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Editorial: New start for the arts in Northampton

Penny Burke, Northampton Center for the Arts executive director

GAZETTE FILE PHOTO Penny Burke, Northampton Center for the Arts executive director Purchase photo reprints »

When the Northampton Community Arts Trust closes on a deal to buy a gym on Hawley Street, count it as a key step toward securing a viable arts scene in the city. But it will be only a first step.

From there, success depends, as always, on community commitment.

For the last three years, members of the trust doggedly pursued their hunt for a building able to house cultural programming, from performance to exhibits. They worked against the deadline that loomed over the Northampton Center for the Arts, which was coming to the end of its 30-year lease in the Sullivan Square building beside the Academy of Music.

After a lot of hopes raised and dashed, the trust connected with the owner of Universal Health and Fitness at 33 Hawley St. It was good timing, for its owner, Liz Cole, was considering a move.

From here, a lot must happen before Northampton’s arts community has anything close to the resource it long enjoyed with the Center for the Arts. Richard Wagner, president of the trust’s board, notes that his group must now roll on into a capital campaign and secure grants, business donations and other sources of funding to complete the deal.

This is a tough climate for that work. Corporate giving, in particular, has been in eclipse. The longtime sponsor of First Night programming in Boston recently went under after seeing its business donations fall off a cliff.

After the Northampton trust manages to close on the new site, it must work to convert the 25,000-square foot building to its next use as arts space. One element of that is expected to be a “black box” theater, as well as headquarters space for the Center for the Arts, which is now operating, under Penny Burke’s guidance, from rented space on Strong Avenue.

While the former center had a spacious performance space, it wasn’t dedicated to use as a theater. The black box deserves to be a central feature of the new space and is likely to help achieve what arts centers everywhere seek to do: inspire artists to create.

The building is within easy walking distance of Main Street. Still, it may take time for people to understand what it offers and to include this block of Hawley Street on their mental maps of go-to places in Northampton. Selling the public on the arrival of this new resource will be part of the challenge.

Northampton owes the trust, Burke and other proponents of original cultural programming its thanks for their determination. They refused to let the arts engines cool with the center’s closing. But they cannot do it by themselves. While the success of arts ventures depends mainly on their public appeal, money received through ticket sales isn’t typically enough. We hope residents of the region are receptive to appeals from the trust to ensure this new start on Hawley Street goes well.

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