December 2016 Newsletter

Catalyst for Civic Improvement

Catalyst for Civic Improvement - Photo by James Higgins 2016

On October 26, Jim Cook welcomed members and guests to the Luna Theatre in Mill #5 for a panel discussion on the creative economy in Lowell. Senator Eileen Donoghue moderated the session with panelists, Nancy Donahue, John Power and Anita Walker

Nancy Donahue is a major philanthropist, playing an essential role in Lowell’s cultural revival.  John Power of Farley White Interests is the Co-Chair of the Lowell Plan and former board member of Merrimack Repertory Theatre (MRT). Farley White Interests is a longstanding sponsor of MRT. State Senator Donoghue is a former chair of the legislature’s Joint Committee of Tourism, Arts and Cultural Development. Senator Donoghue is a champion of Lowell’s creative economy.

Anita Walker has served as Executive Director of the Massachusetts Cultural Council (MCC) since April 2007. Walker is the Commonwealth’s highest ranking cultural official, overseeing a range of grant programs, services, and advocacy for the arts, humanities, and sciences in communities across Massachusetts.

Senator Donoghue: We place the creative economy at the forefront of Lowell’s economic development strategy. Anita, would you give us specific examples of how the arts, sciences and humanities build healthier communities and how that contributes to our economy?

Anita Walker: A little more than 10 years ago, Richard Florida published his book Rise of the Creative Class. Florida introduced America to the powerful idea that there was a relationship between the arts and the economy, that there was a creative economy. Ideas had become a commodity, a wealth generator.  And idea producers liked to live in creative places surrounded by a vibrant cultural scene.  The arts were a magnet for this creative class and communities across the country embraced the development of an interesting cultural scene as a way to attract the creative class and build prosperity.  The latest thinking centers around placemaking and Lowell is ahead of the curve. No one has done what you’ve done at Mill #5. This is the 2.0 of the creative economy movement.

The new approach is called Futurecity. It forces our field…the cultural crowd…to drastically change the way we think about ourselves, our allies, our cities and our power.  It forces us to redefine our role, realign with new partners, redesign the way we see the shape of our city and reassign the way money works in major development projects.

Senator Donoghue: Nancy, in 1986, you were instrumental in the development of Lowell’s Cultural Plan. Under the auspices of the Lowell Plan, Lowell was the first city in the Commonwealth to do a cultural plan. Do you feel you are still making the same arguments that cultural activity is an essential component of urban life you made 30 years ago or do you see positive change?

Nancy Donahue: When I came to Lowell in ’53, it was a depressed city. The former President of ULowell was John Duff. He asked me to lead the Lowell Foundation that brought performers to Lowell. Yo Yo Ma and the Russian Symphony were among the first concerts. Shortly after, there was more conversation about the performing arts. “Wouldn’t it be a good idea to have a theatre in Lowell?” That was the start of MRT in ’79. From the start, we knew we needed the support of the businesses and banks in order to succeed.

John Power: As a property owner, do the arts matter? In the winter of ’93, I was involved in selling the Wang Towers and almost immediately became interested in the Wannalancit Mills. I met Nancy at that time and became a supporter of MRT. It connects people outside of Lowell to the city. It is one of the reasons you should come to Lowell. BU has the Huntington Theatre, Harvard has A.R.T, Lowell has MRT.

I was interested in purchasing Cross River Center and needed an investment partner. I work with a gentleman who owns a significant collection of Dutch masters. I said, “Come to Lowell and walk around. This is a place where a business can thrive.” We bought the building.

Senator Donoghue: Sustainability seems like a buzz word these days, even President Obama in his final days in office is talking about it.  Anita, how would you assess sustainability in the creative sector?

Anita Walker: I sense a general change in leadership and I am concerned about the pipeline for the next generation. Some organizations are founder-run, how do we make certain those organizations continue? I believe there is a lifecycle for nonprofits. Take for example the American Textile History Museum. Although painful, they had a thoughtful process. They established a pathway towards a successful conclusion.

We need to bring out issues related to financial viability that we don’t have the answers for at this time. Are there affordable places for artists to work? What are laws around contracted artwork? Health insurance?

John Power: Lowell has a number of things going for it. There’s a culture of “giving back” here. We have the ground-breaking Public Matters program that introduces new people to the city and its decision makers. Every participant should be applauded.

Nancy Donahue: I am encouraged by the number of young people who are doing well in Lowell. It takes a village to sustain this level of activity.

Anita Walker: MCC provides operational support to 400 organizations. I’ve been the Director through two recessions.  Over that period, only five organizations have gone out of business. There is a successful management strategy: earned income (tickets, admissions, sales); philanthropy; and public sector support. Tourism, arts and culture is the third largest industry in Massachusetts.

Senator Donoghue invited questions and comments from the audience.

Chancellor Moloney:  What is the future direction and opportunity for a city like Lowell?

Anita Walker: First, the cultural community has not seen ourselves as eligible for the developers’ club. Arts and culture is not just contained in a theatre. It is in the streetscape and seating. It is part of the whole design. Second, the sleeping giant is creative youth development. The power of the arts to make a transformational difference should be more universally understood. Third, we should move quickly away from thinking of ADA compliance as a burden and focus on universal design.

Andy Jacobsen: Would you talk about the Mayor Walsh’s initiative to include artists at department meetings and also discuss the lack of arts education in the public schools?

Anita Walker: In the race for Mayor, the arts were made an issue. Citizen pressure forced mayoral candidates to have a platform on the arts and culture in Boston. Mayor Walsh followed through on his promises. He established Boston Artists in Residence (AIR). The artists will help develop ways to improve Boston by promoting the presence of art and culture in everyday life. He established an Arts Policy cabinet member and doubled Boston’s match of MCC’s investment in the city.

To answer your second question, I feel a sense of urgency with arts education. High stakes testing is rote, repetitive learning. Public arts funding achieves three important goals. It expands access to cultural experiences for all citizens, regardless of income, geography or ability. It helps ensure that the cultural sector contributes to public policy goals such as community revitalization, tourism expansion and job creation. And it sustains arts education amid pressure on schools to focus on subjects like reading and math that are measured by standardized tests.

Steve Syverson: What does it take to establish a percent for the arts program?

Anita Walker: A percent for the arts marginalizes art. We want 100% for artists and involve them in the full program. We need to put our energy into the earliest stages of development.

John Power: I urge you to search on You Tube for the Milwaukee Museum of Art designed by Spanish architect, Santiago Calitrava: 

This is an example of a transformative building. Take a look at the Seaport District in Boston. The height of the buildings was restrictive because of Logan, however the airport did not say they had to be bland. The area is boring and does not have a sense of place.

Anita Walker: Mayor Walsh recently hosted a meeting with Mark Davy of Futurecity and 13 developers. Each developer scheduled a follow-up meeting with Mark. They understand the cultural cache of working in this arena.

Elizabeth Kegley: How to we move advocacy for level funding for MCC to increased funding?

Senator Donoghue: The Governor releases his budget on the third week in January. I understand advocacy is time consuming, but it is important.  

John Power: We need to start to understand each other as people. The arts community speaks a different language than a developer.

Senator Donoghue: I’d like to thank the panel and our guests for today’s discussion. We look forward to continuing this discussion and advocating for the inclusion of the arts in as many arenas as possible.