Glenn Siegel: Don’t let Northampton’s arts success fade with loss of center’s home
KATHLEEN DUNCAN January 19, 2010 - Penny Burke with the new Northampton Center for the Arts sign that she is hoping to get hung outside to help people find their way to the center. Purchase photo reprints »
NORTHAMPTON — It is with dismay and a growing sense of pessimism that I watch the Northampton Center for the Arts vanish as a vibrant presence in our community. My dismay not only stems from the fact that the center is closing its doors after providing decades of essential service to Northampton, but from the apparent lack of creativity and urgency on the part of city leaders to save it.
I believe the city made a bad deal in 1983 when it put a (30-year) limit on the center’s life. The city gave away architecturally significant downtown public space to a private entity. That poor decision is being compounded today by the deaf ear and short-sightedness of civic leaders who do not seem to understand the ramifications of the center’s closing to the city we love.
The arts center is not just another venue to see a performance; it is a major engine in the cultural life of the cty. It not only has turned First Night and Arts Night Out into signature events, it has touched a broad cross-section of our community by serving as home to resident theater, dance and music ensembles and providing a venue for countless classes, exhibits, performances and social functions, while acting as a fierce and steady advocate for the arts.
Who among us has never been in the center’s beautiful ballroom?
The transformation of Northampton from the depressed, boarded-up, post-industrial city it was in the 1970s to the destination it is today has lots to do with the artists and creative types who took advantage of ample space and cheap rents to set up shop.
The story is an old one: a critical mass of motivated “creatives” generate a scene, then are pushed out as the buzz they create raises the cost of doing business. They move elsewhere.
City leaders did not make Northampton the best small arts town in America, but they can play a role in ensuring it stays that way by partnering with organizations like the Center for the Arts.
I look with envy as cities like Easthampton and Holyoke begin to harness the power of the arts to bind and uplift their communities. Their leaders understand that the arts spur economic activity and make their cities more attractive to residents and visitors.
Why don’t ours?
Thinking of the arts as a purely commercial endeavor, subject to market forces, is to misread the role of art and creativity in our lives. Through the arts, we tell our stories and express our values, challenge and expand our world view. But the arts, especially in a place like Northampton, are also the grease that allows the wheels of commerce to spin freely. Surely, bottom-line administrators can appreciate that.
The irony that the center is closing as it rides a crest of unprecedented success adds to the heartache. Under the stewardship of Penny Burke, her board and volunteers, the center has enjoyed a decade of increased cultural production and financial stability. I have worked with many arts administrators over 25 years of producing concerts in the Valley. Penny Burke is the best I’ve seen. She, and others, have worked tirelessly to find new space in Northampton for the center. Roadblocks and dead ends have thus far led to an unhappy ending.
With a change of leadership at the Northampton Arts Council, the prospect of a decimated arts education program in our public schools and the demise of the Center for the Arts, our town is at an interesting and perilous juncture.
I hope city leaders, and the people who vote for them, have the vision and foresight to understand the crucial role the arts play in the psychic and economic health of our city, and use every tool in the box to ensure a new home is found for the Northampton Center for the Arts.
Glenn Siegel of Northampton is administrative advisor for WMUA — 91.1 FM and jazz coordinator of the UMass Fine Arts Center. He produced 11 seasons of the “World of Piano” series at the Northampton Center for the Arts and runs Pioneer Valley Jazz Shares, a grassroots, all-volunteer presenting organization fiscally sponsored by the center.