The arts: `A factory not under one roof'

National Endowment for the Arts chairwoman makes visit to Pittsfield

PITTSFIELD — The story of Arcade is one of leverage.

"A grant for the arts was really the foundation for our business," co-owner Chris Parkinson said of his architecture firm. "We just hired two new employees."

Parkinson, and his partner, Tessa Kelly, leveraged a $75,000 grant from the National Endowment for the Arts to launch a project known as The Mastheads. It will pay homage to the city's place in literary history through residencies for five writers this summer.

The project prompted the Yale graduates to return to their Berkshire County roots and launch Arcade.

"Pittsfield is in a really exciting moment right now," Parkinson said.

But Arcade's origin story, while remarkable, is not unique, said NEA Chairwoman Jane Chu, who visited the city Friday.

The NEA makes competitive grants to nonprofit organizations for specific projects nationwide.

Last week, the federal agency awarded $84.06 million in grants to 1,195 organizations, including three in the Berkshires, and has done so consistently to numerous others here in the past.

Those grants require a dollar-for-dollar match and have helped spur economic growth in each of the nation's 435 congressional districts, she said. And those matching funds often exceed 1-to-1.

In 2016, the ratio of NEA dollars to matching funds was 1-to-9, or $500 million, according to its website.

"The American people are recognized for their innovative spirit and these grants represent the vision, energy and talent of America's artists and arts organizations," Chu said in a written statement."I am proud of the role the National Endowment for the Arts plays in helping advance the creative capacity of the United States."

Her visit to Pittsfield comes as the NEA's future is in question. President Donald Trump's proposed fiscal 2018 budget eliminated funding for the agency, which received $148 million last year.

Chu declined to discuss the proposed cuts.

"We are in the middle of the budget process," Chu said. "We will know more as it unfolds."

Representatives from more than a dozen arts and cultural organizations in the city, as well as state and local elected leaders, met with Chu at the Lichtenstein Center for the Arts, home to the city's Office of Cultural Development.

They discussed efforts to make the arts a part of the lives of all city residents, through free events, reduced-price tickets, classes, community productions and more.

Massachusetts Cultural Council Executive Director Anita Walker invited Chu to Pittsfield.

Walker said Pittsfield was at the forefront of a movement when it began touting the creative economy more than a decade ago.

"It started with Jimmy Ruberto who ran for mayor on this crazy idea of supporting the arts," she said. "Each mayor, we bite our nails wondering, will this mayor support this?"

Mayor Linda Tyer is a supporter. She told Chu how the vital role the arts have played during the city's post-industrial rebirth, following the closure of much of General Electric 20 years ago.

"It takes a long time for something to happen suddenly," Chu said.

Walker said she regards arts and culture in the region as a "factory that is not under one roof." She said that factory network employs 23,000 people and has a $1 billion economic impact.

Pittsfield state Rep. Tricia Farley-Bouvier said she is encouraged by the positive impact the arts have made. Still, she said the city faces numerous challenges, including opioid abuse and population decline, that cannot be overlooked.

But arts organizations can be part of overcoming those challenges, she said.

"We really believe that it's the innovative spirit and the partnerships that are going to bring us out of that, and the NEA has been a part of it."

Chu and Walker toured Barrington Stage Company, the Colonial Theatre, the Lichtenstein and climbed inside one of the Masthead writing studios staged outside of City Hall.

"Literature!" Chu exclaimed, posing with Walker for a photo inside the studio. "This is the Our Town grant," she said, referring to an NEA program.

Reach staff writer Carrie Saldo at 413-496-6221 or @carriesaldo.


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