality then, and it still works today.”
One happy customer describes the mix this way: “Van Gogh’s Gear brings joy – no junk. Everywhere there are fine surfaces, implements, and colors – in sticks, jars and tubes – all waiting for someone’s imagination! How it can all be there in such a small space is a tribute to planning and selection.”
“My business model was to supply the artists in the community and meet their needs, but it didn’t take the internet into account. Professional artists know what materials work best for them so most of them order online and stock up to get discounts and free shipping,” he says. “They only come to me when they need something right away. I’m the art supply 7-Eleven.”
Student business has become his bread and butter. “We recently put together 200 art kits for the Bedford campus of Middlesex Community College,” he told me. “UMass Lowell sends me its class supply lists ahead of time so I can stock the materials students require.”
He’s been a picture framer for years, so in addition to artist supplies, Van Gogh’s Gear offers matting and framing, glass cutting, canvas stretching and preparation, re-stretching painted canvases, and dry-mounting and vacuum press paper mounting.
As a participant in Lowell’s art scene, the part-time sculptor does much more than sell tools and mediums. He serves on the board of COOL and is one of the founders of (ALL), a 501(c)(3) corporation with about 250 active members. He’s been the president since 2004. “I run unopposed every year! I’m going to have to resign to get someone else to take it over!”
ALL couch-hopped its way around the city before it found a permanent home in 2013. “When I heard that a developer had bought the Gates Block, I set up a meeting with him,” Steve relates. “I asked him what he was going to do with it, and he said, ‘I don’t know. I just couldn’t stand to see this beautiful building go to waste.’ The guy owns 2 million square feet of property in this town, and holds each and every one of them in reverence.”
Steve suggested he build artists’ lofts on the top three floors, and a gallery for ALL and retail space for Van Gogh’s Gear. The developer agreed. The two entities split the first-floor space and the rent: about two-thirds for the gallery and the rest for the store. “ALL could not afford to rent the whole space, and I had wanted to move the store anyway – my original location was ‘cottagey’ and chopped up into rooms,” he says.
“I sat with the developer and the architect and we laid it out,” Steve adds. “As a payment, sort of, for helping define the building’s purpose, the developer asked me to manage the studio spaces and keep them filled with artists. They’re currently occupied by musicians, artists and writers.”
Business is good at Van Gogh’s Gear, Steve says. “I’m paying the rent, paying my two part-time employees and I have money in the bank. People seem to be happy with what they get here.”
Renovation continues in the Canalway Cultural District downtown. With its 16 or so retail shops, 40 dining establishments, six performance venues, 13 public parks, more than 12 public art installations, a dozen art galleries and one world-class theater, it blooms as the city’s cultural hub.
Artists still migrate to Lowell, but the flood of the early years has slowed. Recently its reputation as an artists’ haven “took a hit,” says The Boston Globe, when the city decided to tax the value of its artists’ tools and materials, “from paint and canvas to workbenches and printing presses.
“The tax bills are unlikely to be large – typically in the range of $200 a year,” the article continued. “Nonetheless, the move is not sitting well with some artists, many of whom were drawn to the city because of its artist-friendly reputation.”