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Creative summit looks at solutions to drive economy

  • Recorder/Paul Franz<br/>Actors mock politics and the arts during a skit at the beginning of the Creative Economy Summit at The Hallmark Institute of Photography.

    Recorder/Paul Franz
    Actors mock politics and the arts during a skit at the beginning of the Creative Economy Summit at The Hallmark Institute of Photography.

  • Recorder/Paul Franz<br/>Audience members react to the opening skit at the Creative Economy at the Hallmark Institute of Photography.

    Recorder/Paul Franz
    Audience members react to the opening skit at the Creative Economy at the Hallmark Institute of Photography.

  • Recorder/Paul Franz<br/>Actors mock politics and the arts during a skit at the beginning of the Creative Economy Summit at The Hallmark Institute of Photography.
  • Recorder/Paul Franz<br/>Audience members react to the opening skit at the Creative Economy at the Hallmark Institute of Photography.

TURNERS FALLS — Robert McBride says he found it an “amusing” challenge as a recently transplanted artist in Bellows Falls, Vt. trying to revitalize the “armpit” village by talking about it as “a great town, with cohesiveness and architecture, with the spark of creative energy: You’re so far down, and there’s only one way to go, and that’s up.”

McBride, founding director of the Rockingham Arts and Museum Project, told about 120 business leaders, municipals and others at a Franklin County Chamber of Commerce breakfast meeting about using his creative energy to bring back the anemic Connecticut River mill village in the 1990s — by bringing performers in and then convincing the state housing agency to convert vacant buildings into affordable living and workspace with preference for artists.

The projects, he told the gathering that also served as the opener for a two-day Creative Economy Summit, helped create so much of a buzz that others showed up to bring a recording studio, a performance venue and enough visitors that a “boutique hotel” was restored in the village center as well.

“It was great: ‘Let’s just start changing how people start thinking about this community,” said McBride, whose comments had special resonance in Turners Falls, the focus of this fourth creative summit subtitled, “Cultural Vitality: In Person, around town and online.”

“Rural communities are their own unique species,” said McBride, who has worked to bring together artists, performers, local food purveyors and other business people from around the region.

“Creativity is a type of language that goes way beyond the stereotype of arts per se. I often like to say I’ve met some of the most creative plumbers and some of the least creative artists. It’s about how people approach problems. You put creative people around the table and you come up with creative solutions; you put whiners around the table, you come up with whiney solutions. What you really want to do is just get the energy there, get the intelligence there, get the creativity there, and it kind of evolves itself.”

McBride’s words turned to action in a plenary session that began the two-day series of workshops for all types of artists, business and organization leaders, government officials at Hallmark School of Photography. The event, which continues today in downtown Turners Falls, is open by registration between 8 and 9 a.m. at the Shea Theater.

At the plenary session, Sen. Stanley Rosenberg, D-Amherst, Montague Town Administrator Frank Abbondanzio, Greenfield Savings Bank President Rebecca Caplice and Base Camp Photo owner Beth Reynolds shared their ideas of the challenges and possibilities of creating a viable cultural environment.

“We’re a little bit waning on the funding side these days,” Rosenberg told the opening gathering, compared to some other states, but we still have some really remarkable public policies that are rather unique in the country.”

Building on the idea that the arts constitutes an industry that can contribute to the economy, he said, there are ripple effects to neighboring restaurants and other businesses from visitors who come to the community to enjoy the arts. People are beginning to understand that the arts are also integrated into other sectors of the economy, so that the same businesses that once pushed for education to emphasize the basics like reading and math now are stressing that cultural programs that had been pushed out be returned.

Along with an emphasis in the state about the importance of the creative economy, there’s also a push for more of a call for a “creative challenge index” to convey and encourage people “to get creativity back into the curriculum.”

Following on that theme, Caplice said she’s come to understand that “every business is an art. When you hear it and you hear the passion of the people who are operating those businesses … you realize that there’s art there.”

She pointed, for example, to the photography education business created by Reynolds, who had worked on St. Petersburg, Fla.’s development of a creative economy before coming to teach at Hallmark Institute.

“She’s taken her love and her passion and made a community out of it,” Caplice said. “You get people around something they enjoy. And that’s a trend that we should really encourage.”

Reynolds, whose business includes leading tours around the region for photography students to shoot, said she found that kind of encouragement among people in this area when we was trying to launch her business. “That’s what I really love about this area, how the mutual collaboration has been.”

If there was a tension to the give-and-take, it was in a nearly six-minute skirmish that came after Rosenberg suggested that Massachusetts communities should appropriate their own arts budgets to match the state funds that they receive, as a way of getting residents thinking about the value of arts in the community and saying they have a stake in cultural activities.

Around the country — but not in Massachusetts — the largest share of public arts funding comes from municipalities, said Rosenberg.

“Wouldn’t it be interesting, as we continue to expand the number of cultural districts … if they were to include within their budget, as challenging as it might be, because I know dollars are rare, but a cultural economic development line item that could be quite modest, could be quite symbolically important.

“What if we started a movement in this state where communities matched the cultural facilities number from the state in their local budget? Three million (dollars) statewide is not a lot of money.”

Montague’s cultural council allocation is $3,400, Abbondanzio told Rosenberg.

“Imagine at town meeting if you had that conversation and were able to put something in, even if it was very modest, given that you’re getting money from the state, and given what River Culture has given to the community,” Rosenberg answered. “It’s much more advanced in other states.

Abbondanzio defended the town, saying that over the past seven years, it’s put up $15,000 annually for the Turners Falls River Culture program out of its Community Development funds as a local match.

But Rosenberg, while acknowledging that effort, pointed out that it’s funded by federal money given to the state as a local match for state dollars.

“Just to establish something within the town budget, as a town function, as something the town is supporting. That act is very important.”

Again, Abbondanzio responded, explaining that about one-third of the town planner’s time is spent on matters of cultural development, but Rosenberg rebutted that the town should establish a separate commercial economic development fund from which to pay one-third of the planner’s salary, to make clear that’s a function of the town government.

The last word, however, came later, from a North Adams City Council member Nancy Blacker during the question and answer session that followed.

“If you get rid of some of your unfunded mandates, and increase your spending to cities and towns, I’d have more money to try doing that!”

Abbondanzio, who said the town has been challenged not just by the poor economy but also by long-term, partial closure of the Turners-Falls-Gill bridge during very slow work by the state, said Montague has been helped by the energy the River Culture group has brought to the village, and it’s also working on developing a Native American cultural park to encourage cultural tourism.

Another idea conveyed came from Caplice, pointing to the participation by Greenfield businesses in that town’s annual winter carnival last month by paying $150 each to have an illuminated ice sculpture in front of their businesses.

“The interest it created was fabulous,” she said. “They were lit at night, so they glowed all night long, and people were stopping, taking pictures. We were sorry when the weather got warmer.”

Since this conference is about creativity, the four panelists first got to see their “personas” take the stage and perform — Rep. Rose Stanley, Brownfield Mayor Havless Needmore, Brownfield Community Bank President Buck Showmee and artist Misto — all from Dramaworks Interactive theater group, performed a skit.

“There’s other forms of capital,” Misto told the others, after banker Showmee has questioned how her planned art installation will produce monetary results for the community. “There’s social capital, cultural capital, spiritual capital … that deep, deep understanding that we are all one, that we are all connected. … Art reflects all of this, and more, the seen and unseen, and that’s why art matters, and that’s what’s in it for you.”

On the Web: www.creativeeconomysummit.com

You can reach Richie Davis at:
rdavis@recorder.com
or 413-772-0261, Ext. 269

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