Fitchburg Art Museum is serving people through art

Fitchburg Art Museum (FAM) Director Nick Capasso has a very simple mandate from FAM’s Trustees: Serve the community.

Since arriving at FAM 18 months ago, after 22 years as a curator at the deCordova Sculpture Park & Museum, Capasso’s top priority has been to ensure that the museum is serving the needs of the Fitchburg community.

Exhibit A: In August, FAM launched the Bilingual Museum Initiative with the goal of becoming New England’s first fully bilingual (English / Spanish) art museum. The initiative is an attempt to make the museum more accessible to the city’s large Latino community, which comprises about 39 percent of the population. Working collaboratively with the local Latino Community Advisory Committee and the Cleghorn Neighborhood Association, the primary service organization for Fitchburg’s Latino community, FAM hired a bilingual receptionist and bilingual docents, created a bilingual Facebook page, and provides free admission to residents of Fitchburg’s Ward 4B, a predominantly Latino neighborhood. More importantly, all new permanent collection displays, changing exhibitions, and education spaces will have bilingual educational texts and object labels.


At the end of September, FAM unveiled two major exhibits featuring Latino artists: One Language is Never Enough: Latino Artists in Southern New England, which showcases the work of 24 contemporary artists with Latin American backgrounds who live and work in Connecticut, Massachusetts or Rhode Island; and Mario Quiroz: Mis Vecinos, Portraits of Fitchburg’s Latino Communities, a collection of photographic portraits of Latino city residents by Mario Quiroz, a Salvadoran immigrant who now lives in Cambridge.

The opening reception for the exhibits brought the largest crowd Capasso has seen in his tenure at the museum. “And certainly the most diverse crowd I’ve ever seen in any art museum,” he says.

That’s one way to build community and broaden the horizons of an underserved community. But FAM is doing so much more to enrich and improve the lives of the residents of Fitchburg, a Central Mass. city that has long struggled economically.

In the schools

Shortly after Capasso arrived at FAM he met with the superintendent of Fitchburg’s schools.

“I asked him, ‘How many of your kids are coming into the art museum each year?’ And his answer was zero.” The school system simply could not afford the cost of busing students to the museum.

Capasso and the superintendent hashed out a best-case scenario of busing fourth graders, seventh graders, and advanced high school art students district wide on an annual museum field trips at a cost of $30,000 over three years. Then Capasso successfully secured the money through a local foundation.

“It’s a huge enrichment opportunity for students,” Capasso says of the field trips. “It does all the things museums are supposed to do for kids: it broadens their horizons, it helps them understand that they exist in a much larger context than the city of Fitchburg, and it gives them the opportunity to see the things from cultures far away in both place and time. This is why museums exist.”

FAM has engaged students from Montachusett Regional Vocational Technical School to help artist Douglas Kornfeld create and install an 18-foot steel sculpture in the museum’s courtyard. After the sculpture is erected next spring, FAM will sponsor an essay contest for Fitchburg public schools students to make the case for naming the sculpture.

“And when we put the plaque out with the artist’s name and everything, we’ll also put a plaque out with the kid’s essay,” Capasso says. “We’re just trying to maximize every opportunity so we can, if possible, be of service to the community.”

On the other end of the educational spectrum, FAM is also forging a productive relationship with Fitchburg State University, which, unlike many other colleges and universities, does not have its own museum. Not that it needs one, Capasso is quick to note, “Because they have us.”

FAM offers free admission to all faculty, students, and staff at the university, and the two institutions are piloting several different collaborative projects. Most notable among them is FAM’s collaboration with the university’s Communications Media Department, its flagship program. As FAM geared up for an exhibition last spring, it engaged the services of three university classes that each acted as design/marketing firms to prepare and promote the exhibit.

“We engaged the students in a real client/firm relationship and this was not a paper exercise,” Capasso explains. Fitchburg State students provided the exhibition design, the branding, the logo, the website, the marketing plan, the press releases, educational interactives, a blog, and an online exhibition catalogue.”

“The students get this real world experience and they have real product that they can put in their professional portfolios when they go off to look for jobs,” says Capasso. “And what we get is a huge expansion of our institutional capacity brought to bear on one project. We would not have been able to do this show without the students.” 

A place for artists to live and work
There are three large boarded-up school buildings directly across from the museum. FAM is working with the local community development corporation to convert the building into a campus of 60 units of affordable live-work space for artists. The proposal will soon be in front of the city council, and Capasso is optimistic the plan will be approved.

“We’ve been working hard on the politics,” he says.

Additionally, FAM has been collaborating with the Fitchburg Cultural Alliance as a broad effort to create a downtown cultural district in Fitchburg, along with the City of Fitchburg and Fitchburg State University.

It’s all in day’s work for a museum director at an institution that is focused like a laser on meeting the needs of its community.

“Fitchburg has a lot of economic challenges and the museum for one reason or another is seen as one of the pillars of strength in the community,” says Capasso. “We feel that because we have this position of strength in the community that we have the responsibility to help wherever we can with the economic development and creative economy initiatives. Anything that it makes sense for a museum to get involved in, we will do.”

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