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Editorial: An arts originator

It’s a fair guess that the Northampton Arts Council has provided hundreds of thousands of dollars in grants to local artists and groups since Bob Cilman took over in 1989. Cilman announced this month he will step down in September to focus on the internationally acclaimed elderly singing group, the Young@Heart Chorus, that he helped found in 1982.

His decision means someone new is needed to fill pretty big shoes.

That said, Cilman has done a lot to pave the way for the person who takes over as the council’s executive director, leaving behind an arts community with a solid foundation. We think Cilman was instrumental in building it.

In his 24 years as director, Cilman has been a extraordinarily resourceful in securing grants for area artists, funds for cultural programs for city schools and in creating local performances to support these efforts.

The Transperformance concert at Look Park and the Four Sundays in February concerts at the Academy of Music, which Cilman spearheaded, have alone raised close to half a million dollars for local arts funding, while becoming some of the most popular entertainments served up in Northampton each year.

Alone among the state’s arts councils, Northampton offers a second round of grants every spring with money raised through its homegrown events.

Cilman’s innovative approach to leading the council has not gone unnoticed. As far back as 1991, the Massachusetts Cultural Council recognized his efforts in finding alternative ways to support the arts during tight fiscal times. Rose Austin, the former executive director of the Massachusetts Cultural Council, praised those efforts for “bringing people together to form a vision of the role of the arts in the community.”

Making arts integral to Northampton has always been at the core of Cilman’s mission.

Clare Higgins told us Friday that Cilman “was first and foremost a community builder.” The former mayor, herself lured for laughs onto stages at many Transperformance concerts, recalled one early council-sponsored effort that featured a joint performance by two bands, one punk, one polka. “He worked to create community events ... bringing people together from disparate communities,” she said. “He hoped to put the city on the map as a place where arts were happening.”

Cilman also helped put the Young@Heart Chorus on the map — the global map. The group has performed concerts on dozens of tours around the world and was the subject of an award-winning documentary. Cilman receives a $54,435 annual salary for his full-time position, of which two-thirds is covered by the city ($33,075) and the rest by the arts council and Young@Heart ($21,360). We think it is money well spent.

Cilman said he believes it’s time to make room for someone from the “new generation” of artists to take the reins. We hope Cilman’s rich legacy remains a guiding light.

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