Looking to Providence arts nonprofit as a model, Valley artists talk organizational nuts and bolts

Last modified: Thursday, February 04, 2016

EASTHAMPTON — Left brains were buzzing in a room at the back of Easthampton’s Old Town Hall Saturday, as a group of about 35 arts-minded people from around the Pioneer Valley gathered. They were there not to paint or perform, but to discuss real estate, taxes and grants — to think about ways they could build sustainable arts communities.

Easthampton performing artist and educator Seth Lepore led the group in a nuts-and-bolts brainstorming session at Flywheel Arts Collective at 43 Main St., using AS220, a nonprofit artist group in Providence, as a model.

AS220, short for Artist Space 220, was founded by Umberto Crenca in 1985 as a place for artists to collaborate and exhibit their work in an “uncensored and unjuried” atmosphere, pushing back against an elitism he and his partners feared was stifling creativity. What was once an illegal squatting performance space grew into a group that operates three buildings, including dozens of live/work studios, performance spaces, galleries, a print shop and a restaurant.

Over the years, AS220 has built a strong reputation, Lepore said, attributing much of the city’s urban, artistic revitalization to its success. “Providence was the armpit of New England,” Lepore said. “And now it’s called the creative capital.”

With wisdom gained from a four-day workshop he attended at AS220 in November, Lepore walked through the logistics of buying a space, navigating grant proposals and looking for tax credits. Lepore, co-founder of Easthampton Co.Lab, a collaborative workspace, urged attendees to consider the wealth of resources for artists in the Valley and think about ways they could create sustainable arts organizations. He suggested community land trusts, where a nonprofit buys land and commits to use it in a way that benefits the area, as one good model.

Sita Magnuson, a co-founder of Easthampton Co.Lab, sketched on a large easel as Lepore talked, turning what he said into images and diagrams for the visual thinkers in the audience.

“Buildings are complicated beasts,” pronounced a slide in Lepore’s presentation. “You need allies.”

In small groups divvied up by location, participants listed the assets, allies and advocates at their disposal. In Northampton, this included everything from the Northampton Arts Council to NCTV to the bike trail and Smith College. Under challenges, they listed high rents, unsupportive landlords and a lack of space.

Lepore shattered the idea of the 1960s nirvana, where hippies held hands and instantaneously formed a working arts organization. It’s not, nor has it ever been, that easy, he said. Finding the right people to work with is key, he said, as is developing a coherent plan.

“You need to know what your program is, or you’re dead in the water,” Lepore said.

Thinking broadly, he suggested developing some sort of local arts fund, where 1,000 or so artists each donate a small amount, matched by philanthropists, and put it into an account to collect interest. “That’s us taking charge of it, rather than waiting for other people,” Lepore said.

To Michael Garjian, 69, of Easthampton the work Lepore described fits into what he thinks should be a broader cultural shift.

“It’s all in line with my general thinking of what a society should look like,” he said, describing an alternative economic system based “not on greed” but “community.”

Southampton artist Carl Faiella, 47, said he came Saturday for the same reason as everyone else: because he believes artists need to collaborate.

“People are not connected to one another,” he said. “The spaces that people used to have no longer exist.”

As one of many former mill towns grappling with the loss of manufacturing, Easthampton has made great progress in the past 15 years, said Burns Maxey, Easthampton City Arts+ coordinator and CitySpace vice president, pointing to the boardwalk, former mill building revitalizations and bike path as successes. Easthampton has done its best to breathe new life into former industrial buildings, she said. Now, she said, the question is how the city retains that momentum.

One project along the lines of what Lepore was describing is the Northampton Community Arts Trust, a nonprofit group founded in 2010 to support a viable arts community in downtown Northampton. Its president, Richard Wagner, had a suggestion that he thought could make it easier for such organizations to receive funding — amending the Community Preservation Act to include a fifth category: cultural infrastructure. As it stands, CPA funding can be used for projects involving open space, affordable housing, historic preservation and recreation.

In the case of the Arts Trust, Wagner said, if they had located in the Union Station building as they once considered, they could have applied for historic preservation funding — an opportunity they don’t have in their space at 33 Hawley St.

Saturday’s session was useful, Wagner said, because it offered a glimpse into how complex such arts organization endeavors can be. “There’s a lot that goes into it,” he said.

Lepore plans to host a second session, Feb. 21, that will focus more on vision, values and mission.

Stephanie McFeeters can be reached at smcfeeters@gazettenet.com.


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