The neighborhood of Allston-Brighton has long been a welcoming place for creatives of all stripes; cultivating a community where artists live and work. Anyone taking a stroll through the area can see the impact, from public art installations and utility box murals to the various music venues that — before COVID — would be filled nearly every night of the week.

Harvard and its partners across Allston-Brighton have worked to foster and grow this creative community. When the pandemic hit, they came together to figure out how best to navigate a time when public safety required physical distance, and to determine how they could not only survive, but thrive.

Ed Portal Building.

Harvard Ed Portal is a key fixture in the Allston-Brighton arts community.

Kris Snibbe/Harvard file photo

The Harvard Ed Portal and the arts

The Harvard Ed Portal opened its doors in Allston just over 10 years ago. Since that time, it has hosted an assortment of programs and events that sought to elevate the creative community. In making its  commitment, the Ed Portal has helped to create and coordinate annual programs such as the Winter Market and Western Avenue Arts Walk; managed the Crossings Gallery; offered performances and classes for artists of all ages and abilities; and worked with local creatives, organizations, and community members to help them grow their businesses.

“At the Ed Portal, we aim to understand and buttress the needs of local artists, makers, and those who appreciate and consume their work,” said Eve Alpern, assistant director for arts programing at the Ed Portal. “These creatives are a huge asset to the local community. When they have access to consistent tools and support, they make Allston an even stronger neighborhood than it already is.”

For the past four years, the Ed Portal has created and hosted a Winter Market comprised of creators from across Greater Boston. It has been an opportunity for makers to meet the community and other artists, and a chance, of course, to sell their work.

“[Harvard’s support for the arts] shows that they are invested in creators, not just placing something on the wall, but really invested in their livelihood,” says Ayana Mack, an artist and vendor at this year’s Winter Market. “They really care about what we are doing and our value.”

Despite this year’s market being held fully online, participating artists — and customers — say it was wildly successful.

But when planning for the transition, organizers knew they wanted to do more than merely replicate past markets. Acutely aware of current struggles many local artists were facing, they realized that this year’s market required something more, so they created suite of supports for all Winter Market vendors. The full complement of opportunities included assistance from a network of experienced professionals in marketing, social media, and media relations, and branding and sales.

More than a market

Adria Katz, an instructor with the Harvard Ceramics Program, is a vendor at this year’s market. She’s also taking part in teaching a four-part virtual ceramics course for Ed Portal members.

The virtual Winter Market included opportunities to learn how to “replicate the in-person experience.” Mack recognized this push as an effort to support artists beyond the work they produce, and to help build their own communities. Mack participated in Art in Process, an event that provided opportunities for Ed Portal members to meet makers, such as herself, who bring attendees into their creative processes.

With partners in the area such as Zone 3 and Artisan’s Asylum, which will soon move its headquarters from Somerville to Allston, there has been a growing number of opportunities designed to lift artists and creators up and build on the supportive environment in Allston-Brighton and Greater Boston.

During the second week of January, the Ed Portal, Lowell Makes, Mudflat Studios, MakeIt Labs, and Artisan’s Asylum teamed up to host Making it as a Maker, featuring Becca Webb and Rebecca Haas, veteran makers of pottery and jewelry, respectively. Both Webb and Haas have dedicated followings both online and in person and understand how to invite people into their worlds by turning customers into community.

While the conversation was in the shadow of the COVID-19 pandemic, organizers realized that though a website and a robust online presence were essential during quarantine, they have the potential to be game changers when it’s safe to gather again.

Ceramics class from Feb. 2020.

Painted builded.

In pre-pandemic days, a February 2020 ceramics workshop for children was held at the Ed Portal. In 2017, the Ed Portal partnered with others to host a screen-printing workshop that resulted in a mural on a Western Avenue building.

FIle photos by Stephanie Mitchell and Kris Snibbe/Harvard Staff Photographers

Connecting through the computer

The online presence that is necessary to grow a business has also served as a way for market vendors and those in the creative community to connect.

“The [Ed Portal] has done a really nice job trying to give vendors a chance to have that face-to-face connection, even virtually,” says Katz. “Just the other night they invited us all to come and chat and meet each other. They even sent snacks to our homes! It’s been nice to be able to have the chance to connect with other makers.”

“The people at the Ed Portal are probably the most organized of any market I’ve ever participated in,” says Mark Stock, a first-time vendor at the Winter Market.

Stock, who has sold his MiniCty and TinyMnt creations at other markets in the past, notes it is that organization and sense of community that sets the Winter Market apart. The market, he says, affords opportunities for networking with other creators, who ultimately end up learning from each other to help grow their own businesses.

The local impact that the market has is not lost on the vendors, especially those who live and work in the neighborhood.  A carpenter by day, Michael McInnis finds scrap wood and reclaimed materials to create the products he sells at the Winter Market, the only market he takes part in all year.

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“I don’t do any other markets,” says McInnis. “I know the [Winter Market] is part of Harvard’s neighborhood outreach and I like that as a resident and vendor … it works for vendors and it works for the community.”

As the market winds down later this week, vendors, members of the creative community in Allston-Brighton, and the team at the Ed Portal all say they’ve learned a lot of lessons about what makes for a successful virtual market, as well as how opportunities to grow a community of like-minded creators is possible even in today’s socially distant world.

Looking forward, the Ed Portal teams says stay tuned for even more opportunities for collaboration and connection that will take shape over the course of the upcoming year, as well as next year’s Winter Market — one that will (fingers crossed) be both online AND in person.