Arts Feature: Artisan’s Asylum — A Unique Organizational Mashup

Part of the great experiment that is Artisan’s Asylum: meeting your neighbors, realizing you need someone to help you solder/weld/create a 3d prototype, and then wandering amongst the open workspaces until you meet a co-collaborator.

Artisan’s Asylum. Public Opening, 10 Tyler Street, Somerville, MA, Saturday, December 3, 1 through 5 p.m. Free and open to the public.

By Margaret Weigel

Artists of the future — your cubical awaits at Artisan’s Asylum. Photo: Margaret Weigel.

I have seen the future, and it is the Artisan’s Asylum (AA). The organization provides access to both artists’ workspaces and sophisticated woodworking, welding, and fabrication machines—interesting in and of itself—but it is Artisan’s Asylum’s unique organizational mash-up of collectivity, social cooperation, and free labor that makes more traditional area artist studios such as Brickbottom, Joy Street, or Vernon Steer seem positively antediluvian in comparison.

The Artisan’s Asylum was originally sited on the industrial end of Windsor Street in Somerville, near the Taza Chocolate factory and a smattering of independent artist’s studios. AA founder Gui Cavalcanti, a former Boston Dynamics engineer and recent Olin School of Engineering graduate, wanted to pursue his interest in robotics and share the use (and expense) of the necessary equipment with others. When the Artisan’s Asylum first opened in May 2010, “we expected something like 20 people [to show up],” Cavalcanti said, “and 100 people showed up and there was no breathing room. We realized that demand was huge.”

Version 2.0 was located on Joy Street, near Washington Street, the Brickbottom, and Joy Street artist studios, and featured 13 artist workspaces that sold out in a matter of days by word of mouth. Cavalcanti said “we looked around and said, what if we exchanged the ratio of renter space to craft space, since our renters love the place, why not make it about half the space? That means that renters pay most of our rent and expenses.”

Nestled into the crook of a residential neighborhood in Somerville’s eastern end, version 3.0 is the most ambitious iteration yet. It offers approximately 90 artisan workspaces, along with classroom spaces, and shared welding, woodworking, electronics tools and classroom teaching. In the center of the main floor are a few well-worn couches, a pair of stereo speakers, and “the ultimate time waster”—a vintage arcade console housing a computer outfitted with hundreds of videogame options from the classic to the cutting edge.

Artisan’s Asylum offer lessons in welding. Photo: Margaret Weigel.

AA requires all participating artisans to buy a membership, which range from daily passes (starting at $15 for a single day) that allow use of the shop’s shared tools to monthly memberships ($125/month for individuals, $150/month for institutions or businesses) that grant the holder 24/7 access to the facility and the possibility of scoring both workspace and storage space. A member with unlimited building access, a 100 s.f. workspace and 5 s.f. storage space currently pays $255/month.
The workspaces deserve more attention; the layout of this cavernous 31,000 s.f. facility speaks both to the promises and perils of the enterprise. A select number of businesses looking for cheap workspace or a hefty area to safely make a mess lay claim to about nine private bays. These spaces, located in the rear of the facility, are sealed behind drywall and securely padlocked. The bulk of the workspaces, in contrast, are an array of 5 x 10 and 5 x 20 cubicles. These spaces have no doors and, for that matter, no walls — only waist-high dividers that the average human can easily see over. Names identifying the studio owners attached to the walls lend an unintentional office/veal-fattening pen aesthetic to the setup.

A 5 x 10 space may not be enough space to do much in, but it is better than no space at all. It is unclear the extent that this unconventional arrangement of shared expensive tools and small artist workspaces is driven by finances or ideology. The intellectual foundations of Artisan’s Asylum, as it embarks on its largest expansion yet, can be read as profoundly utopian. Cavalcanti notes that 50% of Artisan Asylum members are 30 years old or younger — and he describes his generation as inherently social, forged in the furnace of playdates, collaborative school projects, and social media.

Sarah Delhanty — excited to be a part of the Artisan’s Asylum. Photo: Margaret Weigel.

The implication is that these millennials would be lost without someone nearby to talk to. “After awhile,” Cavalcant said, “we realized that Facebook really wasn’t that social.” And that is part of the great experiment that is Artisan’s Asylum: meeting your neighbors, realizing you need someone to help you solder/weld/create a 3d prototype, and then wandering amongst the open workspaces until you meet a co-collaborator.

And not to get all Marxist/Daily Worker on the Arts Fuse readership, but this arrangement is dependent on the availability of professionals willing to contribute their time and knowledge. I hear that Skunk, a professional welder and the leader of the bike collective Skull, is a nice guy, but even nice guys have their limits when it comes to dispensing free advice.

The enterprise itself is a non-profit, earning enough money to support a limited staff consisting of Cavalcanti, Molly Rubenstein as director of operations, and Dmitri Litin, director of finance. Other operational tasks are handled by an extended team of unpaid volunteers. The warren of four-foot walls that comprise the public workspaces in the new Tyler Street space, for instance, were built by AA volunteers in about three weeks. Uncompensated labor is incorporated into training activities as well: “So as part of someone’s training in woodworking, we’ll say, ‘your lesson is to build a new workbench for the woodworking studio!’” One wonders if along with a knack for social interaction, this new generation embraces contributing their labor towards work formerly done by professional tradespeople. Then again, is it exploitation if it is a labor of love?

Peter Dilworth, the proud resident of space 22, shows off a set of bunny slippers with a set of choppers. Photo: Margaret Weigel.

Artisan’s Asylum 3.0 has yet to formally open its doors, so the grand experiment has not yet been put to the test. That doesn’t seem to phase renters such as Peter Dilworth, the proud resident of space 22, who says that renting space at Artisan’s Asylum “beats working in my living room.” He then proudly showed off one of his creations, a set of bunny slippers with a fierce set of molars. Sarah Delhanty, whose space is directly across from Peter’s, is the archetypal Artisan Asylum member—a recent (’06) college graduate who is gainfully employed but living in a shared apartment where extensive sanding and soldering in the living room is frowned upon by her roommates.

Sarah is very excited to be a part of the Artisan’s Asylum and spent a recent Wednesday evening unpacking her materials, which included a pair of plastic legs and five types of masking tape. “I’m not worried about it,” Sarah tells me, “but a few bad apples could really spoil things.” Here’s hoping that the diverse crew that comprises the human side of Artisan’s Asylum will play nice and clean out the fridge.


  1. Maureen on November 22, 2011 at 8:55 am

    Terrific idea. Wish the organization a lot of success.

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