Arts + Policy

Arts + Policy

Mass. needs to step up for tourism and the arts

Mass. needs to step up for tourism and the arts

Investment is no-brainer; lack of predictable state support deplorable

MASSACHUSETTS’ DYNAMIC tourism industry and its arts and cultural assets are inextricably linked, collectively delivering extraordinary dividends to the state’s economic vitality and quality of life. Residents and visitors alike reap the benefits created by these sectors, and yet there is no predictable or dedicated financial support on the state and local level to ensure their sustainability, or even their survival.

With Boston Mayor Martin J. Walsh’s proposal for a special commission led by the state Executive Office of Economic Development to evaluate tourism and arts funding, Massachusetts officials and tourism partners can take a fresh look at the profound impact these sectors have on the Boston and Massachusetts economy. This important commission would examine the current state of funding for these sectors in the Commonwealth, and the success of various programs, and compare them to other states’ efforts.  The commission would hold meetings and public hearings over the next year and deliver its findings a year after it convenes.

The commission would represent all of Massachusetts and stimulate a conversation on how we invest in and leverage our unrivaled qualities. And this investment will bear fruit, for when visitors come to Massachusetts to experience the city, its cultural treasures, and vibrant arts scene, their expenditures generate tax dollars that support the infrastructure and citizenry of Massachusetts without taxing its constituents. Investment in tourism and the arts is a no-brainer, and the creation of this commission is a tremendous first step to initiate a statewide discussion based on that premise. The commission would also look at how to build a stronger pipeline to jobs in the tourism and arts and culture economies, which collectively employ more than 175,000 statewide.

As the Commonwealth’s third largest industry, tourism contributes more than $20 billion annually in direct spending alone. More than 27 million annual visitors sustain an industry that supports nearly 150,000 jobs statewide.

It is therefore unfortunate that the tourism industry has perpetually dealt with uncertainty over funding.  Taxes are levied on hotel stays at a much higher rate than traditional goods and services. However, very little of the revenue generated from the occupancy tax is reinvested in the industry, as was originally intended. In fact, Massachusetts ranks near the bottom of all 50 states in terms of destination marketing budgets on the state and regional levels. While New York, Florida, and California allocate between $50-$120 million per year in tourism marketing dollars on the state level, and the average US state spends approximately $20 million, Massachusetts allocates a mere $10 million to be divvied up between the state tourism office and 16 regional tourism councils. As the largest tourism council, the Greater Boston Convention & Visitors Bureau receives more funding than the others, but the fact that Boston, a top-tier city, has no direct access to occupancy tax revenue, and no consistent notion of how much annual funding it will receive for destination marketing, is baffling for those who work in the industry.

Massachusetts also boasts a robust arts and culture sector: regional arts and cultural organizations directly inject nearly $1 billion into the local economy each year, providing 26,000 jobs. An ArtsBoston study found that Greater Boston is home to more arts and cultural organizations, per capita, than any other metropolitan area in the country. When it comes to dedicated funding, however, the arts and culture sector fares no better than tourism, which is symptomatic of the bigger picture in which Massachusetts is failing to invest in some of its essential resources, including cultural tourism. Massachusetts currently lacks a comprehensive and coordinated plan to support these vital institutions, most of which are non-profit.  Instead, these institutions rely on dwindling corporate support and private donors to bridge the gap between ticket revenue and the high cost of staging performances, events, and exhibits, or they simply foot the bill themselves.

As one example, Emerson College has invested over $600 million to revitalize downtown Boston and the arts institutions located there, and the college’s efforts to restore historic buildings and theatres have sparked an economic and cultural renaissance in an area of the city that was once forgotten.  Emerson, which owns more performance space than any other Boston institution, is proud of this commitment and its arts stewardship, but public support for the arts and cultural tourism is urgently needed to continue this momentum.

Indeed, the arts are powerful economic engines that contribute significantly to our local and regional economy, and to the entrepreneurial culture for which Boston has become so well known. And far beyond the obvious pocketbook issues, the arts contribute to quality of life, attract a creative workforce, and have the capacity to inspire, embrace, and celebrate the city’s emerging diversity by bringing people together.

Despite the extraordinary cultural, historical, and natural assets that make Massachusetts a top destination, without deep investment in the arts, culture, and tourism sectors we risk losing so much more than market share to other states. We risk losing the qualities that make our Commonwealth a leader and model for the rest of our country.

Martha J. Sheridan is the president and CEO of the Greater Boston Convention & Visitors Bureau and Lee Pelton is the president of Emerson College.

King’s English

King’s English

The money man behind Boston’s forthcoming tribute to MLK

PAUL ENGLISH DIDN’T invent the idea of building a monument in Boston to the foremost civil rights hero of the 20th century, but in the parlance of the high-tech world where English made his millions, he was the angel investor who helped launch it.

There was untapped demand in Boston for a suitable tribute to Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., and his wife Coretta Scott King. The two met in the city where she studied music and he studied theology years before he became the emblematic leader of the cause that succeeded in granting voting rights and a more equal economic footing that had for centuries been denied to black Americans. Despite its seminal place in the Kings’ history, Boston has not yet honored them in the manner of other cities such as Washington, DC, Atlanta, and San Francisco.

There was a familiar reason why.

“We couldn’t find the money,” said Marie St. Fleur, a former state representative from Dorchester who is coordinating the effort. “Nobody would fund it. The state didn’t step up. The city didn’t step up.”

Then, two years ago, along came English.

The 55-year-old co-founder of the travel website, who now spends much of his time helping lead the corporate travel company, put $1 million toward the King effort, brought Mayor Marty Walsh on board, and may donate more of his money toward associated ventures to help further King’s ideas around economic justice.

English, who has a home in Arlington and another in Boston’s Seaport, said he is sometimes asked why a rich white guy is bankrolling the effort to honor King, who did so much to overturn the laws and customs in the US that barred black people from the halls of power.

“I don’t know what to say other than King moved me. I want more racial equity in Boston, and I’m putting money behind it,’” English said in a recent interview.

On Monday, King Boston, the nonprofit formed to turn the idea into reality, announced the winning design for the monument: a giant, polished metal statue of interlocking arms representing the Kings. Dubbed The Embrace, the design was submitted by the studios of Hank Willis Thomas and MASS Design Group.

The Embrace, a sculpture to honor Rev. Martin Luther King and Coretta Scott King, would be built nearby the Parkman Bandstand. (Image courtesy of King Boston)

Throughout his career, English has shown a knack for finding efficiencies that generate profit and a bent for altruistic ventures that have had a mixed record. A motivating force in English’s profit-making endeavors has been his desire to accumulate enough cash so that he could make meaningful philanthropic investments.

His quirky approach to business and philanthropy attracted the interest of Pulitzer Prize-winning author Tracy Kidder, who published a biography of English in 2016 called A Truck Full of Money. The title derives from one of the entrepreneur’s colleagues who predicted that one day English was going to “get hit by a truck full of money, and I’m going to be standing beside him.” Now English is behind the wheel of the proverbial truck.


In the world of philanthropy, there are those who carefully plan how they will give away their money, and then there are people like English who act largely on impulse. About two decades ago, English and his son were driving through Boston’s South End when his son, who was about three, demanded English get out of the car to check on a man curled up beneath an overpass. The man was alive but clearly in need, and a desire to help those in similar situations took root.

“It took the eyes of a child to say something. He was really alarmed. And that made me start learning about homelessness,” English said.

English now regularly accompanies the physician who founded Boston Health Care for the Homeless on van rides around the city to bring aid to those spending the night outside. He donates to homeless causes and he was a founder of Winter Walk, which highlights the issues that homeless people face and raises money to help them.

English’s bid to build a King memorial was also the outgrowth of an impulse. On a trip to San Francisco, English saw that city’s monument to King – a man-made waterfall adorned with King’s words. He was intrigued and wondered why Boston didn’t have a similar monument. Most people would have left it at that, and moved on with their life. But English decided Boston needed its own monument, and he began emailing people about his idea on the way back to Boston from San Francisco.

One of the people he emailed was Joyce Linehan, a top advisor to the mayor. Two weeks later, Walsh publicly endorsed the idea.

“I think Boston’s lucky to have Paul English. I think that he’s proven time and time again that he’s ready to step up when there’s an issue to be discussed or wrong to be righted,” said Linehan.

When it comes to his benevolent gestures, English has had the sort of uneven record that could be regarded as a badge of honor in the startup world, where the occasional risk-taking failure is venerated.

English created a phone-based game designed to encourage safer driving, but an automotive news website found the app itself was “extremely distracting.” Another English pet project, to connect consumers with live customer service representatives and avoid the frustration of automated messages, resulted in, which is still up and running. English founded Summits Education, which provides schooling to thousands of children in rural Haiti. After a gunman massacred children in Newtown, Connecticut, English dreamed up something called the American Gun League to counter the political stances of the National Rifle Association, but that idea sputtered out.

As a political donor, English backs candidates who roughly hew to his way of thinking about the world. Last year, English distributed tens of thousands of dollars to a couple dozen congressional candidates, seemingly with an eye toward flipping seats from Republicans to Democrats, and many of his beneficiaries succeeded. Among the recipients: Congressman Andy Kim who unseated Republican Tom McArthur in New Jersey and Elissa Slotkin, who unseated Republican Mike Bishop in Michigan.

“I lean left,” English said of his political giving. He said his 2018 donations were not much different than other cycles.

In college, English made musical arrangements for a 15-piece jazz ensemble, and he sees a similarity between that and writing computer code or leading a non-profit. In all three cases, there are many different moving parts. There are also fundamental differences between a software startup and a nonprofit like King Boston.

“There’s no consensus-building around building a startup. You have an idea; you try to convince a few people to join you; and then you go off and build it,” English said.

While English has long welcomed consumer feedback – even answering customer service phone calls at Kayak – outreach to the community was an imperative at King Boston in a way that it isn’t at most companies. English’s engagement with the public impressed St. Fleur.

“It started with the people and asking them their input, which I think is the way things honestly ought to be to really expand on this idea of our democracy, which is led by the people and fueled by the people,” said St. Fleur. “Most people don’t do that for the black community in Boston.”

Marie St. Fleur

At King Boston, English handed much of the decision-making to an art committee made up of local scholars and artists and took direction from the input received in 14 public meetings and around 200 other one-on-one discussions about the project. That is a departure from what was English’s idiosyncratic approach towards designing the office space for Blade Boston, a startup incubator he founded after selling Kayak.

Early in his career English was diagnosed with bipolar disorder, and he has experienced both bouts of deep depression and also hypomania, which is a somewhat lesser form of the mania that some people with bipolar disorder endure. When he put together Blade’s Fort Point offices, English said he was “probably totally hypomanic.” The result was an office that morphed into a high-tech quasi-nightclub with a great sound system and a “bat wall” where a cloud of projected bats will descend on your hand if you place it on the wall. According to Kidder’s book, English’s plans for Blade Boston created some friction with his business partners, who worried about costs and liabilities.

When it came to King Boston, the design proposals came from 126 teams made up of artists and architects, and the selection was made by an art committee after input by the public and feasibility studies. English had a favorite – the design that wound up being selected – but he said he didn’t share that with the art committee.


English and St. Fleur both grew up in Boston around the same time, but their experiences of the city were distinct and they had never met until English founded King Boston.

Born in Haiti, St. Fleur emigrated to the US with her family as a child. They settled first in New Jersey, but the local Catholic school there would not enroll black children, so they moved to Upham’s Corner, then a mostly white neighborhood. St. Fleur became one of the few black students at her Catholic school in an era when the federal court order was reshaping the city’s public schools to try to eliminate racial segregation. She went on to study law at Boston College and in 1999 she became the first Haitian-American elected to the Massachusetts House.

Across town in West Roxbury, English grew up in an Irish Catholic household that spent summers in Hull. English’s neighborhood was white and he went to predominantly white public schools, including Boston Latin School. English’s father worked for Boston Gas, starting as a pipe-fitter and then rising to become a mid-level executive, and his mother was a social worker. English has three brothers and three sisters. He is a divorced father of two adult children.

A seemingly innate aptitude for computer programming enabled a youthful English to steal an administrator’s password and mess around with the attendance records. English also dealt pot and snuck into MBTA tunnels in his youth, according to Kidder’s book.

English didn’t graduate near the top of his class from Boston Latin and so while friends went to Harvard and Boston College, he enrolled at the University of Massachusetts Boston where he studied computer science. English wasn’t the first in his family to make a career in computers. His older brother Ed developed a chess-playing program when English was in high school.

During the 1990s, English forged a career in computer software as a coder, then a manager, and finally an entrepreneur of Boston Light, which was gobbled up by Intuit, making English his first fortune.

After selling Boston Light, English met Steve Hafner at the Cambridge venture capital firm General Catalyst and in 2004 the two founded Kayak on the premise that travelers would flock to a website that provided truly comprehensive searches of airline tickets. Each pledged to pour $1 million into the startup and in 2012 they sold the company for $1.8 billion, according to Kidder’s book.


English had read King’s writing as a youngster and then again in college, and was moved by the work, especially the notion of the “beloved community,” which the King Center in Atlanta describes as a world in which poverty and homelessness will not be tolerated, and racism will be replaced by feelings of brotherhood and sisterhood.

After the lightbulb went off during his visit to San Francisco, English fired off several emails from the plane back to Boston and he was surprised at how readily City Hall agreed to the idea for a monument to King on Boston Common.

“I was really anxious at first about what it would be like to work with the city, thinking they were going to slow things down,” English said.

As an entrepreneur, English seeks out populations unsatisfied by the available offerings.  As a philanthropist, he parked his money truck next to the as-yet unrealized hopes of many in Boston’s black community.

“Paul kind of came out and put some money behind the effort and it really got off the ground. It started moving really once he made that investment,” said Walsh.

The fact that a rich white guy’s money catalyzed the long-held dream of the black community makes logical sense to St. Fleur, who said she wishes more people would act like English.

“If you take a look at philanthropy across this city, it’s rich white guys and rich white women who’ve actually been funding philanthropy across this city,” St. Fleur said. “They’re not black people. Given the structural racism that exists in this country, we haven’t had the opportunity to build the intergenerational wealth.”

English and St. Fleur both said they hope the monument will spark conversations about race. That may sound dangerously close to the ill-received and short-lived experiment by Starbucks to engage customers in a similar discussion by writing “race together” on to-go coffee cups, but St. Fleur said, unlike less successful talks about race, those spurred by King Boston will be informed by history. The nonprofit plans to build an economic justice center in Roxbury, fund a librarian at the Dudley Square branch of the Boston Public Library to provide access to King’s works, and finance an endowed speakers series at the Twelfth Baptist Church where King used to preach.

English first pitched his idea a few months before the Boston Globe published an investigative series looking into the reasons behind Boston’s reputation as a racist city. One of the most remarkable facts from those articles was the disparity in wealth between white and black Bostonians. Non-immigrant African-American households in the Boston area have a median net worth of $8, while white households have a median net worth of $247,500.

“The series was painful to read, and it was surprising to me, but when I talked to black friends who grew up in the city they said nothing in there was surprising to them, so it was more, I think, educating white Bostonians what it’s like to be black in Boston,” English said.

St. Fleur doesn’t need to look in a history book to trace the way American society has thrown up roadblocks to black people over the years. The Boston neighborhood where she grew up was red-lined, a government-sanctioned practice that made it harder for black families to obtain mortgages and homeowners’ insurance. She is among those familiar with the conclusions reached by the Globe, that black Bostonians still lack access to the same opportunities as others in the city.

“The Boston Globe articulated the problem. It’s not the first time that the problem has been articulated,” St. Fleur said. “This project for me is part of the solution.”

Wealth can shape the world in all sorts of ways, and the wealthy have long been benefactors to the arts. Over the next year and a half, if the project goes according to plan, English’s most visible imprint on the landscape of Boston will be a glimmering monument to the Kings.

“It’s a symbol,” English said. “I think symbols are important, and it’s a symbol that should result in conversations and action.”

'The Embrace' chosen as King monument on Common

‘The Embrace’ chosen as King monument on Common

Sculpture of arms embracing was most popular with public

THE NONPROFIT KING BOSTON has selected a sculpture featuring two pairs of arms in an embrace as the winning design for a monument on Boston Common to Rev. Martin Luther King and Coretta Scott King, a couple who met in Boston in the 1950s and then nurtured a transformational civil rights movement.

The art committee of King Boston last week chose The Embrace, a polished metal sculpture that blends realism and abstraction as it depicts the couple’s disembodied, loving arms holding one another. The official announcement will be made on Monday.

The monument will be built near the Parkman Bandstand, according to the artists’ submission. It was one of 126 entries to a contest announced in December 2017 and one of three finalists, whittled down from five top choices announced last June.

The winning design was a collaboration between the Brooklyn-based studios of artist Hank Willis Thomas and the MASS Design Group, a non-profit, civic-minded architecture firm located across the street from the Public Garden. Thomas said the 20-member team that came up with the concept for The Embrace settled on it because it was “the most unlike anything we’ve ever seen before.”

Thomas, who is African American, has produced a sculpture for the National Memorial for Peace and Justice in Montgomery, Alabama, which commemorates the more than 4,000 documented racial lynchings in America after the abolition of slavery. His studio also built a giant Afro-pick sculpture that was displayed outside of Philadelphia’s city hall and represents the city’s “Black Power” movement.

“I’m very much inspired by deconstructing and complicating the traditional notions of race that have been used to divide us,” Thomas said in an interview over the weekend. “Race, it was a social construction that was a divide-and-conquer strategy, and in many ways it’s still very much at play.”

Thomas, 42, grew up in New York, and is the son of photographer Deborah Willis.

The Embrace is the most visible aspect of King Boston’s plans, which include establishing a King Center for Economic Justice in Dudley Square that would aim to bring more high-paying jobs to Boston’s historically black neighborhoods. The non-profit also plans to provide an endowment to fund guest speakers at the Twelfth Baptist Church in Roxbury, where King sermonized, and finance a librarian position for the Boston Public Library in Dudley who would provide the public with access to King’s writings, according to Marie St. Fleur, the executive director of King Boston.

While St. Fleur said the project is “a whole lot more than a statue,” she said the artwork will play an important role in the organization’s goal of bridging the “chasm” between the wealthy and largely white, touristy downtown area around the Common and the neighborhoods like Roxbury and Dorchester where black residents were segregated decades ago and which remain the bedrock of Boston’s black community today.

“The feeling of ownership that I think some folks take for granted, I don’t know that most African Americans or people of African descent feel that about the park,” said St. Fleur, a former state representative who is Haitian-American and grew up in the Upham’s Corner neighborhood of Dorchester. “Now from the Common, maybe those tourists will come up to Roxbury. Now from Roxbury, maybe those kids up on Martin Luther King Boulevard will see the Common as a place for them to go picnic.”

The arms of the sculpture will stand more than 20 feet above the ground and there will be enough room for people to stroll beneath them. Paul English, a tech entrepreneur and philanthropist who bankrolled the creation of King Boston, said he anticipated construction of the sculpture would be completed sometime next year.

The interior of The Embrace, a sculpture selected for Boston Common to honor Rev. Martin Luther King and Coretta Scott King. (Image courtesy of King Boston)


The Embrace was deemed the most feasible during a review of the three finalists by the city. It also seemed to be the public’s favorite choice based on feedback received. And it was the top choice of the art committee, according to English, who said it was also his favorite, but he said he didn’t share his personal opinion with the art committee.

The sculpture, which will be made of stainless steel and may have a polished bronze color, will be something very new for the oldest public park in the United States, predating the founding of the nation by more than 150 years.

The last monument placed on the Common was a marker dedicated in 1981 commemorating a public Mass held two years before by Pope John Paul II.

The Embrace will be built near the Parkman Bandstand, which has played a role in African American history – presidential candidate Barack Obama and several historical figures, including King himself, have all spoken from the round structure. The location would also place The Embrace near the outdoor summer performances of Shakespeare plays.

Plans for the first new monument in the park in nearly 40 years also coincide with plans by the Friends of the Public Garden to ramp up investment in the park as a whole. The non-profit that cares for the trees and artwork in the Common, the Public Garden, and the Commonwealth Avenue Mall will be helped in that endeavor by an infusion of $28 million from the development of the Winthrop Square luxury tower that will cast shadows on the parks.

“How do you reimagine this place which has an enormous amount of history, an incredible amount of use?” asked Elizabeth Vizza, executive director of the friends group who hopes a master plan that will be undertaken by the Boston firm Weston & Sampson will help answer that question.  “It’s the heaviest used park by many orders of magnitude in the city – hundreds of permitted events.”

Upkeep in the park is expensive, according to Vizza, who said fixing up the Brewer Fountain a decade ago cost $4.5 million, and power-washing the plaza around the fountain costs $1,800 per month. She supports the creation of a King monument and hopes the friends group will be able to consult with King Boston about its plans, she said. The friends group, meanwhile, is combining forces with the National Parks Service to finance a $2.8 million refurbishment of the Robert Gould Shaw and 54th Regiment Memorial, which commemorates the Massachusetts regiment of black soldiers that fought during the Civil War.

King Boston has a fundraising goal of $12 million and has raised $6 million so far, according to St. Fleur, who runs the non-profit out of The Boston Foundation. Artists were given a budget of about $4 million for construction of the King monument and the organization plans to establish a maintenance endowment, according to English.

English, who grew up in an Irish Catholic family in West Roxbury before making millions as a software coder and then co-founder of, gave $1 million toward King Boston, which he founded. English launched the organization after seeing a monument to King in San Francisco – a man-made waterfall adorned with King’s words – and deciding Boston should build something for the social justice hero. The idea of a tribute to King had long been talked about in Boston, but the effort lacked a financial backer. Once English got on board the idea swiftly received the support of Boston Mayor Marty Walsh. English said he may donate more of his money toward the economic justice center in Roxbury.

The healing power of art

The healing power of art

Therapists who use creative outlets to help patients process trauma seek licensure

THE YOUNG GIRL had endured bullying and been called ugly. She was told she had a unibrow by one of her male classmates.

At her therapist’s office, she was “withdrawn and disengaged.” She refused to finish a self-portrait she had started the previous week, instead picking up another piece of paper and painting two eyes and a single eyebrow floating alone in a sea of blue. The place where the mouth would be was covered in a green swath.

The therapist, Stephanie Burks-Pelland, who is based in Beverly, said her client’s interaction with art was revealing.

“She didn’t want to mess up her self-portrait and was feeling out of control. She couldn’t go there,” said Burks-Pelland. “It was so telling to me as a therapist to be able to assess what she was really going through.”

Burks-Pelland is a licensed mental health counselor, but the session with her young client was not only tapping skills from that training, it drew heavily on her additional background as a certified art therapist.

An emerging field in the world of mental health care, art therapy, which advocates say can be especially helpful for those who have experienced trauma, is looking to establish a firmer foundation in Massachusetts.

Many mental health counselors use art as part of their practice, and they can obtain certification from the Art Therapy Credentials Board, a national nonprofit founded 50 years ago to support development of the art therapy profession. But now art therapy practitioners are pushing legislation on Beacon Hill to establish state licensing of art therapists, a move that would increase their professional standing, allow them to bill through insurance companies, and make their services more widely accessible to low-income families.

Map showing art therapist licensure across states.

Christine Hultgren Ryan, who convinced Sen. Diana DiZoglio of Methuen to file the legislation, said she wants to see art therapy recognized as a profession. “Establishing guidelines and regulations to ensure practitioners are sharing their services and are properly trained is important,” said Hultgren Ryan, who works as a school adjustment counselor in Ipswich.

Hultgren Ryan said her two-year master’s program in art therapy and counseling at the College of New Rochelle in New York was rigorous training. She worked in a mental health facility for adolescent males when conducting her required internship and practicum, and is now registered with the Art Therapy Credentials Board.

Art therapists often combine their methods with traditional psychotherapy, which revolves around discussion with clients. Art therapy can be especially useful with patients who are having difficulty articulating the issues they are dealing with, allowing them to reveal their feelings without saying anything.

Burks-Pelland said art therapy is particularly helpful for sexual assault and human trafficking victims. She has volunteered at the Boston Area Rape Crisis Center, and spent time with sexual assault victims in emergency rooms. She said those types of patients need to deal with the trauma they experienced but typically don’t want to keep reliving it.

“I told a survivor that she wouldn’t need to recount her story to me,” said Burks-Pelland. “I said, ‘We’re going to start with the art.’”

Art therapy uses a range of visual art materials, including painting, sculpture, and collaging, to help clients explore trauma and other problems. The psychological undertones of the art can help decode feelings. Certain media, like collage or markers, are recommended for sexual assault victims who need to feel in control of their surroundings, as opposed to mediums like paint, which are more fluid.

Burks-Pelland said she had a patient who had been sexually assaulted create a collage of herself. She and the patient then discussed what the collage said about how she viewed her body and herself. It was a way to start a discussion and “begin the process of healing,” Burks-Pelland said.

A “body work” collage created by a victim of sexual assault during an art therapy session.

According to an essay on the American Art Therapy Association’s site, one Chelsea clinician’s patient was a 14-year-old boy who had crossed the US-Mexico border three years earlier as an unaccompanied minor to avoid gang violence. He was detained and kept in detention centers. He and his art therapist processed his trauma by collaborating on a quilt.

Over time, he told her of the cold in the detention center. He described how he watched other children who were exposed to frightening things, how he wrapped his own sweater around another shivering little boy, how his remaining mementos from Central America were taken away, and how he felt stripped of dignity.

The teen created a secret pouch within the blanket to hold his belongings. The final portion of the blanket was brightly colored, in memory of his grandmother who sent him off the US to be safe.

Although the field of art therapy has existed since the 1950s, it has taken decades for states to figure out methods of licensure and embrace the idea of certifying therapists. Six states currently license art therapists and more than a dozen others are moving toward doing so.

A quilt made by a Central American teenager who experienced trauma as an unaccompanied minor being held in immigrant detention.

The biggest roadblock art therapists face is insurer reimbursement. Insurers cover art therapy if it’s provided in a broader hospital setting – Massachusetts General Hospital, for example, employs art therapists – but not if it’s provided by an individual practitioner. As a result, most art therapists in Massachusetts are also licensed mental health counselors, a designation that can make them eligible for insurance reimbursements.

Burks-Pelland said her sessions are covered by Blue Cross Blue Shield of Massachusetts, but only because she is a licensed mental health counselor. If she were only an art therapist, her patients would have to pay entirely out of pocket, which can cost hundreds of dollars per session.

As of late January, there were 6,851 licensed mental health counselors in Massachusetts, but there’s no way to determine how many of them practice art therapy. The New England Art Therapy Association is connected to at least 70 art therapists in Massachusetts.

The proposal in the Legislature would lump professional art therapists in with other mental health care providers, including mental health counselors, clinical social workers, and marriage and family therapists.

Katie Racanelli, president of the New England Art Therapy Association, says the organization hasn’t heard yet of any pushback against the bill to create an art therapy licensing designation in Massachusetts.

Lesley University graduates 45 to 50 students each year from a master’s program that teaches the principles of art therapy along with the education requirements needed to gain licensure as a mental health counselor.

“There are few jobs listed as art therapist jobs,” said Michaela Kirby, the interim director of the expressive therapies division at Lesley. “They’re often for licensed, eligible clinicians. In a way, that agency that hires our students is getting a twofer – someone trained as a licensed counselor who can also do art therapy.”

Kirby thinks licensing art therapists would improve the quality of services provided using the approach. “Right now there’s no title protection,” she said. “Anyone can call themselves an art therapist. Licensure means you have to be trained in this.”

Public art stirs controversy in North Adams

Public art stirs controversy in North Adams

It’s not about paint or policy; it’s about engagement

PUBLIC ART HAS BEEN KNOWN to create controversy. Usually, the aesthetics or thematic content of the artwork is what generates backlash. Diego Rivera in Detroit, Richard Serra in New York City, Jeff Koons in Paris, and lesser-known artists in lesser-known cities have faced criticism from community members over artworks that are deemed offensive or inappropriate.

In North Adams, public art is making news because murals that were recognized as being entirely appropriate were destroyed.

In May 2017, as the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art (MASS MoCA) was refreshing some of its long-term installations, the museum covered over 12 murals painted on columns that support the city’s Route 2 overpass. The murals, which reflected North Adams’ industrial history, were created in 2012 and 2013 by local students and several facilitators as an after-school art project. However, the museum argued that the murals themselves covered a coat of gray paint that was applied to the columns in 1998 as a visual component to Harmonic Bridge, a sound art installation in the same location.

Each project was given verbal – not written – approval by two separate mayors. It appears that museum leaders were aware of the student projects when they began, but failed to say anything to the facilitators, who were unaware of their indiscretion. After all, gray paint on gray concrete makes for a fairly inconspicuous installation element.

It can also be argued that museum leadership engaged in an “ask for forgiveness, not permission” approach to the Harmonic Bridge refurbishment. Both installations predate the North Adams Public Arts Commission, but current policy requires commission approval of any aesthetic alteration or enhancement of public property, and museum officials were well aware of this process. Director Joseph Thompson had presented two different public art proposals to the Public Arts Commission just days before the murals disappeared.

People were angry.

In a way, these flames have been fanned by years of accumulated angst over the city’s evolving identity. After Sprague Electric shuttered in the 1980s and thousands of residents lost their jobs, MASS MoCA ushered in a new economic solution at a desperate time. Cultural tourism provided some hope of recovery, but it also changed the social dynamics of the city. Many residents continue to struggle while visitors and newcomers reap the rewards of an intellectually stimulating yet inexpensive area.

The murals, aptly located under a bridge, became a symbolic connection between residents and visitors, creativity and industry, young and old, past and future. The community is vitriolic not simply because the murals were painted over, but because they were painted over by an institution that, whether it likes it or not, is central to these conflicts.

The debate gets political

When artworks installed on city property spur community debate, mayors tend to acquiesce to their constituents. It is less common for mayors to dig in their heels with an oppositional viewpoint. And it is rare for mayors to change public art policy in order to protect that position.

So, when North Adams’ newly elected mayor Thomas Bernard proposed sweeping changes to the Public Arts Commission ordinance last August, many local artists and cultural leaders found themselves in a sudden, confused panic.

Julia Dixon

What should not be overlooked is that he made this decision in concert with another one. Two weeks before revealing his intentions about the ordinance, he communicated via email his opposition to the restoration of the overpass murals.

Bernard’s amendments transfer the power to authorize projects from the commission to his office. They reposition the commission as simply an advisory body to the mayor. Not only does this consolidate decision-making power to one person, it provides an easy solution to public art controversies. Although the Public Arts Commission had the ability to resolve the overpass mural dilemma quickly by crafting a new contract to preserve one of the two installations on that property, the commission – by majority vote of its seven members – chose the more difficult route: discussion and compromise.

The Public Arts Commission was born out of a need for decisions about public art to be made by North Adams residents and art experts. Former mayor Richard Alcombright had involved the community in the process from the beginning, establishing a committee in 2014 to craft ordinance language. At the time, it was clear to committee members and city councilors that autonomy was crucial. As explained in a January 2015 City Council General Government Committee meeting report:

The group met several times and considered questions [sic] whether the body should be advisory or have regulatory authority. Ultimately, they felt it was important for a Commission to have regulatory authority so that responsibility for decision-making regarding public art would not be concentrated in the Mayor’s Office.

As well-intentioned as the final ordinance was, commissioners struggled to understand the scope of their legal responsibilities. This confusion isn’t surprising: Other than approval and contracting authority, the Public Arts Commission was not given the resources any municipal arts commission needs to be successful.

The commission lacks staff or an administrative liaison to integrate its work with other city departments. It has no funding or mechanism for fundraising, such as a Percent for Art program, which makes the acquisition and maintenance of public art impossible. And the city has no public art plan. The 2014 comprehensive city plan, North Adams Vision 2030, does not reference public art despite numerous mentions of public space and culture.

The future of public art in North Adams

At this point, the overpass murals aren’t coming back. After two years covered in gray paint, it is unlikely they can be recovered. But it’s not about the paint; public art controversies never are. It’s not even about policy. In the three years the Public Arts Commission has been active, commissioners have spent nearly 25 percent of their time navigating ordinance amendments.

Future meetings about public art in North Adams, and the commission that regulates it, must make room for discussions about resources and repercussions. Ultimately, it doesn’t matter who signs a public art contract. It doesn’t matter who receives an application or how many days the Public Arts Commission has to review it. What’s important, and what city officials are forgetting, is that public engagement is the most significant element of public art.

Julia Dixon is a creative economy and cultural planning consultant based in North Adams. She was a founding appointed member of the North Adams Public Arts Commission, serving from November 2015 until December 2018, when she resigned.

Jan 9, 2019

Shaw 54th: A disruptive work of art

Even so, the famous memorial causes some uneasiness

AT A TIME when Civil War monuments across the country are coming under fire, the National Park Service, the city of Boston, and the Friends of the Public Garden are preparing to spend $2.8 million fixing up the Robert Gould Shaw and 54th Regiment Memorial on Boston Common.

The memorial, facing Beacon Street across from the State House, features Shaw, a white officer on horseback, leading the Union Army’s first regiment of black soldiers off to fight in the Civil War. Completed in 1897, the memorial was the work of Augustus Saint-Gaudens, a white sculptor famous for his monuments to Civil War heroes. His bronze bas-relief captured a historic moment in time made possible by Abraham Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation.

The three funders of the renovation effort, along with the Museum of African American History, see the Shaw 54th memorial as one of the most important works of art to come out of the Civil War and one of the top monuments in the country. They recently hosted a panel discussion at the Tremont Temple Baptist Church to talk about why monuments matter. The discussion, moderated by journalist and author Derrick Z. Jackson, ranged widely, but it showcased how the Shaw 54th memorial is prized as a disruptive work of art that nevertheless creates some uneasiness today.

“From my standpoint, there’s nothing like it in America, really, in terms of the time period, subject matter, and the beauty of it, the resonance it had then and still has now,” said F. Sheffield Hale, president and CEO of the Atlanta History Center. “It’s a totally different kind of monument, but it’s something that speaks to us today because it speaks to the agency of the people involved — that they were liberating themselves. And that’s something we don’t often see in wars.”

DeRay Mckesson, a civil rights activist and author, focused in his remarks mostly on what we as a country choose to remember or celebrate in our monuments – what we choose to put on display and what we choose not to put on display.  “When I think about the memorial and I think about Shaw I’m reminded of the relationship between domination and display,” he said. “What do people who dominate other people put on display?”

In the case of the Shaw 54th, Mckesson said, Saint-Gaudens brings normally invisible people and issues into the public conversation. “I think Shaw begins that conversation. In that way I think it’s a disruptive work,” he said.

Renée Ater, a public art historian who spent a large portion of her career at the University of Maryland, said she had “very complicated feelings” about the Shaw 54th monument. On the one hand, she said, it commemorates a historic event important to the nation’s history. She also believes it is great art.

“I know that’s a serious value judgment I’m making there about good art, but I think it has such staying power because Saint-Gaudens did an astonishing thing with that memorial and that’s the combination of this high relief with a full equestrian monument. That’s an astounding innovation that he does. You can see how artists start to respond to Saint-Gaudens for the next 100 years. So for me the 54th has a lot of resonance because contemporary artists engage it,” she said.

Ater described Ed Hamilton’s African American Civil War Memorial in Washington, DC, completed in 1997, as a direct response to Saint-Gaudens. But there’s a key difference. “In his memorial there is no white officer,” Ater said. “It is black men, standing on the ground, armed. It has a very different kind of power.”

Ater said she sees “relationships of dominance theory” in the Saint-Gaudens monument, perhaps amplified by her conviction that Saint-Gaudens was someone who held racist attitudes about African-Americans.

She noted Saint-Gaudens spent 14 years laboring on the sculpture, asking African-Americans off the street to come into his studio to model. “He did not contact anyone from the 54th as portrait models,” she said. “That’s super complicated. Why not do that because they were around. This would not have been an impossible task on his part.”

A replica of David Ball’s Emancipation Memorial stands in Boston’s Park Square. The original is in Washington, DC. (Photo by Bruce Mohl)

But Ater gives Saint-Gaudens credit for portraying African-Americans in a very different way than his contemporary, David Ball. Ball in 1876 completed the Emancipation Memorial in Washington, which depicts Lincoln freeing an African-American slave who is on one knee, shirtless and shackled at the president’s feet. A copy of the Ball statue stands in Boston’s Park Square on an island between the Four Seasons and the Boston Park Plaza hotels.

Ater said the Shaw 54th memorial represented a great leap forward in how African-Americans were portrayed. “We no longer have the crouching black body, and that’s a huge moment in sculpture history to move from the Ball [approach, with the black man] on the ground to the standing men who are in uniform and walking forward,” Ater said. “So I do think there’s this push-pull between who’s in control and who’s not.”

The Ball statue in Park Square has come under fire repeatedly in the past from people who find it offensive. Jackson asked Ater, Mckesson, and Sheffield what they thought the city should do about it.

“Take it down,” said Ater. “I have very strong feelings about Thomas Ball, about his racism.”

Mckesson agreed. “Take it down,” he said.

Sheffield declined to say what he believed. “People in Atlanta don’t tell people in Boston what to do,” he said.

Who should have final say on public art displays?

Who should have final say on public art displays?

Julia Dixon, the chair of the Public Arts Commission in North Adams, resigned this week after the City Council once again failed to come to any agreement on whether the mayor or the commission should have the final sign off on public art displays.

“Decisions about public art need to be made by those who understand it, want it, make it, and see it,” Dixon wrote in a resignation letter she submitted by email while the council was still meeting. “If you vote on this language, and continue to fail to contextualize this, you will render this commission and the work it should be doing ineffective. If you still don’t understand why this is, you don’t understand public art and you certainly have no business regulating it.”

According to coverage by the Berkshire Eagle, the arts commission was created in 2015. At the time, public art displays were approved by a handshake between then-mayor Richard Alcombright and the artist. Alcombright wanted to create a more formal process that involved the community, which led to the creation of a seven-member Public Arts Commission with the authority to negotiate and sign contracts with artists.

In August, the current mayor of North Adams, Thomas Bernard, proposed a series of changes making the commission an advisory board to the mayor. He has said he doesn’t want to judge artistic proposals, but feels the mayor, as the city’s contracting authority, should have any final say on contracts.

Dixon disagrees. “We’re a group of seven people that have specific areas of expertise in this realm, and we’re charged with making some decisions about this thing that we have expertise on,” she told the Berkshire Eagle. “The mayor has changed it, it feels like, to centralize power to his own office.”

Hovering in the background of the dispute is a real-life public art controversy. Last year, the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art painted over columns underneath a Route 2 overpass in North Adams. The museum had a sound installation underneath the overpass, and the design called for all the columns to be painted gray. But the museum’s paint job covered over artwork painted by Greylock Elementary School students in 2012 and 2013.

Both the students and the museum say they had city approval for their arts projects on the underpass, but the approvals predated the creation of the arts commission. Dixon said the museum should have sought prior approval of the commission before removing a public art display. She brought up the issue at Tuesday’s City Council hearing, and started to criticize Bernard, but was “shut down.”

Since the mayor’s arts commission proposal first surfaced, the City Council has struggled with what to do. Councilors have tried to find a middle path, giving the mayor final sign-off on the contracts while attempting to give the commission control over the artist and the art works selected. Despite a series of meetings on the issue, a solution hasn’t emerged.

“I wish I didn’t feel the need to step aside,” Dixon wrote in her resignation letter. “I believe in public art, especially in this city. I believe in its power to inspire, motivate, communicate, and beautify. But I can’t spend another hour, much less another month, fighting against the politicians and political structures that should be supporting us.”



House Speaker Robert DeLeo, in an op-ed targeted at Washington lawmakers, explains how to get gun legislation passed. (The Hill)

The Massachusetts Teachers Association is pushing lawmakers to raise education spending by $1.5 billion a year. (State House News) Bill Walczak of the Massachusetts Business Alliance for Education says a new grand bargain on education is needed. (CommonWealth)

Orlando Pena of SEIU Local 509 backs legislation creating a registry of caregivers who have committed abuse, but he says an appeal process must be included. (CommonWealth)

Gov. Charlie Baker, looking to honor a self-imposed cap he put in place,is returning all but $200 of a $2,500 donation to his inaugural celebration from a lobbyist with close ties to Vice President Mike Pence. (Boston Globe)

Sen. John Keenan is now leading the charge on Beacon Hill to keep Massachusetts from abandoning Daylight Savings Time during the winter months. (Boston Globe)


Boston Mayor Marty Walsh takes a cautious approach on opportunity zones. (WBUR)

New Bedford asks a judge to toss out legal claims by ABC Disposal that its contract with the city allowed the company to hike recycling prices after China stopped accepting recycled materials and the price to dispose of them skyrocketed. (South Coast Today)

Brockton Mayor Bill Carpenter shoots down rumors that he may be considering taking a job in the Baker administration focused on the opioid epidemic. (The Enterprise)


Globe editorial applauds the term limit Nancy Pelosi has agreed to and says it would be good for House Democrats to ratify limits on leadership posts and committee chairmanships.

Michael Cohen said President Trump knew it was wrong to direct hush-money payments to women who alleged they had affairs with Trump and that it was done with the goal of aiding his campaign. (Washington Post)  Federal prosecutors are now looking at whether foreigners made illegal donations to Trump’s inaugural committee and a pro-Trump super PAC in an effort to influence policy. (New York Times)

Several lame-duck legislatures are rushing through lots of bills, many of them controversial. In Massachusetts, the House passed a controversial bill extending unemployment benefits for locked-out workers of National Grid and Senate leaders have hinted they may pass it, too. (Governing)


A federal judge in Maine rejected US Rep. Bruce Poliquin’s claim that the state’s ranked-choice voting system is unconstitutional and too confusing. As a result, Poliquin’s narrow electoral defeat by Democrat Jared Golden should stand, although Poliquin is still hopeful he might win in a recount. (Bangor Daily News)

Joe Battenfeld ridicules the idea of a Biden-Romney “unity” ticket, rolled out in this recent Politico piece, as a sure way to guarantee a Trump reelection. (Boston Herald)


The New Bedford port, for the 18th year in a row, reported the highest level of fish landings in the country by value at $389 million. (South Coast Today)

High wages and cost of living may be part of why Amazon and now Apple have bypassed the Boston area for big expansions. (Boston Globe) But Wayfair is growing here like crazy, and $31 million in state tax breaks approved yesterday are helping. (Boston Globe)

The Cannabis Control Commission approved four new recreational pot store licenses — for businesses in Fall RiverGreat BarringtonHudson, and Pittsfield. (Boston Globe) Fall River officials are reworking their host community agreement with pot shops, lowering the local tax from 4 percent to 3 percent. (Boston Globe)

CBS paid actress Eliza Dushku $9.5 million to settle harassments claims that arose from some inappropriate jokes made by the star of the show Bull. (New York Times)


Alarm is being sounded over discarded syringes found on the grounds of the Orchard Gardens K-8 Pilot School in Roxbury, which sits near Boston’s notorious “Methadone Mile.” (Boston Herald)

The Methuen School Committee approves a $100 fee for students who want to park at the high school. (Eagle-Tribune)


Todd Brown of Northeastern University says pharmacy middlemen are manipulating the system of selling drugs to turn large profits. (CommonWealth)


Incoming MBTA general manager Steve Poftak brings an eye for detail and forward-looking innovation along with a wariness of “the expansive dreams of transit advocates” looking to add to a system before it’s in good shape. (Boston Globe)


A Revere couple is mourning the death of its two young daughters, killed after being hit by a car driven by a Chelsea woman who is now facing vehicular homicide charges. (Boston Herald)

Herald editorial sides with US Attorney Andrew Lelling and federal ICE agents against a group of retired state and federal judges who signed a letter urging federal immigration authorities to stop making arrests at courthouses.

Hate crimes in Massachusetts reached their highest level last year in more than a decade. (Boston Globe)

Norfolk DA Michael Morrissey is looking at ways to help people expunge criminal records related to past marijuana charges, something authorized by the recent criminal justice reform bill. (Patriot Ledger)

Incoming Suffolk DA Rachael Rollins told current employees in the office not to worry about their jobs. (Boston Herald)

Three district attorney offices in Massachusetts have shelled out nearly $70,000 for legal fees to fight a public records request by the Boston Globe seeking a listing of the cases they prosecuted and the outcomes. (Boston Globe)


Keeping Somerville cool

Keeping Somerville cool

For Greg Jenkins, the arts encompass just about everything, even Marshmallow Fluff


SOMERVILLE MAYOR JOSEPH CURTATONE likes to be bold. “I always tell Greg, bring me something no one else has done and that’s really off the wall,” he says.

Greg, in this case, is Gregory Jenkins, the executive director of the Somerville Arts Council. Jenkins generally does what his boss tells him to do, so over the years he has helped launch events and programs that, at first glance, often seem off the wall. There’s Porchfest, the What the Fluff festival, the Honk Festival of Activist Street Bands, Project MUM (for Meet Under the McGrath), and on and on. It’s a bewildering list of occasionally odd, sometimes strange, and almost always fun events that somehow come together to boost the local economy, draw diverse city residents closer together, and make Somerville an interesting place to live.

Nibble is a good example. It began as a way to introduce people to the ethnic markets of Union Square and evolved to include food festivals, events, and cooking classes. Now the program is trying to give immigrant residents with culinary skills what they need to launch their own businesses. The Arts Council has its own culinary coordinator and is opening an incubator kitchen, where would-be restauranteurs can test dishes and concepts.

“Why food?” asks an Arts Council presentation on the program. “Food landscape in Union Square is a cultural asset. Food is art. Food brings people together.”

Meri Jenkins (no relation), program manager at the Massachusetts Cultural Council, which doles out state money to arts councils across the state, says Jenkins has helped transform Somerville by tapping into the city’s existing human and natural assets. “He is very good at being able to develop programs that meet the community where they are,” she says. “He celebrates what is, what’s particular to the community. You’d think that would be easy, but it isn’t.”

Curtatone credits Jenkins and the Arts Council for a lot of Somerville’s resurgence. “When I first became mayor, we were still struggling to shake that word that my branding experts tell me not to repeat—what Somerville rhymes with—and we said, look, we have to craft our own image based on our own values,” Curtatone says. “We have to let people know about our creativity, our originality, our diversity.”

Gregory Jenkins, executive director of the Somerville Arts Council.

The mayor says the Arts Council got the city’s message out in a way that bolstered the local economy, advanced equity among the municipality’s many ethnic groups, and added “some humanity to the urban edge.” He said the city’s investment in the Arts Council has paid big dividends.

“Even during the deepest abyss of the recession, it was the Arts Council’s work in spurring the creative economy and the events it put on that helped promote and market the city,” he says. “It carried us through some of the city’s most difficult times in recent memory.”

Jenkins, 53, grew up in North Carolina, studied anthropology as an undergraduate at the University of North Carolina-Greensboro and went on to get his masters in folklore from Western Kentucky University. Over the years, he has worked at the American Folklore Center at the Library of Congress in Washington; helped track cultural traditions in the New River Gorge area of West Virginia; captured the folk traditions of a fishing, hunting, and trapping community in Delaware; and worked for Arts in Progress in Boston bringing artists into classrooms and documenting the work of Cape Verdean artists in Dorchester.

In 2001, Jenkins landed his current job with the Somerville Arts Council and he’s been there for the past 17 years, three longer than Curtatone has been mayor. Jenkins is paid $97,400 a year.

I interviewed Jenkins at Bloc, a coffee shop in Union Square. The interview has been edited for space.



COMMONWEALTH: What would you say the Somerville Arts Council is all about?

GREGORY JENKINS: We’re here to enliven the community through presentation of the arts and support of arts and culture. We’re here to help bolster the economic development of the community, to bolster the perception of the community, to create a sense of inclusion among disparate communities. The mayor often talks about how we’re here to raise and foster a family, to support residents as they live, work, and play in our community. It’s a very broad mandate, so the question is how we do that. We do it through events. We do it through expanding the infrastructure of the arts and cultural community.

CW: That sounds pretty lofty, but the council seems to do a lot of unusual stuff. Is that what makes Somerville a cool place to hang out?

JENKINS: I think it is. The mayor is always talking about how our freaks are better than your freaks, meaning we like to have things that are out of the ordinary. We like to think outside the box. We like to push things that are sort of abnormal. You need to be creative in problem solving. I think the way in which we present things, the way in which we approach issues, we nurture creativity.

CW: It seems like having fun is a big part of it.

JENKINS: Oh yeah, definitely. There is this level of playfulness. And inclusiveness, too. It’s highlighting a community, documenting those cultural traditions and expressions in the community, and then putting them back out there for the larger public to see.

CW: Your background is in anthropology and folklore. How does that figure in?

JENKINS: For me, it’s not necessarily been about high art. What interests me are issues of community and cultural traditions and cultural expressions. All the work I’ve ever done has been about how people express themselves creatively, or how they express themselves in relation to the group that they are involved with. It’s always about looking at the community. That’s the lens.

CW: What was the council like when you arrived in 2001?

JENKINS: Cecily Miller had been the previous director. She did something that was great—the garden awards initiative. She did a series every year, hiring writers and photographers to document these old world community, garden people. They were Portuguese and Italian men and women who were creating these amazing gardens. People asked, how is this art? But that set a precedent for the Somerville Arts Council to upend the perception of what an arts council should do. I came in with that idea already in place.

CW: Somerville doesn’t have a lot of traditional galleries or artist spaces. Is that why you find art hanging in the window at the CVS in Davis Square and you hired artists to paint switch boxes?

JENKINS: It was about making use of the city’s assets. You can look at the deficits of a community forever. But you can also ask, what does the community have in terms of assets. That’s what I feel I’m good at—taking those assets and refining them to make them expressive and make them true assets. That, in a nutshell, is the work that we do.

CW: In regard to developing community assets, tell me about Illuminations.

JENKINS: Cecily started that, I think, in 1997 or 1998 and we’ve expanded it. It’s become the Illuminations Tour. It’s become a fundraiser for us. It’s mostly old-world Catholic families—Portuguese, Italian, and Irish. They illuminate their houses. Some of it is religious iconography. A lot of it is a whimsical cross between Disney, Santa, and snow globes. They light up their houses and their yards and we do tours. What we’ve done is interview these people about their traditions and then we have volunteers lead the tours and tell the story of these families that have decorated their houses.

CW: Porchfest is similar, right? You’re taking advantage of and highlighting something that’s already there in the community. That wasn’t original to Somerville was it?

JENKINS: All good things are appropriated. That’s a quote for you. Here’s how it started. A woman in our community told us about an event she attended in Ithaca, [New York]. It was called Porchfest. It was 20 people in the community who played music on their porches. I thought, that’s brilliant. So we held a meeting saying we were thinking of doing that in Somerville. About 40 people showed up at the meeting. It was amazing. So the first year, in 2011, we blew away Ithaca.

CW: That’s pretty cool, people doing concerts on their porches.

JENKINS: The beauty of Porchfest, and this is the beauty of how we operate, is that we created a structure where it’s decentralized. A lot of people say why don’t you do a culminating event in the park. But no, we do enough festivals and events. We set up the structure and we spent a lot of time creating a website. Last year we had 260 porches—porches, not people—participating. It’s amazing because there’s everything from a Nepali rock band playing Pink Floyd covers to two kids that are playing the violin. That’s what it’s all about.

CW: How many people come to listen?

JENKINS: Enough that we are worried it’s becoming a public drinking problem. It’s large enough that it’s prompted a discussion about public safety. The mayor and the police chief have been amazing saying we need to do this.

CW: I hear other communities are copying Somerville now.

JENKINS: Yeah. Brookline, JP, Arlington. Who else? New Bedford called. It’s great. Everybody should be doing it. We do get some complaints, but it’s only for two hours once a year. It would be different if it was every weekend.

CW: We’re sitting here in Union Square, which to some extent has become a Somerville asset, right?

JENKINS: Union Square was like a dive 15 years ago. But we thought it had all these amazing ethnic stores that white folks don’t come to. It’s got an amazing group of artists in and around the square. How do we create a cultural economic development initiative that highlights the assets of Union Square? That’s what the whole Arts Union project was about.

CW: What’s the Arts Union project?

JENKINS: Arts Union is a cultural economic development initiative focused on Union Square. There was a short-term play and a long-term play. The short-term play was how do we change the perspective of outsiders about Union Square. And the long-term play was how do we embed the immigrant food and artistic realm in a long-term play to develop the assets of Union Square.

CW: How did you execute the short-term play?

JENKINS: We did that by, basically, doing a lot of events. We had events like the What the Fluff Festival and Smell-O-Vision. We would support the Nepali community and hold a Nepali festival.

CW: Hold on, what’s the What the Fluff Festival?

JENKINS: Marshmallow Fluff. We based a zany festival around it because it was invented in Somerville.

The Flufferettes at the What the Fluff Festival. (Photo courtesy of Somerville Arts Council)

CW: What was Smell-O-Vision?

JENKINS: It was a Willy Wonka kind of thing, where you could smell the chocolate while watching the movie.

CW: What’s the strategy behind all these events?

JENKINS: It was a co-production model. We’d put out a call to artists and ask if they had a zany idea to co-produce an event. It could be dancers, singers, even puppeteers. They would bring their arts and vision and we would back it because we know how to produce events. We know how to engage the DPW, how to shut down streets, how to market, and how to raise money. Around the same time, we helped get the farmers market up and running. We also did a crafts market in conjunction with the farmers market and it became so mobbed that we separated out the two after the first year. We produced all this stuff and got people into the square.

CW: Were you targeting primarily Somerville residents with these events?

JENKINS: Yeah, but other people from around Boston started coming by, too. We developed a brochure and a tour of the ethnic markets. If you wanted to learn more about Bengali food, we would do a tour. That was very successful. We also hired local furniture makers and sculptors to do benches. Some were glass. Some were copper. That was many years ago. We just did a huge gay dance party. We had 2,000 people in the square. All those people come into the square, and what do they do? They eat at restaurants. We’ve shown that for every dollar we spend, $4 was being generated in the square economically.

CW: What’s an example of the long-term play?

JENKINS: For five years, we pushed zoning reform to create an arts overlay district. If a developer wanted to build higher, we’d give them a density bonus if they kept 5 percent of the building for artist use. The Millbrook building that just got converted two years ago into 100 units, we have five artist work units in there.

CW: Speaking of zoning, I watched you give your budget presentation to the Somerville Board of Aldermen the other day and I was struck by how worried they were about the gentrification of the city and how that will drive artists out. You mentioned your zoning push and your efforts to help artist entrepreneurs make a decent living from their work, but the tone of the meeting was pretty grim.

JENKINS: It’s a huge issue, and I don’t think there’s a silver bullet to deal with it.

CW: I’ve heard about Art Farm. What’s that?

JENKINS: That’s another long story. About five years ago, there was a former waste transfer site, about two acres right near the McGrath [highway]. It stunk. It had its issues. The mayor said I’m going to tear this down. Can you activate this space and site? Out of a series of community meetings, we realized what people wanted down there was more community gardens, more greenery because it’s so urban and so industrial. And they wanted to support the arts community. Out of that we developed this thing called Art Farm.

CW: So why is it called Art Farm?

JENKINS: There’s going to be a barn there that will serve as a 5,500-square foot performance facility for the arts community. There’s a need for places for artists to do their work. At the same time, there’s a huge urban agricultural community, groups like Groundwork Somerville and Green City Growers, people that are doing stuff on sustainable agriculture in an urban environment. They, too, need areas.

CW: A barn in Somerville, one of the most densely populated places around. That’s an interesting idea.

JENKINS: At first, we were thinking of putting containers – old shipping containers—on the site and converting them for use. We got a grant, believe it or not, for $450,000 to work on executing that. And then we hired some architects and they said we were crazy to be pushing shipping containers. They said that would be a waste of money. So we went with the barn. At the same time, we got some money from the Department of Agriculture—can you believe it, an arts council getting money from the Department of Agriculture—to put a greenhouse on the site.

CW: What happened next?

JENKINS: The mayor said we needed a new police station, so there was a lull of about a year where the community was, like, do we really want this to happen? So we had to have another year of reengaging. Now we’re back on track. We’ve got our architects moving. We’ve got full city support. It’s going to happen. It’s approximately a $3 million project now. It’s going to be an urban park with this barn. It’s amazing.

CW: How long has Art Farm taken so far and when will it be done?

JENKINS: It’s been about five years and it’s going to be done in 2021. If you want something good, it takes time.

CW: What’s the budget of the Somerville Arts Council?

JENKINS: We’re seeking nearly $540,000 for the coming fiscal year. We also expect to bring in about $200,000 in outside financial support. We also get another $100,000 or so in grants, business sponsorhips, and income from books, dog tags, tours, and T-shirts.

CW: Does the state give you money?

JENKINS: There’s a Massachusetts Cultural Council, which is a state agency, and they provide us with an operational support grant, which is nearly $7,000. Plus they provide what’s called a local cultural council grant, which is some money that we turn around and regrant to the community. We receive around $35,000 a year to regrant to local arts projects, and the city kicks in about $25,000 for that. We were established just like a lot of other cultural councils in the state to basically regrant the state money.

CW: How many employees does the cultural council have?

JENKINS: It’s me and four others as staff. And then we have a board, a cultural council, that serves at the discretion of the mayor.

CW: It seems like some cultural councils do a lot more than others.

JENKINS: It’s vision and money. You’ve got to have a little bit of both. We always say you can throw a lot of money at something but if people aren’t engaged by it, it’s not going to work. It’s being aware of what you perceive as the needs and desires of the community, and then it also takes  some money. But look at Porchfest. It doesn’t really cost us anything and here is this amazing initiative that’s all about the energy of others.

CW: How many mayors have you worked under?

JENKINS: Just two. You know Joe [Curtatone] is the longest serving mayor in the history of Somerville.

CW: How important is political backing in your job?

JENKINS: You’ve to have it and I’ve got it. But there are times when things get politically complicated. Art Farm is a complex capital project. It’s like building a new school or a new park. Everyone gets involved. Naturally, it’s going to take time. I don’t say that as a negative, but it does take time. And it does ebb and flow. That’s part of the complexity, the timing, the will of the people to push something through, all of that. Art Farm had to go through all of that, in a natural process that any large capital project would have to go through.

The promise of MASS MoCA

The promise of MASS MoCA

The museum’s latest expansion is a hit, but its impact on the struggling town of North Adams remains a work in progress

Photographs by Michael Manning

TWO YOUNG MEN from Brooklyn tentatively inch down the hallway, holding onto a handrail because it’s so dark. They turn a corner and the room in front of them opens up, filled with intense light of different colors.  They make their way to a bench and sit down, mesmerized by a large screen, the light source, at the front of the room. It’s one in a series of dazzling light compositions by the artist James Turrell in the new Building 6 at MASS MoCA, the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art in North Adams.

“I really, really, really, really love it,” says Charles Quittner. “I walk in and the light just engulfs me.” His pal, Nick Giordane, is equally enthusiastic. “It’s primordial, electronic,” he says. “It’s fun.”

The new Building 6 is most definitely lots of fun, and drawing large crowds and rave reviews. It’s also validation of a vision that factory buildings once known for producing components for the atom bomb and lunar space missions can be repurposed as a home for art, drawing visitors from all over the country and world. The other part of that vision—that an art museum can be an economic catalyst for a declining mill town in the northwest corner of Massachusetts—is a work in progress.

MASS MoCA may have put North Adams on the map, but it hasn’t turned around the town’s economy, at least not yet. Looking around the city, there are some promising signs—more hotel rooms, more jobs, and some optimism about the future with new projects in the offing. But the evidence suggests the state’s $60 million investment in MASS MoCa hasn’t paid off yet for North Adams. Job growth has lagged behind projections. Storefronts downtown remain empty. And even though MASS MoCA is attracting a lot of visitors, relatively few of them leave the museum to explore North Adams.

Museum officials are sensitive to the issue. They secured a $150,000 grant from the Barr Foundation to develop ways to entice museum crowds downtown. And they are promoting Building 6 as a way to do just that. The theory is that with Building 6, MASS MoCA is now so big that visitors can’t get through it in a single day.

MASS MoCA Director Joe
Thompson speaking at
opening day of Building 6.

“We want to make it impossible for people to visit MASS MoCA and the northern Berkshires and to leave after a few hours or even a day,” says MASS MoCA’s founding director, Joseph Thompson. “We want them to take the time to stay and shop around town and buy two to three meals before heading back home.”

Marcia Halio, who drove up from Delaware with her husband to visit their daughter at Williams College in neighboring Williamstown, says she is very impressed by the level of art in Building 6.  “This one is about social justice,” she says, staring at a piece featuring a gun rack mounted on the outside of a voting booth. The gun barrel is angled toward a would-be voter’s head. Halio says she and her husband plan to eat at the museum café on this visit, but maybe they’ll eat downtown on their next.

Thompson takes the long view. He is confident the museum will not only attract more tourists who will spend money in other areas of the city, but will act as a catalyst for other arts-related businesses that will call North Adams home. He says the shift from a manufacturing to an arts community is as much cultural as it is economic, and takes time. “I see this as a generational shift,” he says.


The grand plan for MASS MoCA has always been to create a synergistic relationship with its host city. Twenty years ago, MASS MoCA opened its doors with the help of $35 million in state funding and a promise to bring much-needed jobs and visitors to North Adams.

Situated at the confluence of two branches of the Hoosic River, North Adams was once a booming milltown, churning out shoes, pig iron, hats, cabinets, wagons, and sleighs. The buildings now occupied by MASS MoCA first housed the Arnold Print Works, one of the world’s largest manufacturers of printed fabrics. Sprague Electric Company bought the complex in the 1940s to headquarter its burgeoning trade of capacitors, semiconductors, and other electronic components. The company brought thousands of jobs to North Adams.

“Nobody got rich, but everyone did ok. And if you lost your job, you could get a new one tomorrow,” says Mayor Richard Alcombright, who grew up in North Adams.

Mayor Richard Alcombright shakes hands with former governor Jane Swift, a North Adams resident who also spoke at the Building 6 opening.

In the 1970s, sales continued to rise for Sprague components, but profits sagged due to overseas competition. The company’s payroll, which supported 4,000 workers at its peak in the mid-1960s, started to decline over the next two decades and in 1985, the company finally shut its doors. Unemployment in North Adams soared as the last 2,000 workers were pink-slipped. Residents left in droves in search of jobs. Business in the city’s center, which had already suffered when several older, prominent buildings were bulldozed by the federal government’s urban renewal program, started to wane.

A year after Sprague shut its gates, Thomas Krens, then director of the Williams College Art Museum, went looking for spaces to exhibit contemporary art. John Barrett III, the former mayor of North Adams, suggested the vacant factory, and the idea of revitalizing the city by turning the old factory into an art museum began to hatch. Krens went on to become director of the Guggenheim Museum in New York, so Joseph Thompson, his young colleague, took over, gathering the support and funding needed to open the museum in 1999.

With the $35 million state grant and additional private funds, the rambling old factory buildings were remodeled to showcase the work of contemporary artists who like the challenge of exhibiting their work in spaces that are as large as a football field. Nick Cave is one of those artists. Cave’s recent work, “Until,” is now on display in the museum’s largest room. Visitors enter the exhibit by walking through hundreds of circular foil shapes dangling from the ceiling. They then climb up ladders to an overhead platform constructed of millions of chandelier crystals and covered on top with bric-a-brac seemingly collected from a thousand basements and backyards. Black-faced lawn jockeys are wedged in between the other objects, asking visitors to consider the question that popped into Cave’s head one day—is there racism in heaven?

Nick Cave’s work “Until” at MASS MoCA challenges visitors of all ages to think about disturbing influence of racism on our social fabric.

Over time, Thompson has wrestled with how to build and sustain a museum with such delightfully spacious exhibition halls in such a remote location. The museum’s provocative and lively exhibitions quickly made a splash among critics and attracted visitors from all over. But financial sustainability has been a challenge.

Renting out some buildings on MASS MoCA’s 26-building campus to a wide range of other businesses both diversified and stabilized the museum’s revenue. In order to build a more robust gate, MoCA expanded its mission to include performance art, music concerts, and festivals, attracting a steady stream of visitors even in off-peak seasons.  The museum also built up an endowment and focused on developing high-profile exhibitions, such as Sol Lewitt’s famous wall-size drawing, that stay in place much longer.

All of these strategies proved effective in stabilizing and growing the museum. The number of visitors has doubled since the museum opened. In 2016, more than 160,000 people attended visual or performing art shows and festivals. Thompson expects the new expansion will attract an additional 20,000 visitors this year.


By most indicators, North Adams is a troubled community. It’s one of the poorest towns in the Commonwealth, with over 21 percent of the population living in poverty. The current unemployment rate is 6.6 percent, significantly higher than the state and national averages and fifth highest among all cities and towns in the state. Census estimates for 2016 put the population at 13,000 residents, down about a third from when Sprague closed its doors.

Still, there are some promising signs. Thompson says the hospitality industry is one area that has grown. “Fifteen years ago, there were 17 hotel rooms, and many of them were pretty rough. Today there are 185 and another 48 under construction,” he says.

A celebration on the opening day for Building 6 also highlights MASS MoCA’s embrace of performing arts as part of its mission.

One of the most successful ventures is Porches, a row of dilapidated row houses directly across from the museum that were remodeled to create hotel suites, providing upscale accommodations for out-of-town visitors to MASS MoCA as well as parents, alumni, and others visiting Williams College in nearby Williamstown.

The Tourists project is a similar initiative, an effort to remodel an old motel court and a nearby farmhouse and mill to create a multi-service recreational resort and spa that takes advantage of its natural setting along the Hoosic River. Greylock Works is yet another project transforming an old cotton mill into a boutique hotel, as well as space for events and artisanal food production.

Thompson says that the opening of Building 6 in combination with the recent expansion of the Clark Art Museum in nearby Williamstown is driving more people to not just visit but move to North Adams.

Brian Miksic is one of those people. He and his wife, Suzy Helme, moved to North Adams from New York City four years after MASS MoCA opened. Both have been actively involved in promoting the city and region ever since.  Miksic, who works in information technology, has served on several civic and community boards. Helme works for the city’s tourism office.

Miksic says that he and Helme developed a list of qualities they wanted in a home town—small but not too small, with an ample supply of culture, colleges, and natural beauty. North Adams had it all. ”We probably wouldn’t have moved here if it wasn’t for MASS MoCA.  We wouldn’t have come to some little town in some little corner in Massachusetts,” he says.

Stephen Sheppard, an economist at nearby Williams College, says that MASS MoCA has fallen short of its projected impact on job growth. For more than a decade, Sheppard has analyzed the impact of MASS MoCA and other cultural organizations on local economies.  He says that the museum has stimulated development of 385 jobs to date.  That’s about two-thirds of the 600 jobs initially projected by the museum founders. Of the 385, he says, about 274 are direct employment at the museum or in related sectors of the economy, such as the performing arts, restaurant, hospitality, and retail sectors. The remaining 111 jobs result from either indirect or induced effects in other sectors of the economy. Indirect effects reflect business-to-business spending, and induced effects are caused by local spending of employees.

Sheppard says the museum’s total impact on the economy is approximately $35 million per year. Of that amount, he says, $21 million is generated by direct impacts, and $14 million is generated by indirect and induced impacts.

Thompson says that the expanded gallery space, which opened at the end of May with another $25 million in state funds, has already boosted the number of direct jobs by adding to the museum payroll. MASS MoCA has significantly expanded its staff from about 100 to 150 total employees, including 120 full-time staff members and 25 to 35 permanent part-time staff, he says. As the Tourists and Greylock Works projects get underway, that will bring more construction, hospitality, culinary, and other jobs to the area, Thompson says. He estimates that in the next few years, the museum will far exceed the initial projection of stimulating 600 jobs.


One of the biggest challenges is getting visitors to MASS MoCA to spend money in the city center of North Adams, just a few blocks away from the museum.

A crowds gathers for Opening Day of the museum’s expansion.

Ralph Brill, owner of Brill Art Gallery, which is located in the Eclipse Mill, another renovated factory building just down the road from MASS MoCA, says the museum has inadvertently added to the woes of downtown stores by developing what amounts to an alternative business center. “If you’re a museum visitor or an employee in the Mass MoCA campus, you have all these choices. With a restaurant, two coffee shops, and a brewery on the campus, there is absolutely no reason to go downtown,” he says.

MASS MoCA leases its buildings from the city of North Adams at no cost and pays taxes on any commercial income it receives from renting space out. Brill says this arrangement allows the museum to rent out commercial space at lower rates than building owners downtown. “MoCA has sucked the life blood out of Main Street,” he says.

Sheppard agrees the downtown retail space is far more expensive than what’s available on the MoCA campus, but he questions why downtown landlords don’t respond to the competition by reducing their rents.  “Don’t you think it makes more sense to get less money per month but at least rent the space?” he asks. He argues the rents, many of which are more than $1,000 per month, are disproportionately high compared to the price of housing stock in town.

Part of the problem with trying to lure museum visitors downtown is the original urban design of North Adams, says Sheppard. The factories were originally built along what is now Route 2 to keep traffic, factory smells, and byproducts away from the city’s main drag. But now that the site is a museum, it’s all too easy for people to view art exhibits, eat, and shop without leaving the campus. “In order for people to go downtown, they have to walk past their cars in the parking lot,” he says. “That, by the way, right there is the thing that’s very hard for Americans to do, then go under a viaduct and cross a busy street.”

Thompson admits that encouraging visitors to venture downtown has been a hard sell. The Barr foundation grant is supposed to help with that. It supports the North Adams Exchange Initiative, an initiative of the museum and the city that has installed pop-up retail and art exhibits in the empty store fronts and scheduled pop-up food  vendors.  An artsy light show was installed to display at sunset from the steeples of downtown churches, spelling out a poem by Thoreau in Morse code. Thompson says the museum has also cleaned up the area along the back of its parking lot, removing an old chain link fence and making the path to downtown more accessible and attractive.

But few of these initiatives seemed to be having much impact on the downtown of North Adams on a Sunday afternoon in June. Main Street itself was nearly empty, in stark contrast to the museum, which bustled with visitors a few blocks away. A pizza place, a café, and a dollar store were open. Other businesses in town, including banks, real estate firms, and insurance agencies, which don’t cater to tourists, were closed for the weekend. About half a dozen storefronts were vacant.

“You can’t blame it all on MoCA,” says Judy Grinnell, founder of the Hoosic River Revival, a community-based effort to revitalize the North Adams riverfront by redesigning the city’s flood control system, returning the river to a more natural state. “You’ve got Amazon and other retailers online and Walmart is a couple blocks away, so it’s complicated,” she says, adding the lack of traffic downtown has led to a downward cycle for Main Street, “You have to look at the quality of what is there.  We don’t have stores that can pull in the tourists.”


On the north end of Main Street, the old Mohawk Cinema is open, but not for showing the latest Hollywood offerings. The iconic cinema, which has been dark since the 1980s, is open this weekend just to display plans for a future Extreme Model Railroad and Contemporary Architecture Museum. Spearheaded again by Thomas Krens, now retired from the Guggenheim, the privately-funded project also includes a “museum of time,” as well as a cafe, a retail store, and a boutique distillery. Supporters say it would add significantly to the region’s reputation as a corridor of cultural attractions and bring hundreds of thousands of visitors downtown. Krens and other museum backers have negotiated to locate the sprawling museum complex along the river in the Heritage State Park and in a vacant old building across the river.

The main room of the cinema, once packed with movie-goers, seems oddly quiet. A large model of the Empire State Building stands alone in the center of the cavernous space. Several large poster boards describing the proposed museum and displaying drawings of it are propped up on tables and chairs, highlighting the inchoate nature of Krens’s new project. In large letters across the top of one of the poster boards, Thompson is quoted as saying that a small portion of the population enjoys contemporary art, but everyone loves railroads.

Firefighter Pete Robare, who is on a detail to watch over the display, wholeheartedly agrees. A long-time resident, he has seen enough unlikely projects get off the ground to wave away the idea the railroad museum will be anything but a smashing success. “There’s a railroad museum in another part of the world and it’s one of the most visited places around,” he says.  “Nobody thought Porches was going to make it either, but look at it now, it’s busy all the time.”

Hopeful as he is about the future of North Adams, Robare remembers brighter, if more raucous days, on Main Street. When Sprague was open, he says, “There were 26 barrooms here on this street. That tells you a lot.”  After high school, Robare worked at Sprague along with most of his friends and neighbors. His father, who was also a firefighter, realized Sprague was in danger and encouraged his son to join the fire department. Not long after Robare was hired by the city, Sprague shuttered its doors.  “People thought it was the end of the world,” he recalls.

Long closed buildings in North Adams are being eyed for new arts and museum uses though some abandoned storefronts stand in stark contrast to the growing arts scene.

While MASS MoCA can’t be expected to solve the complexity of all the city’s problems, Grinnell, Brill, and others believe that lawmakers have leaned too heavily on the museum as an economic driver. They say the level of unemployment and poverty in town call for a more wide-ranging proactive approach to support and retain basic services. “MASS MoCA is a catalyst for economic recovery, it’s not a savior,” says Grinnell.

“I love MASS MoCA,” says Brill, “I love the whole experience. But there’s a disconnect between what goes on inside the MASS MoCA campus and what happens outside. There are huge numbers of food deserts, unemployment, and opioid addiction in North Adams.”

Even maintaining basic medical services in North Adams in recent years has been a struggle. Three years ago, North Adams Regional Hospital went bankrupt, shutting its doors with three days’ notice, and laying off about 500 workers. Berkshire Medical Center (BMC) bought the property, and rehired over half of the workforce, opening the North Adams campus of BMC. The new facility has an emergency room and many diagnostic and outpatient surgical services, but the area lost all of its inpatient hospital beds, including the maternity ward. Maynard Seider, a retired professor from the city’s Massachusetts College of Liberal Arts, says that more state funding should have been invested in retaining a full service community hospital.

“That’s not a big deal for many people, but if you’re poor and you don’t have access to a car and you have to travel down to Pittsfield or Albany to have a baby or visit your family member in the ICU, that’s a problem,” Seider says.

Keeping medical services in the North Berkshire area is “a very real concern,” says state Sen. Adam Hinds, who represents the city. “But it’s not an either-or. When it comes to making the decision of what the state is going to invest in, we are going to invest in what seems to be demonstrating the most promise.” MASS MoCa adds significantly to a growing network of cultural attractions supporting a wide variety of  industries in the region, he says. “They have created the buzz—you see that in other new projects and new investments coming in from outside Massachusetts. Every project has a critical juncture and MASS MoCA has reached that juncture,” he says.

Alcombright, the North Adams mayor, sees the same transformation starting to take place. He says the town has been successful in attracting new businesses and investors, which is made easier through the presence of the museum and the prospect of future projects such as the model railroad museum complex, the Tourists resort and hotel, and Greylock Works. Krens has moved forward on plans for another cultural attraction, the Global Contemporary Art Museum, funded by international art collectors. As every small- and medium-sized business opens its doors, it attracts others, creating an incoming tide of new industry, jobs, and consumers. “We’re looking for companies that bring in seven jobs, 10 jobs,” says Alcombright.

John Sprague, son of the founder of the Sprague Electric Company, says the jobs MoCA has brought to the area cannot possibly make up for the thousands that were lost and the ripple effect that loss has had on the economy over the past 30 years. Sprague, who worked first as research director for Sprague Electric before leading the company in the decade before it closed, says that no one entity can be expected to revitalize a region’s economy as modern manufacturers rely heavily on robotics and automation now.  “Even if a company like Sprague were to open its doors in North Adams, it would bring 200 jobs to town, tops,” he says.

Like Alcombright, Sprague argues the only way to revive the city is to build a diverse mix of smaller entities that can operate in a remote location, such as publishing or customer service companies. “MASS MoCA is not enough for North Adams. It’s never been enough,” says Sprague. “But let’s face it, at this point, MASS MoCA is all we have.”