Keeping Somerville cool
For Greg Jenkins, the arts encompass just about everything, even Marshmallow Fluff
PHOTOS BY FRANK CURRAN
SOMERVILLE MAYOR JOSEPH CURTATONE likes to be bold. “I always tell Greg, bring me something no one else has done and that’s really off the wall,” he says.
Greg, in this case, is Gregory Jenkins, the executive director of the Somerville Arts Council. Jenkins generally does what his boss tells him to do, so over the years he has helped launch events and programs that, at first glance, often seem off the wall. There’s Porchfest, the What the Fluff festival, the Honk Festival of Activist Street Bands, Project MUM (for Meet Under the McGrath), and on and on. It’s a bewildering list of occasionally odd, sometimes strange, and almost always fun events that somehow come together to boost the local economy, draw diverse city residents closer together, and make Somerville an interesting place to live.
Nibble is a good example. It began as a way to introduce people to the ethnic markets of Union Square and evolved to include food festivals, events, and cooking classes. Now the program is trying to give immigrant residents with culinary skills what they need to launch their own businesses. The Arts Council has its own culinary coordinator and is opening an incubator kitchen, where would-be restauranteurs can test dishes and concepts.
Meri Jenkins (no relation), program manager at the Massachusetts Cultural Council, which doles out state money to arts councils across the state, says Jenkins has helped transform Somerville by tapping into the city’s existing human and natural assets. “He is very good at being able to develop programs that meet the community where they are,” she says. “He celebrates what is, what’s particular to the community. You’d think that would be easy, but it isn’t.”
Curtatone credits Jenkins and the Arts Council for a lot of Somerville’s resurgence. “When I first became mayor, we were still struggling to shake that word that my branding experts tell me not to repeat—what Somerville rhymes with—and we said, look, we have to craft our own image based on our own values,” Curtatone says. “We have to let people know about our creativity, our originality, our diversity.”
The mayor says the Arts Council got the city’s message out in a way that bolstered the local economy, advanced equity among the municipality’s many ethnic groups, and added “some humanity to the urban edge.” He said the city’s investment in the Arts Council has paid big dividends.
“Even during the deepest abyss of the recession, it was the Arts Council’s work in spurring the creative economy and the events it put on that helped promote and market the city,” he says. “It carried us through some of the city’s most difficult times in recent memory.”
Jenkins, 53, grew up in North Carolina, studied anthropology as an undergraduate at the University of North Carolina-Greensboro and went on to get his masters in folklore from Western Kentucky University. Over the years, he has worked at the American Folklore Center at the Library of Congress in Washington; helped track cultural traditions in the New River Gorge area of West Virginia; captured the folk traditions of a fishing, hunting, and trapping community in Delaware; and worked for Arts in Progress in Boston bringing artists into classrooms and documenting the work of Cape Verdean artists in Dorchester.
In 2001, Jenkins landed his current job with the Somerville Arts Council and he’s been there for the past 17 years, three longer than Curtatone has been mayor. Jenkins is paid $97,400 a year.
— BRUCE MOHL
COMMONWEALTH: What would you say the Somerville Arts Council is all about?
GREGORY JENKINS: We’re here to enliven the community through presentation of the arts and support of arts and culture. We’re here to help bolster the economic development of the community, to bolster the perception of the community, to create a sense of inclusion among disparate communities. The mayor often talks about how we’re here to raise and foster a family, to support residents as they live, work, and play in our community. It’s a very broad mandate, so the question is how we do that. We do it through events. We do it through expanding the infrastructure of the arts and cultural community.
CW: That sounds pretty lofty, but the council seems to do a lot of unusual stuff. Is that what makes Somerville a cool place to hang out?
JENKINS: I think it is. The mayor is always talking about how our freaks are better than your freaks, meaning we like to have things that are out of the ordinary. We like to think outside the box. We like to push things that are sort of abnormal. You need to be creative in problem solving. I think the way in which we present things, the way in which we approach issues, we nurture creativity.
CW: It seems like having fun is a big part of it.
JENKINS: Oh yeah, definitely. There is this level of playfulness. And inclusiveness, too. It’s highlighting a community, documenting those cultural traditions and expressions in the community, and then putting them back out there for the larger public to see.
CW: Your background is in anthropology and folklore. How does that figure in?
JENKINS: For me, it’s not necessarily been about high art. What interests me are issues of community and cultural traditions and cultural expressions. All the work I’ve ever done has been about how people express themselves creatively, or how they express themselves in relation to the group that they are involved with. It’s always about looking at the community. That’s the lens.
CW: What was the council like when you arrived in 2001?
JENKINS: Cecily Miller had been the previous director. She did something that was great—the garden awards initiative. She did a series every year, hiring writers and photographers to document these old world community, garden people. They were Portuguese and Italian men and women who were creating these amazing gardens. People asked, how is this art? But that set a precedent for the Somerville Arts Council to upend the perception of what an arts council should do. I came in with that idea already in place.
CW: Somerville doesn’t have a lot of traditional galleries or artist spaces. Is that why you find art hanging in the window at the CVS in Davis Square and you hired artists to paint switch boxes?
JENKINS: It was about making use of the city’s assets. You can look at the deficits of a community forever. But you can also ask, what does the community have in terms of assets. That’s what I feel I’m good at—taking those assets and refining them to make them expressive and make them true assets. That, in a nutshell, is the work that we do.
CW: In regard to developing community assets, tell me about Illuminations.
JENKINS: Cecily started that, I think, in 1997 or 1998 and we’ve expanded it. It’s become the Illuminations Tour. It’s become a fundraiser for us. It’s mostly old-world Catholic families—Portuguese, Italian, and Irish. They illuminate their houses. Some of it is religious iconography. A lot of it is a whimsical cross between Disney, Santa, and snow globes. They light up their houses and their yards and we do tours. What we’ve done is interview these people about their traditions and then we have volunteers lead the tours and tell the story of these families that have decorated their houses.
CW: Porchfest is similar, right? You’re taking advantage of and highlighting something that’s already there in the community. That wasn’t original to Somerville was it?
JENKINS: All good things are appropriated. That’s a quote for you. Here’s how it started. A woman in our community told us about an event she attended in Ithaca, [New York]. It was called Porchfest. It was 20 people in the community who played music on their porches. I thought, that’s brilliant. So we held a meeting saying we were thinking of doing that in Somerville. About 40 people showed up at the meeting. It was amazing. So the first year, in 2011, we blew away Ithaca.
CW: That’s pretty cool, people doing concerts on their porches.
JENKINS: The beauty of Porchfest, and this is the beauty of how we operate, is that we created a structure where it’s decentralized. A lot of people say why don’t you do a culminating event in the park. But no, we do enough festivals and events. We set up the structure and we spent a lot of time creating a website. Last year we had 260 porches—porches, not people—participating. It’s amazing because there’s everything from a Nepali rock band playing Pink Floyd covers to two kids that are playing the violin. That’s what it’s all about.
CW: How many people come to listen?
JENKINS: Enough that we are worried it’s becoming a public drinking problem. It’s large enough that it’s prompted a discussion about public safety. The mayor and the police chief have been amazing saying we need to do this.
CW: I hear other communities are copying Somerville now.
JENKINS: Yeah. Brookline, JP, Arlington. Who else? New Bedford called. It’s great. Everybody should be doing it. We do get some complaints, but it’s only for two hours once a year. It would be different if it was every weekend.
CW: We’re sitting here in Union Square, which to some extent has become a Somerville asset, right?
JENKINS: Union Square was like a dive 15 years ago. But we thought it had all these amazing ethnic stores that white folks don’t come to. It’s got an amazing group of artists in and around the square. How do we create a cultural economic development initiative that highlights the assets of Union Square? That’s what the whole Arts Union project was about.
CW: What’s the Arts Union project?
JENKINS: Arts Union is a cultural economic development initiative focused on Union Square. There was a short-term play and a long-term play. The short-term play was how do we change the perspective of outsiders about Union Square. And the long-term play was how do we embed the immigrant food and artistic realm in a long-term play to develop the assets of Union Square.
CW: How did you execute the short-term play?
JENKINS: We did that by, basically, doing a lot of events. We had events like the What the Fluff Festival and Smell-O-Vision. We would support the Nepali community and hold a Nepali festival.
CW: Hold on, what’s the What the Fluff Festival?
JENKINS: Marshmallow Fluff. We based a zany festival around it because it was invented in Somerville.
CW: What was Smell-O-Vision?
JENKINS: It was a Willy Wonka kind of thing, where you could smell the chocolate while watching the movie.
CW: What’s the strategy behind all these events?
JENKINS: It was a co-production model. We’d put out a call to artists and ask if they had a zany idea to co-produce an event. It could be dancers, singers, even puppeteers. They would bring their arts and vision and we would back it because we know how to produce events. We know how to engage the DPW, how to shut down streets, how to market, and how to raise money. Around the same time, we helped get the farmers market up and running. We also did a crafts market in conjunction with the farmers market and it became so mobbed that we separated out the two after the first year. We produced all this stuff and got people into the square.
CW: Were you targeting primarily Somerville residents with these events?
JENKINS: Yeah, but other people from around Boston started coming by, too. We developed a brochure and a tour of the ethnic markets. If you wanted to learn more about Bengali food, we would do a tour. That was very successful. We also hired local furniture makers and sculptors to do benches. Some were glass. Some were copper. That was many years ago. We just did a huge gay dance party. We had 2,000 people in the square. All those people come into the square, and what do they do? They eat at restaurants. We’ve shown that for every dollar we spend, $4 was being generated in the square economically.
CW: What’s an example of the long-term play?
JENKINS: For five years, we pushed zoning reform to create an arts overlay district. If a developer wanted to build higher, we’d give them a density bonus if they kept 5 percent of the building for artist use. The Millbrook building that just got converted two years ago into 100 units, we have five artist work units in there.
CW: Speaking of zoning, I watched you give your budget presentation to the Somerville Board of Aldermen the other day and I was struck by how worried they were about the gentrification of the city and how that will drive artists out. You mentioned your zoning push and your efforts to help artist entrepreneurs make a decent living from their work, but the tone of the meeting was pretty grim.
JENKINS: It’s a huge issue, and I don’t think there’s a silver bullet to deal with it.
CW: I’ve heard about Art Farm. What’s that?
JENKINS: That’s another long story. About five years ago, there was a former waste transfer site, about two acres right near the McGrath [highway]. It stunk. It had its issues. The mayor said I’m going to tear this down. Can you activate this space and site? Out of a series of community meetings, we realized what people wanted down there was more community gardens, more greenery because it’s so urban and so industrial. And they wanted to support the arts community. Out of that we developed this thing called Art Farm.
CW: So why is it called Art Farm?
JENKINS: There’s going to be a barn there that will serve as a 5,500-square foot performance facility for the arts community. There’s a need for places for artists to do their work. At the same time, there’s a huge urban agricultural community, groups like Groundwork Somerville and Green City Growers, people that are doing stuff on sustainable agriculture in an urban environment. They, too, need areas.
CW: A barn in Somerville, one of the most densely populated places around. That’s an interesting idea.
JENKINS: At first, we were thinking of putting containers – old shipping containers—on the site and converting them for use. We got a grant, believe it or not, for $450,000 to work on executing that. And then we hired some architects and they said we were crazy to be pushing shipping containers. They said that would be a waste of money. So we went with the barn. At the same time, we got some money from the Department of Agriculture—can you believe it, an arts council getting money from the Department of Agriculture—to put a greenhouse on the site.
CW: What happened next?
JENKINS: The mayor said we needed a new police station, so there was a lull of about a year where the community was, like, do we really want this to happen? So we had to have another year of reengaging. Now we’re back on track. We’ve got our architects moving. We’ve got full city support. It’s going to happen. It’s approximately a $3 million project now. It’s going to be an urban park with this barn. It’s amazing.
CW: How long has Art Farm taken so far and when will it be done?
JENKINS: It’s been about five years and it’s going to be done in 2021. If you want something good, it takes time.
CW: What’s the budget of the Somerville Arts Council?
JENKINS: We’re seeking nearly $540,000 for the coming fiscal year. We also expect to bring in about $200,000 in outside financial support. We also get another $100,000 or so in grants, business sponsorhips, and income from books, dog tags, tours, and T-shirts.
CW: Does the state give you money?
JENKINS: There’s a Massachusetts Cultural Council, which is a state agency, and they provide us with an operational support grant, which is nearly $7,000. Plus they provide what’s called a local cultural council grant, which is some money that we turn around and regrant to the community. We receive around $35,000 a year to regrant to local arts projects, and the city kicks in about $25,000 for that. We were established just like a lot of other cultural councils in the state to basically regrant the state money.
CW: How many employees does the cultural council have?
JENKINS: It’s me and four others as staff. And then we have a board, a cultural council, that serves at the discretion of the mayor.
CW: It seems like some cultural councils do a lot more than others.
JENKINS: It’s vision and money. You’ve got to have a little bit of both. We always say you can throw a lot of money at something but if people aren’t engaged by it, it’s not going to work. It’s being aware of what you perceive as the needs and desires of the community, and then it also takes some money. But look at Porchfest. It doesn’t really cost us anything and here is this amazing initiative that’s all about the energy of others.
CW: How many mayors have you worked under?
JENKINS: Just two. You know Joe [Curtatone] is the longest serving mayor in the history of Somerville.CW: How important is political backing in your job?
JENKINS: You’ve to have it and I’ve got it. But there are times when things get politically complicated. Art Farm is a complex capital project. It’s like building a new school or a new park. Everyone gets involved. Naturally, it’s going to take time. I don’t say that as a negative, but it does take time. And it does ebb and flow. That’s part of the complexity, the timing, the will of the people to push something through, all of that. Art Farm had to go through all of that, in a natural process that any large capital project would have to go through.