Pittsfield Study Looks At Creative Spaces

By Joe DurwinPittsfield Correspondent
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Artists say it's getting hard to find affordable studio space in the downtown area.
PITTSFIELD, Mass. — While the amount of performance and studio space in downtown Pittsfield may have grown dramatically in the past decade, some local artists and cultural officials say more suitable spaces are needed to meet a growing demand from arts organizations and creative businesses that continue to proliferate in the city.
"You can't just stay an arts community casually," says Louise Stevens of ArtsMarket Inc., a consultant hired to conduct the creative space study, funded with a grant from the Massachusetts Cultural Council. "You have to do it with some intentionality."
Assessment and improvement of available creative space has recently been identified as a crucial next step in the city's tenuous arts revitalization by outgoing Cultural Development Director Megan Whilden.
As part of the study, which also includes an online survey being circulated, a roundtable discussion was held on Monday with about 20 local artists and members of cultural organizations at the Shire City Sanctuary, a multipurpose arts facility in the former Notre Dame Church.
The setting itself offered many insights into reoccurring themes of the discussion, as the saga of refitting the former church highlights both the broad potential, and also the daunting challenges, for adaptive reuse of local buildings, particularly vacant worship houses.
Several Catholic churches were decommissioned in the city several years ago, among 21 closed throughout the Springfield Diocese over the first decade of the century. In addition to Notre Dame, three other closed churches have since been redeveloped, but several remain vacant, including a four-building campus on Tyler Street, formerly St. Mary's of the Morning Star.
 While these buildings offer potential for redevelopment, Shire Sanctuary owner Crispina ffrench said the hurdles in transitioning one into a new use are considerable.
"It's really confusing, and it's really hard to find the information you need," said ffrench, who said it has taken eight years to get the Melville Street cathedral up to code for its current usages.
Peter Wise of Berkshire Fringe Festival, which is relocating to Pittsfield this year after nine years in Great Barrington, said that finding adequate available performance space that is not already filled with programming has been a challenge.
"There are spaces available, but they're difficult to get," said Wise.
Meeting participants noted that retail art galleries prevalent several years ago have also mostly vanished, and while there are at least 17 currently vacant shopfronts within the boundaries of the Upstreet Cultural District, cost is often a prohibitive factor to artistic ventures. A majority of newly opened arts-related enterprises in downtown retail space have closed within a year to two years.
"Someone once told the landlords here that this was the Brooklyn of the Berkshires, and they have since clung to that idea as far as rent prices go," said Michael Bushey, referring to most downtown commercial space. "And they would rather their storefront change over every year than give a rent quote that someone can work with for an extended period of time."
Co-op studio spaces and shared resources in the form of "maker spaces" have also generated great interest recently. More than 50 local artists attended a brainstorming meeting on developing a maker space in mid-March, resulting in the establishment of a new Facebook group devoted to continued discussions.  
Bushey said a maker space that has a sliding scale of "tiered investment" from artists is ideal.  
"I think it's a really strong model, and it's one that hasn't been employed in this city," he said.
The consultant said the next step in developing this kind of space is beginning to gather a group of interested parties who possess the spectrum of skills needed, from creative visioning to commercial business partnerships.
"You have to go through an intentional process of looking at your actual spaces, and then recruiting in developers to put the deals together to make it more financially viable," Stevens told them.

Tags: artists studios,   rental units,   shared space,   

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