Arts + Policy

Arts + Policy


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.”

Cambridge arts groups seek city COVID relief funds

Cambridge arts groups seek city COVID relief funds

Organizations say they are in danger of closing permanently

BEFORE THE PANDEMIC, Improv Boston averaged about 2,000 patrons a week who watched its comedy shows and participated in acting classes at its Central Square location. Now, almost six months after it closed in compliance with state coronavirus rules, the nonprofit improvisational theater is asking the city of Cambridge for help.

“Due to necessary public space closures and capacity caps on venues, many organizations are facing displacement and rent default in addition to furloughing their staff due to lost earned and contributed revenue,” said a petition sent to the city by MASSCreative, a group of arts and cultural leaders, including Kristie LaSalle and Josh Garneau, the chair and managing director of Improv Boston.

In the petition, sent to Mayor Sumbul Siddiqui, Vice Mayor Alanna Mallon, and City Manager Louis DePasquale, MASSCreative said the pandemic is exacerbating what was already a bad situation, with rising rents forcing the closing of arts institutions, including Green Street Studios.

“We’re the one industry that hasn’t received the support we need to survive,” said LaSalle. “The level of support we need stems from fact that for a long time the arts have been on a backburner in terms of political concerns for the city.”

Garneau said Improv Boston has already made a lot of cuts – he and four other full-time employees were furloughed, some 60 part-timers are no longer working, and one of the organization’s performance spaces on Bishop Allen Drive was shut down.

“The hope is that we can resume operations in January, or another point very early in 2021. If we cannot, then the furlough will become a layoff as the company closes,” said Garneau.

Improv Boston in Central Square remains closed during the coronavirus pandemic. (Photo by Sarah Betancourt)

MASSCreative is urging the City Council to amend legislation establishing the Mayor’s Disaster Relief fund to allow arts organizations to apply for financial assistance that is currently limited to residents, workers, and small businesses. The group is also seeking a property tax abatement for landlords who lease to nonprofit artists and cultural organizations.

Callie Chapman, the owner of Studio@550, which offers professional development workshops to artists, thought her studio and other arts organizations closed by COVID-19 were going to gain access to the relief fund in July, when city officials appeared to reach a consensus on opening it up to arts groups.

But that effort came to a standstill on July 27 when one councilor, Denise Simmons, tabled debate on an amendment dealing with the issue during the final City Council meeting before summer break. The next meeting is September 14.

Chapman, who was forced to shut her studio down in March with accruing rent of $2,300- a month, said the delay has been costly. “September is a long way from March,” Chapman said.

A newly painted art installation in front of Cambridge City Hall honors the victims of police involved shootings. (Photo by Sarah Betancourt)

LaSalle of Improv Boston said the delay has been painful. “It was a dire situation for us in July,” she said. “The six-week delay is an incredible stresser. If relief isn’t made available soon, lots of arts spaces aren’t going to make it to Phase 4.”

Simmons said there were too many “unanswered questions” about how opening up the Mayor’s Disaster Relief Fund to arts nonprofits would work, and how it might impact those other businesses previously designated as being eligible, specifically black and brown owned businesses.

Simmons said that while she shares the desire to help arts organizations, there also need to be answers provided on how the city has conducted outreach to ensure all local businesses are being assisted, including black and minority owned businesses who “may not be fully plugged in” to local business associations. She’s hopeful questions will get answered on September 14, and that arts nonprofits will receive some assistance from the city.

Siddiqui, who helped write the amendment with Mallon, said it was “very clear it would have passed,” at the July meeting if it wasn’t tabled. “One councilor at that time wasn’t in support of it and didn’t say the reasoning,” said Siddiqui in a phone interview.

Siddiqui said many arts organizations are facing dire situations. “There’s been a gap with the organizations and it hasn’t been enough,” she said of the funding.

The arts organizations are also asking for a property tax abatement for landlords and owners who lease to non-profit artists and arts and cultural organizations, provided the landlord agrees to pass on the savings to non-profit artists and arts and culture organizations through “water-tight provisions and vetted oversight,” according to the petition. The groups claim there’s nothing to incentivize landlords and property owners to keep the arts alive in Central Square.

Arts organizations are also urging that developers be required to provide arts spaces with affordable rents inside new developments, that the city hire a director of cultural planning, and that funding be provided for a new municipal building for arts use.

Will the shows go on in Pittsfield?

Will the shows go on in Pittsfield?

Stage productions seek exemption from outdoor gathering limits

THE OLD ADAGE that the show must go on is facing a real test out in the Berkshires.

The story begins in mid-March, when the coronavirus shut down the stage lights on Broadway and plunged regional theaters across the country into darkness. Actors’ Equity, which represents 51,000 actors and stage managers nationwide, barred its members from putting on any stage plays until the virus was brought under control.

In early July, the union decided it was time to venture back on to the stage. It approved an outdoor production of the musical Godspell and an indoor production of a one-man show called Harry Clarke. Both were scheduled to open in Pittsfield in early August. Tickets sold quickly.

Kate Maguire, the artistic director and chief executive of the Berkshire Theater Group, which was staging Godspell, told the New York Times that the cast was going to stay together in a house and be regularly tested for the coronavirus. On stage, there would be no physical contact, even a contactless crucifixion, she said.

Mary McColl, the executive director of Actors’ Equity, said the actors would take care to sing past one another to reduce the potential for transmission of the disease.

An initial setback came on July 30, when Baker administration officials apparently told the Barrington Stage that a prohibition on indoor performances was unlikely to be lifted any time soon. The Barrington Stage responded by moving its production of Harry Clarke from its indoor theater to a tent on the parking lot of the Polish Community Club.

On Friday, Gov. Charlie Baker formally put the state’s phased reopening on hold (indoor performances were to be part of the second step of Phase 3). Baker also announced that, starting today, he was launching a number of tougher enforcement measures, including a reduction in the number of people allowed at outdoor gatherings from 100 to 50.

The tighter restrictions on outdoor gatherings creates problems for the two Pittsfield shows, which both opened over the weekend. Harry Clarke had an audience limit of 96 people while Godspell was capped at 75. 

Julianne Boyd, artistic director at the Barrington Stage, told the Berkshire Eagle there is a big difference between a cultural event in Pittsfield and a big private party at someone’s house on Cape Cod.

“There is a difference between a social gathering in which people are moving about freely, many of them unmasked, and a performance in which people are required to wear masks; whose temperatures are taken as they come in, and then they sit at a socially safe distance, 6 feet apart, for 75 or 80 minutes in an … open-air tent. We have taken the strictest protocols, approved by Berkshire Medical Center, the city’s health commissioner, and Actors’ Equity,” she said.

Boyd and Maguire have asked state Sen. Adam Hinds of Pittsfield to seek an exemption from the outdoor gathering limits from the state Department of Public Health. No answer yet on whether that exemption is forthcoming.

“This is our business, our livelihood,” Boyd said. “This is about supporting the economy of Pittsfield. The arts are vital to that economy.”

This is the wrong time to cut arts education

This is the wrong time to cut arts education

Schools should not be focused just on tested subjects

IN TIMES of great financial strain and uncertainty, arts education is often the first thing cut from the school curriculum. Indeed, several school districts across the Commonwealth have already laid off teachers and arts educators in the face of expected budget cuts and an unpredictable fall. Some districts may be anticipating a stricter focus on tested subjects when schools reopen to get students up to speed, but this is exactly the wrong time to be cutting arts programs.

With an ongoing global pandemic and heightened attention on racial injustice, students need arts education more than ever. The arts help students creatively engage with their classmates and communities, help combat isolation, and allow students to process their feelings and express themselves in ways that help them make sense of what’s happening in the world.

Arts education promotes positive development across the academic, social, and emotional realms. It is an essential part of a well-rounded education, not just enrichment or elective. Students involved in the arts are four times more likely to be recognized for academic achievement. Students who are highly engaged in the arts are twice as likely to graduate college as their peers with no arts education. And yet, despite the impressive benefits of arts education, not every student has access to these quality learning experiences.

When schools closed in March, Boston Public School students were able to continue their arts education for the remainder of the school year. Arts educators, led by Anthony Beatrice, executive director for the arts for the Boston Public Schools, utilized students’ inherent creativity to demonstrate the arts ability to unite and heal. Students from dozens of BPS schools contributed works of art to share with frontline workers in the Boston hospital community, as well as senior citizens in the City’s Age Strong Commission. BPS communities moved their art galleries to virtual spaces, or reworked their planned stage productions into rousing online events.

In addition, arts teachers across the district began taking part in online professional learning communities to share best practices and participate in weekly virtual meetings with the district’s arts department. They received professional development in building virtual ensembles, differentiating instruction, and on online tools such as FlipGrid, Google Classroom, and Soundtrap.

Over the years, the district has built up this strong support system and community of arts teachers due to BPS Arts Expansion, a public-private partnership that involves a large and coordinated network of partners, including schools, arts organizations, local and national foundations, colleges and universities, and the mayor’s office, among others. The capacity building of the Boston Public Schools to support quality arts education gave them the infrastructure and resources to quickly implement remote learning and could serve as a model for other school districts nationwide.

Arts education can be done — and done well — with some collaboration and innovation among educators. In the Boston Public Schools, the arts department created a new virtual learning section on the website where it posted many examples of what has been accomplished remotely. For example, students were able to express themselves in lessons ranging from comic book making and music composition to shadow puppetry and pandemic-themed tissue paper art.

During this time, districts and schools should be moving mountains to expand access to quality arts education instead of focusing — myopically — on tested subjects. Before students can get out from behind their screens and go back to an actual classroom, schools will need to ramp up and adapt the way they support their students’ social-emotional needs. Arts education is a powerful and effective tool in helping students process complex emotions in this challenging time. Creative expression in a safe environment, be it on or offline, can have healing effects for all.

COVID-19 forced schools to rapidly change the basic way they educate students and may change the shape of our classrooms for years to come. Moving forward, arts education will continue to be crucial in helping students connect with each other, express themselves, process the world around them, and stay engaged in learning.

Brenda Cassellius is the superintendent of the Boston Public Schools and Marinell Rousmaniere is president and CEO of Edvestors, a nonprofit school improvement organization in Boston.

Feb 18, 2020

Pandemic devastating to arts and culture sector

Will take years to recover, lawmakers are told

STATE HOUSE NEWS SERVICE

THE ARTS AND culture sector, a major piece of the Massachusetts economy, will need hundreds of millions of dollars and multiple years to recover from the impacts of the COVID-19 crisis, according to testimony delivered to state senators on Wednesday.

Senators have been holding a series of listening sessions to gauge the pandemic’s effects on different segments on the economy and check in on the gradual reopening of businesses.

During Wednesday’s session, focused on arts, culture, tourism and small business, Troy Siebels of the Hanover Theatre for the Performing Arts said that the performing arts have been “decimated” by the pandemic and many businesses operating in the field will not survive.

His own 2,300-seat theater in Worcester has suffered about a $5 million revenue loss and can’t feasibly reopen with social distancing in place, Siebels said.

“It’s pretty sobering,” he told Sens. Adam Hinds, Ed Kennedy and Diana DiZoglio. “I’m usually the optimistic guy, but I think many of us will not survive this, and that’s a shame because we are economic engines and vitality engines for our communities.”

According to the advocacy group MASSCreative, audiences for nonprofit arts and cultural events generate $877 million in spending at restaurants and stores. The arts, entertainment and recreation sector employed an average of more than 63,000 people in 2018, with an annual total of $2.5 billion in compensation.

“Without immediate action, organizations will shutter and the artists who are at the heart of our sector will leave Massachusetts,” MASSCreative executive director Emily Ruddock said. “Our sector’s strength is our diversity and volume of activity. COVID-19 and the economic crisis threaten that diversity and our ability to play our role as a proven economic driver and community connector.”

Ruddock urged lawmakers to prioritize arts and culture as they grapple with funding decisions made more difficult by revenue shortfalls, uncertain federal aid prospects, and needs across all facets of the economy.

She asked them to ensure artists and other creative professionals are eligible for workforce development programs, to continue including gig economy workers in the unemployment benefits program, and to pass a Hinds bill (S 2022) she said would put artists back to work by creating a fund for public art to be included in new state building projects.

David Slatery, the Massachusetts Cultural Council’s acting director, said that in addition to his organization’s efforts to support artists and organizations, it is “clear that a more robust public investment will also be necessary.”

Bethann Steiner, the council’s public affairs director, tallied the total cost of recovery for Bay State cultural nonprofits at $441.8 million. The sector has received $100.2 million in aid from the federal government and the cultural council, she said, but lost $425 million in revenue and faces $117 million in costs for implementing reopening and recovery strategies.

“We know it’s staggering. We know it’s dire,” Steiner said, urging lawmakers to consider the “negative and long-lasting” economic impacts of not investing in arts and culture.

Before the arrival of COVID-19 in March, the cultural sector supported 71,000 jobs statewide, with an economic impact of $2.3 billion, Steiner said. The council, based on a June survey in which 68 percent of responding organizations said they expect layoffs, furloughs and reductions in pay and hours, said 17,020 cultural sector jobs will be affected COVID-19.

Cultural nonprofits estimate it will take an average of two years, and in some cases up to five, to bring their programming and finances back to pre-pandemic levels, Steiner said.

When Massachusetts this month entered Phase 3 of the Baker administration’s economic restart strategy, museums, cultural and historical sites, and outdoor performance venues that have been closed since March were cleared to reopen with new capacity limits and other restrictions in place.

MASS MoCA, the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art in North Adams, reopened on July 11. Museum director Joseph Thompson said the museum had to raise a lot of money to make it through the closure, and took in about $1.6 million in private contributions. He said it also received about $900,000 through the federal Paycheck Protection Program and he is “quite nervous” about how it will get through the next six months without something like the PPP money.

Thompson described the museum as a driver of tourism for the area — as it has expanded, he said, the number of hotel rooms in North Adams has grown from 16 to 246. He said that within hours of the museum announcing its closure in March, “the three leading hotels in North Adams and Williamstown announced they’d shut their doors.”

With ticket time slots and capacity limits, MASS MoCA is now receiving visitors at about half its normal level, Thompson said. The guests are “rigorously” masked and practicing social distancing, he said.

“Museums are places where people are used to being told to stand back and don’t touch,” Thompson said.

Italian-American pride means goodbye, Columbus

Italian-American pride means goodbye, Columbus

Let's honor ancestors worthy of recognition

I’VE BEEN THINKING a lot about Christopher Columbus lately. That wasn’t always the case. Growing up an Italian-American kid, in an Italian-American town in New Jersey, we had summer feasts celebrating our Italian pride—but Columbus never entered my mind much, beyond the day off from school.

When I had my own children and began raising them a block from the Columbus statue on Boston’s waterfront, the subject came up more frequently—questions about the seam on its neck left by multiple reattachments; or why we’d name a park for someone like Columbus, given what they’d learned about him.

Recently though, our headless neighbor has become unavoidable. Mayor Marty Walsh tucked the statue in a warehouse after its latest decapitation, awaiting a discussion on its fate with the North End community. In the meantime, I’ve learned a few things in my conversations with neighbors, colleagues, friends and family members. Two observations seem especially telling.

First, even among Italian-Americans, many people don’t associate Columbus with being Italian. That’s more likely the case the younger the person that you ask, or the further they live from the Northeastern US. Second, every Italian-American I spoke with, no matter their views on Columbus, included one common element when discussing their heritage: their Nonni. Our grandmothers seem central to what being Italian means to many of us. Same goes for me.

When Italian-Americans celebrate Columbus today, we’re doing it to pay respect to the fortitude and sacrifice of our grandmothers and other ancestors who laid the groundwork for the success we enjoy here today. We’re rightfully proud of them. So why allow them to be overshadowed by a symbol with such a disgraceful reputation? Columbus isn’t the hero they deserve.

It doesn’t align with the stories we heard growing up, but there’s little doubt about the true nature of Columbus in the year 2020. Kidnapping, enslavement, rape, genocide. His atrocities are common knowledge. Our kids learn them at school. With these horrors in their minds, will it make our children proud of their Italian heritage when we invoke Columbus to celebrate it, or when we take them to play in their neighborhood park?

My children, my Italian-American nieces and nephews, other children I’ve spoken with in the neighborhood all find this choice (and yes, it is a choice we’re making) unfathomable. In their minds, association with Columbus doesn’t honor our Italian heritage, it slanders it. They don’t see removing the statue as a slight to us, our neighborhood, or our Italian heritage; they see it as a slight to Columbus—one that’s clearly deserved.

They’re not alone. Like Confederate generals, Columbus statues are being removed across America—last week he was even served an eviction notice by the mayor of Columbus, Ohio. While a small number of pro-Columbus protestors with assault rifles and baseball bats recently gathered in Philadelphia to defend their statue of Columbus, dwindling numbers of elected officials or organizations nationwide have been willing to publicly support keeping statues of Columbus.

It’s the same in Boston. When North End state Rep. Aaron Michlewitz issued a statement on Twitter that was non-committal about the fate of Columbus, it was met with intense backlash and calls for the statue’s removal. He hasn’t issued a statement about it since. When a Grafton-based Italian-American organization scheduled a rally at our park, it was quickly cancelled following the mayor’s intercession and lack of interest from the local Italian-American community. (Since then, even they’ve left the door open to moving the statue to private property.)

Most Italian-Americans I spoke with were more direct – it’s time for us to move past Columbus. From leaders of neighborhood organizations to my own fiercely-Italian mother, the balance seems to have tipped — people are no longer asking whether to replace Columbus, but with whom? There’s a long list of Italians and Italian-Americans many would rather see garner the public’s attention and celebration. Da Vinci, LaGuardia, Galileo—a few even mentioned Sophia Loren.

While Sophia Loren is certainly statuesque, we already have two potent symbols of the Italian-American experience linked to the North End: Nicola Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti. Executed in 1927 after a controversial trial in a biased criminal justice system, amidst a wave of anti-Italian sentiment, their story resonates now more than ever.

A century ago our Italian-American ancestors were targets of violence and white supremacy. While Sacco and Vanzetti were afforded some privileges of whiteness, like all our immigrant ancestors, they were still routinely targets of bias and discrimination because of their dark complexions, their Catholic faith, and widespread nativist bigotry about them stealing American jobs. Sound familiar?

Italian-Americans adopted Columbus as a symbol of their pride and as a way to legitimate themselves to white, mainstream America. That was their choice 100 years ago. Columbus presents us with a different choice today. We can either allow ourselves to be continually goaded into fighting on the wrong side of an already-lost culture war, or we can choose to find better ways to honor our heritage.

Twenty-five years ago, San Francisco’s Italian community renamed its annual Columbus Day parade the Italian Heritage Parade. It’s now in its 152nd consecutive year. They’ve proved it possible to celebrate Italian heritage without invoking slavery, rape, and genocide. Let’s give it a shot here too.

The summer of 2020 seems an especially good time to decouple our heritage from the image of Columbus—and by commemorating Sacco and Vanzetti, we’d be giving Italian-Americans a touchpoint to reflect on how bias and discrimination harmed our ancestors, and continue to cause harm today.

When we see stereotyping and dehumanization of people of color in the US, we’ll remember that Italians were once stereotyped and dehumanized. When we see our government’s discriminatory actions against immigrants, we’ll remember that Italians were targeted by the bigotry of the Quota Act of 1921 and Immigration Act of 1924. When we see people in the streets protesting our criminal justice system’s unjust use against black Americans, we’ll remember how it was used against Italian-Americans in the past, and that we took to the streets then too.

Sacco and Vanzetti Day has been a holiday in Massachusetts since 1977, celebrated on August 23rd—the height of North End feast season. The park where the Columbus statue stood is blocks from where Italian-Americans organized the pair’s defense committee and marched in their funeral. There’s even a mold for a statue, by the sculptor of Mount Rushmore, waiting in the Boston Public Library’s archives.

That’s my suggestion—but whatever we decide, let’s celebrate our heritage in a way that will make our ancestors and our children proud.

Lisa Green is a North End mother, political activist, and a co-founder of the Boston Coalition for Education Equity, which is working to restore Boston’s right to elect its School Committee. 
Art for everyone's sake

Art for everyone’s sake

Without financial relief, the arts will become inaccessible to all but a few

DYSTOPIAN STORYTELLING IMAGINES time and place without light, color, and life—elements that art, music and performance provide. We’ve had a taste of it during these many weeks at home, and it’s changing the world around us. If we’re not careful, these changes could be with us long after the coronavirus is gone.

The arts are a public good—not merely a consumer product—because everyone benefits from the arts, not just those who choose to attend or engage in the arts. We all benefit when neighborhoods are more livable, when students do better in school, when our economy is more productive, and when diverse populations come together.

Despite its small size, Massachusetts is home to world-class cultural institutions and hundreds of community-based arts and cultural nonprofits that entertain and educate all residents of the Commonwealth. Our ecosystem reaches people who live in our cities, suburbs, and rural locales. We reach people at all income levels and of all races, ethnicities, abilities, genders, and sexual orientations. Before the pandemic, this incredibly diverse and innovative industry accounted for $25.8 billion, or 4.8 percent, of the Massachusetts economy and 140,593 jobs.

As the state reopens, many arts, cultural, and creative organizations will need to wait until phases three or four before they can return to revenue-generating activities. We are still learning about the coronavirus, but the science is clear that choral organizations like the Boston Gay Men’s Chorus may be among the last to open.

In late March, one of the first stories that helped people understand the ease with which the coronavirus could transmit from one person to another was that of the Skagit Valley Chorale. On March 10, with no reported cases of COVID-19 in Skagit County, Washington, the group gathered for a rehearsal. Within days, chorus members were experiencing fevers. Three weeks later, 53 of the 61 people who sang that evening had become ill with COVID-19 and two of them had died. This month, the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention published a case study of the event, concluding that transmission of the coronavirus had been “augmented by the act of singing.”

The Boston Gay Men’s Chorus has notched a lot of firsts in its history—touring the Middle East as an openly gay chorus among the most notable—but being the first choral group to take the stage amid a global pandemic will not be among them. The chorus—and many other organizations like us—will not be returning to the stage before there are better treatment options for COVID-19 or a vaccine.

How will arts organizations survive? Individual donors have been generous, but with the unemployment rate at 15 percent in the state, people are pinched. Corporate interests, an important funder of the arts, have retrenched. Just a few months ago, the arts ecosystem in Massachusetts was a flywheel that generated energy, excitement, and revenue. Without intervention, it will become a barbell with large cultural institutions at one end and extremely low budget pop-ups at the other. Without public support, we risk a devastating culling of the mid-sized dance companies, theaters, musical groups, and galleries.

These are organizations that bring people together and generate economic activity in neighborhoods and business districts throughout the state. Many of these mid-size organizations, such as Boston Center for the Arts in Boston’s South End, The Dance Complex in Cambridge, Narrows Center for the Arts in Fall River, Community Music School of Springfield, or IS183 Art School of the Berkshires also function as local cultural anchors. These are spaces that numerous artists and other organizations rely up upon for rehearsing, teaching, presenting, and gathering.

After the wave of cancellations in March that cost arts nonprofits an estimated $264 million, many organizations quickly adapted to find new ways to stay connected with their audiences. We’ve seen incredibly innovative virtual and online performances. But this isn’t sustainable. As we know from the media business, giving away your content for free is not a winning long-term strategy.

We understand that local municipalities and the state will face historic budget shortfalls as a result of the economic devastation wrought by the COVID-19 pandemic. But some federal money has already flowed to the state. More is coming. We need to prepare to get it out the door quickly to organizations that will not be able to return to revenue-generating activities until phases three or four of the state’s reopening.

Arts organizations need grants and access to small business recovery programs. The state can allocate some of its CARES Act funding for arts, cultural, and creative organizations. In its next recovery bill, Congress needs to include provisions for full reimbursement of self-insured unemployment plans and changes to the universal charitable tax deduction by removing the $300 cap and by eliminating the 60 percent limit on adjusted gross income.

Other cities and states around the country are making plans to support their arts organizations. Los Angeles is using city funds to make small grants to artists and arts nonprofits. Phoenix has allocated $2 million of its CARES Act funding for cultural groups. New York City has an arts industry specific reopening task force. Connecticut and Utah included statewide arts leaders on their COVID-19 economic task force groups.

Massachusetts needs to do the same by offering more to the arts sector than guidance about sanitation standards. Absent that, our story will become dystopian indeed.

Craig Coogan is the executive director of the Boston Gay Men’s Chorus. Emily Ruddock is the executive director of MASSCreative.