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Art Flows in Cultural Pittsfield

Jump In! at the Lichtenstein Center for the Arts (through October 31) in downtown Pittsfield, Massachusetts, is a multimedia exhibition featuring more than 20 regional artists, all of whom in one way or another celebrate water in the landscape. The show is just the latest in a lively series of exhibitions, concerts, performances, festivals and events sponsored by Cultural Pittsfield, that city’s dynamic little arts engine.

Jump In! features aqua-art from, among others, boatbuilder Hilary Russell, fiber artist Fern Leslie, video artist and choreographer Laurie McLeod, kinetic sculptor Tim Prentice, photographer Kevin Sprague, sculptor Babette Bloch, and painters Gabrielle Senza, Joan Palano Ciolfi, and Jim Schantz, as well as “A Sound Map of the Housatonic River,” a sound installation by Annea Lockwood, who teaches electronic music at Vassar. Jump In! is a collaboration between the City of Pittsfield Office of Cultural Development and the proposed Housatonic River Museum, and thereby hangs a tale of the creative economy in a moribund milltown.

The water that inspired Jump In! is the Housatonic River. The last time I was in Pittsfield, the Housatonic was flowing through a huge black pipe as the riverbed was being dredged to help get rid of the toxic PCBs deposited there by the GE transformer plant on the edge of town. That visit resulted in the article “Freshwater Warriors” in the September 2004 issue of Yankee. Five years later, the Housatonic is flowing, as is a steady stream of Pittsfield art.

When GE pulled out of Pittsfield, it left the blue-collar milltown depressed and polluted. In 2001, when artist Maggie Mailer, daughter of author Norman Mailer, moved to Pittsfield she found a score of empty downtown storefronts. Inspired to help revitalize the city of 45,000, Mailer launched the Storefront Artist Project, an innovative scheme whereby commercial real estate owners allowed artists to use empty spaces for free.

Five years ago, Pittsfield Mayor Jim Roberto, seeing the success of the Storefront Artists Project, seized on the ubiquitous “creative economy” economic development strategy and created the city’s Office of Cultural Development, which promotes the arts under the Cultural Pittsfield banner.

Pittsfield’s Office of Cultural Development consists of director Megan Whilden, a part-time assistant, and a VISTA volunteer, but with a minimal $70,000 Cultural Pittsfield budget, the city has gotten a major bang for its buck. Not only does Cultural Pittsfield sponsor art exhibitions such as Jump Inn! and its Annual Pittsfield Art Show, it is responsible for programming the city-owned Lichtenstein Center for the Arts, organizes a monthly Third Sunday festival that brings up to 10,000 people downtown, provides artist studio space, produces a public access television program, and helped launch an Assets for Artists program to provide matching funds to help artists purchase homes and studios.

The basic tenet of the creative economy theory, popularized by Richard Florida and his 2002 book The Rise of the Creative Class is that if you make your city, town, or regional attractive to creative people, good things will follow. It certainly seems to be working in Pittsfield, where restaurants, shops, and galleries have been sprouting over the past five years. Williamstown, with Williams College and the Clark Art Institute, and North Adams, with the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art (MassMOCA), were already on the art world map. Now add Pittsfield, which plays Brooklyn to the Williamstown-North Adams? Manhattan.

“Sometimes it’s good to hit bottom, which Pittsfield did about seven years ago,” says Megan Whilden, director of the Office of Cultural Development. “Then you can push up.”

[Lichtenstein Center for the Arts, 28 Renne Ave Pitts?eld MA 01201, 413-499-9348]

Please Note: This information was accurate at the time of publication. When planning a trip, please confirm details by directly contacting any company or establishment you intend to visit.

Updated Thursday, September 3rd, 2009

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