Julia Dixon | Creativity at work: Artists are not the "other"

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NORTH ADAMS — There's a fissure that's deepening in North Adams right now that's as unfortunate as it is ugly.

In recent weeks, phrases like "the middle class," "working men and women," "vast majority," and "the average resident" have been used to politically aggravate divisions, particularly economic ones, between creative residents and other residents of the city.

Not only is it concerning that political candidates and leaders would use this kind of rhetoric to alienate constituents they are charged with representing, but it further exacerbates any feelings of xenophobic disaffection between North Adams' subcommunities.

Artists and creative workers that live in North Adams or the Northern Berkshires (or anywhere else, for that matter) aren't the "other"; they are your neighbors, your coworkers, and your friends. They belong to the same bank and bring their kids to the same daycare center that you do. They are behind you in line at local businesses and the polling booth.

And many artists and creative workers are average, working, middle-class residents who struggle like everyone else. Sure, there are wealthy creatives living here just as there are wealthy chefs, dentists, mechanics, and other working professional living here. Why isolate creatives, and those who support North Adams' creative development, from the rest of society?

A NEW CULTURAL IDENTITY

North Adams, as many readers know, is a community that continues to reinvent itself. From early trade industries and its reliance on electronics manufacturing in the 20th century to flood control and urban renewal in the `50s and `60s, the population and landscape have changed dramatically over time.

Now, thanks to the vision of Thomas Krens and Joe Thompson as well as support from the former mayor, several governors, and community partners, the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art occupies the sprawling 28-building campus that once housed Sprague Electric. The museum ushered in a new economic strategy. While this strategy was foreign to many residents, it was a bold vision that provided a path forward.

Mass MoCA's job is to be the best (and largest) contemporary art museum that it can be. While economic development is mentioned specifically in its mission, its focus as a sustainable, world-class anchor institution serves as a catalyst for all kinds of activity. It attracts over 100,000 visitors to the city every year, prompts individuals and families to relocate to North Adams, and employs dozens of workers.

"I moved to North Adams from Minneapolis because I wanted to work at Mass MoCA," wrote museum employee Misa Chappell on her Facebook page in response to remarks from political candidates. "I married a local man, and I plan to live here for the rest of my days. I know I am not the only newcomer here who was attracted by possibility, growth and opportunity."

Does Mass MoCA supply a job to every resident of North Adams? Of course not. But that's not how this kind of sector-specific economic development works.

THE CREATIVE ECONOMY EFFECT

The creative sector, like many other industry sectors, can improve the economy in direct and indirect ways. Creative businesses provide good jobs, hire local services, and give back to the community. They can also improve a community's tourism economy and quality of life. But they do not, nor should they be expected to, shoulder the burden of revitalization alone. Sector-based economic development can lead to small business formation, cross-sector industry growth, an improved housing market, and increased private investment — but it's important to remember that these businesses thrive under their own specific conditions.

Successful arts-driven economic revitalization takes time. Pittsfield City Councilor Peter White seems to think his constituents finally understand this. As one of the council's four at-large councilors, White represents the entire city, not just a single ward.

"In the past people have questioned the value of arts projects," he said. "But I don't see it as often anymore."

"Pittsfield is doing well," White explains, and the North Street corridor has achieved a vibrancy that Main Street in North Adams is still struggling to attain, so any negativity around local arts investments has died down.

"In order to have a vibrant workforce they have to have a good quality of life," White said.

The argument that Mass MoCA has not done enough for "the average North Adams resident" is a weak one, and to celebrate an election victory by slamming "outsiders" instead of recognizing the creative economy as an asset to be leveraged was a shortsighted mistake.

A message of unity and commitment to creating opportunity for all residents of this fantastic little city would have been a much more realistic and less divisive platform to campaign on. Any divisions between us should be repaired, not exploited.

A former creative economy specialist for 1Berkshire, Julia Dixon is chair of the North Adams Public Art Commission, and a creative economy consultant, entrepreneur and visual artist.


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