Clarence Fanto: Arts giants like Tanglewood aid economic transition

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LENOX — As the figurative curtain went up on Tanglewood's symphonic season this weekend, historic changes, including a $40 million investment in new and enhanced facilities, are sweeping the 530-acre campus "between Lenox and Stockbridge," as the Boston Symphony's brochure puts it.

The bottom line is a dramatic boost for the county's economy and its steadily rising profile as one of the nation's leading arts and entertainment centers, as well as a scenic draw for outdoor enthusiasts winter, spring, summer and fall.

James Taylor's two sold-out shows last Monday and Tuesday, with 36,000-plus fans combined, capped a record number of Popular Artists and Boston Pops pre-season bookings — 10 shows over three weeks, with six more slated between Aug. 20 and Sept. 3.

The sharp increase represents a conscious decision to cluster non-classical performances outside the core eight-week seasons of the BSO and the Tanglewood Music Center for young professionals, as Managing Director Mark Volpe said in a recent interview.

He cited discussions with various civic types in the Berkshires about the weekends in June and the July 4th holiday break, noting that "we can easily have 60,000 people here in that block of time. Hopefully, we generate income that goes into the core of supporting the BSO mission." The pumped-up pre-season is music to the ears of the hospitality industry.

Volpe confirmed that attendance was below expectations for two Boston Pops concerts on June 24 and 25. "When we book late, we pay for it," he said. "The lesson we're learning is that we've got to book it as early as we can." The Labor Day weekend is less critical with more lead time to sell tickets for Sting, Diana Ross, the Avett Brothers, as well as two season-ending Boston Pops shows featuring Pete Townshend's "Classic Quadrophenia" and Melissa Etheridge.

For future summers, the Popular Artists series will be set up sooner "if we can get the artists to commit earlier," Volpe suggested. "We need time to sell, people need to plan and if something's not in their Tanglewood brochure, they've already organized their weekends and committed to other activities since the Berkshires has a wealth of alternative entertainment options."

The range of rock and pop performers attracts "a younger, different audience. Part of what we want is a broader demographic experiencing Tanglewood," Volpe said. "It's a win-win, we're not violating the integrity of our core mission. It's important that while we preserve our commitment to orchestral music, we can attract different audiences to generate revenue for the orchestra and for the communities."

On a similar note, the organization's $30 million commitment to construct a four-pavilion, year-round, heated and air conditioned complex on the hill overlooking Ozawa Hall is a game-changer. Groundbreaking is expected late this summer with a projected opening for the 2019 season.

An additional $10 million is being raised for an endowment to help fund programming, maintenance and landscaping for the new complex and the rest of the campus. With a total of $33 million already in hand, Volpe is spending a good part of his time this summer trying to secure the remaining $7 million.

"We have confidence that we can get this built, funded and endowed," he said.

The project announced over the winter creates three off-season halls seating 200 to 300 listeners for use by community groups and for possible BSO presentations in the off-season, though not likely in the dead of winter.

In summer, the complex will create urgently needed space for the Tanglewood Music Center, the Boston University Tanglewood Institute for students aged 10 to 20, and for the newly created Tanglewood Learning Institute aimed at adults seeking a deep behind-the-scenes immersion into the BSO and TMC's activities. The fourth pavilion will provide a cafe for artists, students and patrons to mingle."The project has the potential to be absolutely transformational," Volpe predicted, "and allows us to do activities through the entire year."

He pointed to the learning institute as an attraction for baby boomers.

"It's a generation that's retiring, that has money and time, and is educated. There's a real logic to it, they are people who want an enhanced experience," he said. "The more you understand about classical music and how it connects to the world and to other arts forms, the more interesting it is."

The massive financial commitment is notable at a time when performing arts organizations, especially in the classical music field, face strong financial pressures. "I'm not suggesting we're immune from that," Volpe conceded, "but I'm of the philosophy that you can't cut your way to equilibrium. You have to invest and to continue to stimulate people's curiosity."

Apart from its cultural and educational impact, the expansion is an economic development initiative. "The Berkshires continue to redefine themselves as a cultural magnet," he said.

The overall economic impact of Tanglewood is approaching $104 million a year, according to a study released in May by Williams College Economics Professor Stephen C. Sheppard, up from about $60 million a decade ago.

Sheppard, director of the college's Center for Creative Community Development, has cited the report as showing that "not only is this a large and important part of the local economy, but it's growing." The upcoming building project is expected to boost the BSO's total Tanglewood impact to $127 million annually in 2018 and 2019.

"We're fortunate to have a successful world-class operation here for the long run that's investing in its operation, and the investments are generating real growth for the region," Sheppard told The Eagle after his study was completed. The BSO's summer home already provides between 930 and 1,100 jobs, many of them seasonal, while the construction project should add 400 more.

With Northern Berkshire and the rest of the county benefiting from the recently completed expansions of Mass MoCA and the Clark Art Institute, a combined investment of $210 million, the impact of the arts and the hospitality industry provides a much-needed lifeline that can only help a region still confronting economic challenges likely to remain formidable over the next few years.

Reach Clarence Fanto at cfanto@yahoo.com. The opinions expressed by columnists do not necessarily reflect the views of The Berkshire Eagle.

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