Natalie Blais' Response to the Create the Vote Questionnaire

1. The Role of Arts, Culture, and Creativity

What role do arts, culture, and creativity play in your life, your family, your community? What impact does it have?

The impact of the arts on our community in the First Franklin district is significant. Here, the creative economy is thriving. For example, Montague has experienced a renaissance in the arts following the creation of River Culture and the restoration of the Shea Theatre. By supporting the arts, this community has transformed into a vibrant cultural destination for residents and visitors alike. Shelburne Falls, Ashfield, and Chester are also cultural destinations.

Many of the towns in our district enjoy magnificent natural resources such as white water rafting, hiking, and biking. Linking information about our natural resources and our creative resources will only increase the impact and desirability of these towns as tourist destinations and home. The impact is growing as people from outside our region seek to escape and connect with nature and the creative economy and residents seek new and exciting experiences in their own communities.

Additionally, artists and workers in the creative economy are looking for places to escape from the city permanently. Excellent educational opportunities and beautiful natural resources coupled with a thriving artistic community encourage many to create a life here, significantly impacting our local economy.


2. Addressing District-wide Issues

Just as any other part of the state, we face many economic and social issues here in the district.

What are your priority issues? What role can the creative community play in addressing these challenges?

One of the most important growth areas for our district is the creative economy. This has been true for years and certainly since Congressman John Olver conducted the Northern Tier study.

At a time when retail and manufacturing are suffering, there is significant growth in the areas of tourism, entertainment, and culture. People are increasingly interested in the “experience.” As Executive Director of the Franklin County Chamber of Commerce, one of sixteen Regional Tourism Councils across the state, I strive to bolster that growth by fostering the arts and culture. We are very fortunate to have growing artist communities in many of our towns in the First Franklin District.

Artists are choosing to locate in the region and we must provide the necessary scaffolding to connect the artists with one another and present more of their work. As State Representative, I can help communities as they inventory underutilized buildings that could be used for studios, galleries, and performance space. Providing the funding to restore older buildings is a win-win for communities and artists; lifting them up through creative place-making.


There is a growing body of data and science that’s telling us that loneliness is more prevalent than we thought. Former U.S. surgeon general Vivek Murthy even compared the mortality effect associated with loneliness to smoking 15 cigarettes a day.

What do you think the creative community can do to address social isolation?

The sense of camaraderie and connection that is created through artistic expression and attendance at artistic events is well proven. We have the antidote right here and the First Franklin district is uniquely positioned to take full advantage of that healing power. We must create more opportunities for artists to create. The creative community is doing the work but they need advocacy, financial support, and publicity to expand their health and healing.


3. Arts Education and Programs for our Youth

Research has shown that arts education increases achievement across all academic disciplines, enhances student engagement, and fosters development of critical thinking and learning skills.

The Department of Elementary and Secondary Education (DESE) is currently redesigning school and district report cards to include measures for arts education participation. In addition, DESE is updating arts curriculum frameworks for the first time since 1999.

What will you do to increase access and participation in arts education for youth both in school and out of schools?

It has been heartbreaking to observe the lack of support that the arts have received in public education in Massachusetts. Our teachers work miracles with almost no resources. Financial support can create powerful arts programs that will improve humanity. The artists are here in the First Franklin District. They create curricula and an enormous impact with very limited resources. As State Representative, I will advocate for the inclusion and expansion of the arts in our local schools.


4. The Commonwealth’s Support and Role in the Creative Community

Public investment in the arts strengthens local economies, attracts additional investment, and ensures resources serve the public interest. For the past three years, the Legislature has level funded the Mass Cultural Council, investing $14 million in organizational support for the creative community. In 1988, the Mass Cultural Council gave out more than $27 million in grants, nearly twice what we do now.

At what level would you fund the Mass Cultural Council?

As State Representative, I would fight to increase funding for the MCC. Level funding is not acceptable.


Created by the Massachusetts Legislature in 2007, the Massachusetts Cultural Facilities Fund has granted $110 million in matching grants to help restore the Commonwealth’s most treasured historical and cultural landmarks, and fund visionary capital projects that revitalize our communities. As the Cultural Facilities Fund comes up for reauthorization in 2019, there’s interest to increase the Fund to $75 million for five years, allowing the yearly allocations to increase from $10 million to $15 million and meet the increasing demands of projects.

At what level do you suggest the Commonwealth fund this program?

As State Representative, I would fight to support the MCC and would work to increase the Cultural Facilities Fund to $75 million for five years. The return on investment in these programs is significant and should be expanded accordingly.


5. Space for artists and arts organizations (For Greater Boston Districts)

Active arts organizations and artists make neighborhoods safer, more welcoming, and improve overall quality of life. Yet, as Greater Boston’s development boom continues, the creative community is consistently being priced out of space to live, create, and present art.

From the eviction of artists at the Piano Factory in Boston’s South End and the EMF building in Cambridge, to the possibility of the Huntington Theatre losing its mainstage home on Huntington Avenue, Boston is in danger of losing the vibrancy and cultural diversity which make the area a desirable place for businesses to move and people to live.

How will you work to ensure artist live work spaces are included in development plans?

How will you encourage the development of affordable rehearsal, exhibition, and performance space for artists and cultural organizations?

What’s bad for Boston may be good for First Franklin District. The increasingly high cost of living is driving artists to our region. We can support artists by transforming underutilized buildings and factories into studio, gallery, and performance spaces. Concurrently, we must address the need for affordable housing. I hope to support the creative economy across the region as State Representative.


6. Public Art

Public art helps build vibrant and connected neighborhoods and the arts community plays a vital role in the development of cities and towns. The rest of New England and 22 other states have a Public Art Program, which establishes that public art will be an integral piece of all new state construction. The Legislature is considering The Massachusetts Public Art Program, legislation that would invest approximately $2 million a year in the creation and preservation of public art on Commonwealth-owned properties.

What will you do next session to help get the Massachusetts Public Art Program to the finish line?

We all know that public art changes our lives and our communities for the better. As State Representative, I will advocate for this new program and encourage others to lend their support. Public art in the First Franklin District has been thriving through volunteerism and in spite of shoestring funding. Harnessing this energy to put it to work in a sustainable, supported way would significantly impact our local, rural communities.


7. Art and Public Health

Expressive art therapy is a proven and effective treatment to improve cognitive and sensory-motor functions, help cope with traumatic experiences, decrease depression and anxiety, and aid addiction recovery.

How would you ensure veterans, young people in the juvenile justice system, the elderly, and those suffering from addiction are able to access art and creative therapies?

Western Massachusetts houses a national model for rehabilitation and social services: Recovery Theatre. This is a performing arts experience for young people overcoming trauma, addiction, anxiety, depression and other behavioral health challenges. It is a space where teens struggling with mental health issues are valued as artists, not patients. Part of its strength lays in the fact that it is not a clinic, agency or hospital. It is a home for anyone living with circumstances that present barriers to them becoming their fullest selves. As State Representative, I would support programs like this one across the Commonwealth.

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