Pittsfield shows that public investment in the arts makes a real difference


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It’s a basic principle of business that one must invest money to make money. Around the state, arts and cultural programs and events have boosted local revenues and brought new life to struggling municipalities. Few illustrate this better than Pittsfield.

A small city at the western edge of the state, Pittsfield is a prime example of how investment in the arts brings economic benefits. Over the last few years, downtown Pittsfield’s rebirth as a center of arts, culture and nightlife has been well documented by the New York Times, the Boston Globe (more from the Globe),WBUR and other publications, and for many good reasons. Here are a few of them:

Between 2005 – shortly after the city began investing heavily in its creative economy – and 2010,

  • attendance at arts and cultural events shot up 169 percent from 225,000 to 606,239;
  • annual direct expenditures on local arts events (organizational and audience) grew by almost 49 percent, from $17 million to $25.3 million;
  • full-time equivalent jobs in the arts sector increased from 531 to 762, a growth of 44 percent;
  • local government revenue from the arts programming increased nearly 47 percent, from $738,000 to $1 million;
  • state government arts revenue also increased by 47 percent, from $781,000 to $1.1 million; and
  • collective yearly household income in Pittsfield increased by 54 percent, from $9.3 million to $14.3 million.

Here’s a bit of the backstory of Pittsfield’s transformation from ghost town to cultural hub:

General Electric had operated major manufacturing operations in Pittsfield since the early 1900’s, employing over 15,000 locals and making for a bustling blue collar hub. In the 1980s, Pittsfield fell on hard times after G.E. decamped for the south, taking away the city’s primary economic engine. Empty storefronts overwhelmed the once lively cityscape on North Street, the city’s main thoroughfare.

“It was a depressed town in more ways than one,” recalls Meg Whilden, the city’s director of cultural development, who moved to the city in 2003. “People here were not very happy.”

In the early 2000s artist Maggie Mailer moved from Brooklyn back to her childhood home in the Berkshires. Seeing a creative opportunity in Pittsfield’s abandoned downtown, Mailer started the Storefront Artist Project, convincing landlords to allow artists to open temporary studios in the empty spaces to bring beauty and life back to the area. Not long after, Jim Ruberto, a Pittsfield native who had returned to the city after living elsewhere, was elected mayor. Having lived in Chicago and San Francisco, Ruberto knew that arts and culture are vital economic drivers for cities and he knew Mailer was on to something.

The local arts community now had a powerful ally at City Hall, someone who was willing to invest seriously in the human and financial resources necessary to build a creative economy and thus create new revenue – and a new identity -- for Pittsfield as a the cultural capitol of the Berkshires.

After taking office in 2004, Ruberto hired Megan Whilden, who was involved with the Storefront Artist Project, to the newly created position of Director of Cultural Development. Whilden’s sole job is to promote, support, and initiate cultural activities in Pittsfield. The mayor then invested more than $3 million dollars of a $10 million economic development grant from G.E. in local cultural organizations and infrastructure, including a $1 million restoration of the Colonial Theater, a Gilded Age gem in the heart of downtown. The city began reaping the benefits almost immediately: soon after the new position of Director of Cultural Development was announced, the acclaimed Barrington State Company announced plans to relocate to Pittsfield from elsewhere in the Berkshires.

“To me the take-away is, if you really walk the talk, and invest in the creative economy, people will notice, and your results will snowball,” Whilden says. “We didn’t know Barrington was going to do that.”

Ruberto doled out money to Barrington Stage to renovate its new home in an old vaudeville theater downtown, and helped the Berkshire Museum do a little modernizing. “We had this major museum in our downtown that was really the Smithsonian of the Berkshires, because it had art, natural science, and history,” Whilden explains. “But it did not have air conditioning, which unheard-of in this day and age.”

In 2005, Pittsfield applied for and received an Adams Cultural/Economic Development Grant from the Mass. Cultural Council (MCC).  The city has received the funding every year since.

“The money that the Mass. Cultural Council invested in the creative economy, and in cultural economic development here in Pittsfield, was absolutely essential to revitalizing our city,” says Whilden. “We use that money to fertilize and grow a number of different things, such as our many festivals and events, like First Fridays Artswalk and 3rd.Thursdays.”

Third Thursdays, a free monthly event that runs from May to October, regularly draws crowds of more than 10,000 people downtown for an evening of music, street performances, art, outdoor dining, and shopping.

Many of these festival-goers are old-timers who remember the pre-ATM days when downtown was mobbed on Thursdays evenings, as thousands of G.E. employees descended on North Street to cash their paychecks and spend some money at the local retailers. Whilden specifically created Third Thursdays with an eye toward recreating that bustling era.

She recalls that during the first Third Thursday eight years ago, a friend of hers encountered an older woman who was overcome with emotion at the sight of the crowds enjoying downtown Pittsfield. “She was crying out of happiness,” says Whilden. “She never thought she would see North Street full of people again.”

 

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