Northampton Center for the Arts announces its final events as it continues to search for a new home
NORTHAMPTON — While it continues to search for a new home, the Northampton Center for the Arts is preparing to bring down the curtain after a nearly 30-year run in the Sullivan Square building on South Street.
Penny Burke, the longtime director of the arts organization, said programming at the center will end March 22, 2013, with a concert by classical guitarist Peter Blanchette, his annual “Bach Birthday” show. After that, Burke and other staff will prepare for leaving Sullivan Square, as their lease will be up on June 30.
“We had to make a decision on when to wind things up,” said Burke. “It was becoming too difficult to plan events and make commitments to groups and artists, knowing the clock was ticking.”
The center has been actively searching for a new location for the past few years, knowing the lease on the Sullivan Square building would not be renewed. It was signed in 1984 when the center formed a public/private partnership with the city of Northampton and rented space from the developers of the Sullivan Square property, a former city school.
Working with the Northampton Community Arts Trust Inc. (NCAT), a separate nonprofit group formed to create and conserve downtown arts space, the center looked in recent years at a number of local properties as potential new locations, including the Roundhouse building and the former St. John Cantius Church on Hawley Street. Neither of those locations panned out.
In fall 2011, the center held promising initial talks with officials from the First Churches about relocating there, even doing a preliminary architectural and cost study on how some parts of the property might be reconfigured for arts use. But both groups eventually realized they would not be able to make the arrangement work, and talks were abandoned this past spring.
Richard Wagner, president of NCAT, said his group has continued “to talk with everybody” about finding a downtown community arts space that could also house the Center for the Arts.
“What’s critical is not just that we get a space, but that we get a space that’s affordable and sustainable and that will be around 200 years from now,” Wagner said. He added that the Center for the Arts has the most pressing need at the moment but that NCAT ideally wants to buy a property that would in turn become “Northampton’s arts space — a real place for the community.”
For her part, Burke, who is also a member of NCAT, said she and other panel members have been involved in recent weeks in frequent talks about purchasing one potential site, though she said she could not provide further details.
“Half of me is very hopeful that we’ll have something to announce fairly soon, and half of me is prepared to do what we have to do to close,” she said.
The center has put out the word on its website about its situation. Staff recently announced that a Nov. 30 to Dec. 1 production of the Thornton Wilder play “Our Town” will be the last play the organization produces at its Sullivan Square home.
Following the center’s biggest annual production — Northampton’s First Night celebration on New Year’s Eve — a limited number of public and private events are scheduled up until March 22. Art exhibitions will end after January; some regular activities such as art classes will still be held into March.
In the meantime, Burke and her staff will begin looking at the possibility of storing important items like sound and lighting equipment and the center’s grand piano, as well as “all the other stuff we’ve accumulated over 30 years,” Burke said.
She said Mayor David Narkewicz has offered to help the center find temporary office space from which she and her staff could still produce shows in other area venues.
But, Burke noted, regardless of whether the center finds a new physical location or exists for some time just as an administrative office, there’s likely to be a certain “quiet time” down the road. “There’s going to be a period when we’re not active. How long that will be, I don’t know,” she said. “Hopefully not that long.”