Julia Dixon | Creativity at Work: Proactive cultural access is needed

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NORTH ADAMS — Many cultural organizations in the Berkshires and throughout the country rely on visitors to buy tickets and sustain their business financially. These cultural organizations also promote their programs locally and are increasingly interested in engaging residents, particularly young adults and students.

The Clark Art Institute and the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art have free admission days once a month, excluding summers. Shakespeare & Company offers a 40 percent discount to full-time Berkshire County residents. Barrington Stage Company's #BSC35 program provides discounted tickets to young adults between the ages of 18 and 35 years old. Arts education programs and school tours provide coordinated access for youth. And free museum passes can be checked out at libraries throughout the county.

Now, efforts to increase arts accessibility have reached a statewide level. The EBT Card to Culture program is a partnership between the Mass Cultural Council, Department of Transitional Assistance, and participating cultural organizations to provide Electronic Benefit Transfer cardholders with free or reduced admission to select museums, theaters, cinemas, historic sites, and other cultural venues. EBT cards deliver Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program benefits, or food stamps, and other cash benefits reserved for low-income families.

EBT Card to Culture is a well intentioned first step toward government-supported arts accessibility. It also provides an opportunity for cultural organizations that may not have community engagement programs to think about providing access to low-income residents.

But this access is passive, not proactive.

Culture in this sense is often perceived as restricted or class-based — activities reserved for the wealthy and educated. Individuals and families that don't have a relationship to this kind of institutionalized culture may either be unaware of these activities altogether or believe that these activities are "not for them." Despite the abundance of discount ticket programs in the Berkshires, many residents don't feel comfortable stepping onto the campuses of Mass MoCA or Jacob's Pillow.

While ticket prices can be prohibitive, perception is perhaps the first barrier to cultural access for these families. Other barriers include transportation, childcare, family size, and ancillary costs beyond the price of admission.

EBT Card to Culture does not address any of these issues. It simply encourages participating cultural venues to open their own doors to EBT cardholders, with many placing significant restrictions on participants including number of tickets per visit, available programming, and reservation requirements.

However, the onus is not on state agencies to address all barriers in one program. If cultural organizations in the Berkshires and elsewhere in Massachusetts are committed to providing arts access to low-income families, they will need to reach these individuals by knocking on their doors instead.

Kids 4 Harmony is a music education program offered by Berkshire Children and Families which is referred to as a "model for social change." Children at Morningside Community School in Pittsfield and Brayton Elementary School in North Adams learn to play instruments, then perform for their families at community sites as well as performing arts venues like Tanglewood and the Williamstown Theatre Festival.

"Kids 4 Harmony engages kids and their families as whole beings," explains BCF President and CEO Colleen Holmes. She wants the participating children's parents to feel as comfortable with orchestral music as their kids do.

"We invite parents to concerts personally," she said. "They get lots of advanced notice, a special welcome, and they know that BCF will take care of the details."

Holmes doesn't consider a family member attending a Kids 4 Harmony concert to be just a butt in a seat in a theater. Instead, Kids 4 Harmony builds community and relationships by getting to know each parent and providing a comfortable cultural experience.

Thasia Giles also believes that relationship-building is a foundation to cultural access. As the director of community engagement at Jacob's Pillow, her work involves cultivating relationships with Berkshire residents as well as community partners that often provide a point of entry into specific communities.

But while Jacob's Pillow connects Berkshire residents to extensive free programming on its Becket campus, Giles understands that people need to understand dance on their own terms in order to get excited about it.

"You have to show up where people are," Giles said.

Dancers provide workshops and performances at dozens of community venues including the Boys & Girls Club of the Berkshires; the Berkshire Athenaeum (Pittsfield's public library); the Downtown Pittsfield Farmers Market, and the Soldier On veteran's organization.

"Many of these dancers activate new spaces and meet new people in the community," she said. "They listen and are physically present."

By working in targeted neighborhoods and deconstructing dance into the basics — movement and storytelling — these teaching artists help individuals develop a level of awareness and appreciation for the culture of dance that simply attending a performance might not do. In turn, these residents are more likely to make a trip to Jacob's Pillow and experience more dance using their EBT card.

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






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