Infusion of federal grants boosts region's culture

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Stephanie Zollshan — The Berkshire Eagle
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LENOX — Federal dollars continue to flow to Berkshire cultural groups despite threatened cuts, helping to stoke the region's main economic engine: the creative economy.

It's showtime for big players in that segment right now, as summer tourism kicks in. Tens of thousands of visitors will flock to local performing arts venues, spurring commercial activity up and down Berkshire County.

Offering an early thanksgiving, arts leaders gathered Thursday in Lenox to applaud the arrival of new National Endowment for the Arts grants worth $328,000 to eight county groups and municipalities.

The same round will provide $900,700 to the Massachusetts Cultural Council and $1,092,400 to the New England Foundation for the Arts to benefit cultural groups across the state.

In all, the money extends public investments seen as essential to the success of arts organizations, despite threats by the Trump administration to curtail spending.

Anita Walker, the council's executive director, told an invited audience at Shakespeare & Company that the NEA's survival is crucial.

"For two years it has faced extinction," Walker said of the NEA. "Congress has rallied, and in fact we've even gotten a little bit of an increase this year — and only because of the vigorous champions that we have."

Walker thanked U.S. Rep. Richard Neal, D-Springfield, for his role in securing the NEA money. Endowment grants come through congressional districts.

Neal said the nearly $350,000 in NEA money awarded to Western Massachusetts arts groups, including one in his hometown of Springfield, backs the achievements by groups like Shakespeare & Company, which received $20,000 to support a fall residency program that trains students from underserved high schools in theater arts.

"You actually have established a national and international reputation," Neal told leaders of area arts groups as he stood in the darkened space near the set of a play in production at the Lenox theater.

"This is a terrific day for all of you in the Berkshires," the lawmaker said. "You have helped establish a reputation that I think is unparalleled for a small community across America. You've done it right here. It's not only the advocacy, but the quality of work that you do."

Earlier, Walker had checked an item on her bucket list by inviting Tina Packer, a central figure in Shakespeare & Company's success, to join her at a podium, then quipped that she has now appeared onstage with the celebrated actor.

Neal updated his own theater resume by noting that he was compelled to read "Macbeth" as a teen in the Springfield public schools.

"It allowed us to become better citizens by being introduced to the classics," he said.

Walker also acknowledged work by state Rep. William "Smitty" Pignatelli, D-Lenox, to secure state funding for the council's work.

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Pignatelli asked the audience of nearly 100 for a show of hands about the space they were sitting in. Who recalled it was once an ice rink?

"Shakespeare & Company has stabilized this very important property in the center of Lenox," he said.

The theater group and its brethren in the county are working to expand their operations, widening their economic impact, he noted.

"With a vision to transform the Berkshires, to try to stretch out those seasons," Pignatelli said. "It's not just Memorial Day to Labor Day any longer. We're doing things throughout the year that we haven't experienced before."

With manufacturing long in retreat, the cultural economy is now vital, he said.

"We recognized it could be the creative engine. It is the No. 1 industry in Berkshire County. We need to continue to feed the beast and grow that industry," he said.

Walker maintains that by "feeding the beast" of the creative economy, everyone benefits.

A 2017 survey done by Americans for the Arts found that investments in cultural programs return tax revenues to governments worth seven times more.

Walker's organization has channeled $32 million to arts groups in the Berkshires over the past decade. That money generates tax benefits for the state through purchasing and hiring by the recipients, as well as spending by visitors and arts audiences.

Aside from attracting patrons to venues across the county, Berkshires cultural groups make a difference in the lives of young people, Walker said.

She singled out the Barrington Stage Company program in which teens seen to be at risk engage with challenges in their lives through playwriting.

And she noted that classical pianist Emanuel Ax visits the Berkshires regularly to take a low-profile role accompanying young people enrolled in a program sponsored by Berkshire Children & Families.

"They are there to unleash their own potential," Walker said of participants.

"At the end of these programs, we don't ask, `Are you a better dancer?' We ask the young person to answer this question: `Do I matter?' And, `Can I make a difference in my community?' And universally, the answer is yes," she said.

"That is the best preparation for life that any young person can have," Walker said. "And no one provides that more powerfully than our arts and cultural programs."

Larry Parnass can be reached at lparnass@berkshireeagle.com, at @larryparnass on Twitter and 413-496-6214.


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