Our Opinion: NEA grants make Berkshires richer

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A century ago, when factory floors hummed with activity and smokestacks belched black clouds of prosperity into the skies over the Berkshires, locals would have scratched their heads at news that a federal agency had awarded the area a generous arts grant, much less welcomed it as a critical shot in the arm to the local economy. But this is the 21st century, and the announcement that the National Endowment for the Arts is pumping a total of $328,000 into eight local arts groups and municipalities was enough cause for celebration yesterday that even the area's politicians showed up to claim their share of credit.

Since the NEA awards grants based on legislative districts, credit is due to Western Massachusetts Congressman Richard Neal —who fought for it — as well as state Representative William "Smitty" Pignatelli. The latter helped secure almost $1 million in state money for the Massachusetts Cultural Council, which has long recognized the importance of the arts to the Berkshires and through its executive director, Anita Walker, has backed up that recognition with monetary support. Credit, however, should also be given those in the Berkshires who faced up to painful realities resulting from a changing economy and the shipping of manufacturing jobs overseas, and redeveloped their mountain home as a world-class venue for the creative arts.

Ms. Walker and the MCC use the secondary and tertiary economic benefits of arts funding as an important criterion in determining where a boost from the MCC will do the most good. Clearly the Berkshires have found the sweet spot in that equation: Over the past decade, the MCC has sent $32 million to the Berkshires in arts support. A recent survey by Americans for the Arts found that investments in cultural programs return seven times the original amount in increased tax revenues to the governments that issue them; that alone is a powerful argument to Beacon Hill to keep arts money flowing.

While the economic side effects of arts investment are most often cited when making funding requests, Ms. Walker doesn't overlook the "softer" argument in favor of the arts — that they help local young people unleash their creative potential, increase their sense of self-worth and equip them to make a positive lifetime contribution to their communities. While she was not directly responsible for the NEA grants, a breakdown of their distribution reflects that philosophy. Included among the various grants are $20,000 for Lenox' theater group Shakespeare & Company to help support a long-term theater arts residency program for high school students from communities in Massachusetts and New York. The North Adams Public Schools have received $35,000 to support Kidspace, a contemporary art gallery and studio.

Too often in Pittsfield and Berkshire County, arts and culture are paired against business and industry as if this is an either/or equation. It is not. All are important, and a strong arts presence that enriches life for residents can attract businesses and their employees to the Berkshires.

The good news from the NEA comes just as the Berkshires are rolling out the welcome mat for summertime cultural tourists. Everyone involved, particularly members of the arts community whose labors are responsible for the region's recognition as a premier cultural venue, deserves a standing ovation.

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