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Studios Open For Puerto Rican Artists Displaced By Hurricane

The studio residency program at MASS MoCA in North Adams, Massachusetts is accepting applications from Puerto Rican artists affected by Hurricane Maria. 

Puerto Rico was all but washed away after it was hit by Hurricane Maria nearly three months ago.

“Your household being destroyed to having your everyday life being very disrupted by everything. I have been driving around and there’s no stop lights still, so imagine having that over and over again every day. So, there is no place for creative thinking,” Mari Rodriguez Binnie says.

Mari Rodriguez Binnie, art historian at Williams College in nearby Williamstown, spoke to WAMC News from her family’s home in Puerto Rico. She says artists are still reeling from the storm.

“It’s from the major things down to, down to the little things like where do you get paint if all the stores are closed, for example – it’s very shocking to drive around,” Rodriguez Binne says. “I would say in San Juan, which is the major city, there’s about 70 percent of businesses still either operating on a limited basis or closed. Period.”

Rodriguez Binnie and her husband, North Adams artist William Binnie, sparked and fundraised for The Studios at MASS MoCA to take in struggling, displaced artists in an emergency residency program. Binnie says it’s a small but important step for the museum’s professional development arm, Assets for Artists.

“I think like any mass trauma, individually and collectively, you – I think it kind of shocked the system. And I think one of things that happens a lot is that people overlook the arts and I think there is assumption that the arts are this kind of superfluous privilege, but I think they are as vital of a vein in society as anything else,” Binnie says. “So, I think a lot of artists, particularly artists that have a studio practice, a lot of those practices have been put on hold – often indefinitely.”

Puerto Rican artists can apply for one of 10 six-week residency spots. Blair Benjamin, director at The Studios at MASS MoCA, says the program, travel, meals and housing are covered – and the local and national art community has taken notice.

“You know, the day the application went live a few weeks ago it has been shared 800 times,” Benjamin says. “We have never seen anything like that with other social media we have done. The reach has been over 95,000 from that post.”

Benjamin says the total cost to put up one resident is $5,000. The Studios only has funding for two spots, but is still accepting private donations. Federal and state arts and cultural funding cannot be allocated to the emergency residency program. Those funds are predetermined in the grant process.

In the meantime, the program’s current cohort is trying to understand the destruction in Puerto Rico in its own artistic way.

Susan Calza’s cozy studio on the second floor of MASS MoCA’s Building 13 is crowded with politically-inspired art. Upright in the corner are a tower of cleaning supplies and a figure donned in a traditional mantilla-laced crown.

“I think a lot of the Americans first of all don’t realize Puerto Ricans are American citizens,” Calza says. “And we kind of consider Puerto Ricans and people from the islands as servants – so that’s why she’s got a mop.”

Calza criticizes the Trump administration for what she calls an underwhelming response. Death tolls vary from 62 to more than 1,000.

“But I just was feeling so helpless, completely helpless how this island is still, over two months afterward, in such distress,” Calza says.

Calza’s art will be on display alongside the rest of her cohort’s during an open house December 19th. Pointing to her work, Benjamin, the director at The Studios, says he doesn’t want to get political, but the residency program can be an escape from reality for Puerto Rican artists.

“It will be something that will hopefully really make a big impact in their lives and on their future careers so any little thing we can do to help is something we feel we really have to do,” Benjamin says.

Applications for the residency program are due Monday.

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