Arts + Policy

Arts + Policy


Mass. Cultural Council picks new leader

Mass. Cultural Council picks new leader

Choice is Michael Bobbitt, Watertown theater artistic director

STATE HOUSE NEWS SERVICE

THE ARTISTIC DIRECTOR of a Watertown theater will in February become the next director of the Massachusetts Cultural Council, after a unanimous vote Friday by the council’s governing body.

Michael Bobbitt, a director, choreographer, and playwright who came to the New Repertory Theatre in Watertown in 2019 after 12 years serving as artistic director at Maryland’s Adventure Theatre-MTC, will succeed longtime executive director Anita Walker, who retired in June.

Board member Troy Siebels, president and CEO of The Hanover Theatre for the Performing Arts, said that while Bobbitt is relatively new to the Massachusetts theater scene, he has “made a real splash in that time by emerging quickly as a leader.”

“I think Michael speaks with passion and backs it up with know-how, and is a motivational leader,” Siebels said.

Bobbitt, a Cambridge resident, told the board during a virtual meeting that he was born and raised in Washington, DC, and began his arts career in the first grade when he played Hansel in the third act of a production of Hansel and Gretel. He went to college on a trumpet and voice scholarship before shifting his focus to theater and dance.

Bobbitt said he believes in “making sure that we hear from everyone, especially those who are most marginalized, in whatever decision we make.” He said he was driven to the role for the opportunity to support artists across Massachusetts and make a difference in the broader cultural community, potentially on a national or international level.

“Collaboration is a huge core value of mine, so I don’t know what we’ll do in the next two years , but I know that we’ll be very responsible in how we figure out where we go for the future,” Bobbitt said.

He’ll become the state’s most senior cultural official at a time when many cultural organizations and individual artists are facing financial challenges and struggling to stay viable while hampered by COVID-19 restrictions that preclude many performances, large fundraisers and other gatherings.

The fiscal 2020 budget that Gov. Charlie Baker signed last week funded the cultural council at about $18.2 million, equivalent to last year’s funding level.

Board member Ann Murphy asked Bobbitt about how he’ll approach working with the Legislature, referring to that as one of the executive director’s “trickiest jobs.”

“Well, I have a superpower named Bethann Steiner,” Bobbitt replied, referring to the council’s public affairs director. He said he worked often with state lawmakers in Maryland, including in an effort to establish a loan program to help cash-strapped organizations receive their state funding early.

Nina Fialkow, the council’s chair, said Bobbitt was offered a salary of $160,000, and that Walker had most recently earned a salary of $187,000. Fialkow said Bobbitt’s pay rate reflected “his experience and what he’ll be bringing to the council as the new executive director” as well as the cost of living in Massachusetts.

Deputy director David Slatery has been serving as acting executive director.

In a statement, Slatery described Bobbitt as “the visionary leader we need to guide the sector through this next chapter” as it confronts “massive economic devastation from COVID-19, while simultaneously engaging in challenging and important conversations to understand how to collectively promote equity and ensure access for all.”

Poll signals new approach at Museum of Science

Poll signals new approach at Museum of Science

Institution is getting involved in vaccination debate

THE BOSTON MUSEUM OF SCIENCE, known primarily as an interesting place to visit, took a step out into the community on Tuesday, releasing a poll surveying the attitudes of Massachusetts residents about a COVID-19 vaccine.

The poll contained some interesting findings – most Massachusetts residents want to be vaccinated and women of color are the most hesitant about getting the shot (or shots) – but it was also a clear signal that the museum is no longer waiting for people to walk in the door but reaching out into the community to showcase science in a new way.

Tim Ritchie, who took over as president of the museum just prior to the start of the pandemic, said the institution is still going to welcome guests with its exhibits, IMAX films, and lectures. But it’s also going to get out into the world and mix it up on issues where science plays an important role. The poll, a first for the museum, is a start in that direction.

“Every nonprofit organization, including the Museum of Science, has to answer one question – how will the world be different in positive way because we exist,” Ritchie said. “If we build public trust in science, the world will be better.”

The poll was designed to gauge where public attitudes are right now on what many perceive as one of the greatest scientific issues of our time. The museum on Monday plans to host a live streaming event to explore the findings and what they mean for the massive vaccination effort that is scheduled to begin as early as next week.

Ritchie wants to help move that debate forward. “We want to transition from being a community institution to being a community resource for problem solving,” he said. “This is the kind of thing we should be doing now and should have been doing all along.”

Tim Ritchie, president of the Museum of Science. (Photo by Nicolaus Czarnecki Photography)

The poll, which was paid for by the museum in a partnership with the Massachusetts League of Community Centers, was conducted from November 18-25 in English and Spanish by the MassINC Polling Group.  The poll surveyed 1,180 Massachusetts residents, 250 black and 250 Latino residents.

According to the poll, 71 percent of those surveyed said they were very or somewhat likely to be vaccinated. Thirty-six percent said they planned to get the vaccine as soon as possible, 19 percent said they would get the shots after a few other people tried them, and 28 percent said they would wait until many other people are vaccinated first. Seven percent said they would not be vaccinated.

Men, according to the poll, are more eager to be vaccinated than women. Forty-four percent of white men said they would get vaccinated as soon as possible, compared to 36 percent of black men and 23 percent of Latino men. By contrast, 31 percent of white women, 21 percent of Latino women, and 19 percent of black women felt similarly.

Generally, the survey found that people were fairly well informed about the vaccine, although there were concerns about whether it has been adequately tested. A large number of people also said they completely or mostly trusted some of the officials and government institutions that are likely to play a role in the vaccine rollout.

Personal physicians had the trust of 80 percent of those surveyed, while the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention was trusted by 71 percent. Others on the list included the US Food and Drug Administration (64 percent), Dr. Anthony Fauci (62 percent), Massachusetts state government (53 percent), Joe Biden (48 percent), Gov. Charlie Baker (29 percent), and President Trump (20 percent).

The Museum of Science was completely or mostly trusted by 57 percent of those surveyed. “Just behind Dr. Fauci, that’s pretty good,” said Ritchie.

Elite artists face challenges on green cards

Elite artists face challenges on green cards

How do you prove ‘extraordinary ability’ during pandemic?

EVEN ELITE ARTISTS are having difficulty getting green cards for permanent residency in the United States.

The federal government is on pace to issue 32 percent fewer green cards this year to those with “extraordinary artistic ability.” Part of the downturn is the result of a slowdown in processing applications for the visas due to the pandemic. But applicants are also finding the pandemic is handicapping them in a different way – making it more difficult to prove they are as extraordinary as they claim.

Unless applicants have won a Grammy or an Emmy award, they have to demonstrate through press clippings, reviews, performing contracts, and box office receipts that they have risen to the top of their field and have won national or international acclaim.

But all of that is difficult to do in the midst of a pandemic that has shut down nearly all performance venues.

“How can the client show proof of future work when there is a prohibition over the last six months and possibly for the next year that the client will have work lined up? This is definitely a problem,” said Eileen Morrison, an immigration attorney who works with applicants for the extraordinary artist visas.

EunAe Lee, a world-class pianist from South Korea who is now based out of Boston on a temporary visa, finds herself in this situation. She came to New York on a student visa in 2004 and studied at Juilliard and Northwestern. Years of music education and performances culminated in her PhD in musical arts.

Lee, unlike most classical musicians, is able to sight-read, meaning she can perform an entire composition despite having only having a brief opportunity to scan the music. It’s a rare gift, which enables her to perform under difficult circumstances, with only minutes of advance preparation. She’s performed all over the US and in parts of Europe, but despite her past successes, she faces the real possibility of deportation because of her inability to do much performing recently.

EunAe Lee performs in concert. (Photo by Woo Hyun Chae)

“It’s been very challenging lately,” Lee said, adding that she had several shows and festivals for the summer and fall canceled at the beginning of the pandemic. “My dream is to remain in the US as a professional pianist and to continue to share contemporary classical works with audiences throughout the United States. Sometimes, I’ll find myself thinking about South Korea, but I also love living in the US, and I cherish the opportunities it provides me. There absolutely is no other country or place that compares to it.”

The fees for her EB-1 application will cost her over $4,200. It usually takes 10 months to a year to process the visa successfully in Boston.

Similar to Lee, Nima Janmohammadi came to the US from Iran to study at Boston’s New England Conservatory in 2011. He graduated in 2019 with a doctorate in musical arts in composition and a minor in music theory. He specializes in Persian music, which he’s been studying since the age of six, and plays the setar, a long-necked, four-stringed lute,

“It takes about 20 years to become a finished artist in Persian music,” he said. He studied with some of the most prominent masters of Persian music, including Hossein Alizadeh and the late Jalal Zolfonoun.

Janmohammadi currently teaches at the New England Conservatory in the theory, musicology, and contemporary improvisation departments. He has a special performer’s visa, but it does not allow him to leave the country, something he would like to do to visit family. So he applied, with the help of Morrison, for a visa for those with extraordinary artistic ability. He, too, worried about the pandemic’s impact on his application.

“I had lost so many concerts, master classes, and festivals,” he said. “The pandemic has been very difficult because it is impossible to perform in public.”

But he recently learned the part of his application claiming he is an artist of extraordinary ability was approved. He and Morrison are hopeful the rest of the application will be approved soon.

“Persian music is a beautiful art form and part of the cultural heritage of Iran. The world deserves to learn more about Persian music and its practitioners like Dr. Janmohammadi who can introduce others unfamiliar with the music and the instruments to something new and keep the cultural heritage alive,” said Morrison.

How we’re staying afloat at the New England Aquarium

How we’re staying afloat at the New England Aquarium

Innovation and fortitude are key for vital cultural institutions  

THIS YEAR’S rapid-fire turn of events is stunning. Minute to minute, day by day, we face a new reality. It’s no different leading one of Boston’s most popular and beloved cultural institutions in the year when we planned to celebrate our 50th anniversary. Then, it all turned upside down. 

To give you a sense of the impact on local institutions, I want to share how the entire New England Aquarium has been affected by the pandemic. To do that, I want to talk about how the Aquarium is more than the beloved institution people visit on Central Wharf in Boston, and why. I’ll start with the why. 

The ocean is particularly vulnerable right now because of climate change and how we, as humans, use it. 

Through our research and our rescue arms—the Anderson Cabot Center for Ocean Life and Animal Care Facility and the Animal Care Center and Sea Turtle Hospital in Quincy—we are working for a vital and vibrant ocean for generations to come. Through animal care and research, education, and advocacy, we safeguard endangered and threatened species and their habitats, inspire people to take action to protect the blue planet and work to affect state and federal policies that do the same. The Aquarium itself is one piece of a larger conservation organization; it just happens to be the most well-known one. 

On Friday, March 13, we closed the doors of the Aquarium to the public. Although closed for 18 weeks, we had about 35 staff members caring daily for our 20,000 animals and the infrastructure that supports them. In many ways, during those months, it was business as usual for the animals—just much quieter. 

When the pandemic hit, our scientists were just getting back on the water after a winter hiatus and preparing for their summer field seasons. Summer plans and any ongoing fieldwork stopped suddenly, although our scientists continued their research and to publish. 

Eventually, by August, our right whale research team—which has spent every summer for the past 40 years conducting research in the Gulf of Maine—quarantined as a family unit and headed north. One of our shark researchers drove from Maine to Key West towing a camper in order to stay socially distanced from others. And, our aerial survey team got back up in the air donning full flight suits and face masks. In our Sea Turtle Hospital, rehabilitation work continued for the handful of sea turtles rescued from the shores of Cape Cod in late fall and early winter still healing from bouts of hypothermia and related illnesses. (We had already successfully rehabilitated and released nearly 200 turtles.) By July, we quietly released the remaining turtles on uncrowded beaches at sunrise into the warm waters off the Cape. In years past, such releases were accompanied by great fanfare with cheering crowds. 

When we closed, we pivoted quickly to using social media to tell the stories about the ongoing care in the Aquarium, as well as our research and rescue work. Every weekday at 11 a.m., we broadcast “Virtual Visits.” Aquarists and scientists—formerly used to advancing their work quietly behind the scenes—suddenly became the stars of our Facebook page. We had our share of technical difficulties, but we continued educating and inspiring people with the wonders of the ocean online. Viewership skyrocketed. Countless families, teachers, and librarians told us how they were relying on our virtual visits to supplement at home learning. 

As time passed, we got the go-ahead to reopen on July 16, and did so at only 15 percent of building capacity. That makes for a wonderful Aquarium experience but not a sustainable business model. 

Still, we created one-way paths, implemented timed ticketing, and trained our staff on how to enforce mask wearing and social distancing guidelines among guests. We are delighted that people are comfortable and eager to come visit, and yet, like our peers, we missed late summer and early fall tourism. We see fewer guests during the week now that school is in session but are fortunate for sustained interest on weekends. We are losing money every month, even with our doors open. 

Most acutely, the pandemic has affected us financially. Like our counterparts at many zoos and aquariums, we rely on ticket sales and earned income, such as events, for most of our revenue—80 percent in our case. During our five-month closure, we lost $16 million in revenue. We had to make painful reductions and let go of valued, longtime staff members. We have had to become more innovative and agile, doing more with less. We started the Mission Forward Fund to raise critical dollars. About $3.8 million has been raised to date. 

Like the Children’s Museum and the Museum of Science, the Museum of Fine Arts and the Institute of Contemporary Art, we are part of the cultural fabric of this city. Along with the Greenway, the Harbor Walk, Christopher Columbus Park, and the North End, we help make the downtown waterfront welcoming and inclusive and vibrant. 

Our doors are open, our research continues, we’re preparing for another sea turtle rescue season, and we’re developing more and different virtual programming to serve the needs of individuals and families, as well as of teachers and schools. We are determined to make it to the other side of this pandemic because our blue planet, our city, and our region needs us. 

Vikki Spruill is president and CEO of the New England Aquarium. She shared these remarks as part of the October 5 webinar “A Better City Conversations: Cultural Institutions” alongside leaders of the Boston Children’s Museum and the Museum of Science. 

Historic homes struggle to reopen in COVID-compliant way

Historic homes struggle to reopen in COVID-compliant way

With small spaces and little ventilation, many sites remain closed

THE YEAR 2020 was shaping up to be a banner year for the Orchard House in Concord, the home where Louisa May Alcott lived and wrote the classic book Little Women.

On Christmas 2019, the Greta Gerwig film adaptation of Little Women was released, set in a replica of Orchard House. By February, visits to the Orchard House were up 350 percent from the prior year and staff were hiring and training new guides and buying extra store merchandise.

Then in March, COVID-19 hit. Orchard House shut down, and many of the staff were unemployed. By October, despite state guidelines allowing cultural facilities to reopen, Orchard House still had not found a way to reopen safely. “We’re definitely pouring money out and bringing in almost nothing,” said Jan Turnquist, executive director of Orchard House.

As museums begin to reopen, albeit with modifications and capacity limits, the many historic homes sprinkled throughout Massachusetts are facing unique challenges. While a small number of these sites have reopened, the vast majority are still shut tight – some with plans to remain closed until next spring. Historic homes make up around 55 percent of New England museums, and many of the features that make these homes unique – original artifacts and older spaces – also make it nearly impossible to make them COVID-compliant.

“The historic home community is struggling a lot more than the museums to be able to get open,” said Michael Busack, who manages the Fruitlands Museum in Harvard and the Old Manse in Concord, both owned by the Trustees of Reservations. While the Fruitlands has opened some of its galleries, the Old Manse – a house once lived in by writers Ralph Waldo Emerson and Nathaniel Hawthorne — remains closed until spring.

“The difficulty with a historic home is its tight spaces and historic material, so sanitizing, air flow, those types of things are really big concerns,” Busack said.

At Orchard House, for example, the rooms are small, and tours must be guided to ensure the safety of the authentic items. Some rooms are small enough that under state capacity guidelines, only one person can enter at a time. Because of the house’s layout, there is no easy way to skip these rooms.

Turnquist said even if one person could be taken through at a time, hiring guides for personal tours is not a financially viable way to run a business. The organization is buying an online ticketing system and hopes to reopen in some way if virus transmission rates stay low. But, Turnquist said, “We’re spending thousands of dollars just to keep the property safe. The only thing worse would be to have a reopening plan where we lose even more money.”

The challenges are different depending on the space. At Old Sturbridge Village, a living history museum that recreates a 19th century village, there are no guided tours, and guests are encouraged to walk in and out of buildings.

There were around 35 buildings open to visitors pre-pandemic. When the village reopened in July, the costumed historical reenactors moved entirely outdoors. Only in October, as the weather turns cold, are staff slowly reopening indoor spaces, with plans to open around 20 buildings.

At Old Sturbridge Village, much of the living history museum was moved outside due to COVID-19. (Photo courtesy of Old Sturbridge Village)

Derek Heidemann, coordinator of crafts and assistant director of interpretation, said the shoemaker’s shop illustrates the challenges of reopening. The shop is so small – a 10-by-12-foot room with a chimney — that only a single staff member can fit inside under social distancing guidelines. The current plan is to have only the shoemaker inside and let visitors talk to the shoemaker through open windows.

Other buildings are bigger but lack a one-way path. When a building has a different entrance and exit, staff are needed at each door to monitor traffic flow, but those staff are then too busy counting visitors to answer questions.

Heidemann said the village has been trying to figure out how to maintain the visitor experience while keeping staff and visitors safe. “One thing we struggled with through the reopening is we don’t want interpreters and educators to be dealing with policing all the time,” he said.

Historic New England, a nonprofit dedicated to preserving historic heritage sites, owns 37 historic properties across New England, and only six have reopened their buildings, including the Sleeper-McCann House in Gloucester, Gropius House in Lincoln, and the Eustis Estate in Milton.

Peter Gittleman, team leader for visitor experience at Historic New England, said there is visitor interest – tours are regularly selling out in advance. But opening more properties or expanding the currently reduced hours was too complicated given the realities of COVID.

To open, the organization cut tour sizes from between 8 and 18 visitors down to four to six visitors. Rooms without ventilation were closed. Routes were shifted to make sure two tours never crossed paths. One home that previously allowed self-guided tours now requires a guide in order to control capacity. The organization switched from door ticket sales to online pre-purchasing. Guides went through rigorous training covering everything from how frequently to clean bathrooms to how to address a customer who refuses to wear a mask to how a customer with a guide dog affects group size.

“Unlike larger art museums, we have the ability to be more nimble because we’re a smaller operation,” Gittleman said. “For us to say we’ll open Eustis Estate but not Otis House…we had a lot of choices there. We deliberately chose houses we thought would benefit the public the most and where we could safely conduct guided tours.”

The house on Codman Estate in Lincoln remained closed due to COVID-19 on October 18, 2020. (Photo by Shira Schoenberg)

Keeping a house closed has its own dangers. In addition to the obvious loss of revenue, having people walk through a historic home keeps the air flowing, keeps mice at bay, and ensures problems are noticed quickly, said Christie Jackson, senior curator with the Trustees of Reservations. “When a house gets closed up, this living entity that likes to have air circulating and people and movement suddenly is put into this sort of static state, and that’s when you do see things like mold blooms, you see problems with pests, problems with moths,” Jackson said. “When you go into this lockdown phase for these houses, you actually need to go in more and really keep an eye on things because problems can get bad quickly.”

Dan Yaeger, executive director of the New England Museum Association, said its monthly survey of 120 museums found that in August, attendance was down 80 percent compared to the prior year. He said institutions that rely heavily on tourism have been more affected than those with local visitors. Historic homes have benefited from an increase in philanthropic donations and from relaxed grant guidelines, which let grants be used for operating expenses.

The Paul Revere House in Boston, for example, relies heavily on Freedom Trail visitors – of which there are few. Executive director Nina Zannieri said on an average day, visitation is down 80 percent from normal. Accounting for the home’s decision to reduce the days and hours it is open, it is attracting just 10 percent of the visitors it would in a normal year. Income is down by $1 million, due to a drop in admissions, shop sales, and school tours. The house has stayed afloat through a federal Paycheck Protection Program loan, grants, and fundraising, but Zannieri predicted “it’s going to be two pretty tough years.”

The organizations that have been most successful have figured out how to use their homes and grounds creatively.

Curators at the Crane Estate in Ipswich developed a light show, where patrons could sit outside and watch silhouettes in the mansion window while hearing the story of what weekend visitors to the estate would have experienced in the 1930s and 1940s.

Gore Place, a 50-acre country estate, farm, and mansion in Waltham, conducted its traditional plant sale fundraiser online with curbside pickup. Its “Frightful Friday” events involving the telling of spooky ghost stories moved from inside the mansion to outside in a tent. While indoor mansion tours are not happening, Gore Place started offering grounds tours. It has held stargazing evenings with an astronomer, and is planning a Sunday foraging walk with an urban foraging expert who will talk about what local plants are edible.

“We really haven’t been closed in the sense that we’ve been offering different programs since April,” said Thom Roach, director of interpretation and programs for Gore Place. He said programs like a recent Jane Austin talk and garden party actually drew more attendees than usual. “There’s much less competition on a beautiful fall afternoon when everyone else isn’t doing something as well,” he said.

Historic New England started hosting “micro-weddings,” weddings with up to 20 people at its sites, for a cost of $500. Gittleman said organizers hoped to attract 10 weddings, but 30 have been held.

Historic New England had to cancel its annual sheep shearing festival in Newbury, which attracts a few hundred people. Instead, it posted a livestream online of someone shearing a sheep and asked for donations. “We made more money than we would have at the event itself and far more people watched it,” Gittleman said.

Castle Rock’s impact called significant

Castle Rock’s impact called significant

Groups push for repeal of film tax credit sunset date

A STUDY BILLED as the first of its kind indicates the initial season of Hulu’s Castle Rock television series received a projected $14.6 million in film tax credits from the state and generated $69 million of total economic output in Massachusetts – a return of $4.73 for every dollar of tax credit.

The study is unique in that Warner Bros. Television, the producer of the series, shared inside data on production spending with Industrial Economics of Cambridge, which was hired by groups pushing for the elimination of a 2022 sunset date for the film tax credit.

The data indicate a good chunk of the production spending paid to people and vendors outside the state actually was spent inside Massachusetts, increasing the rate of return on the tax credits issued for the production.

The conclusions in the report, which focus on a single year-long production, run  counter to industry-widereports done years ago by the Massachusetts Revenue Department suggesting more than half of the spending spawned by film tax credits flowed out of state. Castle Rock was the first series to be filmed in Massachusetts in more than 25 years, and its economic impact in Massachusetts is likely larger than movies and other productions, which have much shorter film shoots. Castle Rock operated out of New England Studios in Devens.

The Massachusetts film tax credit was launched in 2006 and is scheduled to sunset on December 31, 2022. It offers anyone shooting films, TV shows, or commercials in Massachusetts a credit equal to roughly 25 percent of whatever they spend. The credits are extremely attractive because they can be converted into cash by either selling them back to the state at 90 percent of their face value or by selling them to a corporation or individual with a large tax liability in Massachusetts.

According to the Industrial Economics report, the first season of Castle Rock filmed in Massachusetts from March 2017 to February 2018, spending $58 million and receiving $14.6 million in tax credits. Of the $58 million, the report says, $30 million went to addresses inside Massachusetts and $28 million to addresses outside the state. Based on a review of the $28 million spent outside the state, the study concludes that only $16.5 million was spent outside the state and $11.5 million was actually spent inside the state, bringing the total in-state spending to $41.5 million.

The higher in-state spending number is based on estimates of what individuals from outside Massachusetts working on the series would have spent inside the state while working here. The analysis also says many non-personnel expenditures made to addresses outside the state actually were made to in-state vendors. The report said most of those payments were made to local outlets of national retail chains and car rental companies, which had out-of-state addresses.

Using economic multipliers, the Industrial Economics report estimated the $58 spent on Castle Rock yielded a total economic impact of $69 million. The report said 1,026 full-time jobs were created by the production and spending occurred in 210 cities and towns across the state.

At a Zoom press conference, Chris O’Donnell, business manager of IATSE Local 481, the union representing technicians and craftspeople on film sets, said TV and movie productions plan years in advance, and may shy away from Massachusetts if the sunset date on the film tax credit is not removed. Pointing to a map showing communities in color where Castle Rock spent money, O’Donnell painted a grim picture if the sunset date is not eliminated.

“If we don’t eliminate the sunset soon, this map is going to start looking more and more white with less and less color,” he said. “Productions and producers of this content need certainty. Having this program end in two years creates more uncertainty.”

Sen. Sal DiDomenico of Everett, who supports the tax credit, said the data indicate large numbers of Massachusetts residents are benefitting from the program. He said the film tax credit is not supporting big-name actors such as Tom Cruise and Johnny Depp.

“The narrative that we’ve heard on the film tax credit is that it benefits the Hollywood elite. That’s BS,” he said.

The Industrial Economics study did not examine how the tax credit benefitted stars and directors from out of state. It only concluded that $16.5 million, or 28 percent, of the $58 million spent on Castle Rock went out of state.

Museums refocus and reinvent to survive COVID 

Museums refocus and reinvent to survive COVID 

Capacity limits, declining attendance are hurting revenue  

JANE PARKER LIVES in Harvard, and over the years, she has visited the neighboring Fruitlands Museum for big events, like February’s Winterfest.  

In early October, Parker returned to Fruitlands to hike for the first time on the museum’s three miles of trails. She met an old friend and they planned to briefly stop in the galleries, then take advantage of the good weather and the safety of the wide-open outdoor spaces on the 215-acre property. 

“I’ve never done the trails before. It’s an opportunity,” Parker said.  

COVID-19 is changing the way people use museums. And museums struggling with closures and capacity limits are adapting accordingly. Those with outdoor space are taking new advantage of it, while those without must find new ways to attract patrons and ensure their safety. 

After closing entirely in March and April, Fruitlands opened its grounds with online ticketing in May. It opened some indoor galleries in September, but still has not opened all its historic buildings. 

Fruitlands Museum director Michael Busack said there has been a shift from the museum buildings being the primary attraction to a greater focus on the grounds. Fruitlands started selling tickets to “sunset picnics” Thursday and Friday nights, where families can bring dinner, or buy a boxed kit from the café. 

Typically, we’re a museum. That’s how we market. But we’re a museum in a really beautiful spot,” Busack said of Fruitlands’ location in the hilly apple orchard country between Boston and Worcester. “It’s heartwarming seeing people use the site in a different way.” 

Curators have expanded the artwork into the outdoor spaces, setting up explanatory panels along trails with artwork, quotations, and activities that relate to one of the indoor exhibits.  

Christie Jackson, senior curator with the Trustees of Reservations, shows an outdoor exhibit by artist Sue McNally at the Fruitlands Museum on Oct. 8, 2020. (Photo by Shira Schoenberg)

Christie Jackson, senior curator with the Trustees of Reservations, which owns the property, said the goal is to make the art more accessible to people with different COVID comfort levels. “There may be people who want to see objects and art, but they may not be comfortable going into a building, so we expanded what we’re doing outside for this show,” Jackson said. 

Gov. Charlie Baker allowed museums to reopen July 6 when the state entered Phase 3 of its reopening plan. But the reopenings came with myriad new guidelines – limited capacity, cleaning and hygiene protocols, requirements for masks and physical distancing – and many art museums have taken more time to plan and adapt.  

The Museum of Fine Arts just opened on September 23; the Worcester Art Museum opened on October 1; the deCordova Sculpture Park and Museum opened its indoor galleries October 8. 

Museum officials say they are seeing strong interest from patrons, and several said they are seeing far more children.  

But attendance numbers are still low, whether because patrons are not ready to return, tourists are not visiting, or due to capacity caps. The state lets museums open at 40 or 50 percent of capacity, depending on the virus transmission rate in the surrounding community. Some museums have lower caps due to state guidelines establishing how many people can be in one room, based on square footage. 

At Springfield Museums, a cluster of five museums that reopened July 13, spokeswoman Karen Fisk said the museum voluntarily capped capacity at 25 percent “for the comfort and safety of visitors and front-line staff.” That translates to 1,200 people across the five museums, and staff regularly monitor capacity in each building and gallery. “We feel that basically gives people their own visit to the museums,” Fisk said. The museums did hit capacity on summer weekends. 

David Slatery, acting executive director of the Massachusetts Cultural Council, said while many museums are attracting patrons, and even selling out their limited capacity, remaining open with such low attendance is financially challenging.  

“It’s to keep in the game, for people to remember they’re there, to keep their own employees busy and working,” Slatery said. “But it is not a sustainable business model.” 

The Institute for Contemporary Art in Boston is seeing about 30 percent of attendance compared to a typical year and is projecting a $2 million revenue loss this fiscal year, officials said.  

The Shaker Gallery at Fruitlands Museum in Harvard remained closed due to COVID-19 as of Oct. 8, 2020 even as other buildings reopened. (Photo by Shira Schoenberg)

The MFA in Boston sold out its opening day and weekend and attracted 1,500 visitors in its first five days after reopening. But with timed-entry slots limiting entrance to 75 visitors an hour, and a gallery capacity of 500 people at any one time, that attendance is still below average. In a statement, the MFA said it is predicting a deficit of around $13 million this year, and it is using a mix of cost containment, fundraising, and reserve funds to bridge that gap. Hours are limited and fewer galleries are open, and the museum laid off dozens of employees. 

With the uncertainty around the pandemic, we developed a new business model to create a more sustainable future for the MFA,” the statement said. The Museum will be smaller moving forward, and our exhibitions, programming and other offerings will reflect how we must operate in the future—both during and after the pandemic.”  

The Norman Rockwell Museum in Stockbridge, which opened July 13, has been able to sell just 28 percent of the tickets it sold last August and September, because it has small gallery spaces that are capacity-limited under state guidelines. It is no longer getting bus tours, which had been a big part of fall attendance. “There’s a significant loss of revenue and we are really working hard to both control costs and also develop other sources of revenue,” said chief educator Mary Berle. 

The museum is launching a get-out-the-vote campaign featuring images from six contemporary artists and is selling campaign-related merchandise. It is offering virtual programming, some with a “pay what you choose” option. In the museum, docent-led tours have been replaced with recorded audio tours.  

Some fortunate museums have large indoor or outdoor spaces. The Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art in North Adams is located in an old mill complex and has 250,000 square feet of gallery space, with multiple enormous galleries. 

We benefit from space – vast, vast amounts of space, both interior and exterior on our grounds,” said Tracy Moore, deputy director of MASS MoCA. The museum reworked ticketing procedures to avoid a bottleneck at the entrance, and visitors can easily socially distance inside. 

Moore said the museum anticipated 30 percent attendance once it reopened July 10, but officials have been “pleasantly surprised.” MASS MoCA attracted 13,300 visitors in August – just over half of the 24,500 it attracted last year. September attendance, 9,300 visitors, was actually slightly above last year’s 

MASS MoCA typically benefits from a summer influx of out-of-town visitors attending Tanglewood concerts and the Williamstown Theatre Festival, both of which were cancelled. In normal times, the museum hosts concerts that can attract from 100 to nearly 4,000 people. This year, it was limited to outdoor concerts of 50 or 100 people, as state guidelines changed.  

Moore said the museum is anticipating a revenue drop, which it is trying to make up through fundraising. 

The deCordova in Lincoln, also owned by the Trustees of Reservations, has an outdoor sculpture garden in addition to the indoor museum. While the indoor space just reopened, business director Kord Jablonski said from the time the sculpture garden reopened May 19 through the end of the September, 55,000 people visited – nearly twice the typical attendance numbers in a comparable period, with three times as many children as usual. 

People are so eager for something to do, and they’re so eager to get outside and away from the Zoom and computer,” Jablonski said. He said the sculpture park “provides an opportunity for rest and solace and a little bit of peace for people during what’s been a remarkably challenging time for everyone.” 

Jablonski said his hope from talking to visitors is that their desire to find a safe place outdoors will lead to a return to the museum. “Often they’ll say, I didn’t think I enjoyed contemporary art, we came to walk around outside, but this is spectacular and we’re going to come back,” he said. 

 

Happy Indigenous Peoples’ Day

Happy Indigenous Peoples’ Day

It’s time to move beyond the falsehoods of Columbus Day

THE UNITED STATES is grappling with the legacy of slavery, systemic racism, and oppression. This requires us, as responsible citizens, to reflect on our own lives, and question our long-held assumptions. We need, furthermore, to intentionally support efforts to dismantle the stereotypes and bigotry ingrained in our country’s history and culture.

Calendars mark the second Monday in October as Columbus Day, but there is a growing and important movement to shift the significance of this holiday to celebrate the cultures, histories, and contributions of the indigenous people whose land Christopher Columbus and other colonizers claimed as theirs, which led to the persecution and death of millions of indigenous peoples.

Many states and cities, from the most “red” to the most “blue,” have begun to celebrate the thriving cultures that existed in the Americas before and after Columbus’s arrival as Indigenous Peoples’ Day. While states including Vermont, Maine, New Mexico, Alaska, Oregon, Minnesota, and Hawaii, and cities including Cambridge, Somerville, Seattle, Minneapolis, Fargo, Boise, and Columbus have made this important change, our Commonwealth has not.

It is hard to acknowledge that the things we learned in grade school were only partially true, and the heroes many of us hold in high regard are not the people we thought they were. We have an obligation to our history and to our children to move beyond inaccurate and incomplete versions of our story. Nostalgia is not a reason to ignore facts.

We recognize the role that Christopher Columbus has played in our national psyche. Especially for Italian-Americans like ourselves, his narrative gives us a special place in American history. Yet the reality of Columbus’ time in the Americas and his intentional role in terrorizing the native peoples he met cannot be ignored. The role of Italian immigrants in the Americas deserves to be celebrated, and there are plenty of Italian-Americans more deserving of national praise.

Most of what many of us learned about Columbus is simply false. Ancient Greeks had already proven that the world was not flat. The European monarchs of France, England, and Portugal who rejected Columbus’s proposal did so because they knew his math about the circumference of the world and the distance between Europe and Asia was wrong. Most of us also know he never set foot in North America and was not the first European to reach this continent. So what legacy of Columbus are we actually celebrating?

Columbus undeniably started a massive influx of European colonists into what is now the Americas. Yet it is important that we look beyond the patriotic creations of the 1930s and acknowledge historical facts. Columbus was an invader whose actions brought about centuries of persecution and the genocide of indigenous peoples across the Americas. He used the indigenous people he encountered and their land for his own profit, instituting brutal tactics to subjugate those he encountered. Such brutality included cutting off the hands of natives who did not secure the required amount of gold, dismembering people and parading their body parts through the street, kidnapping and slave trading. His Brutality eventually included actions against some of his fellow colonists.

Some may dismiss this view as revisionist history, and claim that we are unfairly holding Columbus to today’s more enlightened standards. However, even by the standards of his day, his brutality was such that he was eventually stripped of his title of “Governor and Viceroy of the Indies” and sent back to Spain in shackles.  Columbus’ story goes deeper than the “discovery” for which he is most well-known. His is not the history our country should celebrate, the example we should lift up to our children, or the statues we should erect in our cities.

As descendants of Italian-Americans, we pledge to keep working until our Commonwealth formally institutes an Indigenous Peoples’ Day that celebrates the thriving indigenous communities that once existed and still do exist throughout the Americas. It is time that we factually acknowledge the role that Columbus and other European colonists and conquerors have played in our history.

On Monday, we ask that you join us in celebrating the Wampanoag, Massachusett, Nipmuc, Abenaki, Pennacook, and other tribes on whose lands we reside, who continue to fight for their own rights and the replacing of Columbus Day with Indigenous Peoples’ Day. We encourage everyone to learn more about the indigenous peoples in their communities and follow their lead to create a society that recognizes and works to redress historic and present injustices.

Jack Patrick Lewis is a state representative from Framingham and Lindsay Sabadosa is a state representative from Northampton.

06/10/20

The era of Christopher Columbus is over

As we de-sanitize history, let’s do it with humility

WHEN I WAS A KID growing up on the second floor of an East Boston triple decker, Columbus Day was a pretty big deal.  Alternating with the North End, the grand parade organized by local civic groups passed by our house every other year, and we would either watch from the windows or, more often, sit on the front steps to observe the floats, bands, and politicians march by. In those days the parade was such a big deal that it attracted political leaders such as Frank Sargent, Kevin White, Paul Tsongas, Mike Dukakis, Frank Bellotti, and Ted Kennedy.

There was a lot of excitement and noise and neighborhood camaraderie, and it was the only day (other than a snowstorm day) when automobiles were forbidden from parking on both sides of the street.  No one really paid much attention to Columbus; like Santa Claus at Christmas, some fellow dressed as Columbus would signal the conclusion of the parade by appearing on the last float, a motorized Santa Maria, waving at the slowly dwindling crowd.

The truth is we never thought for a minute about Christopher Columbus the person, who he was or what he did or stood for.  Columbus was understood as the fellow who “discovered America.”  Did we believe that?  We probably did, just like we were taught in school to believe that Adam really ate an apple that Eve handed to him and got in trouble for it (I always liked apples, so I was secretly confused about why this was such a problem, but that’s a discussion for another day). When some years later it was revealed by more progressive grade school nuns that the apple-eating business was an allegory, I brought that news home to a shocked and unbelieving family. Perhaps they had always understood the underlying meaning of the story, but deep down they also believed (because that is what they were taught) that apple eating was somehow involved in the fall from grace.

The times were different, and the basic education that most people had about topics like “who discovered America” was facile and flawed, distorted by an agenda to offer up a sanitized version of history.  Few were introspective or thoughtful enough to ask: why did America even need discovering?  It had already been discovered by the indigenous people who lived here, well before the era of European colonialization.  But then, like now, many people didn’t have the privilege of education or access to knowledge, or didn’t have the time to pursue it.

It’s always easy, in retrospect, to make judgments about what people believed then, and what many believe today, without understanding what people were taught at home and in school, and the limitations of that education. In my grade school and high school classrooms, no one was taught about the brutal behavior, the genocide, the enslavement of indigenous people that marked not just the Columbus-led expeditions, but much of the subsequent European conquests of large swaths of the Americas.  History was sanitized. That’s not an excuse for the wholesale adoption of a sketchy, racist figure as a representative for a national heritage, but it is a reason to exercise humility in the process of enlightening and informing and opening minds.

By and large, my East Boston neighbors were the sons and daughters (or, like me, grandchildren) of Italian immigrants. Their parents came here in the great wave of early 20th century immigration, motivated (as are many of today’s immigrants) by the desire for a better life, for access to opportunities they believed were available in abundance in this nation. They were willing to bear the burden of discrimination and stereotype and humiliation. They were willing to accept the jobs others would not.  All for a chance to participate in the American experiment.

If that sounds familiar, it is – it gets played out every single day in America.  The newcomers are from different lands, but their stories are about the same.  People seeking refuge, believing the words inscribed on the Statue of Liberty, optimistic that a better day might be ahead in a new land that was brash enough to hold itself out as the last, best hope of mankind.

My mother was one of those children of immigrants. I never knew her to read anything but cookbooks until the summer after her bypass surgery, in 1992, when I bought a used book for her on a lark.  The book was “A Tree Grows in Brooklyn,” a book about a poor but aspirational young girl that seemed to resonate with her.  She became a voracious reader, something she enjoyed until the very end. This passage is from the book:

“The one tree in Francie’s yard was neither a pine nor a hemlock. Some people called it the Tree of Heaven. No matter where its seed fell, it made a tree which struggled to reach the sky. It grew in boarded-up lots and out of neglected rubbish heaps and it was the only tree that grew out of cement. It grew lushly, but only in the tenement districts.”

The story is a tale of perseverance and overcoming great odds.  It’s also a story of the importance of family and the equal importance of individual growth and independence and an embrace of the opportunities and possibilities of life in America.

This was in many ways my mother’s story – the youngest daughter in an immigrant’s family, a family escaping a bleak present for a possibly brighter future. A family delivered to the promise of early 20th century America, golden with hope, only to face two new challenges in a new land: the poison of systemic ethnic discrimination and the poverty of the Great Depression. These they overcame with hard work, good humor, faith, and love. They looked forward, not backward. They persevered.

And as I’m thinking about my mother and her family and the story of immigrants in America, I’m also thinking that we have lost our way in this country when too many people deny or turn back or despise the exiles and the strangers among us.  As we deny them, we deny our own parents and grandparents. We deny our own history.

It was heartening to learn that Boston will begin a process of designing a memorial to Italian American immigrants as a suitable replacement for the statue of Christopher Columbus that stood in the North End.  Columbus was never a meaningful or historically accurate proxy for what should be the uplifting story of Italian immigrants in America.

Like other figures whose mythologies mask the ugly truth of their deeds, memorials to Columbus must give way – in this case to the memory of those whose struggle to make America their home made our nation stronger, better, and more durable. A tribute to immigrants reflects the past and informs the present. It reminds us of where we came from and who we are, reminds us that a generosity of spirit is at the center of the moral core that ought to drive our public policies as much as it hopefully drives our individual behavior.

I embrace an Italian American heritage that has much to celebrate. We don’t need, and shouldn’t want, the mythology of Columbus in order to understand or embrace our history.  It’s a good thing that the era of Columbus is over, and it’s also good that we seek not to sanitize history but to explore it with as much candor as we can muster, however painful that may be.  To paraphrase a famous passage from the New Testament, our essential moral core – driven by the impulse toward charity, or love – does not delight in evil, but rejoices with the truth.

James Aloisi is a former Massachusetts secretary of transportation.

Fitchburg pinning revival hopes on arts and culture

Fitchburg pinning revival hopes on arts and culture

One-time mill city looks ahead in effort to rekindle past vitality

FITCHBURG MAYOR Stephen DiNatale’s office bears all the markings of the workspace of a small-city Massachusetts leader working hard to pull up his community, a place that has struggled for years following the exodus of industries that once made mill towns like this hum with economic vigor. 

There are sketches of planned development projects, a big photograph showing downtown Fitchburg back in its pre-World War II heyday, and in one corner a group of shiny ceremonial shovels standing against the wall, mementos from recent groundbreaking celebrations that DiNatale is anxious to replicate. The affable 68-year-old former state representative is laser-focused on economic development, and in a hurry for it to happen. “I’m not a patient guy,” said DiNatale. 

It’s easy to see why. Median household income is $55,000 in Fitchburg, $22,000 below the statewide average. Meanwhile, the pandemic has hit the city hard, with its 15.5 percent unemployment rate in August the eighth highest in the state. 

Fitchburg Mayor Stephen DiNatale (Photo by Michael Jonas)

A sketch portrait of JFK on the wall is the closest thing to art in DiNatale’s fluorescent-lit workaday space, temporary quarters Fitchburg municipal government is occupying in a former GE building while its 19th century city hall undergoes a major facelift. Despite the spartan decor in an office that is much more functional than finely appointed, the arts figure prominently in the mayor’s  plans for adding more of those shiny shovels to his collection. 

DiNatale and other Fitchburg leaders are determined to restore the city’s standing as a vibrant hub of North-Central Massachusetts, and they say a focused effort on arts and culture will play an important role in that. It’s a bet that lots of economically distressed communities have made, fueled by the example of cities that have looked to the “creative economy” for economic salvation. 

Feb 18, 2020

Shovels from groundbreakings in Fitchburg Mayor Stephen DiNatale’s office. (Photo by Michael Jonas)

The idea gained lots of steam following publication of city theorist Richard Florida’s 2002 book The Rise of the Creative Class, which argued that arts and other creative-economy sectors were key to urban revival in the 21st century. Fitchburg, with its often desolate downtown streets, may not seem, at first blush, like a place where the creative-economy could find much of a foothold. But the hilly city of 40,000, which sits along the Nashua River 30 miles north of Worcester, has some big things going for it that make the arts and culture venture more than a urban-revival pipe dream.  

Fitchburg boasts a nearly 100-year-old art museum, whose collection ranges from ancient Egypt to modern Massachusetts painters. A boarded-up former middle school that sits directly across from the museum is slated to be converted, along with two other adjacent buildings, into 62 units of living and work space for artists. And Fitchburg State University, which enrolls 3,400 undergraduates and about 1,600 graduate students, recently purchased a long-shuttered vaudeville-era theater on Main Street, with plans for a multimillion-dollar renovation to make it home to regional productions. 

Marc Dohan, the executive director of NewVue Communities, a nonprofit Fitchburg community development organization spearheading the artists’ housing project, said DiNatale is hardly a pie in the sky dreamer and the strategy is already bearing fruit. 

“He’s not just an arts and culture mayor. He’s an economic development mayor, and he sees this as a way to improve the city,” said Dohan. 

ARTS AND CULTURE BOOKENDS 

When Nick Capasso was being interviewed eight years ago to be the new director of the Fitchburg Art Museum, he turned the tables at one point to ask something to the eight museum trustees who were meeting with him. “My only real question was, why are you a trustee? Why are you doing this?” he said. “They went around the table and everybody answered the question individually, and not one single person said the word art. I was a little taken aback.” 

What all of them said was they wanted to “to give back to the community,” said Capasso. “They all grew up in Fitchburg when it was a great place. They all watched it go down the chute.” But they saw that the city — and the museum — had something to offer, and they were committed to being part of that. 

The charge from the trustees after he was hired, said Capasso: “Don’t just revitalize the museum. Figure out how the museum can help revitalize the city.” 

Capasso has been busy since figuring how to do that. He said those efforts have been greatly boosted by an usually collaborative spirit among city leaders, higher education officials, private developers, and the arts community that is starting to bubble up in Fitchburg.

Fitchburg Art Museum director Nick Capasso. (Photo by Michael Jonas)

“I found a whole bunch of people who were willing to think creatively in new ways,” he said. Rather than lamenting the economic losses the city has sustained, he said, they seemed to understand “it’s time to apply energy towards figuring out what Fitchburg should be for the century we’re actually in.” 

The museum, which was founded in 1925 using a bequest from Eleanor Norcross, the daughter of a successful Fitchburg mayor, who had herself enjoyed some success as a painter, has complemented its worldwide collection by focusing on expanding its showings of work by contemporary New England artists. That has included an effort to include work by artists from a range of racial and ethnic backgrounds, something the museum had not always paid much attention to, despite more than a quarter of Fitchburg residents being Hispanic. 

It’s all part of a much more conscious effort to be part of the broader arts-focused community-building underway in Fitchburg.  

Capasso, who talks regularly with the mayor and other city officials, university leaders, and community groups, is working not only to burnish the museum’s reputation in the art world, but to have it fully embrace its role as an important nonprofit institution in Fitchburg. Lots of museums, he said, put the artwork at the center of their work. Their view is that “art is the client,” he said. Capasso said the Fitchburg museum is committed to “using art to serve people.”

A local neighborhood association now holds its regular meetings at the museum. The museum also launched a program with the Fitchburg schools, underwriting the admission fee so that every 4th and 7th grade student in the district makes an annual trip to the museum. Capasso has also set up an area of the museum where they rotate artwork by Fitchburg school students. “Kids in our country get a lot of validation for academics and athletics. Art kids don’t get much,” he said.  

“There are many spokes to the wheel of revitalization,” Capasso said of Fitchburg’s economic redevelopment efforts. “You can’t let the arts do it all by themselves. It’s not a powerful enough segment.” But it can, he said, “be part of a much larger whole.” 

While the museum is the most obvious pillar of Fitchburg’s arts and culture effort, Fitchburg State University serves as the other anchor of that larger whole.  

The two institutions bookend the city’s downtown, the museum a block off Main Street at the western end of the business district and the university perched on a hill a half mile off Main Street at the eastern end of downtown. Fitchburg State has long had somewhat of an arm’s length relationship to the city. Commuter students often come and go from the campus without ever setting foot downtown, and the 1,700 undergraduates who live on campus — many of them from communities within 50 or 60 miles of Fitchburg — often stay cloistered on the campus there during the week and head home on the weekends. 

In 2015, the art museum and university inked a memorandum of agreement to collaborate more closely and be part of an effort to boost the city and region. The agreement included granting university students free admission to the museum, which would also begin serving as the de facto art museum for the school, which does have a museum or gallery of its own. 

Richard Lapidus, the president of Fitchburg State, said the university has for several years been exploring ideas that would “create some gravitational pull” to draw visitors to Fitchburg in the same way other universities often help make communities a regional destination for cultural events, dining, or nightlife. In  2015, a year after Lapidus’s arrival, the school laid down a huge marker in that effort. It bought an entire block of buildings on Main Street, which includes several retail storefronts and is anchored by the Fitchburg Theater, a 1,700-seat theater that was a grand stage for local productions when it opened in the 1920s but has sat empty and deteriorating since it closed in the late 1980s, serving in its last incarnation as a three-screen multiplex movie theater.  

The university is planning a $35 million renovation with the goal of returning the theater to its original splendor and developing it as a regional theater draw. Lapidus said the idea is for a smaller version of the Hanover Theater, Worcester’s flagship production stage. 

Fitchburg State University’s video game design studio on Main Street is bringing students downtown from the campus. (Photo by Michael Jonas)

The university moved into the Theater Block complex a large workspace for its video game design program, the only one of its kind in Massachusetts public higher education. It also opened a center dubbed the “Idea Lab,” incubator space that offers resources for university students, faculty, and members of the broader community to work on potential business startup ideas. 

It’s a way to “create a different front door for ourselves” and a way to “plant a flag” downtown, said Lapidus.

Jan 2020

Fitchburg State University bought the 1920s era vaudeville theater and adjacent office space in downtown Fitchburg and is planning a $35 million makeover. (Photo by Michael Jonas)

Artist’s rendering shows a renovated Fitchburg Theater, with the kind of street bustle university and city leaders hope to bring back to the city’s Main Street.

A DOWNTOWN PIVOT

There’s good news and bad news when it comes to economic vitality in downtown Fitchburg. The good news is that the streetscape is largely intact, with the 19th century edifices that line Main Street, including some magnificent Victorian architecture from the city’s industrial heyday, looking much as they did when the city was a thriving center of paper and textile manufacturing. The bad news is that even in the pre-COVID days the sidewalks were often deserted, the bustle once created by department stores and other downtown commercial fixtures largely gone. 

DiNatale, who grew up in next-door Leominster, lights up when he talks about a time when Main Street was alive with the flurry of foot traffic shown in the photograph he keeps in his office from Fitchburg in the 1930s or ‘40s. “This was the destination city growing up,” he said of its place in the life of the North-Central Massachusetts region. “It was an event to go to Fitchburg, and downtown was the place to be.” 

DiNatale is enough of a realist to know the days of big department stores drawing people downtown in places like Fitchburg are over. But the forward-looking pragmatist in him says it can nonetheless be something much more alive than what’s there now. “It will never return to that,” he said of the image in the big black and white photo. “But we’re nimble and we’re going to pivot.” 

One literal pivot the city is embarking on, with help from a $3 million state grant, is returning Main Street to a two-way road along with other changes to make the street more pedestrian friendly. The change in the 1960s to a one-way street, say DiNatale and city leaders, only helped to speed traffic through Fitchburg.

DiNatale said the goal is to again bring people downtown, but it won’t be to shop at big stores, but instead to eat a restaurant or shop at small stores offering unique wares. The city also wants to have more people on the streets downtown by having more of them live there. In the last two years, 96 new units of housing have been built and 330 units permitted in the downtown area. The City Council recently approved new zoning to allow an additional 1,000 units of new housing downtown.  “The more housing we can provide, the commercial retail will follow,” said DiNatale.  

Some of the housing that’s on tap will not only contribute to overall greater density downtown, but will be another element of the arts and culture pivot DiNatale envisions. The boarded up former B.F. Brown Junior High School, which sits right across the street from the Fitchburg Art Museum entrance, is “a billboard that says ‘blight,’” said Capasso, hardly an inviting setting for the regional museum-goers he’s trying to attract. But if things stay on track, the building will soon make a very different statement. The former school, along with an adjacent building that once served as the city stables and another that was an annex to the city high school, are being developed into 62 rental units of artists live/work space. 

The project is being developed by NewVue Communities, the local nonprofit development agency, and rent for the units will be kept affordable — ranging from $800 a month for a studio to $1,400 or $1,500 a month for a three-bedroom apartment. (“Artists have families, too,” said Dohan, the NewVue director, about the larger units.) 

Dohan said market studies showed strong demand for artist housing in the area. While Rise of the Creative Class gave cities the idea that they could drive revitalization by wooing artists, Fitchburg leaders say their initiative is aimed at helping artists who already there thrive and contribute to the city’s comeback. “We don’t want to open this building with 60-something apartments and end up with artists that come here from Somerville, from Jamaica Plain and displace the local artists,” said Francisco Ramos, a community organizer at NewVue.

Three years ago, Florida published a sequel to his 2002 book titled The New Urban Crisis. In it, he laments the gaping inequality in New York, San Francisco, and other big winners in the urban renaissance of recent decades. “I totally and completely underestimated the power of the urban revival,” Florida said in an interview by email. But Fitchburg is a long way from seeing those kinds of downsides, and arts and culture can play a vital role in “economy building as well as placemaking” in such communities, said Florida. 

As much as the museum and university serve as important anchors for Fitchburg’s arts and culture initiative, the artists’ housing makes an equally important statement about the effort. Using the creative economy to drive revitalization, say local leaders and national experts, is not just a matter of having an obvious draw like a regional art museum, but also depends on raising the visibility of the local arts and culture scene. That includes everything from artisans and artists selling their work to locally produced food that helps give the city a distinct identity and unique way to draw people to spend time — and money — there. 

One good example of that came last year, when a neglected alleyway that connects Main Street with another main thoroughfare running parallel to it was transformed into a sidewalk gallery by installing 30 large murals of locally-produced artwork. The Activate Mill Street initiative was spearheaded by a state-sponsored program aimed at reviving designated districts in Gateway Cities. The Transformative Development Initiative, operated by the state’s economic development and finance agency, MassDevelopment, contributed $40,000 to the Mill Street effort on top of $50,000 that was raised locally. The organizers had to winnow the field, with twice as many artists applying as they were able to select — another indication, say local leaders, of a large latent arts community in Fitchburg. 

Murals by local artists were the centerpiece of Fitchburg’s Activate Mill Street project. (Photo by Michael Jonas)

Along with the murals, there were more than two dozen events tied to the project, including a music series at a small plaza at one end of the alleyway, pop-up al fresco dining with tables set up on the plaza and meals served by a local caterer, and free yoga classes on Saturdays. 

“It’s symbolic, I think, of change in Fitchburg,” said Kim Jones, co-owner of Strong Style Coffee, a two-year-old cafe that looks out on the plaza where the events took place. “It showed Main Street being a place you come and enjoy and it’s bright and it’s colorful.” 

Also very much symbolic of that change is her cafe, which increasingly serves as a civic gathering spot and important outpost of the city’s nascent arts effort. “Coffee is what we do,” said Jones. “But more than that, our staff is so committed to Fitchburg and I’m so committed to Fitchburg that we really just try to put community first.” 

Jones, 40, who grew up next door in Lunenburg and graduated from Fitchburg State, has turned Strong Style into a vibrant community center, hosting musical performances, poetry readings, and family-friendly events that are a draw for all ages. “This became a place where the community feels comfortable,” she said.

Feb 18, 2020

Kim Jones, the co-owner of Strong Style Coffee in Fitchburg. (Photo by Michael Jonas)

NewVue, the Fitchburg nonprofit that is developing the artists’ housing, has also launched a program to help local artists with everything from marketing to business plans. The organization’s “art stewards” program consists of a series of eight sessions geared toward giving artists who often work in isolation the kind of support and camaraderie those in other sectors often enjoy. 

At an August session of the program — which moved to Zoom after the onset of the pandemic — Eugene Finney, who used to work at the Fitchburg Art Museum and now helps artists get their work placed in corporate settings in the Boston area, was the guest speaker. 

“Artists are very creative, but how do you complete a tax form, how do you market your work, how do you create an arts business?” said Jessie Olson, a local writer who was taking part in the art stewards program.

Mayor Stephen DiNatale wants to bring back the vitality and street life shown in a picture of downtown Fitchburg in more vibrant days. (Photo by Michael Jonas)

Dohan, the NewVue executive director, said the art steward idea, like the murals commissioned along Mill Street, is aimed at helping to build the Fitchburg arts scene from the ground up. “We have arts and culture that’s already here,” said Dohan. “So this builds on those assets rather than trying to make us into something we’re not.”

Jennifer Vey, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, said the way to harness the full power of arts and culture to contribute to economic revitalization is to first pursue community-building efforts like the art steward program that supports local residents. “If you do it well for the people that live there, the tourism will come,” said Vey, director of the Anne T. and Robert M. Bass Center for Transformative Placemaking at Brookings. “Art is a way to generate civic pride and engagement, and to foster a sense of community identity. I think if you do that well, and that’s reason in and of itself to do it, you will have the added benefit of drawing others to your community, who will come to patronize your restaurants and businesses.” 

While Fitchburg leaders hope to bring back the vitality that once existed downtown, they know it won’t be driven by the sorts of businesses that thrived there decades ago. “What’s more convenient than sitting at your computer and clicking on it and having a package delivered to your home?” said Dohan. “You can’t compete on convenience anymore. What you’re aiming for is to create an experience of some kind, something that’s unique and cannot be replicated. That’s what arts and culture is.” 

“Back in the day, everyone bought everything on Main Street,” said Noah Koretz, director of MassDevelopment’s Transformative Development Initiative targeting Gateway Cities. “In the current online, large-scale retail world, the stuff that still manages to stay relevant and stays in business is stuff that’s small-scale and unique and experiential.”

That includes Kim Jones’s coffee shop along with the renovations to turn the Fitchburg Theater into a regional performance destination. And it includes a new business, Urban Fork, slated to open this fall on Main Street that will feature a state-of-the-art kitchen shared by local food entrepreneurs and a retail section where those products, including prepared meals, as well as other locally-sourced food products are sold. 

“There’s so much you can incorporate into arts and culture,” said Matthew Fournier, a local developer who is building out the space, which his wife, Kelly Fournier, will operate. “It’s not just painting on a canvas,” said Fournier, who received a $160,000 grant for the project from the state’s Collaborative Workspace Program.  

EYEING A CULTURAL PRIZE

In 2013, Fitchburg was turned down when it applied to the Massachusetts Cultural Council to have the downtown area recognized as a distinct “cultural district,” a designation made by the state agency that communities can use to secure access to various state programs, boost tourism, and encourage private development. 

“They said, you’ve got the arts and culture,” said Capasso, the museum director. “You’ve got the architecture, you’ve got the theater. What you do not have is a livable and walkable downtown with the amenities one would expect in a cultural district. There’s no place to shop or get a drink. There’s nobody on the street. When you fix that, come back,” he said. “So that’s the challenge.”

Fitchburg City Hall is undergoing a $23.5 million renovation, a strong “market signal,” says Tom Skwierawski, the city’s director of community development, for potential downtown investors. (Photo by Michael Jonas)

But bringing vitality back to Main Street is somewhat of a chicken-and-egg challenge. Potential businesses are looking for signs of foot traffic that tell them there would be a market to tap, but people need a reason to stroll the streets. A vibrant downtown nightlife, said Lapidus, the university president, is something “our students are screaming for.”

City government itself has tried to help goose the market by showing its own commitment to Fitchburg’s revival and the idea that its downtown can again become a place to be. A $32 million renovation to the public library is part of that effort. But the showpiece is the $23.5 million renovation of Fitchburg City Hall that is now nearing completion. Nothing symbolized the retreat from Main Street more than the shuttering of the city’s own municipal headquarters eight years ago when most city offices, including the mayor’s, were exiled to temporary space in a former industrial building off Main Street. The ornate Greek Revival city hall, which dates to 1853, was in such rough shape that some in Fitchburg, including at least one city councilor, urged that it be torn down. 

DiNatale was adamant in resisting such calls. “How can we be telling people to come to Main Street when we’re not even going to put our City Hall back there?” he said. “It’s a magnificent building, and it’s going to be what the people of Fitchburg deserve.” 

“We talk a lot about market signals,” said Tom Skwierawski, the city’s director of community development. “It has made our job a lot easier when we’re trying to sell to a new property developer or convince the state to invest in our roadway redesign when we’ve got scaffolding up there,” he said of the City Hall project. 

Skwierawski said a building a few doors down from City Hall recently sold and the buyer cited the renovations to the municipal government building and nearby Theater Block redevelopment and artists housing project in explaining what gave him confidence to make the deal. “So I think there’s sense that things are happening.”

Fears that the pandemic could derail revitalization efforts in Fitchburg so far have not materialized. Fitchburg State has hired a construction manager and expects to finalize design work for the theater renovation by the end of the year. The artists’ housing project is moving forward, and Matt Fournier says he hopes to open the Urban Fork shared kitchen and retail space in October. Skwierawski said the city has even heard during the pandemic from two potential restaurant operators who may be interested in space near the Theater Block. 

The pandemic may have slowed things down a little and “taken the foot off the gas pedal, but the vehicle’s still in drive and we’re moving,” said DiNatale. 

“It’s not quick-going work,” said Joe Ferguson, the director of Reimagine North of Main, a partnership of Fitchburg businesses, nonprofits, and city government working to revitalize the lower-income neighborhood just off Main Street. “But this disinvestment didn’t happen overnight, either.”  

Patricia Pistone, the vice president of strategy and innovation at the Montachusett Opportunity Council, a local social service provider, said no one is naive about the challenges Fitchburg faces or views the arts effort as the single answer to what ails it. “Arts and culture isn’t going to be a magic bullet to revitalize Fitchburg or any other community,” said Pistone. “It needs to fit into a greater story. But I do feel momentum.”