National Endowment for the Arts Chairwoman Jane Chu toured the cultural district of downtown Pittsfield, Massachusetts today to see and discuss how the city has grown its arts community.
Anita Walker, executive director of the Massachusetts Cultural Council, says Chu was invited to Pittsfield by the state’s Cultural Council to celebrate the regional New England Foundation for the Arts.
She says Pittsfield is the perfect example of the implementation of state arts funding.
“This is a long standing story that has proven that the creative economy and creative place-making can be transformative in communities to revitalize them, to change people’s lives and put a town on completely new trajectory,” Walker says.
Chu began at Barrington Stage Company’s new Wolfson Center, before heading through the Upstreet Cultural District in downtown Pittsfield.
The region is reliant on funding through the Massachusetts Cultural Council and on the federal level from the National Endowment for the Arts – and a little bit of funding can go a long way.
For instance, the city’s Office of Cultural Development received a $75,000 NEA Our Town grant to support the pop-up writers' studios Mastheads. In 2016, Barrington Stage Company received a $10,000 grant from the National Endowment for the Arts to support one of its premieres.
Chu recognized the need for funding and the time it takes to develop art.
“We say it takes a long time for something to happen suddenly,” Chu says.
The tour concluded with a roundtable discussion at the Lichtenstein Center for the Arts with members of the city’s Office of Cultural Development and cultural organizations, including Berkshire Theatre Group, Hancock Shaker Village, Barrington Stage Company, Mastheads Writers Residency and Berkshire Music School. Also attending were state Representative Tricia Farley-Bouvier and state Senator Adam Hinds.
They discussed everything from the impact of the arts on the economy – bringing in more than $1 billion to the region a year – to redeveloping the downtown area into a cultural hub – something Pittsfield Mayor Linda Tyer says took a lot of work.
“The art and cultural economy is a job generator. It is contributing to an economy. It can be a partner in our public schools, it can enliven our downtown,” Tyer says.
Pittsfield is still reeling from the exodus of General Electric, which was the city’s largest employer.
Chu was told the turning point was when former Mayor James Ruberto asked the city council to invest $1 million of the Economic Development Fund, which GE left the city, into the restoration of the Colonial Theatre.
That shifted the city’s economy off of a single employer and onto a diverse arts and cultural economy. Chu agreed with the strategy.
“People are looking for a place to live that has meaning as opposed to ‘I just put a shack somewhere and settled down there.’ What about a place where I can feel like I belong,” Chu says. “And the arts are one of the best, I want to say they are the best.”
Walker of the Massachusetts Cultural Council says arts and culture employs more than 23,000 in Berkshire County in more than 300 cultural entities.
“If you kind of look at the collective cultural enterprise and if you named it one company, and if someone said ‘Mayor, I want to bring a company here to the Berkshires that has 23,000 employees: what would you say?” Walker says.
“Bring them in,” Tyer says.
Chu praised the city for its community effort to solve its economic problem, and called it a model for the rest of the country.
“You are figuring how to do this together in a world that it’s tempting to be separate – a zero sum game,” Chu says.
But Chu stopped short of discussing what will happen if the White House budget proposal becomes a reality, which would mean drastic cuts to funding.
“Well we are focused on the vitality of this area and we, there are many steps in that specific process so we will know more as the budget process unfolds,” Chu says.
Meantime, Senate Minority Leader Charles Schumer and Senator Kirsten Gillibrand of New York on Friday announced more than $16 million in NEA funding to support roughly 550 projects around the state.