Our Opinion: An artistic approach to Pittsfield challenges

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Government funding for the arts has traditionally been considered "icing on the cake," a way to spend taxpayer funds after more pressing civic needs have been taken care of. At the federal level, arts funding faces various threats of evisceration from factions that view it as a frivolity or an underhanded way to finance liberal programs. Supporters see the arts as a valuable, even essential, component in perpetuating a civil society.

The Massachusetts Cultural Council, in collaboration with the city of Pittsfield, has taken a new, activist tack with the arts: They are embarking on a joint project to aggressively use the arts as a tool to address civic challenges.

Last Monday Anita Walker, executive director of the Massachusetts Cultural Council, signed a compact with the Pittsfield Cultural Council and the Upstreet Cultural District to bring the city's artists into the mix when considering development projects (Eagle, March 6.) Pittsfield is one of six Massachusetts cities involved in this pilot initiative, and was included thanks to a close relationship between the city and the MCC that dates to former Mayor James M. Ruberto's actively pro-culture administration in the early 2000s. This alliance has been nurtured by Pittsfield's incumbent mayor, Linda Tyer, who, according to Ms. Walker, has created a favorable environment by maintaining robust contact with the city's arts community through the city's Office of Cultural Development and displaying an understanding of how Pittsfield's emerging image as an arts hub could work to the city's economic advantage.

The beauty of the program, Ms. Walker told The Eagle, is that it doesn't impose arts projects upon a community. "The question is, 'What's on your mind?'" she said. "'What are your challenges?'" A city could have a problem with blight, for example, or areas rife with drug dealing, or high crime neighborhoods. Bringing in the arts could turn these areas around. Ms. Walker recalled a time when Pittsfield's North Street was all but abandoned; artists were brought in to convert the empty storefronts into studios. Restaurants, cafes and businesses followed. Now, North Street thrives.

The grant awarded last week was a modest $10,000, but the MCC and the city are leveraging it into at least three initiatives: to put business operators in the Tyler Street corridor in touch with artists to develop a "stained-glass district" that would attract visitors from outside the neighborhood; assign an artist to the St. Mary Morning Star Church conversion project ("If they already have, say, a landscaping budget, why not involve the creativity of artists?" Ms. Walker asked) and draw up an inventory of artists and their work spaces.

At a time when controversy surrounding the Berkshire Museum's pending deaccession of artworks has brought the subject of the arts and their importance to the forefront of public consciousness, the MCC's grant builds on the realization that the arts in all their forms are critical to a city's vibrancy. That they could be a powerful engine of change is up to the citizens and leadership of Pittsfield.

Fortunately, the city already benefits from a deep creative bench in its arts community, the Berkshires' long cultural tradition, a municipal government with the imagination and will to exploit its potential and a state cultural commission to help grease the skids. The chances of success and further expansion are promising.



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