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Claudia Lefko: Loss of arts center a setback for Northampton

Both the center and the Northampton Community Arts Trust have invested significant time and money exploring possibilities, but nothing has come of it so far. In a bit of dark humor, the center’s board has been contemplating a future where its director, Penny Burke, will be coordinating activities from a bunker in an undisclosed location.

It sounds pretty terrible, but other people, with even bigger challenges, seem to have managed this — former Vice President Dick Cheney, for instance.

Over the years, people complained with good reason that it was difficult to find the center on the third floor of the Sullivan Square building. Indeed, we joked, you needed a GPS. But when you finally arrived, you could see that we were a “real” arts center — with an office, staff, galleries and an inspiring performance space.

If you were planning an event, you could see where it would take place and talk about the particulars. You could see posters for coming events on the bulletin board and find and leave postcards and announcements of arts events in the area.

Artists could meet other artists. So in losing the space, we — the Center for the Arts and the city — are losing all of these critical pieces that help engage our community in the arts and help sustain the arts and artists.

Last Friday, the center presented the annual spring concert of one of its resident companies, the Happy Valley Guitar Orchestra. Because we were all but moved out of Sullivan Square, the orchestra performed at the First Churches. We were grateful for the gesture from the church and this is not in any way a complaint against the venue, which has wonderful acoustics.

But the concert served as an example of the challenges the center faces producing events at off-site, non-arts venues. There is, in these situations, no arts-traffic in the building, no stream of events where shows can be announced, no signs, no box office or events website or someone to answer questions about the event.

There may be no appropriate space for workshops or receptions connected to events. Everything from promotion, to dress rehearsal space, to sound system set-up and box office is a do-it-yourself challenge when there is no home base.

The center has not moved to its new, undisclosed location, but as a board member, I find myself in a “bunker mentality,” defined by Dictionary.com as: n. a state of mind whereby one believes that one is being constantly attacked, oppressed or isolated.

Thirty years ago I was on the committee that helped create the center both as an idea and vision and as a physical space. I simply cannot understand how the city, how we as a community known for “the arts,” have let things go so terribly wrong.

Claudia Lefko is a member of the board of the Northampton Center for the Arts, but notes that this essay represents her views, not the board’s.

Legacy Comments1

I know of Ms. Lefko as a caring and dedicated citizen. I think Northampton is not as vibrant and hip as it once was. Gentrification drives out the edge artists that add vitality and drive needed to keep a dynamic community alive. I would suggest that the Northampton Center for the Arts look beyond the city lines to Easthampton or Holyoke to recapture some of the energy that led to its creation in the 1st place. To quote Bob Dylan "he not busy being born is busy dying "

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