Creative force behind Artspace to take a rest

Mary Kay Hoffman will retire after 40 years, to pursue next local music education project

  • Mary Kay Hoffman shows visitors current Artspace exhibit by students of an adult painting class.Recorder/Micky Bedell

    Mary Kay Hoffman shows visitors current Artspace exhibit by students of an adult painting class.Recorder/Micky Bedell

  • Mary Kay Hoffman<br/>Recorder/Micky Bedell

    Mary Kay Hoffman
    Recorder/Micky Bedell

  • Mary Kay Hoffman shows visitors current Artspace exhibit by students of an adult painting class.Recorder/Micky Bedell
  • Mary Kay Hoffman<br/>Recorder/Micky Bedell

Artspace Executive Director Mary Kay Hoffman, who moved to the area 40 years ago to head the then-newly-formed Arts Council of Franklin County, has announced her retirement from the organization.

Hoffman, who will turn 70 this summer and says she’s looking forward to gardening at her Hawley home, but also to volunteering for the newly created Pioneer Valley Youth Orchestra.

That string orchestra, formed by the Pioneer Valley Symphony Orchestra, was one of the dreams Hoffman had when she arrived in 1974 from a post managing Canton, Ohio’s symphony orchestra and its youth orchestra.

“My focus was music,” says Hoffman, who has a degree in music education from Kent State University and had been a vocalist. “When I first moved here, I thought ‘I’ll start a youth orchestra,’ but I didn’t realize there weren’t any school string programs,” except for those in private schools, “and we couldn’t have a kids’ string orchestra unless we have string players. It was always in the back of my head, for years and years.”

Hoffman never imagined, when she first applied for the job in Franklin County, working for the new “performing arts council” created with one of four state startup grants, that she would hang onto the job for four decades, although when she was first driven through downtown Greenfield from the airport for her interview, “I was thinking, this would be a great town to bring up two little kids. I knew as soon we drove through.”

The fledgling arts council, which she immediately sought to broaden into an organization that tried to enhance the visual as well as performing arts, set up shop in Greenfield Community College’s new campus. There, drawing on state arts foundation grants, the organization helped bring artists in residence and visiting performers to schools around the county.

It later moved to a building beside Greenfield Middle School and then, in 1978, to its own home at the former Greenfield Library Association building at Franklin and Main streets, which it bought in 1980.

In that Victorian building, Hoffman brought a series of traveling exhibits as well as an annual holiday boutique that featured local artists and artisans. There was even an annual Franklin County Arts Festival that took place over eight summers.

After a few years of being flush with state grant money during the administration of Michael Dukakis, the arts council’s budget was slashed and a new state arts lottery was created, with the recipients newly created town arts councils.

“I remember one night, when I was working, I got a call asking me, ‘What’s the winning number,” recalls Hoffman. She told a reporter after the lottery was created in 1980 that western Massachusetts stood to lose arts funding because the distribution to towns was based on population.

Hoffman, whose role as arts council director included administration of a United Way-like county Business Fund for the Arts, grew disenchanted enough with the organization that she left in 1985 to work for Shelburne glass blower Josh Simpson and then Stoneleigh-Burnham School.

“I was tired,” she says. “I needed a break.”

She returned to the arts council part-time in the late 1980s, she says, after working to develop a Franklin Community Music School in conjunction with GCC and administering that program, part-time and merged the two nonprofits as Artspace in 2000.

The organization moved to the former White Eagles Hall in 2007 to have more space to offer music lessons and art classes to children and adults, including those in drawing, watercolors, mural creation and even a “Make Your Own Comic Book!” workshop this winter and kids’ graphic novel writing and “campfire songs” sessions this summer for young guitar, banjo and ukulele players. Forty of this spring’s 112 students, young and old, enrolled this semester are in art classes. More than 80 mostly youth are in music programs and will also be involved in Artspace’s third annual String Celebration April 27.

Yet, despite the blossoming of programs, Artspace works hard perennially to raise funds.

“We have great ideas and no money,” says Hoffman of the nonprofit, which depends largely on donations and fundraisers like its annual auction, to be held this year April 21 at Hope & Olive restaurant, and its annual Pottery Seconds Show, which was held last month.

And yet one of the biggest ideas Hoffman hung onto for decades — that string program for youngsters — came to fruition after a $15,000 bequest from a woman in her will. Hoffman, who had never met the woman, asked her widowed husband if it would be OK to use it to start a string program in Deerfield Elementary School, and he said his wife, an amateur cellist, would have loved the idea. The money paid for the first year of a program that’s been funded ever since by the school.

When an elderly woman from Northfield approached her several years later and asked, “If I gave Artspace $20,000, what would you do with it?” Hoffman replied that she would use it to start a string program in Greenfield’s elementary schools, and the string program was born.

The string programs have taught about 600 young people so far, and more than two-thirds of the new Pioneer Valley Youth Orchestra have come through Artspace in one way or another, says Hoffman, who leaves with another dream in the works: El Sistema.

Inspired by a new Artspace string teacher who has worked in Pittsfield with the Venezuelan-born immersion program aimed at bringing music lessons to disadvantaged young people, Hoffman said she’s already met with someone from the Massachusetts Arts Council who are interested and has begun looking into foundation support as well for a program that could be offered in conjunction with the Greenfield Housing Authority.

“I’m looking at exploring how a program like that could work in Greenfield,” says Hoffman, carried beyond caring about her departure as the organization’s head in less than three months, “so when the kids are home, they could have their lessons there, and you don’t have to worry about transportation. It would be so intense it would literally change a child’s life.”

She adds, “Music’s always been important in my life. It’s my passion.”

On the Web:

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

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