PITTSFIELD -- The city's inspired decision to actively promote the arts community has transformed Pittsfield's image around the state and beyond, said outgoing Cultural Development Director Megan Whilden.

The first person named to the new position in 2005, Whilden left Friday to become director of the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute at Berkshire Community College, beginning in June. She leaves a flourishing downtown arts district that might have been unimaginable a decade ago.

"I think it is important for people to realize what has happened over the last 10 years," Whilden said. Because of its image makeover from fading industrial center to cultural mecca, Pittsfield "is very much respected and admired, especially in Massachusetts," she said.

In terms of theater and performance space alone, she said, having the Colonial Theatre, Barrington Stage Company and Berkshire Theatre Festival in the downtown, along with smaller theater groups, has made Pittsfield a "summer theater capital," rivaling any community in New England.

The change, Whilden emphasizes, resulted from city support for her office and a communitywide spirit of collaboration that has expanded exponentially. "This has built upon itself," she said. "There were many, many people working together, with collaboration, camaraderie and cooperation in Pittsfield."

Referring to a large, impressive exhibit of student art at the Lichtenstein Center for the Arts, where her office is located, Whilden points to an exploding interest in the arts among young city residents. That has grown, she said, right along with activities and community events in what is now officially the city's downtown arts district.

Children who were 8 years old when the first Third Thursday downtown events were held are now 16, she said, and they have grown up in a "community that celebrates the arts."

One of those young people is Andres Ramirez, now 22, who recently opened the Funk Box Dance Studio at 137 North St. During a recent brief visit to Whilden's office, he said Third Thursday events helped spark in him a passion for street dancing.

Because the city has a cultural affairs office and someone whose job description includes fostering "a welcoming atmosphere" for the arts, residents and groups have come forward to develop their own ideas for events or exhibits, Whilden said, and they found support.

The Spoken Word Festival, developed by Jim Benson, and the Hayman! Scarecrows sculpture event, developed by Berkshire Bank, are examples.

"Things have changed dramatically," Whilden said. "People should remember how it was with all the vacant storefronts and how much positive change there has been."

Beyond the visual impact of more shops, galleries and restaurants along North Street, the arts have proven to be a strong driver of the local economy, Whilden said. From 2005 to 2010, she said, annual direct spending relating to the nonprofit arts sector and its audience rose from an estimated $17 million to $25.3 million, the number of full-time equivalent jobs increased from 531 to 762, and attendance at cultural events rose from 225,000 to 606,239.

"There is no greater proof of the impact of investing in the arts," she said.

State and local tax revenue related to the arts also increased significantly Whilden said. One recommendation she would have going forward is to designate a percentage of local option tax revenue to promoting Pittsfield tourism -- and "continuing the work of beautifying the downtown."

Tourism promotion was assigned to her office several years ago as well, and a destination website established during her tenure -- DiscoverPittsfield.com -- provides an events calendar, along with information on lodging, dining, shopping and other activities in the city.

Referring to the hundreds of new hotel rooms recently proposed for the Pittsfield area, including an upscale 40-room hotel on North Street, Whilden said the city should take note that "these folks are investing their money and they have done their research" on the area's potential.

Another focus over the past few years, Whilden said, has been on how she could further increase the visibility of the arts beyond the existing theaters and galleries. That's difficult, she said, given the width and length of North Street.

Whilden said a revival of the spirit of the StoreFront Artists Project, which sought to fill vacant storefronts with artwork and sparked collaborative efforts for several years before shutting down in 2011, would be welcome and could spark further innovation in promoting the arts.

Another mantra for her has been that "the arts are for everyone," Whilden said. In that vein, she said she's proud to have been honored for her work by the Multicultural BRIDGE, Chapter 65 of the Vietnam Veterans of America and other groups for community projects such as "The Big Read."

Mayor Daniel L. Bianchi said the search for Whilden's replacement is underway, and he expects to have a committee review the resumes. He said he has no plans to alter the position or the funding, but would want the new director to offer recommendations.

Whilden's office has grown over the years to include two staff members, Shiobban Lemme and Jen Glockner, who focuses primarily on tourism. The office budget increased slightly over 10 years and is now $120,000. Whilden said she typically more than doubles that amount through grants, sponsorships and collaborations with local organizations.

It's not an overwhelming budget, Whilden acknowledges, but adds, "One of my mottos is ‘Little Office, Big Impact -- Pow!"

The California native, who grew up in Monterey, said she will remain involved in the arts scene but plans to keep a much lower profile.

To reach Jim Therrien:
jtherrien@berkshireeagle.com,
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